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Hannah Arendt on Love and How to Live with the Fundamental Fear of Loss

Hannah Arendt on Love and How to Live with the Fundamental Fear of Loss

“Love, but be careful what you love,” the Roman African philosopher Saint Augustine wrote in the final years of the fourth century. We are, in some deep sense, what we love — we become it as much as it becomes us, beckoned from our myriad conscious and unconscious longings, despairs, and patterned desires. And yet there is something profoundly paradoxical about such an appeal to reason in the notion that we can exercise prudence in matters of love — to have loved is to have known the straitjacket of irrationality that slips over even the most willful mind when the heart takes over with its delicious carelessness.

How to heed Augustine’s caution, not by subjugating but by better understanding our experience of love, is what Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) explores in her least known but in many ways most beautiful work, Love and Saint Augustine (public library) — Arendt’s first book-length manuscript and the last to be published in English, posthumously salvaged from her papers by political scientist Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and philosopher Judith Chelius Stark.

Hannah Arendt (photograph by Fred Stein, 1944); Saint Augustine (painting by Gerard Seghers, circa 1600-1650.)

For half a century after she wrote it as her doctoral thesis in 1929 — a time when this apostle of reason, who would become one of the twentieth century’s keenest and most coolly analytical minds, was composing her fiery love letters to Martin Heidegger — Arendt obsessively revised and annotated the manuscript. Against Augustine’s whetstone, she came to hone her core philosophical ideas — chiefly the troublesome disconnect she saw between philosophy and politics as evidenced by the rise of ideologies like totalitarianism, the origins of which she so memorably and incisively examined. It was from Augustine that she borrowed the phrase amor mundi — “love of the world” — which would become a defining feature of her philosophy. Occupied by questions of why we succumb to and normalize evil, Arendt identified as the root of tyranny the act of making other human beings irrelevant. Again and again, she returned to Augustine for the antidote: love.

But while this ancient notion of neighborly love, which would come to inspire Martin Luther King, Jr., was central to Arendt’s philosophical concern and her interest in Augustine, its political significance is inseparable from the deepest wellspring of love: the personal. For all of the political and philosophical wisdom she draws from it, Augustine’s Confessions is animated by his experience of personal love — that eternal force that governs the Sun and the Moon and the stars of our interior lives, reflected and codified in our cultural and social structures.

Illustration from An ABZ of Love, Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality

With an eye to Augustine’s conception of love as “a kind of craving” — the Latin appetitus, from which the word appetite is derived — and his assertion that “to love is indeed nothing else than to crave something for its own sake,” Arendt considers this directional desire propelling love:

Every craving is tied to a definite object, and it takes this object to spark the craving itself, thus providing an aim for it. Craving is determined by the definitely given thing it seeks, just as a movement is set by the goal toward which it moves. For, as Augustine writes, love is “a kind of motion, and all motion is toward something.” What determines the motion of desire is always previously given. Our craving aims at a world we know; it does not discover anything new. The thing we know and desire is a “good,” otherwise we would not seek it for its own sake. All the goods we desire in our questing love are independent objects, unrelated to other objects. Each of them represents nothing but its isolated goodness. The distinctive trait of this good that we desire is that we do not have it. Once we have the object our desire ends, unless we are threatened with its loss. In that case the desire to have turns into a fear of losing. As a quest for the particular good rather than for things at random, desire is a combination of “aiming at” and “referring back to.” It refers back to the individual who knows the world’s good and evil and seeks to live happily. It is because we know happiness that we want to be happy, and since nothing is more certain than our wanting to be happy, our notion of happiness guides us in determining the respective goods that then became objects of our desires. Craving, or love, is a human being’s possibility of gaining possession of the good that will make him happy, that is, of gaining possession of what is most his own.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from I’ll Be You and You Be Me by Ruth Krauss.

That is why a generous and unpossessive love — a love undiminished by the failure to attain the good for which it craves — can seem like a feat nothing short of superhuman. (“If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me,” Arendt’s good friend and great admirer W.H. Auden wrote in his sublime ode to that superhuman triumph of the heart.) But a love predicated on possession, Arendt cautions, inevitably turns into fear — the fear of losing what was gained. Two millennia after Epictetus offered his cure for heartbreak in the acceptance that all things are perishable and therefore even love ought to be held with the loose fingers of nonattachment, Arendt — who notes Augustine’s debt to the Stoics — writes:

So long as we desire temporal things, we are constantly under this threat, and our fear of losing always corresponds to our desire to have. Temporal goods originate and perish independently of man, who is tied to them by his desire. Constantly bound by craving and fear to a future full of uncertainties, we strip each present moment of its calm, its intrinsic import, which we are unable to enjoy. And so, the future destroys the present.

Half a century after Tolstoy admonished that “future love does not exist [for] love is a present activity only,” Arendt adds:

The present is not determined by the future as such… but by certain events which we hope for or fear from the future, and which we accordingly crave and pursue, or shun and avoid. Happiness consists in possession, in having and holding our good, and even more in being sure of not losing it. Sorrow consists in having lost our good and in enduring this loss. However, for Augustine the happiness of having is not contrasted by sorrow but by fear of losing. The trouble with human happiness is that it is constantly beset by fear. It is not the lack of possessing but the safety of possession that is at stake.

Death, of course, is the ultimate loss — of love as well as life — and therefore the ultimate object of our future-oriented dread. And yet this escape from presence via the portal of anxiety — perhaps the commonest malady to which human beings are susceptible — is itself a living death. Arendt writes:

In their fear of death, those living fear life itself, a life that is doomed to die… The mode in which life knows and perceives itself is worry. Thus the object of fear comes to be fear itself. Even if we should assume that there is nothing to fear, that death is no evil, the fact of fear (that all living things shun death) remains.

