My Love Must Be a Kind of Blind Love

Continuing the courtly-love theme: the following comments on Andreas Capellanus’s definition of love were written for my mediæval philosophy course page, but I thought others might be interested also:

Love is a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which causes each one to wish above all things the embraces of the other and by common desire to carry out all of love’s precepts in the other’s embrace.

(Contrast Richard de Fournival’s more unruly and ecstatic definition of love as “a folly of the mind, an unquenchable fire, a hunger without surfeit, an agreeable illness, a sweet delight, a pleasing madness, a labor without repose and a repose without labor.”)

The word here translated “suffering” is passio, which could be translated as “passion” or still more weakly as “feeling,” “emotion,” or even “undergoing” – though “suffering” does capture the mood of much (not all) of the courtly-love literature that Andreas is seeking to systematise, and what Andreas goes on to say does suggest that “suffering” is the best translation.

It’s worth noting that Wittgenstein argues against this approach to defining love:

Love is not a feeling. Love is put to the test, pain not. One does not say: ‘That was not true pain, or it would not have gone off so quickly’.

Incidentally, writer Steven Moffat puts the Wittgensteinian view into the mouth of Doctor Who: “Love – it’s not an emotion; love is a promise.”

Of course it’s the same author who tells us, in his Jekyll adaptation, that “love is a psychopath,” so make what you will of that:

Returning to Andreas’s definition: Andreas insists that love must originate in “sight,” and accordingly draws the corollary on p. 33 that “blindness is a bar to love.” Yet on p. 35 he tells us that “a well-instructed lover, man or woman, does not reject an ugly lover if the character within is good,” which would seem to cast doubt on the central role of sight. And on p. 92 he has one of his lovers tell his beloved that he thanks God that “it is now granted me to see with my eyes what my soul has desired above all else to see,” since “the whole world extols your virtue and your wisdom,” with the result that he has been “tormented” by “so great an impulse to see you” –implying that he has in effect fallen in love with her sight unseen, or at least gone a long way toward doing so – contrary to the definition.

(That it was possible to fall in love with someone one had never seen or met, simply by reputation, was in fact a recurrent theme in many troubadour love songs, most notably those of Jaufré Rudel, whose songs of amor de lonh, “love from afar,” inspired a probably fictional biography of Rudel himself [involving his falling in love by hearsay with the countess of a Crusader kingdom in North Africa, traveling to meet her, taking sick on the journey, and finally arriving only to collapse dead in her arms], which in turn inspired Edmond Rostand’s play The Faraway Princess – one of two Rostand plays on courtly-love themes, the other of course being Cyrano de Bergerac, which is a perfect example of the adulterous, unconsummated, ennobling passion of a lover who is physically ugly and financially poor, but skilled in both the arts of war and the language of courtship, and worthy in character, and able to win his beloved’s heart when he speaks to her unseen:

Compare also Marie de France’s courtly romance Le Fresne, in which the hero, before ever having met the heroine, “heard tell of the maiden and began to love her”; her Yonec proceeds similarly, while in her Milun and Lanval it is the heroine who falls in love with the hero without having seen him. Ibn Hazm, in The Dove’s Neck-Ring (often regarded as a predecessor to and possible influence on Andreas’s book), notes similar examples in Arabic poetry. Anyway, my point, and I do have one, is that if Andreas’s goal is to systematise the themes of the troubadour songs and courtly romances, then his emphasis on the necessity of sight is probably a mistake, and at any rate he does not seem to have stuck to it consistently.)

Excessive”: Don Monson, in his book on Andreas, argues that the word translated here (immoderata) can simply mean “immense” with no necessary suggestion of being overly immense.

Opposite sex”: one difference between the Christian courtly-love tradition and its Arabo-Andalusian antecedents, as Arabic love-poetry is frequently homoerotic. (Although apparently-homoerotic love poetry is not by any means nonexistent in mediæval Christendom….)

