Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Philosophy of Falling in Love

Amor Sacro e Amor Profano (Sacred and Profane Love) c.1514
Titian
Galleria Borghese, Rome


Philosophy highlights things that give meaning to our lives. Socrates' enduring quest for living the good life liberates the mind toward revelations on these things, including the intimate feelings upon which they may be based, feelings that transform the entity into a collective, for falling in love is not a solitary experience; it is an experience that simultaneously includes others.



Falling in love calls upon the Roman goddess Venus, whose functions encompass love, beauty, intimate relations, fertility and prosperity. She is the embodiment of the Neoplatonic concept of sacred love. Sacred love embodies the notion of 'beyond being' (book VI of the Republic). In Plato's famous analogy of the Sun, he says that the Good is beyond being (ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας) in power and dignity.

Titian's painting depicts this concept. Dignity, for a woman, resides in her being protected, i.e., clothed. While power resides in her 'being', in her liberation of form from limited human constraints in reasoning.

Venus, the mother of the Roman people, sits lovingly beside the woman (dressed in white) who has fallen in love. This transformation of state goes from being dignified and seemingly pure (white wedding dress) toward being liberated and free from the predominantly human characteristic of wearing clothing, that state which arises from our functional need of protection from the elements.

When falling in love, an individual transforms themselves from one form of love to the other. From the notion of love based on convention and social norms toward the feeling of being in love, a release from a state or situation that limits freedom of thought or behavior. This flourishing or sense of abundance overflows much like how a fountain of love overflows upon those who partake of it.

Carlo Cignani (1628-1719)


Reaching inside the sacred Fountain of Venus is an allegory for falling in love. Cupid, our love totem, reaches inside the fountain symbolizing, in Titian's dreamlike landscape painting, our desire to have that which is set apart and forbidden (Émile Durkheim on sacred things).

Walter Friedländer outlined similarities between the painting and Francesco Colonna's Hyperotomachia Poliphili, proposing that the two figures represented Polia and Venere, the two female characters in the 1499 romance where Poliphilo pursues his love Polia through a dreamlike landscape, and is, seemingly, at last reconciled with her by the Fountain of Venus. This story is easily interpreted as more conquering love, it is an allegory for falling in love, for the journey or transformation that occurs when one is struck by Cupid's arrow.




Falling in love is the dream of love personified. François Rabelais, in The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-34) wrote: "Far otherwise did heretofore the sages of Egypt, when they wrote by letters, which they called hieroglyphics, which none understood who were not skilled in the virtue, properly, and nature of things represented by them. Of which Orus Apollon hath in Greek composed two books, and Polyphilus, in his Dream of Love, set down more..." (Book 1, Ch. 9).

Philosophically speaking, falling in love is a quest for the dream of love. It is the search for the grandiose, a desire to "reach toward" that resplendent magnificence, and a finding or liberating of it (depicted in the fountain spilling forth) within oneself. Metaphysically speaking, it is a physical transformation whereby white light is illuminated.

In Titian's painting, we see the transformation of white being made lucid, clear, and plainly visible in a nude Venus. Not only does this vision occur in a dreamlike landscape, but the dreamlike landscape is also a natural place, a return to "home" which is often how those who have fallen in love describe the experience of being in the presence of their beloved.

Falling in love as a return home references our exile from Ithaca, that place in the Greek conception of a hierarchical world in which everyone, in accordance with his degree of excellence, has a place assigned to him, being torn away from this 'natural place' is a form of suffering and injustice, just as a return home is a positive good connected with the restoration of the harmony of the cosmos.



This separation between home and being exiled is depicted in the distance between the dressed Aphrodite Pandemos (left) and the nude Aphrodite Urania. Aphrodite Pandemos is that goddess of low sensual pleasures, whereas Aphrodite Urania is "the heavenly Aphrodite".

The unspoiled, harmonious wilderness in the background of this painting is Arcadia, the home of the god Pan (in Greek mythology), who is associated with the mother goddess. In Pindar's Pythian Ode iii. 78, Pindar, the Ancient Greek lyric poet from Thebes, refers to virgins worshipping Cybele and Pan near the poet's house in Boeotia. Titian's painting could also be an allegory for fortune and fate, with Cupid representing "the child of Zeus...Fortune") [C.M.Bowra, Pindar, page 63; fr. 63.15–20].

Pindar revised traditional mythos so as not to diminish the dignity and majesty of the gods. This painting may also be a subtle example, perhaps, of Pinder's approach to the omniscience of the gods with its elegant compliment: mortals (dressed in white).

Being descendants of divine unions, privilege mortals sit along side their mythical heroes, with cupid serving as an intermediate group between the gods and men, sympathetic to human ambitions. Thus, viewing this painting as an ethical issue, we do not judge the gods, we merely strive to experience their presence, away from our ordinary human experience. Indeed, this paining represents the finest breeds of humanity seated next to divine passions.

"For Pindar a mortal woman who is loved by a god is an outstanding lesson in divine favors handsomely bestowed." [Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition, Oxford University Press (1949), p. 225]

Falling in love denotes a divine union. In this painting Titian's elusiveness is telling his audience that he will not talk of it ("silence is a man's wisest counsel")

[New Nemean Odes 5.14-18. The hushed reference to Phocus's murder is cited and translated by C.M. Bowra, Pindar, pages 67-8: I am shy of speaking of a huge risk / Hazarded not in right, / How they left the famous island, / And what fate drove strong men from the Vineland. / I shall halt. Truth does not always / Gain more if unflinching / She reveals her face; / And silence is often a man's wisest counsel.]

