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St. Valentine’s Day offers an ideal opportunity to reflect on romantic and erotic love.

Plato portrayed erotic love as growing out of the human pursuit of wholeness, the attempt to reunite with one’s original other half, whether that other half is of the same or opposite gender. He also viewed erotic love as a form of divine madness that transcends rationality and guides the soul toward truth and beauty. Erotic love elevates the soul beyond the confines of the material world. The lover gradually ascends from physical attraction to an appreciation of the beauty in laws and institutions and ultimately to the beauty of knowledge and the form of the good itself.

In his plays and sonnets, Shakespeare explored love in its various forms: romantic, platonic, familial and self-love, spanning the passionate, the tragic and the juvenile, as well as love’s joys, pain, transformative power and capacity for both redemption and destruction.

In Romeo and Juliet, love is depicted as a powerful force that can transcend social boundaries and familial feuds, yet it also has the potential to lead to tragedy and death. Conversely, in comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, love can be whimsical and capricious, influenced by magic and misunderstanding but ultimately leading to harmony and marriage.

In many of Shakespeare’s works, love is treated as a form of madness, a passion that leads characters to commit irrational acts and even to drive them into insanity. Love is often portrayed as a transformative force that can redeem or destroy. In plays like Macbeth and Othello, Shakespeare showed how love, when intertwined with uglier human impulses, can lead to catastrophic outcomes. The Macbeths’ love is characterized by a shared ambition and partnership in crime. But as the play progresses, the consequences of their actions take a toll on both of their psyches, leading to guilt, paranoia and isolation.

In Othello, Shakespeare illustrated the destructive power of jealousy. He portrayed love not as an idyllic force but as a powerful emotion that deeply influences human actions and decisions, for better or worse. When Othello says he “loved not wisely but too well” just before he kills himself, he not only acknowledges the depth and intensity of his love but the fact that his consuming love went beyond moderation. He failed to love with proper discernment; he allowed emotion to cloud his judgment, making him susceptible to jealousy and manipulation. The phrase also reveals his fatal flaw—his vulnerability to insecurity and doubt, exacerbated by his status as a Moor in Venetian society and his internalization of the societal prejudices surrounding his interracial marriage, which made him prone to irrationality and jealousy. Unless tempered by reason, love can lead to destruction.

According to Sigmund Freud, romantic love was “lust plus the ordeal of civility”—nothing more than the spiritualization and sublimation of carnal desire and a thinly veiled form of narcissism and self-love.

Margaret Mead regarded romantic love as an expression of various bourgeois prejudices. The belief in exclusiveness and the sanctity of the marital bond symbolized the bourgeois adoration of personal property. She argued that romantic love in the United States was bound up with such culturally specific, silly middle-class values as monogamy, exclusiveness, jealousy and undeviating fidelity.

In a chapter in his 1987 best seller, The Closing of the American Mind, entitled “The Death of Eros,” the classicist Allan Bloom feared that sexologists and feminists had reduced love to mere physical attraction, sexual desire and intercourse, devaluing one of life’s most profound and intense experiences. By failing to expose their students to the great works of art, literature and philosophy that explore love in its full complexity, American colleges and universities failed to perform one of their biggest responsibilities: to engage students, spiritually, aesthetically and intellectually, with Eros in its more philosophical and transcendent sense. This, in turn, led to an impoverished understanding of love, intimacy and human connection and to shallower interpersonal relationships.

Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and human behavior researcher who is one of the leading figures in the neuroscience of love, argues that this emotion is deeply embedded in the fabric of human biology with deep evolutionary roots.

She proposes that romantic love comprises three distinct but interconnected brain systems, each associated with different aspects of relationships. There is lust, driven primarily by the hormones testosterone and estrogen, which motivates individuals to seek sexual gratification and is not necessarily targeted at a specific individual. There is attraction, characterized by high levels of dopamine and norepinephrine and lower levels of serotonin. Energy and attention focus on a particular partner, leading to feelings of euphoria, increased energy and obsession with the object of one’s affection. Then there is attachment, governed by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, which fosters feelings of calm, security and emotional union with a long-term partner, facilitating pair bonding and cooperative parenting.