By common desire to carry out all of love’s precepts”: the grammar would be clearer here if the translation read “To carry out, by common desire, all of love’s precepts” – in other words, the requirement that the desire be mutual is part of the object of the lover’s wish. Carrying out all of love’s precepts is one of Andreas’s euphemisms for sexual intercourse (another is the “final solace”).

At least one more post on courtly love yet to come ….

15 thoughts on “My Love Must Be a Kind of Blind Love

  1. Pingback: My Love Must Be a Kind of Blind Love | Austro-Athenian Empire

  2. Capellanus’s definition clearly rules out love based on blindness, but doesn’t it also rule out “love at first sight”? To be very literal minded: if love requires both sight and excessive meditation on what one sees, then a first sight, taken literally, is insufficient for love.

    Alternatively, though, “love at first sight” could refer to the (whole) phenomenon of seeing someone and being so enthralled by the sight that you can’t stop looking, so that you’re ineluctably drawn into “excessive meditation.” So maybe his definition is compatible with love at first sight after all.

    He got the “suffering” part right, anyway.


    • My own experience inclines me to think that “love at first sight” is possible only if ‘at first sight’ is logically an alienans. That probably says more about my nerdy reading habits than about my romantic dispositions. But it says something about my romantic dispositions.


      • I think it’s possible if A beholds B, and takes what he sees of B to be intensely sexually attractive and character-revealing at the same time. A doesn’t have to be right that B’s gesture or demeanor or whatever is character-revealing. He just has to take it that way, whether rightly or wrongly.

        Remarkably, I can’t think of where Kant asked the transcendental question, “How is love at first sight possible?”

        Speaking of Kantians, Nagel, in “Sexual Perversion” makes a distinction between seeing, sensing, and noticing someone. “Sensing” is the lust-laden version of seeing someone. Though Nagel is trying to explain sexual desire (not love, and not love-as-expressed-through-sexual-desire), his account is suggestive when it comes to love at first sight. I won’t drag you through it, but I’m thinking of his Romeo & Juliet example (pp. 44-46 in the version reprinted in Mortal Questions).


        • Yeah, I can’t take seriously the idea that that’s love except by recourse to the fact that the English word ‘love’ can, after all, be applied to just about anything. A sort of eros, sure, but not a love of any sort that could plausibly be regarded as central in any good human life. I suspect that Nagel’s account of sexual desire is suggestive when it comes to love at first sight because love at first sight is really just a kind of sexual desire.


          • I think Nagel’s account of sexual desire is suggestive because love at first sight involves a strong form of attraction, and that attraction is both a necessary condition of romantic love and (eventually) a constituent of a romantic relationship. Because the attraction plays both roles, it becomes difficult in retrospect to disentangle them. Retrospectively, it then becomes tempting to describe the imagined “beginning” of the sequence as “love at first sight.” That probably isn’t what’s (usually) going on, but I wouldn’t close the door on the possibility that it might be. A first visual encounter could function both as the basis of physical attraction and as disclosing something significant about the character of the person. The attraction can be, but need not be, explicitly sexual.

            There are, no doubt, difficult epistemic issues involved here. See Van Halen 1988b.


            • That all seems right (though I’m not sure that the sort of attraction involved can fail to be significantly sexual, I might be able to agree that it needn’t be explicitly so — certainly it need not be self-consciously so, or predominantly so), but it doesn’t seem to me to add up to love. If I were going to think seriously about this, though, I’d have to do some disambiguation, and it may just be that I’m the one with an idiosyncratic notion of love here. Consider Romeo and Juliet. Certainly what Romeo and Juliet have seems to be something that they get at first sight; their emotional orientation toward one another may develop, deepen, and all that, but it doesn’t seem a stretch to regard what they end up with as what they get when they first meet. The thing is, I’m reluctant to call what they end up with love. It’s not what I’m trying to express when I predicate the verb of myself in relation to my ‘romantic partner.’ That’s probably just linguistically absurd on my part, though. I try to resist the urge to treat all topics as though they are best illuminated by Greek conceptual schemes, but while I’m happy to think of Romeo and Juliet as paradigmatic of eros, the sort of love that I see as really deep and important for a well-lived life centrally involves elements of philia that eros as such does not (and that Romeo and Juliet’s relationship does not). But that’s probably just me letting my normative judgments shape my taxonomies. Probably what I’m trying to say is (less interestingly) that there can be no such thing as intimacy-with-firm-commitment-to-the-good-of-the-beloved-as-part-of-one’s-own-good at first sight.

