Fridays with Fred: Love and Marriage
Feelings fluctuate. It never ceases to amaze me how effortlessly my wife and I can shift from amorous doting to aggressive defamation. We are emotional beings—for better or for worse. For this reason I have become a bit of a cynic at weddings, especially around the point in the service when misty-eyed couples exchange their personal vows. Now, as a Christian I am a firm believer in the exchanging of vows. The wedding or marriage service in The Book of Common Prayer contains honest, sober and weighty vows. These certainly fit the occasion. But in my experience the popular self-styled vows tend to overpromise and underdeliver. Friedrich Nietzsche was onto this in the late 1800s, when he penned his Aphorisms on Love and Hate. As we will see below, we should be slow to promise what we cannot guarantee, such as undying affection or unrelenting passion.
Nietzsche comments on what we can and cannot promise, “One can promise actions, but not feelings, for the latter are involuntary. He who promises to love forever or hate forever or be forever faithful to someone is promising something that is not in his power. He can, however, promise those actions that are usually the consequences of love, hatred, or faithfulness, but that can also spring from other motives: for there are several paths and motives to an action. A promise to love someone forever, then, means, ‘As long as I love you I will render unto you the actions of love; if I no longer love you, you will continue to receive the same actions from me, if for other motives.’ Thus the illusion remains in the minds of one’s fellow men that the love is unchanged and still the same.”
If you don’t read any further and spend time reflecting on this dazzlingly profound passage I would not be disappointed. My guess is that its bold brushstrokes will grab each reader differently. But we can at least be clear on Nietzsche’s central thesis. It’s in the first line, “One can promise actions, but not feelings.” Though I disagree with Nietzsche that our emotions are simply “involuntary,” few of us can honestly profess to always being in control of our feelings. Nietzsche is, on the balance, correct that our actions are typically more subject to our power than emotions or feelings. So, as Nietzsche puts it, we can promise and carry out actions that resemble love even when the feelings are absent or conflicted—even if the motivation is something other than love.
Little did we know it but when my wife and I exchanged wedding vows almost 8 years ago we were promising to love each other even when we didn’t actually love each other. For some people such a statement is evidence of everything that is wrong with the marriage institution. They claim that it traps people in loveless commitments, coercing fidelity long after the flames have flickered out. So here I wish to make a point that slightly contradicts Nietzsche’s. He explains the promise to love forever like this, “As long as I love you I will render unto you the actions of love; if I no longer love you, you will continue to receive the same actions from me, if for other motives.” Thus Nietzsche limits love to our affections. Without those emotions he believes that actions resembling love will be driven by ulterior motives. This, Nietzsche believes, perpetuates the illusion of love. But might we not view loving action as the commitment to love, the desire to be a lover? Surely we can view those actions that connote love as carrying out love.
Nietzsche is concerned that loving actions bereft of deep feeling and desire are deceptive. He wants us to know that promises of everlasting love - regularly heard at weddings - are little more than promising a semblance of love. He is partially correct. For love as an affection or emotion will undoubtedly wax—and wane. This is the almost universal human experience of romantic feelings. But we need not limit or even measure love by the enigmatic emotion. Love exists in action, in deliberate decisions and determination to show love. Thus, as Nietzsche famously puts it elsewhere in Aphorisms, “Learning to love. We must learn to love, learn to be kind, and this from earlier youth; if education or chance give us no opportunity to practise these feelings, our soul becomes dry.” As we saw in the previous post, habit and practice shapes us. Our affections can be trained. By loving another, even when we are unmotivated to do so, we can become better lovers.