Love in the Renaissance
Husband, Wives, and Lovers
In reading two very different texts, there comes two ideas of love, both similar and different. The radical thing to note about these two texts, though their viewpoints are certainly not original, is their utter practicality in addressing love. One comes from Socrates in The Phaedrus, and the other comes from Homily of the State of Marriage - as presented to devoted churchgoers. Though written in different times and for different cultures, there are stark similarities in the portrayal of the relationship between the lover and the beloved, between husband and wife. Modern readers would have trouble relating to either relationship; in both cases, the beloved and wife are more possessions than equal partners. There could even be an argument made that Socrates would advocate the marriage state as proposed by the church in Homily, or at least that is how it would appear based on his 'one' observation of a form of love.
As noted before, these two texts are certainly not revolutionary in the practical aspects of love, to be socially acceptable, to further society; Shakespeare's sonnets certainly approach this issue at great length. These two texts are more like proposals on how to go about picking a mate, reasons why one (a mate) would be needed, and how a relationship between two 'partners' would proceed. (Quotation marks around partners simply because the use of that word in describing the relationship as presented by these two texts is sufficiently questionable.) While the Homily was meant to be such a guide, The Phaedrus was perhaps not. Meant to be a philosophical examination, and sometimes argument, for the different forms of love, it nevertheless, in the one section this essay will study, has practical aspects to it.
The Homily of the State of Matrimony was supported by the church as a sort of guide, addressing both husbands and wives as to what the church, and indeed what society, expected out of a good Christian marriage. There is something almost wrong in the way the text uses the word 'love' several times to describe the relationship between husband and wife when compared to other models of love. Even when Homily mentions the husband to be a "…leader and author of love, there is a great deal of skepticism on the introduction of the word love to the text. The very opposite seems to be true; love is not a factor in the forming of a relationship. The text introduces to its readers, very practically, very simply, the reasons why a wedding would take place, "… the intent that man and woman should live lawfully in a perpetual friendly fellowship, to bring forth fruit, and to avoid fornication" (13). So that men and women will avoid sin by lust and gluttony, they should wed to fornicate legally (too much lust in a married relationship is equally frowned upon). So that God will have more worshippers, men and women will strive, within limits, to increase His numbers.
While Socrates does not mention marriage or even permanent relationships necessarily, he does speak of relationships and of love in particular. As opposed to , love is the very reason to start a relationship. But in describing love, it is a destructive, indulgent force that goes against reason. To go over briefly what he relates to Phaedrus of love, there are two guiding principles residing in man - opinion to do right and desire for beauty. The former when combined with reason will lead to the life man should lead, but the latter, when allowed to run rampant, will result in gluttonous behavior. This sounds a great deal like the argument used by the church to marry. Socrates tells Phaedrus that allowing one's desire for beauty will lead to the strongest of the desires, love (Plato 54). Here is an interesting paradox. Within Homily, the church advocates marriage to avoid giving into sin and 'pleasures of the flesh'. Socrates, despite his existence before the church, describes what will befall the man who allows his passions to overtake him enough to fall in love.
Both texts progress accordingly in describing the ideal mate, be they beloved or wife. Interestingly enough, the writings assume that the beloved/wife will be inferior in every way to the lover/husband. Homily simply assumes that the wife will be the weaker; since she is a member of that unfortunate female sex, she will be less strong, physically, morally, and intelligently (An explanation of the differences might be that Socrates leaves the beloved to be either male or female; the church sees no other option than female). The text goes through great pains to emphasize this point several times, even quoting St. Peter (15). They are so weak, in fact, that the husbands should make an effort to indulge their scatterbrained ways, taking care to soothe the wives and allow them their way in small arguments in order to keep them happy (16). The text also suggests that the husband, being that much more intellectually equipped, outsmart their wives, letting their superior mental power, as opposed to their fists, do the talking. Here, an observer runs into another interesting cross roads with Socrates' narrative on love. Man is to use reason in dealing with their wives, for the benefit of their wedding vows as well as the benefit to their household. Socrates' model of love is based on precisely what happens when reason is overridden by the desire for beauty and the beloved.
