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Love in the existential philosophical tradition is always a problem. The problem is not in terms of the possibility of its existence, but in the sense of spontaneity of phenomenological discovery of its deep metaphysics.

The first thing encountered by existentialist philosopher is chaos, the chaos of objectivity, the world indifferent to man, unable to either justify human existence, or to guarantee its existence as properly human. “Nothing” is a symbol of this world. This “Nothing” phenomenologically manifests itself only on condition that “something happened” between it and man. The nature of this “co-existence” determines the spontaneity of the objective detection of deep metaphysics of Nothing in man.

Love—in the broadest sense—is the attraction to other, suggesting by its existence a certain respect for each other and even contributing to it. Ancient Indian Vedas and ancient Greek philosophy (Hesiod, Empedocles) in this regard consider love as a cosmic feeling, the principle by which Universe is pacified and united in all the abundance of the forces and forms. In regards of humans, love means, on the one hand, the body-soul principle of continuation of the species, and on the other hand, a psycho-spiritual principle of “platonic love” free from any desire to possess.

Christianity preaches love between God and man (compassionate love of God, respectful love of man), as well as between people (the Christian commandment to love one’s neighbor, and the concept of neighbor extends to all people, both friends and enemies). Schopenhauer regards love as an equal to compassion. In ethics love is the virtue of the individual in relation to another person, which represents a small part of value of loving personality aimed at the value of the individual who is loved, and devotion to this personality. For all that is valuable in individual, fulfills its purpose in being also valuable to someone else. The lover gives to beloved one a new dimension to one’s essence – to exist “for someone” (while it is usually to exist “for oneself”). Personal love for the individual is an addition to his value, giving the meaning to his existence.

In the theory of knowledge love is the premise and the beginning of the learning process. Augustine says: “Tantum cognoscitur, quantum diligitur” (“We know in proportion as we love”). Similar assertions can be found in works of Goethe, Leonardo da Vinci, and Giordano Bruno. According to Pascal, love (“heart”) paves the way for the mind to things and people. The relationship between love and knowledge, deeply penetrating the essence of all existence was first investigated by Max Scheler; the “order of love” (“ordo amoris”), i.e. the order in which man respects the ethical values and conform their behavior according to them, is the most significant individual feature of his personality. From the perspective of Jean-Paul Sartre, love, in essence, is a plan to make one love oneself. The project of love is to appropriate the freedom of the Other, while leaving the Other free, so that one can become one’s own foundation in being (i.e. so that one can be God). 

Sartre’s Interpretation of Love

The author of Being and Nothingness (1943) Jean-Paul Sartre saw love as an insecure, very fragile and false sense fraught with debilitating heart conflict. Somewhat simplified discussion from the 3rd chapter of Sartre’s work is the following: the joy of love is involved in the liberation of man, but does not give the strength of victory ever. The contradictions tear apart the female psyche, but in love man makes himself a subject for the Other, and finally masochistic experience in men become an immortal aspect of the psyche as well. Joining with the Other leads to a loss of self, and it is a very expensive price for an ephemeral existence happiness. In addition to it he is opposed by competition, greed and envy. The Other breaks into love, and acts as an alien in the role of torturer. Love is frustrating, elusive; the ambivalence of love and hate is revealed.

Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is primarily devoted to human freedom, and it also analyzes the sphere of love. But Sartre least of all speaks of love as a positive phenomenon, but mostly as of the devastating effects of love and such transformed forms of relationship, as masochism, sadism, and hatred. Following Freud, he considers sexual relations, “the foundation, or skeleton, of all human relations,” because they are primary in nature. All other relations (e.g. cooperation, struggle, rivalry, competition, obedience, gratitude, admiration, etc.) are only a superstructure over sexual relations, their complication and concentration. First of all, Sartre speaks of the inevitable exclusion of all human relations due to the fact that every man is a subject and object simultaneously. As a subject he is active and free, but as an object he is the object of desire of the Other an the means of realizing his goals. Hence, the mutual restriction of freedom of each other, and even the desire to absorb the freedom of the Other and enslave him.

Sartre introduces the biblical concept of “original sin”, which follows simply from one’s appearance in the world where there is the Other, before whom one is guilty in advance. Consequently, the conflict defines the original meaning of being-for-the Other. The ambivalence of all human relations is compounded by the fact that the Other is not just the negative border of life, but also a positive condition for its implementation, in a broader sense its horizon, and sometimes its purpose, as it happens in love. With this fiasco Sartre connects such attitude to the Other as hatred, by which one protects and safeguards oneself from him. The extreme consequence of hatred is the desire of the Other’s death, in which one could see a triumph of hatred. But in fact, as Sartre argues, the death of the Other is not a victory, but the defeat of hate, for the Other is essential. Anyone who once existed for the Other for the rest of life is infected, even if the Other is no longer in the world. Therefore, the death of the Other makes one an object, like his own death.

