Philosophers’ Valentine

The conventional image of a philosopher projects him as an anti-amorous type, his vocabulary too bland for pick-up lines, his build a structure mourned by testosterone. The public mind thinks of  him as an old man given to lonely afternoon walks (Kant) or an absent-minded fellow prone to accidental fall (Thales) or a nonchalant easily swept by flights of abstraction even over a royal dinner (Aquinas). Philosophers too have been subjects of  sour romantic tales.  Socrates never hid his unhappy marriage. Kierkegaard’s engagement with Regina Olsen was a classic case of failure to launch. Abelard won Heloise’s heart but lost his vital part. Heidegger and Arendt found union in Being  but had to endure the anxiety of  thrownness in lives they had to live separately. De Beauvior and Sartre declared their union open and found themselves walled in by the free spaces of an affair that has no borders nor territories.

Despite such calamitous love stories, it is unfair to think of philosophers as strangers to love.  The sweet irony is that love is one thing that philosophers know most. To begin with, theirs alone is the craft that gives the privilege over the title lover.  Think of  Thales and the mornings and afternoons he might have spent in the coasts of Miletus and how he soaked up the saline breeze  and the expanse of the sea, leading him to think that everything begins and ends with water.  It was love at first sight: the vista of the Aegean that shines in blue and how it can be both familiar and strange, known and unknown at the same time.  Philosophy, as we interpret Thales,  is to plunge into the sea and rip its surface only to realize that it is what holds us, its depth and breadth beyond us. Such experience opens up to love, not the mushy, saccharine type but the one that grants us fresh eyes to look at the same differently.  As TS Eliot wrote in Little Gidding: We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.  Philosophy was born from the bosom of love – love in the mode of yearning, love in the act of searching, love in the flow of wanting more.  Boethius would turn to this kind of love for consolation in the cold and dark isolation of  his prison cell, the love which he and Dante much later would call Lady Philosophy.  In the words of Dante: Here we must recall what was said above, namely, that love is the form of Philosophy, and therefore is here called her soul.

A philosopher always finds himself in medias res, somewhere between the memory and anticipation of what is loved. He is a pilgrim, a wanderer in search of home but home for him is not a permanent residence nor a location with fixed address.  Home, for a philosopher, is the event of getting there where there is not a stationary destination but, in the words of  Hemingway, a moveable feast.  The philosopher’s homecoming is always marked by a sorrow-blended joy and a joy-blended sorrow because home is always somewhere else. It has vanished from where it was just when the philosopher thought he has arrived.  Home is the constant departing to the philosopher’s constant coming, hence the enduring space between the two. Such space is the continuum of desire and philosophy is its language.  Like the gap between rain drops or the chasm between islands, that space is not meant to be extinguished because the distance that sets the philosopher apart from home is the only path that will bring him near it.

This distance is the site of movement towards the loved.  In the dialogue Lysis, Plato equates distance with desire, a kind of emptiness which engenders the philosopher. “And therefore we say that those who are already wise, whether Gods or men, are no longer lovers of wisdom; nor can they be lovers of wisdom who are ignorant to the extent of being evil, for no evil or ignorant person is a lover of wisdom. There remain those who have the misfortune to be ignorant, but are not yet hardened in their ignorance, or void of understanding, and do not as yet fancy that they know what they do not know: and therefore those who are the lovers of wisdom are as yet neither good nor bad.”

Love known to philosophers is a rapture of desire, a desire that does not sit still in waiting but one that keeps watch during the night and braves the heat of noontime in pursuit of the loved.    It is a love that feeds on desiring but whose fulfillment is always deferred because the object of desire cannot be held nor seized with certainty; one can only come near it in the act of desiring.  Within a philosopher is a vast universe where desire extends to boundaries undefined.  It is the cradle of his imaginings, his meanderings, his peregrinations. In desire, what is loved is seen as constantly on its way, always a step closer but ever farther away and in each moment, desire rises in degrees.  And so the philosopher moves on and journeys through its course: to ancient caves, to dark caverns, to market places, to temple areas, to country homes, to inner rooms.  There is never a place nor  a time where the philosopher takes a day off from desire. In his heart, love of wisdom is a lifetime valentine.


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