On Love

 Odysseus and Penelope by Francesco Primaticcio (c. 1563)

Odysseus and Penelope by Francesco Primaticcio (c. 1563)

Dilige, et quod vis fac—“Love, and do what you will.”

~ Augustine

According to the theologian love is not restricted to realm of the divine and human, nor to those beings inferior to man who possess conscious desires.  Natural love, Aquinas writes, is not only “in all the soul’s powers, but also in all the parts of the body, and universally in all things: because, as Dionysius says, ‘Beauty and goodness are beloved by all things.’”

The diversity of love appears to be both the general fact and the general problem for the psychologist, the ethicist, the theologian.  The ancients had three separate words for the primary forms of love: Eros, philia, agape in Greek; amor, amicitia (or dilectio), and caritas in Latin.  Because English has only word for love, it appears essential to apply such expressions as “sexual love,” “love of friendship,” and “love of charity” with the purpose of plainly indicating that love is mutual to all three, and to differentiate the three connotations.  Nevertheless we are compelled to embrace Augustine’s view of law who argues that the Bible “make no distinctions between amor, dilectio, and caritas,” and the Scriptures in the “amor is used in a good connection.”

The idée fixe of many of the countless analyses of love in literature, poetry and history appear under different names—love of desire vs. friendship; concupiscent love and fraternal love; the friendship centered on pleasure or craving and the friendship centered on virtue; animal and human love; sexuality and tenderness; physical vs. emotional love. Romantic love is typically regarded as comprising both selfish and altruistic motivations, the latter exaggerated by what its detractors understand as an excessive idealization of the adored.  The theological benefit of charity, instead, is basically a love of friendship, in purity made faultless through its mystical foundation.  One issue of ultimate concern here is whether the romantic is in agreement with the Christian view of love, whether the admiration given a beloved human is tantamount to deification—as much a desecration of the principles of charity as the pride of unbounded self-love which caused Lucifer to be cast out of heaven as the fallen archangel, Satan.  This eternal battle of worldviews compares the origin of marital love and the relation of love in courtship to love in marriage.  In a future essay on family I will connect the forms of love as a major foundation of all societal institutions.

Regarding the objects of law: the good, the true, the beautiful; God, man and things, we now come to Homer’s Iliad. In Book III the two sages, Ucalegon and Antenor remark to one another when they saw the legendary beauty, Helen walking towards the tower, “Small wonder that Trojans and Achaeans, should endure so much and so long, for the sake of a woman so marvelously and divinely lovely.  Still, fair though she be, let them take her and go, or she will breed sorrow for us and for our children after us.” Remember that it was the love/lust of Paris, King Priam’s son, for Helen (sister-in-law of King Agamemnon) that compelled Paris to kidnap her back to Troy, thus precipitating the Trojan Wars (c. 1260-1240)—the ancient version of World War II.

Regarding the intensity and power of love: its increase or decrease; its constructive or destructive force, in Homer’s Iliad Book XVIII the hero Achilles responds to a question by his mother, “My son, why are you thus weeping? What sorrow has now befallen you?” Achilles groaned and answered, “…seeing that my dear comrade Patroclus has fallen—he whom I valued more than all others, and loved as dearly as my own life? … Hector when he had killed him stripped him of the wondrous armor, so glorious to behold… I will not live nor go about among mankind unless Hector fall by my spear, and thus pay me for having slain Patroclus son of Menoetius.” The 2004 movie Troy, featuring Brad Pitt as Achilles, Homer’s Iliad is excellently dramatized in the pivotal battle scene outside the impregnable walls of Troy—Achilles against Hector to avenge the death of his cousin Patroclus whom Hector had killed in an earlier battle thinking it was Achilles since he was wearing his armor. Here again we find the irony of love causing death.

Regarding patterns of love and friendship in the family, Homer’s Odyssey, Book XVI, after 20 years of privation suffered in the Trojan War, countless ordeals with monsters, tsunamis, witches and worst of all, the unpredictable wrath of the gods, our hero Ulysses, grey and haggard comes how disguised as a beggar. Yet Minerva (Athena) goddess of wisdom and magic, “touched him with her golden wand” changed his clothes and gave him the appearance of a strong, vigorous young man to such a degree that Ulysses’ son Telemachus for a time insisted that he was a god and refused to look directly at him for fear of offending the gods. Finally, Ulysses said, “I am no god… I am your father on whose account you grieve and suffer so much at the hands of lawless men.  As he spoke he kissed his son, and a tear fell from his cheek on to the ground, for he had restrained all tears till now.”