Fisher’s research, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of people who are in love, has identified several brain regions associated with the experience of love. The caudate nucleus, a region associated with reward detection and expectation and the ventral tegmental area, part of the brain’s reward system related to pleasure and motivation, are particularly active. These findings suggest that romantic love is a powerful, natural addiction.

I take the view that love has a history that has varied significantly across cultures and eras, shaped by religious beliefs, social structures, philosophical ideas and even economic factors. While love is a universal human experience, its expressions and the meanings attached to it have shifted over time. Love as an emotion has evolved over time, reflecting changing attitudes toward relationships, marriage, family and individuality.

Many current ideas about romantic love arose during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Romanticism celebrated love as one of life’s sublime experiences and as central to personal fulfillment. The romantic ideal of love was characterized by a deep, passionate and personal connection between individuals. It was an intense emotional bond that was both spiritual and physical. This ideal placed great importance on personal choice and mutual affection in matters of love.

What we witness in the early 19th century is the emergence of what I call a feminized conception of love. Love began to be defined in a dramatically new way: in terms of exquisite feelings, ardent passion and emotional intimacy, as something spiritual in character and best expressed through self-disclosure, soft words, tender caresses, pure feelings and the exchange of symbolic tokens of affection. Love was disembodied. It became pure emotion, not a physical act.

Although romantic love has historical roots in the traditions of courtly love, neoplatonism and Christian mysticism, it was a product of a particular epoch and culture and reflected new ideas about the self, privacy, identity, intimacy, equality, authority and personal choice. It also represented an attempt to bridge the distance that divided the separate spheres of women and men. In addition, the sacralization of love represented a response to many women’s fears about sex.

Romantic love gave tangible expression to a series of personal longings that could no longer be satisfied through religion: above all, longings for emotional union and transcendence and ritual. It is not accidental that the language of romantic love—involving words like “devotion” or “communion”—derived from religion. The celebration of romantic love was, in my view, part of the process of secularization, the displacement of religion from the core of our imaginative life.

Above all, the ideology of romantic love arose in response to a series of social developments that made marriage more problematic than ever before. At no time in American history was the transition from single status to marriage more disjunctive and difficult than in the early 19th century. Marriage threatened a loss of women’s freedom and selfhood in ways that were truly unprecedented.

Young women in the early 19th century experienced a new life stage: a period of relative freedom called girlhood, which lasted from the midteens to the midtwenties. For the first time in history, large numbers of young women worked outside a home. As a result of this experience of relative independence, a growing number of young women began to view marriage in a new light: as a closing off of freedom. In addition, in an increasingly mobile society, a woman’s choice of life partner determined her future status and well-being. It was a decision fraught with tension. Perhaps not surprisingly, an unprecedented proportion of women declined to marry.

A romantic courtship in early-19th-century America rested on three ideas:

  1. An emphasis on personal choice: that a woman and a man should choose a spouse free from parental interference.
  2. A conception of an authentic self, hidden beneath layers of social convention that was to be revealed during courtship.
  3. A Plato-like notion that romantic love would unite the feminine and the masculine and help each partner achieve wholeness.

Nineteenth-century romantic courtship was inherently dramatic and followed a cultural script. It consisted of private rituals in which emotional scenes that enacted doubt, frustration and anxiety were followed by demonstrations of reassurance and praise. It progressed through a series of predictable stages.

  • It began with intimate self-disclosure and effusive expressions of inner feelings.
  • Courtship culminated in a series of crises, usually initiated by the woman, to test the commitment and affection of her suitor.
  • In a substantial number of cases, women underwent an emotional crisis on the verge of marriage.