Art by Catherine Lepange from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind

Against this background of negative space, Arendt casts the shape of love’s ultimate object according to Augustine:

Fearlessness is what love seeks. Love as craving is determined by its goal, and this goal is freedom from fear.

In a sentiment that illuminates the central mechanism by which frustration fuels (temporary) satisfaction in romantic love, she adds:

A love that seeks anything safe and disposable on earth is constantly frustrated, because everything is doomed to die. In this frustration love turns about and its object becomes a negation, so that nothing is to be desired except freedom from fear. Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future.

If presence — the removal of expectancy — is a prerequisite for a true experience of love, then time is the elemental infrastructure of love. Nearly half a century later, in becoming the first woman to speak at the prestigious Gifford Lectures in the 85-year history of the series, Arendt would make this notion of time as the locus of our thinking ego a centerpiece of her landmark lecture, The Life of the Mind. Now, quoting from Augustine’s writings, she considers the paradox of love beyond time for creatures as temporal as we are:

Even if things should last, human life does not. We lose it daily. As we live the years pass through us and they wear us out into nothingness. It seems that only the present is real, for “things past and things to come are not”; but how can the present (which I cannot measure) be real since it has no “space”? Life is always either no more or not yet. Like time, life “comes from what is not yet, passes through what is without space, and disappears into what is no longer.” Can life be said to exist at all? Still the fact is that man does measure time. Perhaps man possesses a “space” where time can be conserved long enough to be measured, and would not this “space,” which man carries with himself, transcend both life and time?

Time exists only insofar as it can be measured, and the yardstick by which we measure it is space.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

For Augustine, she notes, memory is the space in which time is measured and cached:

Memory, the storehouse of time, is the presence of the “no more” (iam non) as expectation is the presence of the “not yet” (nondum). Therefore, I do not measure what is no more, but something in my memory that remains fixed in it. It is only by calling past and future into the present of remembrance and expectation that time exists at all. Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.

One of the major themes I explore in Figuring is this question of the temporality of even our lushest experiences. “The union of two natures for a time is so great,” Margaret Fuller — one of my key figures — wrote. Are we to despair or rejoice over the fact that even the greatest loves exist only “for a time”? The time scales are elastic, contracting and expanding with the depth and magnitude of each love, but they are always finite — like books, like lives, like the universe itself. The triumph of love is in the courage and integrity with which we inhabit the transcendent transience that binds two people for the time it binds them, before letting go with equal courage and integrity. Fuller’s exclamation upon seeing the paintings of Correggio for the first time, overcome with beauty she had not known before, radiates a larger truth about the human heart: “Sweet soul of love! I should weary of you, too; but it was glorious that day.”

Jupiter and Io, Correggio, circa 1530

Arendt locates this fundamental fact of the heart in Augustine’s writings. A century after Kierkegaard asserted that “the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity,” she observes:

The Now is what measures time backwards and forwards, because the Now, strictly speaking, is not time but outside time. In the Now, past and future meet. For a fleeting moment they are simultaneous so that they can be stored up by memory, which remembers things past and holds the expectation of things to come. For a fleeting moment (the temporal Now) it is as though time stands still, and it is this Now that becomes Augustine’s model of eternity.

Augustine himself captures this transcendent temporality:

Who will hold [the heart], and fix it so that it may stand still for a little while and catch for a moment the splendor of eternity which stands still forever, and compare this with temporal moments that never stand still, and see that it is incomparable… but that all this while in the eternal, nothing passes but the whole is present.

Arendt hones in on the heart of the paradox:

What prevents man from “living” in the timeless present is life itself, which never “stands still.” The good for which love craves lies beyond all mere desires. If it were merely a question of desiring, all desires would end in fear. And since whatever confronts life from the outside as the object of its craving is sought for life’s sake (a life we are going to lose), the ultimate object of all desires is life itself. Life is the good we ought to seek, namely true life.

She returns to desire, which simultaneously takes us out of life and plunges us into it:

Desire mediates between subject and object, and it annihilates the distance between them by transforming the subject into a lover and the object into the beloved. For the lover is never isolated from what he loves; he belongs to it… Since man is not self-sufficient and therefore always desires something outside himself, the question of who he is can only be resolved by the object of his desire and not, as the Stoics thought, by the suppression of the impulse of desire itself: “Such is each as is his love” [Augustine wrote]. Strictly speaking, he who does not love and desire at all is a nobody.


Man as such, his essence, cannot be defined because he always desires to belong to something outside himself and changes accordingly… If he could be said to have an essential nature at all, it would be lack of self-sufficiency. Hence, he is driven to break out of his isolation by means of love… for happiness, which is the reversal of isolation, more is required than mere belonging. Happiness is achieved only when the beloved becomes a permanently inherent element of one’s own being.

It is stunning to trace the line of these ideas across the life of Arendt’s mind. Decades after her doctoral days, she would compose her influential treatise on how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression — totalitarianism, in other words, is not only the denial of love but an assault on the essence of human beings.

In the remainder of Love and Saint Augustine, Arendt goes on to examine Augustine’s hierarchy of love, the psychological structure of craving, the perils of anticipation, and the building blocks of that “love of the world” so vital to a harmonious life and a harmonious society. Couple it with Elizabeth Barrett Browning on happiness as a moral obligation, then revisit Arendt on action and the pursuit of happiness, lying in politics, the power of being an outsider, and the difference between how art and science illuminate the human condition.

Published February 25, 2019




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