'Conditions of love: the philosophy of intimacy'. A book review.






 A review of John Armstrong 's book 'Conditions of love: the philosophy of intimacy.(2003) Penguin Books. Reprinted from the Australian Association of Relationship Counsellors' newsletter February 2012. Written by Helena Phillips.


What is it to love another person? Armstrong begins his text with this question. The romantic vision of love

includes “longing, rapture; and the sense that one is in touch with the source of all rapture”. In the opening

stages we are attempting a whole range of different and sometimes not very compatible things. In order to

explore the romantic vision of love against the reality of its workability he turns to evolution, Plato and

Augustine as a beginning. Here are a few excerpts.

Evolution is the record of reproductive unintended success. Does this means that love is built into our genes?

How do we understand the impact on and difference between male and female genetic endowment? If we

regard love as a genetic response how is it that we do not respond, always and everywhere, the same? Nor is the

experience of love universal. It seems that what it is like to love and be loved could be a product of our culture

and beliefs. At the same time evolutionary psychology supports the fact that, while the sexes' positions may

change e.g. the role of women in the family, man's natural response to visual stimuli and woman's response to

emotional stimuli remain the same.

Important elements of the question of love are: the myth of the right person for us; will love triumph over

practicality? If not where does the endless list of important practicalities end? How does one understand the

change in priorities over the course of a relationship? The experience of learning to love someone in the long

term involves various adaptations.....if we are able to do this with one person we could conceivably do it with


We are perhaps always seeking, in our adult loves, to return to a situation which cannot be recreated. The

Platonic myth of original unity only points to the longing for the right person and the sense of fulfilment which

may come from being with them. Socrates, Plato's mouthpiece in

the Symposium, suggests that we particularly relish in the other, qualities we lack in ourselves; the qualities they possess, not fully brought

forth in us. Lesser loves then are not a distraction but necessary stages along the way.



If it is virtue that is loveable we have to be able to be perceptive and appreciative in order to recognise virtue in

the other. But then being in the presence of virtue turns out to be insufficient for the cultivation of virtue in

ourselves probably because of the other's own incompleteness. When things go well being close to another

person corrects the biases of one's own personality.

Recognition. Armstrong draws our attention to some of our longings and their consequences. He says, few

things in life are as delightful as feeling that another is delighted by us. We want others to recognise an

“essence of personality” rather than traits. “It is you, just the way you are, that I love.” Not “you with all your

faults and occasionally rather horrible little ways.” There is a longing that this secret self should find a home in

the eyes of another person who will look upon this intimate aspect of us with pleasure and that the essential self

will be that which we find lovable in another. An important feature of self awareness depends upon the

mirroring of ourselves in other people. Recognition must somehow steer between praise and plausibility.

Augustine made many important contributions to the understanding of love and Armstrong puts them in this

way. You deserve something. You take possession of it. Finding it only seems to stimulate new and unforseen

wants. The more you feed desire the bigger and stronger it gets. Love involves a special kind of possession

that stills our desire. Caring for something or someone other than oneself can be immensely liberating.

Imagination: Throughout the course of the text Armstrong uses various pieces of literature as illustrations.

One of these that particularly attracted my attention was that of Stendhal's

Love. The concepts explored include the important fact that during the course of love focus and elaboration of the other in our mind is

enhanced by imagination. Over time the loved one, in imagination, becomes covered in crystals whereupon

the “fairly attractive” person is encrusted with a range of charms. This process is then followed perhaps by a

slight coolness and doubts take over. Given how deeply desirable that person has come to seem (loaded as they

are with the fruits of the imagination) this fear is exceedingly painful. Even evidence to the contrary and

disparagement can become, under the transforming power of the imagination, mistaken for a positive attitude

e.g he is ignoring me because it is too difficult for him. Under such subtlety of interpretation new doubts arise

producing an oscillation between fear and hope. Under this intense process of imagination the inner life

becomes indissolubly linked to the other person. This is an extremely insightful understanding to consider.

We will recognise that imagination also works towards hatred as it fantasises about the reasons for the lovers

indifference to our own wants and desires e.g toothpaste caps and wiping kitchen benches. Imagination is used

to pick up in the other, words, gestures, a fecundity of options for putting things together; picking up less

expected – perhaps more revealing- ways of putting together the elements which anyone can observe.

Someone who seems just moderately attractive to most people can flower under the attention of the lover's eye.

Infatuation What is missing (in love) about infatuation? Armstrong's answer to his question suggests that the

imagined future is too thin, too insubstantial. The 'would be' infatuated lover is filled with ideas and actions

which run counter to her/his real personality. Drawn to an appealing vision of self s/he uses the other as a prop

in a fantasy. The stakes are high and immediate inclinations, present wants, may provide a very poor guide

when it comes to identifying a possible partner. “Love can sometimes rise up like a desperate cry from a

neglected part of oneself.” Such a fantasiser consecrates the feeling protecting it from serious investigation.

The cure for fantasy is banality e.g shopping for groceries.


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