It is lamentable that schools say so little about what this day celebrates, but when one considers what they do say, it is easy to conclude that it would have been better had they instead said nothing. Much can and should be said about Valentine’s Day and the shellacking history has delivered it. Instead, schools like one in Connecticut will plumb the intellectual depths of their curriculum and decree that children should not be allowed to bring candy to school. Combating obesity rather than ignorance is how they understand their public mission and consequently they miss another opportunity to discuss something important with the earnestness it deserves.
This week millions of Americans of all ages will celebrate St. Valentine’s Day. Americans will spend $448 million on candy alone. They will consume fifty-eight million pounds of chocolate, exchange 150 million cards, purchase eight billion Sweetheart candies, imbibe 174,000 gallons of champagne, and florists will have their most lucrative month of the year. It is, to say the least, an unanticipated outcome given that it required one or more Christians to martyr themselves. There were several saints named Valentinus, but most historians agree that St. Valentine’s Day is a tribute to the Roman Valentinus who was imprisoned and eventually executed for performing marriage rites for Roman soldiers. His sainthood, however, is attributable to his having cured the blind daughter of his jailer Austerius.
The love associated with St. Valentine’s Day was not romantic love until Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules was written in 1382. Here, Chaucer had written that: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” In modern English: on Valentine’s Day, every bird will choose his mate. With that, we begin to see the ascent of Eros, which we find evidenced in letters exchanged between aristocrats such as Charles d’Orléans and later in Hamlet in 1602 when Shakespeare has Ophelia say, “To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day, / All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, / To be your Valentine. / Then up he rose, and donn'd his clothes, / And dupp'd the chamber-door; / Let in the maid, that out a maid / Never departed more.” Even the lines from Spencer’s Faerie Queene, “She bath'd with roses red, and violets blew, / And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew,” did not take on the poetastery of the commercial gift card industry for hundreds of years.
The problem began in the very late 18th century with the rise of a sentimentalism that collapsed many different types of love into one. This love was all consuming, aimed at a mythical completeness, and its narrative usually involved one half searching for the other – a soul mate. The rise of Romanticism, which peaked between 1800 and 1850, intensified this trend. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther published in 1774 made the romantic suicides of young men popular for a time, and William Morris’ Love is Enough in 1872 contained the sort of thing we are now wont to consider the sine qua non of modern love.
Love is enough: though the World be a-waning,
And the woods have no voice but the voice of complaining,
Though the sky be too dark for dim eyes to discover
The gold-cups and daisies fair blooming thereunder,
Though the hills be held shadows, and the sea a dark wonder
And this day draw a veil over all deeds pass'd over,
Yet their hands shall not tremble, their feet shall not falter;
The void shall not weary, the fear shall not alter
These lips and these eyes of the loved and the lover.
This has been reinforced by more contemporary contributions such as the Beatles All You Need is Love first performed in 1967. As one critic wrote of Morris’ poem, and the same could be said of the Beatles’ song, “It’s not.” The modern obsession with falling in love displaced the more classical version of being in love to the extent that as early as the 17th century La Rochefoucauld joked that, “Few people would fall in love had they never heard about it.” Human beings are pluralistic and amidst all the cultural pandemonium, there remain types of love and modes of association that can be regained and incorporated into one’s life so that it may be lived more fully through a classical education.
For instance, when Søren Kierkegaard wrote that, “If it were true – as conceited shrewdness, proud of not being deceived, thinks – that one should believe nothing which he cannot see by means of his physical eyes, then first and foremost one ought to give up believing in love,” he did not mean solely romantic love. We know this because he further wrote that, “To cheat oneself out of love is the more terrible deception; it is an eternal loss for which there is no reparation, either in time or in eternity.” The sort of love that thinkers like Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Spinoza, Kierkegaard, and Lewis among countless others had in mind was much larger and more intricate than any of this. To have reduced it simply to Eros is not only cause for cultural embarrassment, but a diminishment of our relations with one another and an understanding of ourselves.
