Great Philosophers Who Failed At Love by Andrew Shaffer

Andrew Shaffer’s Great Philosophers Who Failed At Love is a sweet little book, and one I’ve been anticipating with some excitement ever since I read its attention-grabbing title. An anecdotal history of mankind’s biggest brains being stumped by affairs of the heart, it is, put simply, a joy to read.

Shaffer writes with a smartly narrowed focus on the philosopher’s romantic lives. There’s no fluff or personal overshare on Shaffer’s part. In fact, there’s very little editorializing at all, only rich history and occasional, often humorous authorial observations, like the “Amen” that Shaffer places at the end of a paragraph about John Calvin’s, at the time, revolutionary view that marital sex is a “pure thing, good and holy.” It’s a feat of research, compact in size (less than 200 pages) but filled with incredible information. The material Shaffer worked with, the philosopher’s lives, in compiling this book is consistently absorbing. Some stories sound like stand-up routines (such as playwright/aphorist/womanizer Nicolas Chamfort’s, who fell victim to an illness that “disfigured his genitals”), while others (like that of lovesick Peter Abelard, which inspired Alexander Pope’s poem Eloisa to Abelard) contain a considerable amount of genuine pathos.

A research paper is usually only ever as good as its topic is interesting, I’ve always felt. Shaffer picked a fascinating subject for his book, and he wrote one long, hugely entertaining and compelling research report on it. It’ll be interesting to see how people respond to its focus. I have a feeling that if someone this Valentine’s Day found themselves single and in possession of Shaffer’s book, it would serve one of two functions: comfort, like a reassuring pat on the shoulder that says, “It’s OK, see,” or, as proof of true love’s futility and unattainability, perhaps even its nonexistence. As Nietzsche (who is one of the philosophers profiled in the book) wrote “God is dead,” will Shaffer’s book inspire its readers to pronounce “Love is dead”? The only way to find out is to pick up the very worthwhile Great Philosophers Who Failed At Love and decide for yourself.

Related Link:

  • Shaffer’s slim book makes a nice complement to the series of mini-philosophy texts, edited by Simon Van Booy, that Harper Perennial put out earlier this year. All four books, it should go without saying, are essential buys for the (self-conscious) cocktail-party-going reader.
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3 Responses to Great Philosophers Who Failed At Love by Andrew Shaffer

  1. Casey says:

    Oh, I have got to get this book.

    I spent about a year wondering about the ‘romantic lives’ of the great philosophical/intellectual minds.

    I wrote a post about Nietzsche and it’s quite possible he was spurned by Lou Andreas Salome. I wonder if the book you read includes the living arrangements he was asked to have with her and Paul Ree – she proposed an ‘intellectual commune’ but he supposedly declined.

    My post about it is here:
    http://thesprightlywriter.wordpress.com/2010/12/28/marriage-motherhood-and-the-philosophical-mind/

    Irvin Yalom, an existential psychotherapist, in his fictionalized account When Nietzsche Wept, proposed a story in which Salome arranged to have Nietzsche (unbeknownst to him) supposed heartache to Dr. Joseph Breuer for his “talking cure”. Yalom interweaves truth and fiction into a plausible (though fictional) account. You can read a review of the book here:

    http://www.whiterabbit.net/@port05/Works/Writing/Reviews/when_nietzsche_wept.htm

    Thanks for posting about that book and good luck with your writing.

  2. Pingback: When philosophy and love fail to mix | The Sprightly Writer

  3. John Francisconi says:

    Thanks for the comment, Casey.

    Shaffer wrote about Salome and made mention of their mutual friend Paul Ree, but not of the proposed ‘intellectual commune.’ (Can you imagine?) Not to diminish Shaffer’s accomplishment with this book (because it does collect a ton of research from archived letters, diaries, biographies, etc.), but the summaries he gives of the philosophers’s love lives are typically brief (2-3 pages). The upside of this is that the book contains dozens of profiles. The downside is that most of what you read is classifiably “introductory” material. Still, it’s an exemplary work of concision.

    Looks like I should check out When Nietzsche Wept!

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