On Love – Alain de Botton

On Love book coverI first heard of Alain de Botton from a podcast he did with Tim Ferriss. I really enjoyed his philosophy on life and wanted to learn more, so I picked up two of his books and went on my way. The first book I read was On Love, a book about love as told through a love story. It follows our narrator ( looking back I don’t think we ever learn his name?) and his fall down the rabbit hole of love with the beautiful Chloe. The novel has an interesting format which is essentially a group of many ordered lists. Each list item (sorry for potentially jumping into coding vernacular here) is about half a page, and each chapter is broken up into about 20 or so items. I’ll talk more about the way the format played into the philosophy at the end.

The first quarter of the book is a playful narrative of how our friend and narrator serendipitously meets Chloe on an airplane and proceeds to fall in love with her. We’ve all been there: the infatuation on first sight, the self-conscious thoughts as to whether or not you said the right thing, the nervousness that you’re not worthy of even speaking to this other person, etc. de Botton captures the essence of this stage of love, and how quickly and seemingly randomly it is to get here.

The interesting philosophical parts began after this, once the couple has just begun ‘dating’. “[W/r/t a lover] How could they be as divine as we had hoped when they have the bad taste to approve of someone like [ourselves]?” What an interesting irony! Our narrator is referring to a love-interest suddenly losing value once we realize that they, in fact, might feel the same way about us as we do about them. This tends to be slanted toward those who are a bit more self-deprecating and have low self-worth but in love, I think it’s a fairly ubiquitous feeling. “If s/he really is so wonderful, how could s/he love someone like me?”

On How We Choose a Partner:

“Albert Camus suggested that we fall in love with people because, from the outside, they look so whole, physically whole and emotionally ‘together,’ when subjectively we feel dispersed and confused. We would not love if there were no lack within us, but we are offended by the discovery of a similar lack in the other. Expecting to find the answer, we find only the duplicate of our own problem.”

Many of us are shocked when we find out that our SO for many years isn’t as wonderful as we though, or has many of the same problems that we have ourselves. This quote speaks to me because it offers some reasons as to why that might happen. Specifically, love makes the recipient of our love so beautiful and perfect that we often forget that they’re human too. In fact, I’ve found that the flaws that we can identify in ourselves are often the flaws to some degree in the other. A simple, but powerful observation.

On When to Fall in Love:

“We base our fall into love upon insufficient material, and supplement our ignorance with desire… Therefore, in the mature account of love, we should never fall at first glance.”

On Beauty:

“There is a tyranny about perfection, a certain tedium even, something that asserts itself with all the dogmatism of a scientific formula. The more tempting kind of beauty has only a few angles from which it may be glimpsed, and then not in all lights and at all times. It flirts dangerously with ugliness, it takes risks with itself, it does not side comfortably with mathematical rules or proportion, it draws its appeal from precisely those details that also lend themselves to ugliness. As Proust once said, classically beautiful women should be left to men without imagination.”

Though de Botton is talking about physical beauty, I believe there’s room here to expand the thought into other realms of beauty as well.

On Saying “I love you”:

“It was as though the core of our relationship, configured around the word ‘love,’ was somehow unmentionable, either too evident or too significant to be uttered. It was simple to understand why Chloe had never said anything. She was suspicious of words. ‘One can talk problems into existence,’ she had once said, and just as problems could come from words, so could good things be destroyed by them.”

On Observing Beauty:

“Because only the body is open to the eye, the hope of the infatuated lover is that the soul is faithful to its casing, that the body owns an appropriate soul, that what the skin represents turns out to be what it is. I did not love Chloe for her body, I loved her body for the promise of who she was.”

On Growing with Your Lover:

“I was afforded a chance to mature, thanks to the insights into my personality that Chloe afforded me. It takes the intimacy of a lover to point out facets of character that others simply don’t bother with. There were times when Chloe would tell me frankly that I was defensive or critical, or more colorfully, ‘a jumped-up twerp’ [idk, British people] or ‘as nasty as congealed gravy’ [ibid] – and I would be brought face-to-face with areas of myself that ordinary introspection (in the interests of inner harmony) would have avoided, that others would have been too uninterested to highlight, and that it needed the honesty of the bedroom to reveal.”

On Who You Are with Your Lover:

“Everyone returns to us a different sense of ourselves, for we become a little of who they think we are. Our selves could be compared to amoebas, whose outer walls are elastic, and therefore adapt to the environment. It is not that the amoeba has no dimensions, simply that it has no self-defined shape. It is my absurdist side that an absurdist person will draw out of me, and my seriousness that a serious person will evoke. If someone thinks I am shy, I will probably end up shy; if someone thinks me funny, I am likely to keep cracking jokes.”

I find this quote especially powerful. Many people refer to liking “why they are” with their SO or “what they bring out” in them and I think that this sums up that feeling nicely.

On Past Love:

“Her casual reference to a past lover provided the necessary objectification for me to realize that, however special I was to her, I still existed within certain definitions (‘a guy’; ‘my boyfriend’), and that in Chloe’s eyes, I was necessarily a simplified version of myself.”

The author also clearly feels that as special as he might be to Chloe right now, he too could eventually be a past lover.

On the End of Love:

Hanging over every love story is the thought, as horrible as it is unknowable, of how it will end. It is as when, in full health and vigor, we try to imagine our own death, the only difference between the end of love and the end of life being that at least in the latter, we are granted the comforting thought that we will not feel anything after death. No such comfort for the lover, who knows that the end of the relationship will not necessarily be the end of love, and almost certainly not the end of life.”

[The following quotes, as you will surely surmise, take place after the lovers have separated]

When Love Ceases:

“One does not get angry with a donkey for not being able to sing, for the donkey’s constitution never gave it a chance to do anything but snort. Similarly, one cannot blame a lover for loving or not loving, for it is a matter beyond their choice and hence responsibility- though what makes rejection in love harder to bear than donkeys who can never sing is that one did once see the lover loving. One finds it easier not to blame the donkey for not singing because it never sang, but the lover loved, perhaps only a short while ago, which makes the reality of the claim ‘I cannot love you anymore’ all the harder to digest.”

How to Live After Love:

“Rendered pessimistic by the intractable pains of love, I decided to turn away from it altogether. If romantic positivism could be of no help then the only valid wisdom was the stoic advice never to fall in love again. I would henceforth retreat into a symbolic monastery, see no one, live frugally, and throw myself into austere study. I read with admiration stories of men and women who had escaped earthly distractions, made vows of chastity, and spent their lives in monasteries and nunneries.”

Or, Perhaps Not:

“But sitting at a dinner party one evening, lost in Rachel’s eyes while she outlined the course of her office life for me, I was shocked to realize how easily I might abandon stoic philosophy in order to repeat all the mistakes I had lived through with Chloe. If I continued to look at Rachel’s hair, tied elegantly in a bun, or at the grace with which she used her knife and fork, or into the richness of her blue eyes, I knew I would not survive the evening intact. The sight of Rachel alerted me to the limits of the stoic approach. Through love might never be painless and was certainly not wise, neither could it be forgotten. It was as inevitable as it was unreasonable- and its unreason was unfortunately no argument against it.”

Final Thoughts:

There are numerous other worthy quotes throughout the book but you can gather much of its essence from these. ‘On Love’ does a beautiful job of elucidating the good, the bad, the beautiful, the evil of love. If you’re interested in the philosophy of love (not only romantic love, I believe many of the lessons can be adapted to platonic love as well) then I definitely recommend this book.