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Stendhal on Love: ‘You behave like an idiot, get over it’


“Human beings are driven by their inner natures,” said Stendhal, in his treatise On Love.  “They are constitutionally unable to avoid doing those things that give them the greatest pleasure.”

Was he saying that human beings are born hedonists?  Not exactly.  Rather, he was saying that people are helpless before their passions, their primary passion being love.  The French pride themselves on their rationality, and yet, when it comes to love, they behave as idiotically as the rest of us.  In fact, over the centuries they have cultivated a culture of love, and refined it like a complex wine.  Yet how much of this is by choice, and how much is purely deterministic, that is, the product of our basic genetic drives?

An anthropology professor of mine once explained, “Human beings are nothing more than survival systems for DNA.”  He meant that all of life, human and otherwise, is an expression of the same basic life force, which, since the appearance of the first living green slime, has had only one objective: to replicate itself.  It hardly matters whether the delivery system is in the form of a human being, a giraffe or a tree toad.  The very fact that the human genome has a 95% similarity to that of a fish should tell you something.  Our genetic overlap with chimpanzees is 99%.

Stendhal, of course, knew nothing of DNA, but he did know something about human nature, and he well realized that love is part of the natural process that drives people together with sufficient force to make them disregard all practical obstacles including the general risk of looking like idiots.  Later, of course, when the cycle has run its course, those same passionate lovers feel duped, and they end up embarking on their next great adventure — divorce.

Now, a purely rational being would see the likely outcome on the horizon, and take measures to avoid disaster at the outset.  Not human beings, of course.  Stendhal, while a connoisseur of love, was also, like any Frenchman worth his escargot, able to view it with a jaundiced eye.  As he once put it, “What can you say about an emotion that makes a grown man behave like a neurotic poodle?”

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