July 28, 2013

Philosopher says love leads to a future worth living

“On Love: A Philosophy for the Twenty-First Century” by Luc Ferry, translated by Andrew Brown (Polity, 200 pages, $19.95)

“On Love: A Philosophy for the Twenty-First Century” by Luc Ferry, translated by Andrew Brown (Polity, 200 pages, $19.95)

All you need is love. Not nationalism, not democracy, not religion, not economy. Only love. Pure and simple.

That, at least, is Luc Ferry’s prescription for the future of Western civilization. The former French Minister of Education and celebrated philosopher (“A Brief History of Thought,” “Learning to Live: A User’s Manual”), Ferry contends that romantic love has singlehandedly revolutionized our notion of the good life.

And if we wisely shift our energies away from eros to agape – to “the wisdom of love that consists in leaving room for the other, letting the other be, leaving the other free” – we will have a sure-footed hope of reviving society, education, politics and the arts, bequeathing them in all their glory to future generations.

For love, you see, is “a new principle of meaning, a principle that shapes a completely new conception of the good life: it inaugurates a new era in the history of thought and of life.”

This apotheosis might seem excessive, until you realize how much weight it has to bear. For Ferry’s claims that the goal of human existence is “salvation and joy, obtained through wisdom and understanding.” And only love can lead the way – in particular, agape,the most intelligent form of love, according to Ferry, even though his values remain decidedly atheistic.

Indeed, he seeks what he calls a “secular spirituality,” in which those we love become “sacred” to us, allowing us to experience “the transcendence of the other.”

Love can shine so brightly for Ferry because he believes that we are living through the twilight of the idols. All the old ideals of God, the nation, revolution, freedom and democracy still speak to us, he says, but they no longer tell us anything decisive.

In their place, active (not romantic) love proffers “a unique and absolute” organizing principle of contemporary society.

The genesis of this revolution springs from an unlikely source, however: the move away from “the ‘marriage of convenience,’ the arranged marriage (arranged not just by parents but by villages), to the marriage chosen by young people based on, and for the sake of, love.”

Clearly an idealist, Ferry refreshingly clings to the traditional notion of philosophy as the love of wisdom. And his enthusiasm for his agenda proves infectious at times.

Probing his topic with passion and originality, he finds in love more riches than we could imagine: the foundation for a new philosophy, for a “second humanism” after the Renaissance’s.

Even more, he contends that the four great principles of meaning in European history – cosmology, theology, (the first) humanism and deconstruction – have given way to a new fifth principle: “ the loving life, the life in love.”

All this proves intriguing, to be sure, but the overriding issue in “On Love” remains whether Ferry’s premises can sustain the load he puts on them.

A quick scan of today’s headlines would suggest otherwise: Religion, nationalism and the quest for democracy are as active now as they were in the past. Greed, lust, corruption and the will to power still run rampant, spreading like polluted tributaries across the globe. The violent bear it away: That is the realist’s picture.

But the great value of Ferry’s work lies in his vitality of thought. His celebration of love guarantees that philosophy will remain alive and well throughout the 21st century. And that, to many of us, is something to cherish.

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