Sartre concludes with the fundamental futility (pour rien) of hatred. Further, Sartre suggests the inevitability of yet other useless transformed forms of relations - masochism (one becomes a pure object to others) and sadism (on the contrary, one turns the Other into a pure object for himself). Masochism is an extreme case of absorption, one’s transformation into a simple tool to implement the desires of the Other. This type of relationship, according to Sartre, has as its root in a sort of vertigo before the abyss of the Other’s subjectivity. Masochism is evidence of affection and even love for the defeat. Sadism also carries defeat within itself, for merely one “suddenly erupted view” of its victim is enough for the sadist to feel victim’s inner freedom and his defeat. Sadist, in principle, cannot achieve his goal because the spiritual freedom of the victim is preserved with even full disposition of victim’s body.

The same seal of inferiority and ambiguity exists in the feeling of love, in the interpretation of Sartre. Although he briefly examines some of the specific features of psychology of love (passionate desire to reciprocity, the inability to enslave the beloved, desire of free choice, love and physical intimacy), but his attention is focused on the fatal deficiency of love, which like a worm in one’s heart bears its own defeat.

First, there is an eternal elusiveness of the beloved one for the loving one: when looking for him he escapes, when fleeing from him he follows. Second, the desire for freedom of the beloved is ambivalent, the one which is wanted and feared at the same time: wanted because slavery kills love, and feared because of the fear of losing a beloved one.

Thirdly, there is an antagonism between love and desire of owning a beloved one: the desire is the death of love, and the extinction of desire is the revival of love. In addition, Sartre speaks of the threefold destruction of love in other respects:

  1.  Love is essentially a fraud contained in the fit of love.
  2. The Other at any moment can turn one into an object and steal his freedom.
  3. Love is the absolute, eternally turned by the Others into something relative.

 Finally, Sartre believes, no matter where you look, there is insecurity of the loving one: doubt, uncertainty, constant fear, guilt, and resentment.

Heidegger’s Interpretation

Heidegger’s Interpretation of Love is in many respects opposite to the Sartre’s one. In Heidegger’s version man is a modality, he can be different. This is a questioning: what is he in respect of abilities; concern for his unrealized potential, suffering from what “did not come true.” Human existence (Dasein) as “here-being”, as “being-opportunity”, “being-calling” is the primacy of the possibility over reality, the unity of past, present and future, able to withstand time as the symbol of superhuman history.

In fact, behind the philosophical categories Heidegger retained and deployed the central concepts of the Protestant religious culture. The man initially carries the embryo of all his possible implementations, a timeless part. The symbol of Nothing is not just emptiness, absence, which has the appeal of authentic existence. The scope of the personal consciousness of man is very narrow compared to bottomless Nothing, in the “light night” of which lies the Being with its ability to love.

Love is the ability to Being, the presence of Being in man. Being is present in man through language: “Language is the house of Being.” In this shelter man lives. Language is the cradle of being preserving the light. Man becomes a the keeper of the shelter, (keeper of the truth), if he thinks and works. According to Heidegger, the one who thinks and creates is the keeper of this shelter.

This makes clear Heidegger’s connection between the “attempt to think” and love. He follows the words of Holderlin: “only who has thought the deepest, loves in the most alive way”. “To think” is to give a place in one’s heart to all that surrounds a person. Not to become commensurate, but to give place. In this sense, the existence of man is not momentary, not pointed. It has a complete full-scale spatial moment in which a person feels his fullness and completeness (total eventfulness). Spatially unfolded moment is a symbolic space of realization of man. Completeness is guaranteed by the implementation of “inquisition of Nothing”, an ontological fear as a concern for the fact that people are constantly exposed to the Fall of changing of “desire for absoluteness” for the endless search of objectivity forms (everyday fear).

Thus, according to Heidegger, love as “the ability of Being” to be present in man is possible with an infinite actualization of human modality (thirst for absoluteness), audited by the fact that Heidegger expresses through existential notion of “ontological fear.”

Returning to Sartre’s formula (the Other holds my secret), one can probably argue that the “randomness of Being” and “responsibility” for it are existential modifications of meaningless modality and its deep metaphysics (excitation and disgust). If so, then love in Sartre’s version is the game of objectivity of temptation and the subject of coquetry. The game, which has an unclear beginning and no ending. Love is like a phantom, existing, but elusive for humans.

Thus, love as an intention, as the orientation to the subject indicates the lack of self-sufficiency of man, his fundamental incompleteness. Objectivity of love kills it. Love is a voracious and fundamentally insatiable substance. Owning something does not give an idyll to man. Happiness is not a fact, but an act, and the desire for repetition. Every act of love generates the loop of human incompleteness, dissatisfaction with the objectivity of existing search of the subject of love.

Nowhere, either in the philosophical writings, or in drama, or in the novels Sartre does speak of a happy, harmonious and radiant love. Nowhere does he speak of the joy of love, its creative, artistic nature. It seems that the tragedy, conflict, dissonance, ambivalence, and paradox are considered by Sartre as an inevitable destiny of love. No wonder that in his interpretation human relations are as if wrapped up into eternity and deprived of any kind of the flesh and blood of history, age, specific fates. He provides a timeless phenomenological slice of love. And the attention of Sartre is magically chained to hideous wrong side of love, which he depicts as the “curse of love.” As a result, the reader gets a kind of “demonology of love”, the contact with which “freezes” the human soul, dissipates not only illusions, but also hopes, giving way to a nihilistic attitude to the very phenomenon of love.

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