In Praise Of Love—But What Is It, Really?

If Àlain Badiou, greatest living French philosopher—that is, according to his compatriots—writes a book called In Praise of Love, wouldn’t you pay attention?

After all, love is an ever fascinating subject and some of the greatest philosophers are French (Voltaire, Descartes, Sartre to name a few). And the French are up there as some of the world’s greatest lovers (after the Spaniards, Italians, and Brazilians—all Latin).

In addition to such formidable credentials, Monsieur Badiou is in his late 70s—which means he’s wise; he’s also a writer/novelist and a sometime actor—which means he’s in touch with his feelings. Don’t all those add to his credibility as an authority on love?

As you might expect, Monsieur Badiou believes in love. His faith in it is such that he argues (following Plato) that philosophy should use love as its starting point in its search for truth and meaning.

He thinks we are all, in our idiosyncratic ways, preoccupied with love issues—either as firm believers or as skeptics for whom love is, at best, an illusion that doesn’t last. Or, worst, as love atheists who believe love doesn’t exist, and is merely a veneer for sexual desire.

Monsieur Badiou begs to differ with love atheists, of course―a sexual encounter is not love.

What, then, is love?

Le monsieur says love is, first of all, a two-way relationship whereas sex focuses on the self (essentially, a selfish/Narcissistic act). Love needs two separate and different creatures (such as a man and a woman). And it needs an encounter, often initially driven by lust, which changes how each one views and interacts with his/her world.

The Kiss, marble, 1888-89, detail

When you say, “I love you” (the declaration), lust becomes love. But only if the encounter changes how you and your partner view and interact with your world. You now experience the world from the point of view of two instead of one—a point of view that accommodates difference, not just identity (Badiou calls this truth construction). Or as he rephrases it: “… we encounter the world other than through a solitary consciousness.” This change is critical to turning lust into love.

That’s not all, however. A love relationship repeatedly affirms the declaration and truth construction, particularly in the face of trying events. That is, love endures the many tests of time. And “Love proves itself by permeating desire.” The “ritual of bodies” becomes the physical expression of love.

Badiou asserts love is not for everybody. I think that’s partly because his definition of love transcends those magical early encounters (the romance). A romantic relationship is not love unless it lasts across time; outlasts that early glow. Endurance elevates love to a plane higher than that of romance.

But you knew all that already. So why bother consulting Monsieur Badiou? Is it because we want affirmation of our beliefs?

I have read the book twice, but still have not fully grasped all that it’s trying to say. Badiou borrows the title from a 2001 Jean-Luc Godard movie that viewers had trouble understanding but which a few described, nonetheless, as profound. Maybe, love is like that. Maybe something has also been added, lost, or reimagined in translation. The book was originally in French (Éloge de l’amour, published in 2009 by Flammarion, in hardcover). Or, maybe, it’s just the way of the philosopher to sound deep and abstruse.

Monsieur Badiou’s views may be old-fashioned, even passé in our modern technological world. In current surveys, data collectors use sexual performance as their behavioral index of love, for instance, in the survey of the greatest lovers mentioned above.The Durex Global Research study, cited in this article, uses sexual satisfaction to measure love. In other words, those studies assume the modern man and woman think sex equals love. Precisely what Monsieur Badiou says it isn’t. But maybe, the modern person is just more narcissistic than he realizes.

I prefer to think Monsieur Badiou is right. Love exists beyond the flutter in your heart, the blush on your cheeks, the catching of your breath, and all those other ways your body shows lust. Those, by the way, are also symptoms of a panic attack.

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