Regarding marital love: its sexual, fraternal, and romantic components, recall that the sorceress, Circe made Ulysses her love slave for a year in order for the curse to be removed of turning Ulysses’ men into pigs (which I believe the aphorism originated, ‘Men are pigs’). If this sexual slavery wasn’t bad enough Ulysses later had to spend seven years in captivity on Calypso’s island, Ogygia, because Calypso falls deeply in love with Ulysses and refused to let him leave her. He only escaped after utilizing his carpentry skills to build his own boat to escape the island bordello of Ogygia from which no doubt we get the word “orgy.”  Ironically, most men, especially young men would fantasize that to be a prisoner on Orgyia—the island of endless sexual pleasure would be the ultimate fantasy, but Ulysses understands that one can even get tired, or bored, or even traumatized by too much pleasure; that there are higher virtues men of character must aspire to— discipline, duty, honor, chastity, altruism, and marital love.

After a short boat ride home, Ulysses performed the feat of strength in stringing his own bow Penelope had required of the suitors (in a cunning effort on her part to delay having to marry one of these vile rogues), our hero then was required to skillfully shot an arrow through 12 axe blades.  Having fulfilled Penelope’s feats of strength and marksmanship caused the evil suitors to immediately arise in unison attacking Ulysses in jealous rage which in defending himself and  his honor Ulysses then quickly slaughtered them all. 

Now, at long last the hero and his wife have a quiet, intimate dinner in their home in peace, but there is one more test Ulysses must pass. He says to his wife, Penelope:

“My dear, heaven has endowed you with a heart more unyielding than woman ever yet had.  No other woman could bear to keep away from her husband when he had come back to her after twenty years absence, and after having gone through so much…” “My dear,” answered Penelope, “I have no wish to set myself up, nor to depreciate you; but I am not struck by your appearance for I very well remember what kind of a man you were when you set sail from Ithaca.  Nevertheless, Euryclea, take his bed outside the bed chamber that he himself built.  Bring the bed outside this room, and put bedding upon it with fleeces, good coverlets, and blankets.”

Penelope’s request about their bed made Ulysses incensed and caused him to rage, “Wife, I am much displeased at what you have just been saying. Who has been taking my bed from the place in which I left it? … I built my room round this [olive tree] with strong walls of stone…” Homer continued, “When she heard the sure proofs Ulysses now gave her, she fairly broke down.  She flew weeping to his side… Do not be angry with me Ulysses,” she cried, “You, who are the wisest of mankind… I have been shuddering all the time through fear that someone might come here and deceive me with a lying story; for there are many very wicked people going about…” Thus, Ulysses passed Penelope’s final test for only the man who built their bed anchoring it to a giant olive tree would realize that their bed could never be moved. A fitting closing metaphor to the unshakeable, transcendent love the pair had for each which endured over these many years.

For all of his 20 years of passion, war, death, starvation, cunning, imprisonment, fear, privation, pressure, pain, and loss, or what the literary Romantic writers called Strum und Drang (storm and stress), Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey in particular is a love story of Ulysses—a singular man, a father, a husband… the King of Ithaca, just trying to come home after doing his duty as a soldier, fulfilling his mission as a general of the Greek legions, fighting heroically in the Trojan War, yet the gods were against him every step of his long odyssey back home to embrace and comfort his loving, long-suffering wife, Penelope. Ulysses could have remained on the island of Aeaea with the sorceress Circe and succumb to hedonism, but he didn’t. Ulysses could have stayed on the island of Ogygia as Calypso’s love slave where she promised to make him a demigod, but he refused. Why? His heart didn’t belong to either of those strange women; his heart belonged to his wife, Penelope and he would not rest until he embraced his beloved or died trying. 

In my mind the story of Ulysses is the sublime love story for the Ages; a pure, eternal love which reminds me of the scripture—John 15:13, There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

*N.B.: This article is based in part on excerpts from Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 3, Chp. 50—Love and Vol. 4 – Homer: The Iliad, The Odyssey 

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