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Did the Great Philosophers Know Anything about Love?

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The world's great philosophers have told us why we should live (the Camus essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus"), how we should live (Aristotle's "Nicomachaen Ethics"), how we should think (Emerson's wonderfully readable "Self-Reliance"), and how we should think about the fact that we are alive ("Discourse on the Method" by Descartes). Plenty of them have also tried to tell us how to lead our love lives … but as a new book shows, we might be better off ignoring their teachings on that front.

In Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love, author Andrew Shaffer tells us about the topsy-turvy love lives of some of the most renowned and respected thinkers and writers of all time. Turn to any chapter and you'll find an engaging little story about how a familiar philosopher (or well-known novelist) screwed up his romantic life, embarrassed himself sexually, or ruined himself over an idée fixe. There are men who became obsessed with younger women, men who became obsessed with older women, and at least one man who strangled his wife in an unexpected moment of insanity. There are also those who simply wished to strangle their lovers — like Dostoevsky.

He carried on a rambunctious love-hate affair with a 22-year-old writer — while his long-suffering first wife died slowly of tuberculosis. In a thinly veiled autobiographical novel, The Gambler, Dostoevsky pays this "tribute" to his young paramour:

"There were moments (every time we ended a conversation, as a matter of fact) when I would have given up half my life to strangle her. I swear that had I the chance to thrust a sharp knife slowly into her bosom I believe I would have done it with delight."

Ha! I felt almost the same way about a certain Jonas Singer — maybe more like I wanted to strangle myself every time we ended a conversation, for being idiot enough to put up with him.

Anyway, I asked the author to go through the book to find some of the very best vignettes, and to tell us what we have to learn from a few misguided lovers of wisdom, who weren't terribly wise about matters of the heart ... and tomorrow, I'll have those lessons for you.

In the meantime, can you think of any great novelists, philosophers, essayists, or other writers whose writings about love have made you wince?

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