To borrow an idea from the contemporary writer Roman Krznaric, most people are better able to differentiate types of coffee than they are types of love, and yet it is clear that love plays the larger role in our lives. Certainly, there is Eros, which is itself an amalgam and can result in deep passion or simple lust. The Greeks were careful to note that it was almost a madness. As the Greek philosopher Prodicus put it: “Desire doubled is love, love doubled is madness.” Marcel Proust reiterated this point in writing that, “There can be no peace of mind in love since what one has obtained is never anything but a new starting-point for further desires.” We see this when Socrates questions Cephalus by asking him how love suits with age, and Cephalus responds, “I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master.” It is not that Cephalus has ceased loving, but that love matures and takes on different forms while still remaining a kind of love. Classical education provides plenty of examples of the fury of Eros in telling the stories of Paris and Helen, “Prince Andrew and Natasha, Swann and Odette, Troilus and Criseyde, Gatsby and Daisy, Don Quixote and Dulcinea, Jason and Medea, Aeneas and Dido, Othello and Desdemona, Dante and Beatrice, Hippolytus and Phaedra, Faust and Margaret, Henry V and Catherine, Paolo and Francesca, Samson and Delilah, Antony and Cleopatra, Admetus and Alcestis, Orlando and Rosalind, Haemon and Antigone, Ulysses and Penelope, and Adam and Eve.”
There is also philia or amicitia, which to us is known as friendship. Is it too not love? The stories of Achilles and Patroclus, Hamlet and his father, Prince Hal and Falstaff, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Pantagruel and Panurge are all bound together by something very different than what is precipitated by Cupid’s dart. Montaigne wrote perhaps one of the finest lines on friendship when reflecting on the depth of his friendship with Etienne de la Boétie. “So many coincidences are needed to build up such a friendship,” wrote Montaigne, “that it is a lot if fortune can do it once in three centuries.” In describing why they were friends, Montaigne wrote simply, “parce que c'était lui; parce que c'était moi,” or “because he was he, and I was I.” This love binds soldiers, and others who are members of a genuine fraternity. There is also ludus, the sort of playful, flirtatious love that culminates either in courting, or more often, in nothing. School dances are overwhelmingly ludic. There is pragma or else storge, which is a profound understanding of another that comes after many years and deep intimacy, and perhaps this is what Cephalus experienced later in life, or what parents feel for a child or teachers for a pupil. There is philautia, or self-love, which can manifest itself either in extreme narcissism or in the sort of self-regard that each has in himself, and which John Locke argued made laws tenable restraints for reasonable men. Finally, there is agape, which is selfless love and perhaps the greatest and most ambitious of them all. Lewis refers to agape as gift love, and the basis of caritas, which we know as charity. It is still more than this as philosophers from the Greeks forward have identified it as the source of all virtue. It is as one philosopher put it, “the alpha and omega of all virtue.” The “love of truth must take precedence over any other love, including the love of love, lest argument become mere eloquence, sophistry, or ideology” (emphasis added). It is in this sense that Ovid’s maxim is most palpable: Omnia vincit amor – love conquers all.
Knowledge of these types of love urges self-examination and begs for a reassessment of our current “crudeness of expression” in describing our relations with one another not only in the sense of who we will give a Valentine to and what it means to love, but to set aside what contemporary culture has done an appalling job with in order to reclaim a more comprehensive and holistic understanding of our affections. These authors and ideas that have been mentioned form the substance of a classical education, and students are either directly exposed to them or else made ready to discover them later in life. When the question is put to us – no candy in class or the classical education that will allow an individual the capacity to lead an examined life, the choice should be obvious. We see this in Plato’s Symposium where it is easy to see how moderns have taken up the position of either Eryximachus or Aristophanes, but it remains Socrates’ argument that deserves our attention. If upon examination of these texts and ideas we manage to be not only more thoughtful, but better husbands and wives, better friends, more charitable, kinder to those known and unknown, and lead nobler lives, it is likely that we will pay a more fitting tribute to the original intentions of this day.