Arendt’s Footnote on Love

By Colin Bodayle

In The Human Condition, Arendt writes the following footnote:

The common prejudice that love is as common as “romance” may be due to the fact that we all learned about it first through poetry. But the poets fools us; they are the only ones to whom love is not only a crucial, but an indispensable experience, which entitles them to mistake it for a universal one. -Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 242 ftn. 81.

This powerful footnote has an aphoristic quality, warranting careful reflection. The footnote concerns the following clause: “… it [love] is one of the rarest occurrences in human lives …” The note claims that we mistake “romance” for love. How might these be understood as distinct?

As Common as “Romance”

By “romance,” here, Arendt may mean simple attraction, or perhaps the ephemeral, yet infinite, feeling experienced in moments of romance. Such moments have a particularly infinite quality, are desired eternally, but are fragile fragments of an infinitesimal moment.

Keats describes such a feeling in “Bright Star”. Here, Keats desires to experience a moment of intimacy infinitely, yet ultimately recognizes this to be impossible. The poem begins: “Bright star, would I were as steadfast as thou art.” Keats wishes himself to have the eternal temporal properties of a star: to have its fixed place within the celestial sphere, specifically because he wishes to “so live ever” resting upon his lover’s breast; only death limits the duration he desires.

Temporally speaking, Keat’s romance  is ephemeral, yet his desire is eternal. In “When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be,” Keats employs the theme of death again. At the beginning of the poem, Keats recognizes that he might die without fully achieving his poetic goals, publishing books, fully encapsulating beauty in the symbols of “the night’s starr’d face.” Yet his life’s “project,” to borrow Heidegger’s term, stops in the face of romance. He shifts with the words: “And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!” The choice of words is odd; “creature of an hour” is hardly complimentary, yet with this, Keats shifts into reflecting upon the death or absence of his lover, leading to a nothingness that negates both love and fame.

In both poems, Keats experiences momentary fragments of love, desires to experience them infinitely, and laments the impossibility of such an experience. This unhappy consciousness stems from the fact that love is both particular and absolute, experienced finitely, yet desired infinitely.

But the Poets Fool Us

Only the poets, Arendt tells us, see love as both crucial and indispensable. Yet the centrality of love to their existence “entitles” them to mistake their experience for a universal one. What does Arendt mean by this?

First of all, why do the poets mistake the experience for a universal one? To some degree, this results from the medium of poetry itself. Poetry, Aristotle tells us, speaks of the universal. Kant, too, tells us that aesthetic judgments of beauty demand “universal assent” (whether they receive such assent or not). As poets, they communicate through the universal.

Yet the poetry becomes misinterpreted, precisely because of the “common prejudice” that equates love with flings, crushes, and brief romances. For the poet, love is a relation of an individual to an absolute. Yet poetry must mediate this relation through universal human language, and this lends itself to misinterpretation and ambiguity. Here, I quote Kierkegaard:

People fancy that a single individual can make himself understandable to any other single individual in the same situation. Such a view would be unthinkable if in our day we were not trying in so many ways to sneak slyly into greatness.  -Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 71.

Love isn’t as “common as romance,” yet on the surface love and common romance seem identical. As Kierkegaard points out, the nature of love resists articulation in speech, where it is immediately turned into a vulgar and commonplace thing; ” … externally they [knights of faith] have a striking resemblance to bourgeois philistinism” [ibid. 38]. Thus, with some justification, Arendt neither attempts to defend her claim that love is rare, nor bothers to distinguish it from the commonplace view.

Arendt on Love

I shall now quote, in full, the two sentences to which this footnote pertains. Here, Arendt articulates her account of love, writing:

For love, although it is one of the rarest occurrences in human lives, indeed possesses an unequaled power of self-revelation and an unequaled clarity of vision for the disclosure of who, precisely because it is unconcerned to the point of total unworldliness with what the loved person may be, with his qualities and shortcomings no less than with his achievements, failings, and transgressions. Love, by reason of passion, destroys the in-between which relates us to and separates us from others. -Arendt, op. cit, 242.

This conception of love, which Arendt borrows heavily from Christianity, loves unconditionally “while its spell lasts.” It exists privately; it doesn’t take account of the persons actions, political affiliations, accomplishments, or alliances. Omnia vincit amor.

Shakespeare’s Juliet, for instance, loves Romeo despite the “what,” i.e. his family name. The power of this tragedy is precisely that love conflicts with the public sphere, in which it finds no expression.

Love, Arendt says, is “apolitical and even antipolitical.” It exists entirely within the private sphere and cannot exist publicly. In the political sphere, law and deed “keep records of wrongs;” love cannot be made public because it loves the “who,” the single individual, not the actions or qualities.

The “Who” and the “What”

This distinction between the “who” and the “what” of love, interestingly enough, is articulated by Derrida in an impromptu interview.

From Derrida (2002)

Derrida explains love in terms of an event, the bookends of which are the “what.” One falls in love with particular qualities first and then falls in love unconditionally with the “who.” When love fades, the “what” changes to the point of no return. Here, Derrida speaks of love as existing “between” the ontic “what” and the ontological “who.” The “who,” as an “absolute singularity,” has a certain infinity.

Here, Derrida differs slightly from Arendt. For Arendt, love concerns the ontological, the absolute singularity of the “who” unconditionally of the “what.” While this, for Keats, was an ephemeral moment, for Arendt it was a private relationship absolutely with a “who.” For Derrida, on the other hand, love exists “between” the ‘who’ and the ‘what.’ While Arendt describes perfect, unconditional love, it seems apparent that the “what” could put a strain on even the strongest love; that if love is conditional, its condition is the “what.” Leaving aside the possibility of perfect, unconditional love (which Arendt rightly calls “one of the rarest occurrences”), let us speak of imperfect love.

Arendt writes: “Love, by reason of passion, destroys the in-between which relates us to and separates us from others.” Yet conversely, the “in-between” inserts itself precisely when these passionate powers are absent. Arendt sees love in terms of a presence, a phenomenon that in passion destroys the “what,” giving rise to the unconditional “who.” For Derrida, on the other hand, love is a mediating term, a play of the difference between the who and the what.

The End of Love

Love “ends,” Arendt says, either by fading or through a child. “As long as its spell lasts, the only in-between which can insert itself between two lovers is a child, love’s own product.” [ibid.] She describes this as inserting a “new world into the existing world,” returning “to the world from which their love had expelled them.” She calls this “the only possible happy ending of a love affair,” after which love must “either overcome the partners anew, or be transformed into another mode of belonging together.”

For Derrida, on the other hand, love “ends” through the ‘what’ – when particular qualities repel lovers apart


If we return to Keats, he writes: “would I were as steadfast as thou art.” Keats sees love as existing within the present moment, but as unable to exist in the eternal. Arendt, on the other hand, sees love as a rare occurrence in which one loves the “who” unconditionally. Rather than an ephemeral experience, love overcomes the distinctions between people for a time, and must end. For Derrida, love exists in the play between the conditional and the unconditional. Would we were as steadfast as bright stars or as unconditional as Christ, love might be as common as “romance.” On the other hand, if love is in fact imperfect, a play between the ‘who’ and the ‘what’, lovers must be all the more cautious, lest love “to nothingness do sink.”


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