Practicality once again comes to the fore as advice goes out to the wife in how to keep balance within her household. She is dependant in all things upon her husband; why not keep him happy? She will avoid all things that will cause him unhappiness or unpleasantness; she will deliberately mold herself to his ideas and will. In lines which very much sound like something out of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, Homily tells the wife that it is both her fault and responsibility for his eagerness or reluctance to return home (17). In that play, there was a female character that sounded very much like what Homily supported in wives.
The difference between Homily and Phaedrus is evident here. While the former speaks to both husband and wife, the latter, or rather Socrates, solely addresses the lover and his desires. Homily speaks with great authority in calling women the weaker vessel and therefore to be patronized. Phaedrus takes a different stance and states that the lover, having once submitted to his desires, will deliberately seek out a mate weaker that himself, weaker in all the aspects that the female is supposed to be: intellectually, physically, etc. Only, Socrates takes this a step further and diminishes the beloved's attributes to such a level that he is also a coward and physically handicapped in some manner (Plato 55). The husband has no choice in having a weaker and somewhat feeble female as a wife; the church simply assumes all females as the weaker; the lover will deliberately seek someone inferior to him. An interesting idea one may glean from Socrates' speech is that an equal to the lover will be regarded as a non lover, a friend, with whom one does not indulge desires with (Plato 56). Just as in Christian society, one would not eye a fellow male or tavern companion as a potential wife, one will not, in Socrates' estimate, presume a fellow friend and social peer as a potential love.
Again, the idea of Socrates arguing for marriage could be brought up here. The love and relationship he presents to the reader is a destructive one. First, he is to choose, and indeed prefer, a beloved that is feebler than him in every facet. Then he is to encourage the weakness and absolute dependence by seeking to undermine every one of the strengths the beloved has. All contact with friends, family, favored possessions, etc. are to be cut from the beloved's grasp. Absolute dependence and total control seems to be the name of the game, to recall an old depeche mode song, and the devastation this will have on the beloved is magnified when Socrates takes the relationship to its inevitable conclusion. The lover, having molded his ideal desires into his beloved, will become tired of him and seek to distance himself (Plato 56). The lover is fickle and will abandon his beloved, as presented by Socrates it is almost a part of the relationship (Plato 57). Within Homily, the opposite is true. There are no 'steps' to the dissolving of the relationship; the husband and wife must both work to make the marriage stay together; there are no cycles of obsession and disinterest. Both parties must work using every tool available to them, and as proposed by the church, to preserve their relationship.
One point to note is though, despite the similarities between Homily and Phaedrus, is the context to which these texts were written, Phaedrus in particular. The excerpt in which Socrates uses to illustrate one form of love between the lover and beloved is one in a series, a sort of build up to his final model and truest model of love. He deliberately portrays a potentially destructive relationship for his listener, Phaedrus who has asked whether love between friends is better than love between lovers. While not strictly answering yes or no, Socrates shows in this one narrative how unbalanced one type of love is, mainly, love which forms from lack, or rather abandonment, of reason and in which the only the physical aspects are broached and the soul remained unengaged. The idea of the soul is an important one in studying love, and especially classical text. Strangely enough, within Homily, though there is great attention paid to sin and attaining God's graces, there is no mention of the soul.
The ultimate goal set by Homily for husband and wife is not the idea of everlasting love or the union of souls. It is to please God, to further the idea of Christianity, and to achieve a 'good' enough soul in order to reap the paradise God will choose to reward those who deserve them (23). Perhaps what this text suggests is that love for God be the final prize to keep in mind, everything else is to pave a way to that destination. Socrates' far-reaching goals remain unsaid; he dumps his model of love faster than Phaedrus can protest and denounces all he has proposed up till now (Plato 58). The insidious and almost convincing argument on behalf of the beloved and lover in which Socrates has made is exactly that - an argument. He goes on to propose a couple more, including the image of the two horses driven by the charioteer later. As Socrates' argument of the superior/inferior as lover/beloved dwindles to nothing, extinguished by its very creator, so does the argument for his arguing on behalf of marriage. Yet, Socrates has illustrated, in detail, the very destructive elements in letting passions and desires be acted upon; the very thing that the church warns their parishioners against.
There could almost be an argument for moderation here; Socrates from a practical and philosophical view and Homily from its moralistic point of view. Both would maintain that gluttony and lust should be avoided; use of reason is argued for, and Homily even takes a certain enlightened view on the beating of wives, though their reasoning for it seems askew (16).