Did romantic love provide the basis for emotionally intense and fulfilling marriages? Did couples live happily ever after? In the cases that I have studied, awkwardness and emotional distance troubled the marriages that followed. After all, the couples had grown up in a homosocial world and felt uncomfortable with members of the opposite sex.

The gender equality that romantic love promised proved illusory. The male was expected to initiate the courtship, and he almost invariably wrote the longest letters. But after marriage, many women maintained their deepest and most intense emotional ties with other women.

Around the turn of the 20th century, romantic love was increasingly demystified. Scientific realists laid bare romantic love’s physiological, neurological and psychological roots. At the same time, moralists of various kinds attacked romantic love as a source of jealousy, possessiveness, obsession, dependency and loss of self.

Marriage counselors and sex educators also played a role in the demystification of romantic love. Beginning in the 1920s, marriage counseling and college marriage courses appeared that decried immature “puppy” love, infatuations and “crushes” (a newly popularized term) and sought to dispel romantic illusions with objective expert knowledge.

Yet at the same time, romantic love was also idealized and elevated to new heights. The word “romance” was first used to refer to an exciting sexual affair in a 1919 story by George Bernard Shaw: “I felt my youth slipping away without ever having had a romance in my life; for marriage is all very well, but it isn’t romance.”

Romance resembles, but also differs profoundly, from romantic love. Like romantic love, it involves a powerful fantasy of emotional intensity, self-revelation and self-transcendence. Yet, unlike romantic love, it is more sensual and erotic and is less tied to a single other person. It is an emotionally intense experience rather than a mystical bond. It is also tied to leisure and consumption in a way that romantic love was not.

During the 20th century, a commercial “love culture” emerged, directed primarily but not exclusively at women and girls. It encompassed popular magazines, like True Romance and Dream World, which first appeared during the 1920s; romance novels; romantic movies; and soap operas.

The love culture was also apparent in the appearance of dating—commercialized leisure in pursuit of romance—during the 1910s. A defining message conveyed by the love culture was that individuals’ lives were incomplete unless they experienced romantic love, culminating in marriage.

Film, fiction and advertisements helped to shape our images and our script of romance. Popular culture shaped popular understandings of intimacy, instructed teenagers in the rituals of romance and colored the public’s romantic fantasies.

Key components of the early- and mid-20th-century romantic fantasy were that:

  • Love happens: it is not chosen; it is not the product of agency or conscious control; it is a product of fate.
  • Love is mysterious and magical: it is the very opposite of everyday experience.

During the 20th century, romance, love, emotion, affection and expressiveness were integrated into the realm of commodity exchange. A host of commodities acquired romantic auras: engagement rings, champagne, candlelit dinners, jewelry, isolated tropical beaches and, for a while, cigarettes.

Today, we are a society at once suspicious of and infatuated by romance. We idealize the soul mate—but we also agree with Gloria Steinem, who wrote, eight years before her own marriage, “The truth is that finding ourselves brings more excitement and well-being than anything romance has to offer.”

Love may be a many-splendored thing, as the 1955 film adaptation of the 1952 Han Suyin novel (and the Sammy Fain–Paul Francis Webster song) declared. But in today’s postromantic age, love and romance are haunted by doubt, distrust, suspicion and disbelief. Love has, to a great extent, lost the magic that surrounded it two centuries ago.

Our society frowns upon effusive expressions of feeling and intense, uninhibited displays of emotion, and we tend to react with discomfort when confronted with the hand-colored valentines, jewelry woven from strands of human hair and the language of flowers that was very much a part of Romantic, sentimental culture.

It’s all too easy to dismiss that culture as vapid, mawkish and sappy. Yet it sought to infuse the quotidian with glimmers of enchantment and transcendence. It sought to elevate, dignify and sacralize the mundane. That’s something, I fear, that a bouquet of roses and a candlelit dinner can’t match.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational and Equitable Experience.

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