Alain de Botton on Romanticism

Romanticism is an attitude or intellectual orientation that exalted emotion over reason, and senses over intellect; and focused on the self and the human personality; his passions and inner struggles.

Romanticism in love starts with the premise that “There is a soulmate out there and when that soulmate is found, loneliness will be banished.”

That partner will be found through ‘instinct’, rather than dynastic marriage due to the benefits of trade alliances in the past. That instinct is usually a special feeling that occurs. Even without knowing anything about the person, they shall know that he/she are their soulmate because of their special feelings.

Romantics originated from the development of the European railway which resulted in an outbreak of stories about the hero and heroine meeting on a train; and knowing the other will be their soulmate due to this ‘instinct’.

  • Romantics are keen on a happily ever after. Love is not seen as a passing stage.
  • None of the Romantics have jobs, therefore, they have all time they need to go on walks.
  • Romantic times; dusk/evening
  • Sex as the most sincere expression of feeling for another person – which means adultery is a tragedy.

Alain posits Romanticism as a catastrophe for the our capacity to have long-term relationships:

  • Romanticism replaced a view of human as sinful, fragile and refocused the emphasis on the child. The child is the purest expression of the goodness of humans; only human societies corrupts him/her.
  • Romanticism says all humans are essentially angelic, good people not tainted by Original Sin.
  • The trouble is that if you think you and your partner is perfect, then this is unhelpful to negotiate the trouble of relationships.
  • The result is low levels of self-knowledge; because there are no motives for people why they should tell us. Friends only want a pleasant evening, or can’t be bothered.
  • We don’t need people in relationships to be perfect, but they should have a handle for their imperfections – whether it is related to their personality or their little insanities.

Marriage by reason was replaced by Romantics’ marriage by instinct – the way we love as adults is a reflection and deeply connected to how we learnt about love as children – therefore, we re-find a kind of love we knew as children.

  • Parents inadvertently damaged us in our childhood, which damages our capacity to love
  • Our love in childhood was laden with difficulties; so really we search for someone familiar in the level of care/goodness/generosity.
  • We might meet someone who is perfect, but they don’t make me suffer in ways familiar in love. Therefore, they don’t make me happy.

Romanticism doesn’t talk about the practical side of life ie. raising children, housework, chores;

  • Couples don’t need to talk, they just understand each other – intuitive understanding of each other without words; therefore, this has been responsible for the outbreak of sulking. Well, you can’t expect someone to mind read.
  • They tend to not like too much analysis on top of feelings – the belief that thinking too much destroys emotion.
  • The belief Love should be wordless.
  • Perfect and imperfect sides of a person at the beginning makes them loveable.
  • Love and criticism are never together, never compatible.

Greeks had a different view on love; love is an admiration of the perfect side of a person ie. their accomplishments, virtues, etc. The word love is reserved for accomplishments, virtues – for mutual education.

    • Love is like a teacher and pupil who teach each other.
    • Love a process of mutual education.
    • Therefore, failed relationships are due to failed teaching lessons.
  • Teach with honey.
  • Nagging is not teaching. Controlling, or doing this or that. Insisting on their own way. This results in mutual deafness.

The problem with Romanticism is that it defines high expectations but no way of meeting those expectations.

  • Love is not just an emotion/intuition, but a skill to be learned.
  • Skills needed to be developed;
    • Learn to see your partner as a small 3 yr old child; come with gentle explanations to explain their behaviour  – after all, you can’t see their psychological wounds & breakages.
    •  Accommodation required as well as forgiveness
  • Find humour to temper our interpretations of the other; an act of maturity
  • Modernity is obsessed with finding the perfect person; swiping left or right on Tinder – no such person exists: Compatibility is an achievement of love and shouldn’t and cannot be its precondition.
  • Therefore, the right person is someone who negotiates the  differences with a degree of generosity. And you’d probably end up marrying the wrong person anyways.
  • It is not someone who agrees with everything and every aspect of our character.
  • Safety & excitement are incompatible.
  • Make a choice of suffering; what variety?
  • Marriage is a nasty thing to do someone. We need:
    • Lawyers
    • Invite friends
    • Share half our things with our partners
  • How to tell if you should leave someone? Pinpoint things that make you are unhappy, and sources of unhappiness. Source of unhappiness could be in the company of another person rather than the person themselves.
  • We benefit from the cage of marriage; aware of the debt, the maturity of being willingly to give up the ability to run away (freedom). Marriage makes it deeply embarrassing to leave; therefore we lock ourselves into the situation.

When are we ready to love?

When we have a good handle and accepted your own and partner’s craziness; are prepared to discuss laundry and  imperfections; use words to spell things out rather than using intuition; and being able to use humour.

For the full talk:


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