From Alain de Botton's On Love:

"Politics seems an incongruous field to link to love, but can we not read, in the bloodstained histories of the French, Fascist, or Communist revolutions, something of the same coercive structure, the same impatience with diverging views fuelled by passionate ideals?"

If I had a nickel. Some more:

The answer from liberal thinkers is that cordiality can arise only once rulers give up talk of governing for the love of their citizens, and concentrate instead on ensuring sensible, minimal governance. Liberal politics finds its greatest apologist in John Stuart Mill, who in 1859 published a classic defence of loveless liberalism, On Liberty, a ringing plea that citizens should be left alone by governments, however well meaning they were, and not be told how to lead their personal lives, what gods to worship or books to read.

As a liberal in the old sense of the word, I appreciate this line of inquiry. De Botton seems to be heading towards a unified explanation for both my emotional pathologies and my unpopular you-be-you political beliefs. But he goes on:

...The wisdom of Mill's thesis is such that one might want to see it applied to relationships as much as to governments. However, on reflection, applied to the former, it seems to lose much of its appeal. It evokes certain marriages, where love has evaporated long ago, where couples sleep in separate bedrooms, exchanging the occasional word when they meet in the kitchen before work, where both partners have long ago given up hope of mutual understanding, settling instead for a tepid friendship based on controlled misunderstanding, politeness while they get through the evening's shepherd's pie, 3 a.m. bitterness at the emotional failure that surrounds them.

This is, I think, the story people tell themselves in the wake of painful and unforced emotional error. Setting that aside, however, and turning back to politics, this charge of 'loveless liberalism' has some bite. Followed to its logical conclusion, it does lead (and led Mill) to utilitarianism, one of the colder ethical systems available. My feeling, however, is that in addition to the irreducible value of freedom, there is a chance that people left to their own devices will try to be good rather than vicious, and so largely leaving them to it has positive externalities.

In any case, de Botton's novel is a fun read. I would recommend giving it to someone with whom you have an ambivalent or complicated romantic relationship.
 



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