              There are no Van Halen songs about that, though, are there?


              • The mediaevals distinguished between Venus/Aphrodite, which was purely sexual, and Eros/Amor/Cupid, which had a sexual component but was something more. Whether the something more adds up to what we would call love is a different question. The “something more” included features like reverence, exclusivity, and feeling inspired to do great deeds to prove one’s worthiness, but so do certain forms of obsession we wouldn’t want to call love (including the attitudes of creepy stalkers).


                • Yeah, I think both of those fall on the side of eros. I’d be the last to deny that there’s an important distinction between a kind of eros that is, as we say, ‘purely sexual’ and fairly impersonal and a sort that is intimately connected to a vision of the beloved as a distinctive and special individual. Romeo and Juliet’s ‘love’ is plainly not of the former variety. I don’t think it’s of the creepy stalker variety either, but it shares with it a way of seeing the object of love as unique and special (though I’d imagine there are many sorts of stalker, too, and maybe I’m being overly charitable to stalkers). Brute sexual appetite doesn’t do that. But among the problems I have with my students’ seemingly ineradicable intuition that the nature of ‘romantic love’ is laid bare simply by distinguishing it from ‘lust’ is that Romeo and Juliet style ‘love’ is also clearly not just lust, but sexual attraction is very clearly central to it and it is also pretty clearly superficial and inevitably ephemeral. I don’t expect 17 year olds to get that, though, because most of them have never actually been in Romeo & Juliet style love (even if they think they have), and they certainly haven’t been in it long enough to recognize that it has to pass away and either be transformed into something deeper or just turn into disappointment. Then again, I think I know some people in middle age who haven’t learned that lesson yet, and are therefore miserable.


                • Aren’t both of those songs about something that makes even Romeo and Juliet style love look deep?

                  The image I’ve formed of David Lee Roth is of a man who literally does not grasp that women are conscious subjects much like himself. ‘Jamie’s Cryin” suggests that he grasps that much, but I’ve never been able to convince myself that we’re intended to sympathize with Jamie rather than mock her. But I may just have an irrational loathing of David Lee Roth. In any case, I’m pretty sure he’s the inspiration for Doctor Rockso:


    • He should probably have allowed for love at first sight (not if he’s trying for realism, but if he’s trying to systematise the themes of vernacular love poetry and courtly romances), since that’s a common feature of courtly romances too.

      It’s interesting that one of the most realistic depictions of the beginning of love in the courtly romances comes from de Pizan, who was a critic of the whole genre of courtly love despite being an important contributor to that genre. In her “Duke of True Lovers,” love is neither at-first-sight nor sight-unseen, but something that arises surprisingly between two people who had known each other for some time but hadn’t regarded each other romantically (though when love does come it’s not gradual — she uses “Cupid’s arrow” imagery as freely as the other writers do).

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      • De Pizan’s account has a kind of alarming accuracy to it. So you’re saying that the idea didn’t originate with REO Speedwagon?

        Your mention of Cupid’s arrow leads me to wonder about the “falling” metaphor in “falling in love.” Cupid’s arrow captures the fact that love seems involuntary, unpredictable, and hazardous, but I wonder how widespread the falling metaphor itself is. Wikipedia’s “falling in love” entry is suggestive, but doesn’t say anything about the origins or prevalence of the metaphor itself:


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