ORTEGA ON LOVE
Reflections inspired by José Ortega y Gasset’s On Love …Aspects of a Single Theme
D. R. Khashaba
Having just been re-reading Plato’s Symposium for the nth time, there fell into my hands by some happy chance José Ortega y Gasset’s remarkable little book On Love … Aspects of a Single Theme. The following are notes I jotted down as I was reading. All quotations below are from Toby Talbot’s translation and page numbers refer to the 1967 edition by Jonathan Cape Ltd, London. I have arranged my notes under the relevant chapter headings and numbered them consecutively.
FEATURES OF LOVE
José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) reduces various theories of love to species of confusion. This is the error of thinking that there can be one true theory of anything. Like all abstractions, love is a nebulous idea which can be worked by different thinkers into different forms each of which may give us some insight into the thing, but none of which can claim to be definitive.
Ortega says that “love is a flow, a stream of spiritual matter, a fluid which flows continually like a fountain” (p. 14). This is beautiful and insightful except that I find the word ‘matter’ here jarring and likewise the metaphor of a ‘fluid’. So captivated is the modern mind by the objective outlook that Ortega thinks it necessary that the flow must be a flow of something, just as physicists at one time thought that light waves must have an ether to move in. The modern mind is so overwhelmed by the empiricist outlook that it cannot grasp that the wave itself is all the substance we need and that ultimately the real is not a thing, not an entity, not even in the most emaciated sense of the word, but an activity. If we speak of love as an emanation or a radiation, or whatever other metaphor we choose, we have to grasp that the emanation is not an emanation from something or of something; the emanation by itself and in itself is all the cause and all the substance, is what is real. Unless we grasp that, we are not thinking metaphysically. Thus for Plato what is ultimately real is the Form of the Good which transcends all being and all understanding and gives what is – to on – its being, and gives the intelligible its intelligibility. In the Sophist Plato defines what is real simply as dunamis, which I render ‘activity’ rather than ‘power’.
LOVE IN STENDHAL
Ortega gives a perceptive diagnosis of the main fault, one might say disease, of the ideology of the nineteenth century. “The normal is explained by the abnormal, the superior by the inferior” (p. 22). This is the reductionism that persisted throughout the twentieth century and continues to bedevil contemporary philosophy. A little earlier in the same paragraph Ortega writes that “Taine wishes to convince us that normal perception is merely a continuous, connected hallucination” (p. 21). Plato would have offered a defence of that position on the lines of his defence of Protagoras’s “Man the Measure” in the Theaetetus, and would have found in it the same fault. We do not find the true nature of things in the reports of perception but in the mind that examines the reports.
Ortega has a remarkable passage (pp.34-35) which, had I read it earlier, I would have quoted somewhere in support of my view that we only understand a thing when we have placed it within an intelligible whole. The passage closes with these words: “What we call genius is only the magnificent power which some men possess of piercing a portion of that imaginative fog and discovering beyond it a new authentic bit of reality, quivering in sheer nakedness” (p. 35). My only reservation is that I do not see that as a bit of reality we discover out there, but a reality, an intelligibility, our mind confers on the primal fog out there. We never really pierce or penetrate that fog. That fog is Kant’s phenomenal world which in itself is meaningless and only has what meaning is given it by our understanding (taking ‘understanding’ here in Kant’s sense). (Of course this does not militate against the view advocated by Ortega against Stendhal, that the lover finds perfection – albeit sometimes mistakenly – in the beloved. In interpersonal relationships we are not confined to the phenomenal sphere, but are living on the noumenal plane, and the perfection found by the lover in the beloved is not a thing existing objectively but is a reality experienced. I will not amplify on this here. I only wanted to point out that my reservation about Ortega’s view does not relate to his criticism of Stendhal’s theory of love but to the implied theory of perception.)
When a lover, a philosopher, a poet, struck by theia mania (divine madness), finds her or his “psychic forces” converging “to act upon one single point”, I cannot agree with Ortega that that “gives a false aspect of superlative intensity to his [or her] existence” (p. 44). I would endorse the statement without reservation if the words “a false aspect of” were dropped.
Balzac, Ortega writes, “winds up a business conversation by saying: ‘Well, let us return to reality! Let us talk about César Birotteau.’ (p. 45). Balzac was not mistaken. The fictional character has metaphysical reality as against the evanescent non-reality of worldly things.
Ortega opposes mysticism to theology and sides heavily with theology. I find myself completely opposed to him in this. Here I will quote a long passage, because the point deserves close attention.
“I think that any theology transmits to us much more of God, greater insights and ideas about divinity, than the combined ecstasies of all the mystics; because, instead of approaching the ecstatic sceptically, we must take the mystic at his word, accept what he brings us from his transcendental immersions, and see if what he offers us is worth while. The truth is that, after we accompany him on his sublime voyage, what he succeeds in communicating to us is a thing of little consequence. I think that the European soul is approaching a new experience of God and new inquiries into that most important of all realities” (p. 52).
I would have gladly welcomed this last statement as good news, but Ortega spoils it by going on to say, “I doubt very much, however, if the enrichment of our ideas about divine matters will emerge from the mystics’ subterranean roads rather than from the luminous paths of discursive thought. Theology – not ecstasy!” This is radically opposed to my position. The “luminous paths of discursive thought” are impostors, they give us sham truths about a ‘reality’ that is confessedly beyond our reach, while the ‘divine madness’ of the mystic, the poet, the philosopher, lead us to the ineffable reality of our inner being that can only be conveyed in the metaphors of the mystic, the images of the poet, the conceptual structures of the philosopher which confess themselves no more than suggestive myths. There is more insight in a single passage of Giordano Bruno than in the whole of the Summa Theologica or in the plethora of modern theologians who are vainly trying to picture an unknown and unknowable objectively existent God. Ortega obviously believes in such a God.
Ortega makes a careful but quite unsympathetic study of mysticism, a study from outside, equally so with his study of “falling in love”. He says, “The joy in the ‘state of grace’, wherever it appears, depends upon being outside of the world and of oneself” (p. 59). On the contrary, I would say, outside the world and very much inside oneself. I suppose Ortega never understood Plato’s dictum: a philosopher practises dying.
Ortega’s distinction between the concentric and the epicentric mind is better seen as distinguishing not the female and the male, as Ortega holds, but two types of human character represented in both females and males, if not equally at any rate without a significant predominance in the one or the other gender. The concentric mind is contemplative, the epicentric mind is empirical. The first sees the one in the many, is integrative; the second is pluralistic and atomistic. I would say that Plato definitely had a concentric mind; Aristotle had an epicentric mind. Among moderns we have A. N. Whitehead as against Bertrand Russell.
THE ROLE OF CHOICE IN LOVE
In “The Role of Choice in Love” Ortega has led himself into a pathless jungle. To theorize about the hidden depths of the human character is vain. Poets and novelists, not psychologists, are the ones that give us glimpses into those depths. Ortega states that “To say that man is rational and free is, I think, a statement very close to being false. We actually do possess reason and freedom: but both powers form only a tenuous film which envelops our being, the interior of which is neither rational nor free” (p. 72). When he says this he is negating philosophy and religion at its best. It is only in that “tenuous film” that we are human beings. It is the role of philosophy, in common with art and literature, to sustain and fortify that “tenuous film”. As for the psychological approach, I think my suggestion (introduced in more than one of my writings) that we see a human being as made up of various planes of being would be more fruitful than current psychological theories.
“Probably, there is only one other theme”, Ortega writes, “more inward than love: that which may be called metaphysical sentiment, or the essential, ultimate and basic impression which we have of the universe” (p. 74). I love that. I have been saying that a human being becomes whole in the idea of the Whole. I only wish that ‘sentiment’ were truly “ultimate and basic”. Most people live without it and seem not to miss it. Or it may be that in most people it is smothered early in childhood and that the endless, restless striving by most people for they know not what, that common existential Angst, is just their blind groping for this Whole that makes us whole. And would it not be better to say that this ‘metaphysical sentiment’ is not “one other theme” (beside love) but is one with the need for love, or rather that the need for love is just one mode of the ‘metaphysical sentiment’? The insight of Diotima (Plato’s Symposium) is unsurpassable.
A parenthetical remark of Ortega’s confirms what I have been harping on in all my writings, that ideas created by the mind govern all our lives. He writes between parentheses: “No one can estimate the penetration of concepts of ancient philosophy into the ranks of western civilization. The most uneducated man uses words and concepts from Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics” (p. 79). Ideas created by the mind – concepts that have no being but in the mind – constitute our culture and our culture is the ambience in which we have our characteristically human life, or, if we are permitted a loftier phrase, our spiritual life.
The word ‘choice’ as used by Ortega is not quite apt. ‘Selection’ would have fitted his purpose better. I don’t know what Spanish word Ortega used and the unhappy choice of ‘choice’ may be due to the translator.
TOWARDS A PSYCHOLOGY OF THE INTERESTING MAN
In my opinion all such studies are basically flawed. As they stand they may give food for reflection, but to think that in pursuing such a study we can end up with a ‘science’ is as futile as Leibniz’ dream of a ‘universal characteristic’, a dream which the founders of logical symbolism took seriously until the wiser of them discovered it was a mirage. I still think that for psychological insight no formal psychology can vie with fiction, poetry, drama, or the cinema, for the simple reason that these allude, suggest, intimate, but never claim or attempt to inform, to give factual knowledge. In suggesting they make it possible for as much as there is in us of inner reality to commune with the inner reality of the other. Even when that other is fictional, the communion and the experience are real, since even when the other is ‘real’ we commune mot with what is but with what our minds assume there is.
On page 140 Ortega says, “In order to see an object it is necessary to be detached from it.” This would be so if the word ‘see’ is given its primary sense, but Ortega clearly means it to mean ‘know’. The whole paragraph in which this sentence occurs exemplifies the confusions and errors of the empirical approach. All of my books have campaigned against these confusions and errors and I do not want to digress into this at this point.
Ortega writes: “… our concepts and generalizations never concur with reality” (p. 141). This is what I assert in speaking of the necessary and inescapable fluidity of language. It is strange that while no reasonable person has any doubt about this in general, only Socrates came to the necessary conclusion that we can never understand any word philosophically by defining the word in terms extraneous to it. We only understand a word in the self-evidence of the idea within the mind. Throughout some twenty-five millennia only Wittgenstein half-glimpsed this after passing through the vale of abject scepticism. I purposely speak of defining a word for understanding it philosophically: formal and ad hoc definitions for scientific, juristic, and practical purposes are another matter; they do not give understanding; they are simply working tools. Broad theoretical propositions are essentially transitory; once we think of them as final or definitive we are engrossed in error and sunk into deadly stagnation.
Philosophical understanding – I have said this again and again and do not hesitate to say it once more – is not a condition or state of being but is an ongoing activity, it is a mode of life. Philosophy is philosophizing, is the experience of intelligent creativity, the life of creative intelligence. Therefore it is nonsensical to try to hold the philosophy of this or that philosopher in a compendium. The only way to understand a philosopher is to accompany her or him on their lifelong pilgrimage to the fount of all reality and to share with them the insight that that fount is nowhere but within us.
Ortega suggests that “love is not an instinct but rather a creation” (p. 147). I endorse that wholeheartedly. It is implied in my affirming that we are human in as much as we live in an ideal – spiritual – world of our own creation. Of course there is such a thing as ‘instinctive love’, but in a human being even the love of a mother for her new-born baby is a sentiment shot through and through with cultural values. Ortega was referring to erotic love – the primary theme of his book – and there too his remark is perceptive and true.
In endnote 5 to “Towards a Psychology of the Interesting Man” Ortega places himself among those who oppose “the empirical tradition, according to which every thing happens by chance and without any unified form” (p. 157). I have more than once referred to Ortega’s empirical approach. I do not retract that. Ortega may not share the Empiricists’ atomistic pluralism which sees no unity in the plurality but he does share their objectivism which seeks reality and understanding in what there is.
So Ortega has given us an interesting, an enlightening, book on love. He has explored ideas and sentiments. In following his explorations we explore our own minds. That is what all good philosophy does and all that any philosophy can do. But has he come to any final conclusions? No. I resist a temptation to say more. I would only be repeating what I repeatedly said before.
Cairo, 6 November 2014.