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“[L]ove is blind, and lovers cannot see”
(Jessica in Act 2, Scene 6 of “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare)
I have always loved this quotation from my favourite Shakespeare play but, after discussing it with friends and carrying out wider reading on this topic, have become perplexed as to its precise meaning. What exactly does it mean to say that love is blind? Are both human love and divine love blind? If love is blind, is that a good thing?
Now it seems that there are two main different things which people mean when they say that “love is blind”. The first is that the lover does not realise their beloved’s faults. The second is that the lover commits follies (misdeeds) because he/she is in love and does not acknowledge that they are follies because he/she is in love.
The First Meaning relating to obliviousness
Maybe this is hyperbole or over-exaggeration but the man in Song of Songs at least seems to fail to notice the flaws in his beloved:
“You are altogether beautiful, my love;
there is no flaw in you”
(Song of Songs 4:7)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe even said the following:
“Defects are perceived only by one who has no love; therefore, to see them, a man must become uncharitable, but not more so than is necessary for the purpose.”
(Maxim 39 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
However, Sam Keen takes a more realistic and down-to-Earth view which I prefer:
“You come to love not by finding the perfect person, but by seeing an imperfect person perfectly.”
It is constantly obvious and apparent that all human beings make mistakes and fall short of our expectations. This means that we must make human love realistic and that we should not expect perfection in our beloved. We should instead overlook and ignore their faults, unless they do harm to others. It can sometimes be difficult to draw this line of tolerance but it is only approach which makes human love work. Some argue that, when in love, we actually view the beloved’s flaws as perfections and Keen certainly seems to hold that point of view in the above quote. However, if this is the case, are we not instead just in love with the imagined, fantasised, utopian and idealised vision or idea of a person rather than the person themself? Rochefoucauld might have agreed here:
“If we think we love a woman for love of herself we are greatly deceived.”
(Maxim 374 by Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld)
I conversely agree with Shakespeare here:
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red […] And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.”
(From “Sonnet 130” by William Shakespeare)
It is despite the flaws in appearance, behaviour and personality that we love the beloved, just as God unconditionally loves us despite our constant sin. This is very powerfully shown in the relationship between Hosea and Gomer in the Book of Hosea where Gomer is constantly unfaithful to her husband but Hosea still forgives her and takes her back each time. Now I think it would be dishonest to argue that Hosea was completely blind to Gomer’s unfaithfulness, just as it would be dishonest to argue that God is blind to our sin. I think that it can sometimes seem as if love is blind because it often acknowledges flaws but refuses to subsequently judge based on these acknowledgements. As Ronald de Sousa puts it:
“[T]he blindness of love may be a matter not of failing sight but of failing judgement”
(From “Love: A Very Short Introduction” by Ronald de Sousa)
Some argue that the lover are more likely to point out the flaws of their beloved so that he/she can correct them because the lover naturally seeks the greater good of the beloved, as Donald Levy has pointed out in his article “The Definition of Love in Plato’s Symposium”. The lover would hate to see the beloved humiliated or embarrassed because of his/her faults and so cannot resist gently and carefully pointing them out.
This theme of the blindness of love also links in with the jealousy of love as we see in Song of Songs 8:6 (“love is strong as death, jealousy fierce as the grave”). Why is it that, in true love, the lover never tires of the beloved despite all of his/her flaws? Why is it that the lover never leaves and seeks another? I think de Sousa sums this up well when he says:
“Romeo will fail to notice Juliet’s faults, but he will also be oblivious to the charms of any other woman.”
(From “Love: A Very Short Introduction” by Ronald de Sousa)
I think that this is partly because he/she knows that there is “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). I think it is also out of a sense of loyalty, trust and faith. As Erich Fromm said:
“Love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person. Love is an act of faith, and whoever is of little faith is also of little love.”
The Second Meaning relating to folly
“In love we are all fools alike.”
(Lucy in Act III, Scene I of “The Beggar’s Opera” by John Gay)
“All passions make us commit some faults, love alone makes us ridiculous.”
(Maxim 422 by Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld)
But if thy love were ever like to mine—
As sure I think did never man love so—
How many actions most ridiculous
Hast thou been drawn to by thy fantasy?
Into a thousand that I have forgotten.
Oh, thou didst then ne’er love so heartily.
If thou rememb’rest not the slightest folly
That ever love did make thee run into,
Thou hast not loved.
(From Act 2, Scene 4 of “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare)
“We that are true lovers run into strange capers.”
(Touchstone in Act 2, Scene 4 of “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare)
“For I am much ashamed of my exchange.
But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit,
For if they could Cupid himself would blush”
(Jessica in lines 35-38 of Act 2, Scene 6 of “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare)
The quotations above all seem to argue that when one is in love, one is obsessed and fascinated by the beloved and fixated upon him/her so much that he/she feels compelled and pressurised to commit foolish actions that one would not otherwise commit. Love supposedly blinds us to the foolishness of such deeds. However, I think we should bear the following words in mind:
“‘Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, another thing to fall”
(Angelo in Act 2, Scene 1 of “Measure for Measure” by William Shakespeare)
I think it thus better to argue that human love can sometimes tempt us to commit misdeeds but that it does not force us to commit such deeds. Love itself does not “make us ridiculous”, as Rochefoucauld argues, as the temptations which result from it can be controlled and moderated.
I would like to add here that these follies are often just embarrassing actions but ones which are not immoral. They generally only have a negative impact on the performer himself/herself. It is also worth remembering that, while it is true that human love can motivate us to commit follies, it can also motivate us to carry out good deeds of care, kindness, compassion and charity. I think that these good deed outweigh the misdeeds.
Often Christian faith and the love of God that Christians have compels them to do things which our society deems as follies and to abstain from doing certain things which our society loves to do. Christians, for example, abstain from sex before marriage, even though this is common place in society. Christians are called by God to be “in the world but not of the world” as the popular phrase states. The nearest the Bible itself actually comes to saying this is in John 17:
“[T]he world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one […] As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world”
(John 17:14-15, 18)
Divine love motivates us to commit what the world sees, or at least wants to see, as follies but these follies are actually good deeds. As it says in John 14:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments”
By Ben Somervell
Thanks for reading this article. If you enjoyed it, you might be interested in the following articles which I have also written on love: