On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme

Jose Ortega y Gasset’s On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme is a collection of essays on love. Since it was published in the first half of the last century, the book is dated. Reading it made me realize the speed in which the World has changed. But then again, the text’s anachronism is precisely the quality that makes it an amusing read. You cannot but laugh while going over the old-fashioned stances spewed out from the text. To substantiate my claim and to, so to speak, let the text speak for itself (although I cannot help myself from adding my own inane remarks), the next “few” lines in this virtual space will consist primarily of long passages from the book.

The first essay in the book, “Features of Love,” begins by differentiating the object of investigation, love, and “love affairs.”

“Love affairs” are more or less accidental episodes that happen between men and women. Innumerable factors enter into them which complicate and entangle their development to such an extent that, by and large, in most “love affairs” there is a little of everything except that which strictly speaking deserves to be called love. A psychological analysis of “love affairs” and their picturesque casuistry is of great interest; but we would not progress far unless we first determined what genuine love itself is. Moreover, reducing the study of love to what men and women feel for one another would be narrowing the subject; indeed, Dante believed that love moves the sun and the other planets. (7)

Against this reduction, Gasset points out the many facets of love. “Not only does man love woman and woman man, but we love art or science, the mother loves her child, and the religious man loves God.” From there, Gasset moves on to a survey of a few more misconceptions of the idea of love which he takes pleasure in debunking.

The idea of love that St. Thomas gives us, in summing up Greek tradition, is, obviously erroneous. For him, love and hate are two forms of desire, appetite, or lust. Love is the desire for something good in so far as it is good – concupiscibile circa bonum; hate, a negative desire, a rejection of evil as such – conscupiscible circa malum. This reveals the confusion between appetites or desires and sentiments from which all psychology up to the eighteenth century suffered… (8-9)

For Gasset, love, contrary to the definition given by St. Thomas, is not simply desire.

…desire automatically dies when it is fulfilled; it ends with satisfaction. Love, on the other hand, is eternally unsatisfied. Desire has a passive character; when I desire something, what I actually desire is that the object come to me. Being the center of gravity, I await things to fall down before me. Love, as we shall see, is the exact reverse of desire, for Love is all activity… It does not gravitate toward me, but I toward it.  (10)

Gasset then proceeds to an attack on the notion of love by Spinoza who (according to Gasset) said that “love must be happiness combined with knowledge of its cause; hate, on the other hand, sadness combined with knowledge of its sources.”

Spinoza did not observe carefully: loving is not happiness. He who loves his country may die for it, and the martyr may perish out of love. And conversely, there is a kind of hatred that derives pleasure from itself, that is transported with joy by the harm that befalls the hated person. (12)

So having set love apart from a mere “love affairs,” desire, a particular knowledge, and “falling in love,” Gasset, following St. Agustine (“My love is my weight; where it goes I go”), defines love as a gravitation toward that which is loved.” But then this “…is not simply a question of physically moving toward the beloved, of gaining closeness and external intimacy… [but] in its psychic inwardness as a process of the soul.” (13) Quite abstract, but this metaphysical abstraction is soon concretized in later pages:

It is possible for a person in love to succeed in preventing, by virtue of reflective considerations, – social decorum, difficulties of any nature – the surrender of his will to the one he loves. What is essential is that he feels himself, regardless of the decision of his will, surrendered to the other. (174)

Because as the cliché rearticulated by Gasset goes,

Romantic love…is characterized by… a feeling of being “enchanted” by another being who produces complete “illusion” in us, and a feeling of being absorbed by him to the core of our being, as if he had torn us from our own vital depths and we were living transplanted our vital roots within him… a person in love feels himself totally surrendered to the one he loves… (174)

This is the supreme sign of true love: being close to what is loved, in a more profound contact and proximity than that of space. It means being with the other vitally. The most exact, but too technical phrase would be this: an ontological state of being with the beloved, faithful to its destiny, no matter what it is. (31)

“Love in Stendhal,” the next essay, moves on to a debate against Stendhal’s conception of love as “Crystallization”:

…in sum, this theory defines love as an essential fiction. It is not that love sometimes makes mistakes, but that it is, essentially, a mistake. We fall in love when our imagination projects non-existent perfections onto another person. One day the phantasmagoria vanishes, and with it love dies. This is worse than declaring, as of yesteryear, that love is blind. For Stendhal it is less than blind: it is imaginary. Not only does it not see what is real, but it supplants the real. (22)

Gasset, to demolish Stendhal’s account of love, harps on the greatness of man. He reiterates this point in his next essay, “On the Role of Choice in Love”:

First, it is unlikely that any normal activity of man is based upon an essential error. Love sometimes errs, as the eyes and ears may err. But, like these, its abnormality is based upon general accuracy. Second, imaginary or not, love is excited by certain real charms and qualities. It always has an object. Although the real person may not coincide with this imaginary object, some grounds of affinity must exist between the two which leads us to fancy one woman, and not another, as the foundation and subject of those charms. (105)

In the same vein, Gasset goes against the commonplace that equates love and sexuality:

If it is an absurdity to say that a man’s or woman’s true love for one another has nothing sexual about it, it is another absurdity to believe that love can be equated with sexuality. (89)

In a quirky twist, he proves this by asserting that “…nothing immunizes a male against other sexual attractions so well as amorous enthusiasm for a certain woman.” (89) Gasset then states, and I agree with him on this point, that “…sexual instinct, strictly speaking, practically does not exist in man, but is almost always found to be indissolubly united, at least, with fantasy.” (102) But love is also accorded the same constitutive characteristic. Love for Gasset, like the sexual instinct, “is not an instinct but rather a creation, and, in man, no primitive creation at that.” Love, then, far from being something natural, is a human construct. As Gasset emphasizes:

…if one wishes to see clearly into the phenomenon of love, it is necessary, above all, to free oneself from the common idea which sees it as a universal sentiment, within the reach of almost everyone’s experience, occurring at every minute everywhere, regardless of the society, race, nationality or period in which we live. (181)

And crowning this insight, which I see as the ultimate achievement of the book, is the realization that

…things and peoples are what they are not merely because of sheer and spontaneous generation. No! Everything that is, everything in the world that has form, whatever it may be, is a product of some force, a vestige of some energy and a symptom of some activity. In this sense, everything has been made, and it is always possible to inquire into the power that has forged each thing and in so doing, left its everlasting mark upon it. (116)T

This realization, however, instead of leading to the radical notion that the concept of love is itself a site of struggle for different and often conflicting ideas of love (bourgeois love vs. class love, for example), regresses to an Orientalist privileging of Western superiority. Only Western culture has developed the notion of love (“The savage has no inkling of it, the Chinese and the Indian are unfamiliar with it, the Greeks of the time of Pericles barely recognized it”) and the bearer of love is more fully human than the rest of the crowd since it “is a vital luxury which only organisms with a high level of vitality can possess.” (184)

What is funnier is that after assigning upon love and sexual instinct the status of constructs, Gasset reverts to an essentialism which assigns to women the nature of a poverty of imagination.

…the notorious disproportion between the sexuality of man and woman, which makes the normally spontaneous woman so conservative in “love,” probably coincides with the fact that the human female usually enjoys less imaginative power than the male. Nature, cautiously and foresightedly, wanted it that way, because if the opposite had occurred and the woman were endowed with as much fantasy as the man, licentiousness would have flooded the planet and the human species would have disappeared, volatilized in sensuousness. (103)

This sort of thinking of course leads to the next:

…the essence of femininity exists in the fact that an individual feels her destiny totally fulfilled when she surrenders herself to another individual… In opposition to this marvelous phenomenon, masculinity presents the deep-rooted instinct which impels it to take possession of another person. There exists, therefore, a pre-established- harmony between woman and man; for the former, living means surrender; for the latter, living means taking possession; and both destinies, precisely because they are opposites, come to a perfect agreement. (160)

And the next:

From the spectator and public the man passes, by means of the flirtation, to an individual relationship with the woman. Starting a flirtation is an invitation to a tête-á-tête, a furtive spiritual communication. It begins, therefore, with a gesture, a word which disregards and as it were removes the conventional mask, the woman’s surface personality, and knocks at the door of that more intimate personality. Then, like the moon which emerges from among the clouds, the concealed woman begins to radiate her hidden vitality and relinquish her fictitious countenance before the man. This moment of spiritual denudification, that brief period in which the superficial, impersonal woman is transformed into the real, individual woman (a phenomenon which can be compared to the exposure of a photographic plate) produces in the man the greatest spiritual delight. (136-137)

And the next:

Extraordinary beauty acts as an obstacle to men of fine sensibilities feeling attracted by a woman. The excessive perfection of a face encourages us to objectify its possessor and to keep at a distance from her in order to admire her as aesthetic object. The only ones who fall in love with “official beauties” are fools and drugstore clerks. They are public monuments, curiosities which one views momentarily and from a distance. In their presence one feels like a tourist and not a lover. (148)

It perpetuates all sorts of silly stereotypes that creates the phenomenon they describe:

The woman in love usually despairs because she never seems to have the man she loves before her in his totality. She always finds him somewhat distracted, as if on the way to their meeting he had left sections of his mind scattered about the world. For this reason, the man always seems to be clumsy in love and incapable of reaching the perfection which the woman succeeds in giving to this sentiment. (75)

And perhaps funniest of all, he makes use of this image of the essential woman as a point for a clever refutation of Darwin’s theory of evolution:

Let us say it, in all crudity, that women have never been interested in geniuses, unless it were per accidens; that is to say, when in addition to the genius of a man there were overshadowing qualities which were scarcely compatible with his genius. One thing is certain: the qualities which are generally most esteemed in a male, for the good of progress and human greatness, do not at all interest the woman erotically. (124)

From the point of view of human selection, this fact means that the woman in her sentimental preferences does not collaborate, in the same way as does man, in the perfection of the species. She tends rather to eliminate the best individuals, speaking from a masculine viewpoint – those who innovate and undertake lofty enterprises – and she manifests a decided enthusiasm for mediocrity. (127)

All silly, I must say. But then again a decent dose of good old-fashioned machismo is never a bad thing in this supposed politically correct era. (I’ve always had this lingering suspicion that the prevailing critical discourses that impose this compulsion to be prim and proper hides an underlying complicity with the larger social structures they supposedly seek to address by limiting their sights to the minutae.)

Besides, the book presents you with a jumble (since the treatment of the subject matter by Gasset is quite diffused) of lines that can be of good use when wooing someone.

The combination of these two elements, enchantment and surrender, is, then, essential to the love which we are discussing. This combination is no accident. Both do not merely chance to co-exist, but rather one is born out of and takes nourishment from the other. What exists in love is surrender due to enchantment. (175)

Falling in love even once is an insistence that the beloved exists; a refusal to accept (since everything depends on that one thing) the possibility of a universe without it. (18)

It also gives a few good observations on the practice of love:

Love is the most highly eulogized activity. Poets have always embellished and refined it with their cosmetic instruments, endowing it with a strange abstract reality, to such a point that before experiencing it we know all about it, place high value on it, and are resolved to practice it, like an art or profession. (24)

Falling in love automatically tends toward madness. Left to itself, it goes to utter extremes. This is well known by the “conquistadores” of both sexes. Once a woman’s attention is fixed upon a man, it is very easy for him to dominate her thoughts completely. A simple game of blowing hot and cold, of solicitousness and disdain, of presence and absence is all that is required. The rhythm of that technique acts upon an woman’s attention like a pneumatic machine and ends by emptying her of all the rest of the world. How well our people put it: “to suck one’s senses”! In fact: one is absorbed – absorbed by an object! Most “love affairs are reduced to this mechanical play of the beloved upon the lover’s attention. (53)

And finally, it offers some sensible advice:

…falling in love is a state of mental misery which has a restricting, impoverishing, and paralyzing effect upon the development of our consciousness. (40)

Romantic poses aside, let us recognize that “falling in love” …is an inferior state of mind, a form of transitory imbecility. Without a paralysis of consciousness and a reduction of our habitual world, we could never fall in love. (51)

Let us tear down the romantic trappings that have adorned passion. Let us cease believing that the measure of a man’s love lies in how stupid he has become or is willing to be. (178) ■



  1. I find your blog while searching for reviews on Gasset’s book. You have made a great effort in summarizing his work. Keep it up!

  2. Ortega’s writings are not anachronistic and he didn’t write to amuse his readers. He is one of the very few philosophers who are utmost honnest in their writings. He’s an artist in literature of inimitable quality. I’d recommend to read some more essays by Ortega, — many are free online now, — to get a picture how much substantial thought (‘meditations’ as he calls it) he gave every topic before he wrote about. His complete work comprises 2500 pages is outstanding. He didn’t read 10 books to write an eleventh – as most authors do. in contrast to these will-o’-wisps, he developed his own ideas and theories upon philosophic foundations (Kant, Descartes, Nietzsche, Schlegel, Fichte, etc.) and expresses them with poetic gloire. Keep reading!

    1. I agree with you about Ortega’s intentions. Those essays on love by him I read around six years ago were dead serious. And I also concur with you that I was wrong when I arbitrarily said that Ortega is dated simply because they were written a long time ago. What I should have said is that Ortega’s views on love seem dated when compared to many of the ideas on the subject that are prevalent these days. This is what I still find amusing. Thanks for the comment. I will keep on reading.

      1. what appears weird is that i find only a few of his books being translated into English from original Spanish. i.e. revolt of the masses (free online), the collection of meditations ‘on love’ (borrowable electronically at archive.org) which seems uncomplete, since he has more writings about love than those included in the book ‘on love’. also free online is his book ‘the modern theme’, a good collection of essays, about e.g. Einstein, Christianism, Buddhism. A ‘complete works’ i can’t find. any pointers?

  3. https://archive.org/details/modernthemeorte


    Introduction to the Torchbook Edition


    The Concept of the Generation

    The Forecasting of the Future

    Relativism and Rationalism

    Culture and Life

    The Double Imperative

    The Two Ironies, or, Socrates and
    Don Juan

    Valuations of Life

    Vital Values

    Signs of the Times

    The Doctrine of the Point of View

    The Sunset of Revolution . . . . 99

    Epilogue on the Mental Attitude of

    Disillusion 132

    The Historical Significance of the

    Theory of Einstein .. .. .. 135

  4. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/gasset/

    José Ortega y Gasset
    First published Tue Jun 7, 2011; substantive revision Mon Mar 10, 2014
    José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955) was a prolific and distinguished philosopher of Spain in the twentieth century. In the course of his career as philosopher, social theorist, essayist, cultural and aesthetic critic, educator, politician and editor of the influential journal, Revista de Occidente, …

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