How saying no to Cupid can be the key to our love life.
February: the month of chocolates, flowers, and hearts; that month when the color red appears everywhere we look. We see and hear much of Cupid, god of desire and son of Venus. While his reputation is not exactly lily pure, by and large this time of year his influence is invoked and sought. We do not often hear of the need to just say no to Cupid — and here I mean much more than just saying no to sexual promiscuity.
Romantic love, also called eros after the Greek name for Roman Cupid, has an essential and beautiful place in human life — that is, when it is properly ordered and disciplined. But there are also many instances when eros simply needs to be resisted, or rejected altogether. I propose, with no disrespect to the beauty of well-ordered eros — indeed, it is out of respect — to reflect on the importance of such rejection.
If we are to be true to ourselves, those around us, and to the divine plan for us, the simple fact is that most of us need to say no to eros at some point, and often again and again throughout our lives. What do I mean by eros? Here I mean romantic attraction, including the forms that can seem or even be, at least at first, very innocent.
As many have learned, perhaps to their surprise, being happily married does not preclude the possibility of romantic attraction to someone other than one’s spouse. Traditional norms of fidelity clearly prohibit extramarital physical intimacy. But the need to forego any romantic intimacy — which need not be physical — is not always apprehended. The marital commitment, itself the proper locus of eros, calls for a real exclusivity: not excluding all other relationships but indeed excluding any other romantic relationship.
It is thus that many of us who are married will have occasion to just say no to eros. It is incumbent upon all married persons, both away from and in the home, to cultivate habits of total fidelity. Our very demeanor, even while being warm and welcoming to others, must clearly proclaim that there is no place for Cupid here, for this heart is already bound to another.
But it is not only the married (and those whose vocation commits them to celibacy, by binding them to something or someone else) who must be prepared to say no. Common understanding and practice suggests that starting at the age of puberty, or at least soon thereafter, the high season for eros has arrived. In reality, most teenagers today (and indeed some post-teenagers) are not prepared for the challenges and demands of a romantic relationship. Given the intrinsic connection between eros and marriage, a reasonable readiness for marriage is a prerequisite for readiness for romance. It requires the maturity to understand that so much more than just the subjective experience of attraction, true eros is determined by one’s relationship to God as well as by the highest good of the one loved. In over two decades of working with college students, I have seen how many young people make the mistake of entering romantic relationships — often very exclusive ones — before they are ready to do so.
One of the greatest stories of tragic romantic love is that of Virgil’s Aeneas and Dido. Dido, the young widowed queen of Carthage, comes under Cupid’s sway when Aeneas is shipwrecked nearby. Falling in love, they live as though married; indeed, later Dido will claim that they were married. During their affair, both are forgetful of their duties: Aeneas of his mission to found Rome with the other survivors from Troy, and Dido of her plan to build up the city of Carthage. Seeing what is going on, Zeus sends Mercury to make clear to Aeneas that his romantic involvement is contrary to the divine plan and that he needs to get going toward Italy.
Aeneas’s response is really rather remarkable, though some would say unfeeling and cruel. Virgil is clearly at pains to portray a pious response to this divine intervention. With promptness and conviction, Aeneas pulls ups stakes and moves on. His seeming cruelty is in fact not only a pious response to the gods, but also for Dido’s own good. But understandably, Dido is anything but sympathetic, and she is near the top of the list of fearsome women scorned.
This famous story raises several problems, and Aeneas is certainly not the patron saint of men in love. What a man owes a woman with whom he has had a romantic relationship — and this as conditioned by how he has acted, and what has come of those actions — and other such issues must be addressed. At the same time, I think we can glean a foundational insight by focusing on Aeneas’s rejection, even if belated, of eros.
After Dido has discovered Aeneas’s plan to leave her, she confronts him in a rage. Aeneas, far from being stonily unmoved, is deeply affected. But Virgil writes:
And fought down the emotion in his heart” (IV, 456-57).
Often when a reasonable assessment of the situation demands that Cupid be set aside, a real struggle against one’s own emotions is required. A particular challenge here is in the fact that romantic emotions are experienced as coming from our core. It seems that to say ‘no’ to them would be inauthentic, and that it would amount to a denial of our very selves. (As one song says, “It can’t be wrong when it feels so right.”) But, as experience makes clear, reason’s proper assessment of a situation often does not bring about, at least not immediately, a corresponding alignment of feelings. So it can indeed be wrong, even though it feels so right. And being true to ourselves, our loved one, and to our faith demands that we align our actions — even when feelings are recalcitrant — with reason’s judgment.
Often in such a situation, what is hardest and most important is turning back to one’s first commitment: the one from which a romantic attraction threatens to, or already has distracted or removed us. After another encounter with Dido, for whom he still feels love, we read the following remarkably, dare I say, realistic words:
Aeneas, though he struggled with desire
To calm and comfort her in all her pain,
To speak to her and turn her mind from grief,
And though he sighed his heart out, shaken still
With love of her, yet took the course heaven gave him
And went back to the fleet” (IV, 545-551).
Shaken still, he went back to the fleet — the fleet that is his calling, his fundamental commitment. Sometimes the judgment of reason, which can be reinforced by divine encouragement, requires setting aside very real emotions. It was neither out of hardness of heart, nor in hardness of heart, but with fidelity that he acted.
I have a friend of about sixty years of age who just the other day shared something with me. As a young man, he and a young lady fell in love, but her parents did not approve and wouldn’t let them see one another. They each eventually married someone else, though my friend’s wife has now passed away. Just recently, in a remarkable coincidence, he happened upon his old lady friend in a restaurant, and her husband was not with her. It was a poignant moment as my friend, who in fact has never stopped loving her, realized that she too still feels the same. Having given me the account, he earnestly said to me: “What do you think I should do? I wonder if her husband really loves her; he wasn’t even with her…”
Our feelings can sometimes cause any number of such questions, even rationalizations, to arise in our minds. But the path of fidelity is clear, even when strewn with obstacles and suffering. Eros has an important place in life, but when it pushes beyond the bounds of reason, it can destroy itself, and sometimes us. Just saying no to eros — new or old — is often the true path of love.
Dr. John Cuddeback, professor of philosophy at Christendom College, is a member of the Aleteia board of experts and author of one of the most exciting new blogs on the digital horizon, Bacon from Acorns, devoted to the oft-neglected "philosophy of household." He is also the author of True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness. John has a gift for making classical wisdom relevant to all the small, and not so small, details of daily life in the contemporary world.