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.
- 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.