Great Philosophers Who Failed At Love

By Andrew Shaffer

Great Philosophers Who Failed At LoveAs is only fitting for any philosophical tome, Shaffer’s amusing essay in highbrow schadenfreude offers plenty to quibble over. The author’s definition of failure, for one. Thirtysomething Peter Abelard may have begun a long-lasting love affair with Héloïse, his 17-year-old pupil, and was then castrated by a thug in the hire of her enraged uncle, but it’s difficult to say he failed at love—at modern standards of appropriate teacher-student relationships, yes, and certainly in elementary prudence. But love? And how does the fact that Thomas Aquinas, burning with zeal to join the Dominican order, turned down a prostitute’s overture represent failure on his part? Ah well, leave the definitions to the philosophers—most of his 35 guys (and two women), Shaffer has dead to rights.

Consider French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, who strangled his wife in 1980, or Auguste Comte, who threw knives at his wife when he was in deranged mode, and blamed her for slowing down his work pace when he was sane. (As one of Comte’s biographers noted, the pioneer of social studies—who coined the word “sociology”—was only able to love humanity in the aggregate.) Diogenes the Cynic, who waged a lifelong battle against the social customs of ancient Greece—urinating, defecating and masturbating in public—believed love was for men “with nothing to do,” a convenient credo for someone who would probably have had trouble attracting a partner. The repulsive Jean-Jacques Rousseau personally delivered each of the five children he had with his seamstress lover to a foundling hospital.

But most of the philosophers, giant throbbing intellects and all, simply screwed up like the rest of us. They became infatuated with women who wanted nothing to do with them (Nietzsche), led lives of serial divorce (Bertrand Russell), or cheated on their spouses (Martin Heidegger and too many others to list). So what do the lives, as opposed to the teaching, of the great thinkers have to offer this Valentine’s Day? Only this: you can tell a disgruntled spouse that things could be worse—he or she might have married a philosopher.