One of the best lectures I ever heard at university dealt with the theme of love in Italian Renaissance painting. The lecturer was a white-haired man who escaped the Nazis when he was very young, trying to get away from Fascist armies invading his native, Yugoslavia (now Slovenia). There wasn’t much love in that story. He made it to Rome where he managed to stay out of the crosshairs for years and where he studied fine arts. Eventually, he made it to the US.
One day, he lectured us on the fourth century BCE Greek philosopher Empedocles and his Seven Kinds of Love. The Italian Renaissance was largely about rediscovering what was most inspiring about Classical Rome and Greece and apparently fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian artists knew Greek philosopher Empedocles. His Seven Kinds of Love were:
- sexual passion
- love of parents
- love of children
- love of siblings
- love of friends
- love of country
- love of wisdom
It does seem a bit arbitrary, listing seven specific types of love. However, apart from the number seven representing something magical to the Greeks, it underscored the need to expand the meaning of love. So it seems, people needed to look beyond their own selfish needs in the past, too. Love was more than sex and romance.
If it isn’t more, we get into trouble as individuals, but also as a society. And, over the years, I wondered if we weren’t actually in trouble as a society; stuck in some sort of myopic individualism in the United States. In the seventies, the media coined the Me Generation. Did the Me Generation beget the ME Generation? Is myopic individualism growing?
Then I stumbled onto a video on YouTube of a 2002 British TV documentary called “The Century of the Self”, by Adam Curtis. At the start, he says it’s a series showing how in the twentieth century, Freud’s theories of psychological analysis very soon merged with mass industrial production to turn Victorian consumerism into the next century’s mass consumerism. To exploit the masses and sell more, modern advertising was invented.
Whatever the scientific or humane accomplishments of Freud, it was his opening the door of unconscious desire that others seized upon. It was actually Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, after studying his uncle’s techniques of psychoanalysis, who defined modern advertising in early twentieth century America. What modern advertising campaigns did was to appeal to what consumers wanted, what they desired, over and above what they needed. The exploitation of desire became refined and re-refined over the twentieth century. To begin with, there were newspapers and magazines and radio to advertise in and fantasize with; movies were an excellent way to offer consumers what they wanted.
Watching endless movies in America, and later TV – from mostly romance of the most accessible kind, to mostly sex of the most prurient kind, decades later – the individual consumer was more and more convinced. What you feel you want as an individual is good. Indulge in that, preferably by buying the most current lifestyle products, and you are indulging in true love. Those fashions we all buy, include more than clothes and houses and furniture and cars. Self-fulling fashion also revolves around what college you desire. Statistics consistently show that the higher the tuition, the more applications many colleges get. Colleges and universities love indulging in irrational consumer desires if it will get them higher rankings and more donations..
The century of the self has morphed into its next act, by now. Apparently, we now have to assume sex and romance sell better than the love of children, or how about, wisdom? Any other assumption would seem sentimental at best; counterproductive at least. By the end of the twentieth century, the West was sold on one version of self-interest after another through consumerism.
In politics, we seem to get more irrational every four years. Political campaigns use polling to spin around what we want, more than what we need. Even if it seems to consistently turn out that we vote against our actual interests, we feel our desires are being met. Just ask die-hard supporters of irrational politicians.
I’m sure Homo sapiens have always been both, easy to convince and inclined toward self-love. I’m just equally sure an expanded form of love, unselfish love, is the root of civilization. Isn’t selfishness the source of decadence and the eventual breakdown of a civil community?
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