All in the Name of Love?

Philosophers answer your tormented questions on relationships and heartbreak

February is the shortest month of the year, and yet for some, it can be the most dreadful (and seemingly long) month. Excessive love proclamations fill the airwaves and the streets are strewn with red roses and teddy bears. For those experiencing heartbreak or uncertainty in their relationships, February is no fun.

In this special Valentine’s Day piece, A.S. Onassis Professor Phillip Mitsis and his guest Alain Gigandet from the Université Paris-Est Créteil answer mock love letters to the editor, imagining what some of history’s most famous life philosophers might say about modern day relationship problems.

Valentine's Day is just round the corner. I am envious of my best friend who is very in love. I pretend that I don't care but deep inside I am filled with jealousy and rage!

From: Dying Inside


Dear Dying Inside,

With Valentine’s Day being so commercialized, it is no wonder you are feeling particularly emotional about your best friend. Do you truly feel envious, thinking you need a life partner, or are you merely being pressured to what the social norm is?

Guy Debord wrote, “the spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life.” In your case, it seems that the notion of having someone to be with this Valentine’s Day — a social norm — has affected you due to the lack of.  Should we let social norms decide and define who we should be and behave?

Reading: Society of the spectacle by Guy Debord

My boyfriend recently broke up with me. By the time I realized my mistakes, it was too late. I wish I could turn back time.

From: Time Machine  


Dear Time Machine,

Jean Baudrillard believes we have a relationship with others in terms of defiance. “We don’t exist unless we are subject to a degree of defiance. We need to be desired, caressed, but we also need to be challenged, and thus seduced.”

Baudrillard would argue that instead of wanting to turn back time, you want to go from disappearing in that relationship, to wanting the other party to make you reappear, and hence desired once again.

Is it genuinely realizing one's mistakes, or the narcissistic desire to possess?

Reading: Baudrillard Live, Selected Interviews (edited by Mike Gane)

I wish my girlfriend would stop asking me to buy her fancy little gifts that I can’t afford. I’m torn as to whether to continue with this relationship or not.

From: My Material Girl


Dear My Material Girl,

Ah, you remind me of Charles Swann, a character in Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way.

Swann had knowingly continued a relationship with his lover Odette for years despite knowing her unfaithfulness to him. He had been in a mental state for years now where he doesn’t know when he’s happy or believes he isn’t as unhappy as he thinks.

After waking up from a nightmare, Swann also woke up to a new realization.

“All (Swann) could hope for now was that it would last forever, that he would sacrifice his work, his pleasures, his friends, finally his whole life to the daily expectation of a meeting that could bring him no happiness, and he wondered if he was not deceiving himself…”

Is Swann deceiving himself? Are you?

Reading: Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (translated by Lydia Davis)

I don’t understand why so many people end up becoming unhappy in relationships. Can’t we all just give and take, live and let live?

From: Don’t Worry Be Happy


Dear Don’t Worry Be Happy,

Love is — some would argue — intangible, so what are we really looking for in a relationship?

Titus Lucretius Carus believes that the more we want, the greater the desire becomes. “But it is all in vain, since they cannot take away anything from their lover’s body or wholly penetrate it and merge into it.”

Lucretius also believes that “the man who avoids love does not deprive himself of the joys of Venus, but rather chooses those that involve no penalty.”

Should we then eradicate love to be joyful? Now that’s some food for thought.

Reading: On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius (translated by Martin Ferguson Smith)

All referenced reading is available at the NYU Abu Dhabi library to eligible NYU community members.