On Romantic Love

Mortimer J. Adlerby Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

A Conversation Between Max Weismann and Dr. Mortimer Adler

WEISMANN: Could you help us and begin by naming the three bad loves and explaining why they are bad as love–in Christian terms?

ADLER: You may be shocked at first to see what they are–love of money, pride, and romantic love. At first they don’t seem to go together, they seem like such different things. But what they have in common (the principle they all violate) is that they are either loves of the wrong subject, or loves of the right objects but in the wrong way. All three violate the precepts of charity. All three consist in displacing God, in deifying something other than God–in loving Mammon rather than God; in loving oneself as if God, the sin of Lucifer; in loving a man or woman as if divine, worshipping or adoring another human being.

WEISMANN: I know it was I who raised the question about the Christian law of love–the precepts of charity, and you have now answered it. That answer may do for many of us, but it may not satisfy all our readers, some of whom may want to know if, apart from the Christian religion, there is any morality of love–any way to distinguish good and bad loves?

ADLER: I am glad you asked that question, because I am sure there are many who will want an answer to it. You ask whether, without reference to God or Divine law, and in purely naturalistic terms, we can distinguish between good and bad loves. The answer is certainly yes. We can. And when we do, we will find exactly the same three loves which are bad as love–only they will be called by different names.

To show you this let me go to a psychologist like Freud, who is deeply concerned with love, not just sex. First let me translate from Christian into Freudian terms. The three bad loves are the same, though they are differently named and described. In Christian terms, they are love of money = love of the wrong object; pride and romantic love = love of the right object but in the wrong way. In Freudian terms, they are love of money = neurotic object fixation; pride = narcissistic attachment to ego; romantic love = adolescent overestimation or idealization of sexual object.

According to Freud, each of these bad loves either is, or is symptomatic of, a neurotic disorder. None is a healthy or wholesome love. To be a healthy person, to be an adult, to be well integrated, one must get over such loves or be cured of them.

WEISMANN: Most of us can see that Freud is right about the love of money, or narcissism (the excessive love of one’s self). But I think most people may be puzzled about romantic love, or what Freud calls adolescent love. What, in psychological terms, is wrong with romantic love?

ADLER: Here is what Freud has to say on the subject: The adolescent tries to combine unsensual, heavenly love with sensual earthly love, but is usually defeated by the phenomenon of over-estimation or idealization of the object. As this over-estimation or idealization increases, “the tendencies whose trend is towards direct sexual satisfaction may now be pushed back entirely, as regularly happens with the adolescent’s sentimental passion. The ego becomes more and more unassuming and modest, and the object more and more sublime and precious, until at last it gets possession of the entire self-love of the ego, whose self-sacrifice thus follows as a natural consequence. The object has, so to speak, consumed the ego.”

This happens, Freud points out, with greatest intensity when erotic love is not consummated sexually, as it is in marriage. Freud compares such adolescent or romantic love with being hypnotized. “The hypnotic relation,” he says, involves “the devotion of someone in love to an unlimited degree,” with the object loved completely replacing all ego-love, and “with all sexual satisfaction excluded.”

This explains, psychologically, what is wrong with romantic love–why it is adolescent rather than adult–in terms that have a striking resemblance to the theological criticism of romantic love as the over-estimation or idealization of a human being, as if divine. Now, on the naturalistic plane, and without reference to God, the proper object of human love is another human person.

WEISMANN: Then these three bad loves are bad as loves because each in its own way defeats the good love that enriches human life.

ADLER: Precisely. Let me summarize. The love of money distorts the love of persons; narcissism (or pride) prevents loving another and being loved by another, and so ends in lovelessness and loneliness; romantic or adolescent love destroys amour-propre or–proper self-respect, and so ends in destroying itself, since love cannot long endure without self respect.

WEISMANN: You can turn on any television talk-show today, and you will see the results of bad (romantic) love and the loss of self-respect. People suffering the worst lives imaginable, filled with pain and hatred. And yet they always blame the other person (whom they originally wrongly idolized) almost never recognizing what really lies in fault for their misery. We could do a whole discussion on this aspect alone.

However, we are just about out of time. In closing how would you briefly summarize the morality of love?

ADLER: The morality of love can be summarized in two simple statements. The first is: love only that which is truly lovable–God or persons, not things. The second is: love whatever is lovable in proportion to its goodness, neither more nor less.

In a sense, the morality of love is the whole of morality or at least its essence, for morality consists in having a right sense of values, in putting goods in the right order, and loving them accordingly. It might almost be said that a man whose loves are in the right order can do no wrong.

WEISMANN: St. Augustine said precisely that. If I remember correctly, he said: “Love, and do what you will.” Doesn’t that mean you can’t go wrong if you act in the light of love?

ADLER: Yes, it does mean that, but one qualification may have to be added. The love St. Augustine is speaking of is the perfect love, the love of God. Hence he does not need to qualify his statement. But if other less perfect loves are considered, then it is necessary to say: Love that which is better more than that which is less good. Then you can’t go wrong.

The poets have said this, too, in their own way. You know the famous lines of Sir John Suckling, “I could not love thee, dear, so much, loved I not honor more.”

The Moral Liberal recommends Mortimer J. Adler’s, The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought

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Mortimer Jerome Adler (1902 – 2001) was an American philosopher, educator, and popular author. As a philosopher he worked within the Aristotelian and Thomistic traditions. He worked for Columbia University, the University of Chicago, Encyclopædia Britannica, and Adler’s own Institute for Philosophical Research. Adler went on to found the Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation. He founded and served as director of the Institute for Philosophical Research. He also served on the Board of Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica from its inception and became its chairmen. Spearheading the fifteenth edition of Britannica he was instrumental in the major reorganization of knowledge embodied in that edition. He founded the Paideia Program, a grade-school curriculum centered around guided reading and discussion of difficult works (as judged for each grade). With Max Weismann, he founded the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas. He also served along with Max Weisman on the Board of Directors of Jonathan Dolhenty’s Radical Academy.

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