Here, Titian depicts our readiness to shape traditional mythos to fit the occasion.



Venus serves as an oracle to a prophet, commemorating a human victory - claiming love for oneself. Falling in love is that claim upon that which initially eludes us, that sentiment of which the maidens sing:

ἐμὲ δὲ πρέπει παρθενήια μὲν φρονεῖν
γλώσσᾳ τε λέγεσθαι.

I must think maidenly thoughts
And utter them with my tongue

The dithyrambs in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, flow forth from this painting, an allegory of that sentiment which sings forth from our bosom when we fall in love. Love's ballads capture the grandeur of the moment of victory, of Poliphilo pursuing and ultimately reconciling with his love Polia in Titian's landscape. 

Titian's Renaissance style sets the tone for rebirth, a rekindling of ancient myths that evoke the gods or the Muses. Praise goes to the victor, narrated by myth, the central figure (left) exemplifies a mortal, who transformed, gains an audience with the world of the gods. Titian's Amor Sacro e Amor Profano (Sacred and Profane Love) represents the grand sentiment associated with falling in love, that unfolding of the sacred against a background of symbolic elements such as the sea, darkness, fire from the bosom, mountains, and the privileged moral predicament (depicted the castle). 

King of Syracuse, delighting in horses; and his fame shines
among strong men where Lydian Pelops went to dwell,
Pelops that he who clips the earth with his great strength,
Poseidon, loved when Klotho lifted him out
of the clean cauldron, his shoulder gleaming ivory.
Great marvels in truth are these, but tales
told and overlaid with elaboration of lies
amaze men's wits against the true word.



Cupid's shoulder gleams ivory. Poseidon, the "God of the Sea" is called upon; venerated at Pylos and Thebes in pre-Olympian Bronze Age Greece as a chief deity, Poseidon was integrated into the Olympian gods as the brother of Zeus and Hades (Mount Olympus depicted above left in the landscape). The conflict between Hades and Persephone represents the division between mortals and gods. Pelops, whose cult developed into the founding myth of the Olympic games, represents love's games. Cupid leans over the Fountain of Venus, an allegory for the holy grail or cauldron from which the sacred can be touched. 

Great marvels are depicted in Titian's painting as great marvels are discovered in the experience of falling in love. The wedding between Nicolò Aurelio and Laura Bagarotto in 1514 (the Aurelio family coat of arms is depicted on the sarcophagus) represents a courtship. 

Hippodamia with Pelops in a racing chariot


Hippodamia's father, King Oenomaus of Pisa, was fearful of a prophecy that claimed he would be killed by his son-in-law. So when suitors arrived, he told them they could marry his daughter only if they defeated him a chariot race, and if they lost, they would be executed.

Pelops, son of King Tantalus of Lydia, came to ask for Hippodamia's hand in marriage and prepared to race Oenomaus. Worried about losing, Pelops went to the seaside (depicted on the right side of the painting) and invoked Poseidon, his former lover. Reminding Poseidon of their love ("Aphrodite's sweet gifts"), he asked Poseidon for help. Smiling, Poseidon caused a chariot drawn by winged horses to appear.

Behind Laura Bagarotto is two parts of lighted sky, which could be seen as wing-shaped. On the sarcophagus (on the right) a suitor is being killed while a young maiden, similar to Venus, stands aghast in the background. Flowing from the fountain is Poseidon's blessings.




Titian's Amor Sacro e Amor Profano (Sacred and Profane Love) can be seen as an allegory for falling in love, for the philosophies that illuminate the enormous experience of being 'touched by love'. Falling in love transcends the human predicament and elevates it toward the nature of love, itself (Venus). Love transcends theories of human nature, desire, ethics, and so on.

Philosophically speaking, love logically begins with questions concerning its nature, which is where Titian takes us in his allegory of falling in love. Implied here is that love has a "nature," that it cannot be described in rational or meaningful propositions, only in sentiment. The sentiment evoked in Titian's painting is one that presents a metaphysical and epistemological argument, that love ejects us from our reason; but, on the other hand, it delivers us to the realm of of the gods.

In English, the word "love," which is derived from Germanic forms of the Sanskrit lubh (desire), is broadly referenced in our desire to be god-like in nature. Our natural attraction to love, toward the feelings experience in falling in love, stems from this desire (eros, philia, and agape).

Eros refers to that part of love that inspires passion, an intense desire for something often referred to as erotic desire (Aphrodite Pandemos). Aristotle's Philia, by contrast, entails a fondness and appreciation of the other (Cupid's kindness toward mortals). Agape refers to the paternal love of the gods for humanity (Venus). All three elements of love (the Platonic-Socratic maintains that love we generate for beauty on this earth can never be truly satisfied until we die [sarcophagus]; but in the meantime we should aspire beyond the particular stimulating image in front of us to the contemplation of beauty itself) are presented in Titian's painting.


Falling in love invokes the philosophy of language, of the relevance of meanings, and also provides us with a knowable, comprehensible, and describable understanding of the nature of the gods.

Three little words: "I love you" warrant no further intellectual intrusion. Love is liberated and free and brings us face to face with the gods as an allegory for the divine within.

If love possesses a nature, it is one that is identifiable only in personal expression with it. To be properly understood, one must feel love. Perhaps this prerequisite for understanding love in order recognize its nature is why Titian's painting has long since eluded scholars.

Ruminating on the nature of falling in love coupled with the experience of falling in love opens our eyes to seeing it depicted elsewhere.







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