The History of Love: Three Perspectives

The symposium will explore differing conceptions of love in the Western cultural context. Speakers are Simon May (Kings College, London) as well as Unn Falkeid and Christian Refsum (University of Oslo)

This symposium will address love from three different perspectives. Simon May (King’s College London) will first summarize six major ways of conceiving love that have existed in the West since ancient Greek thought and Hebrew Scripture, and then outline his own theory of love as a “promise of ontological rootedness”. Unn falkeid will discuss how the language of one of the greatest poets and musicians of the Italian Renaissance, Gaspara Stampa (1523–1554), can be interpreted within a broader context of Renaissance Neo-Platonism. Finally Christian Refsum will discuss the role of love in Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle (2009-2011).


Simon May on “What is Love?” I briefly trace the origin of our prevailing Western conceptions of love and argue that they constitute the last genuinely universal religion in the contemporary West.  I identify six distinct conceptions of the nature of love since Plato and the Bible before suggesting that none of them does justice to love’s primary ground, which is not possessing beauty or goodness, or achieving reciprocal goodwill between people of similar virtue, or finding sexual satisfaction, or procreating, or unconditional and selfless giving.  Rather love is the rapture we feel for, and the consequent desire to care for, those who inspire in us a powerful “promise of ontological rootedness" – that is, the feeling that our life is indestructibly anchored in a reality whose value we take to be both supreme and stable.

Unn Falkeid: “Gaspara Stampa and the Renaissance Language of Love” Gaspara Stampa (1523–1554) has been recognized as one of the greatest and most creative poets and musicians of the Italian Renaissance. She gave a voice to female love and ambition within an emerging lyric tradition characterized by the strict Petrarchan paradigm that figured women as silent, chaste objects of male desire. In my paper I will discuss how Stampa’s language of love can be interpreted within a broader context of Renaissance Neo-Platonism in which bodily passions are considered crucial for the salvation of man. By retrieving classical, as well as medieval, notions of sublimity, Stampa’s stylistic simplicity dramatizes the infusion of sacredness into human reality. In this way Stampa’s Rime becomes an important contribution to Renaissance aesthetics and to the contemporary revaluation of the physical life in all its aspects.

Christian Refsum: The Love Theme in Knausgård’s My Struggle  In My Struggle Karl Ove Knausgård struggles to combine finding time to write, and being a loving husband and father. These ambitions are often in conflict. I argue, however, that the dynamic tension between love, creativity, and care for the trivialities of every day life is a precondition for the writing of My struggle. I examine the love theme in My struggle by taking four biblical words as my point of departure: eros (sensuous love), agape (unselfish love), philia (friend love) and storgē (family love). I argue that family love - the wish to establish and nurture ”a herd” (”en flokk”) - is a particularly strong and uncontested value in the work. Knausgård’s commitment to family leads him to a critical re-evaluation of positive and negative aspects of patriarchal power. And it influences his project of writing. Knausgård draws (implicitly) on feminist politics and aesthetics to reinvent a patriarchal role as a father and a literary style incorporating concerns for the trivial and sentimental.



Simon May is Visiting Professor of Philosophy at King’s College, University of London. His books include Love: A History (Yale University Press, 2011); a collection of his own aphorisms entitled Thinking Aloud (Alma Books, 2009), which was a Financial Times ‘Book of the Year’; Nietzsche’s Ethics and his War on ‘Morality’ (Oxford University Press, 2002); and two edited volumes on Nietzsche’s philosophy (OUP, 2009 and CUP, 2011).  His work has been, or is being, translated into eleven languages.

Unn Falkeid is Professor in History of Ideas at the University of Oslo. She has published broadly on medieval and early modern literature, and among her recent publications are the monograph The Avignon Papacy Contested. An Intellectual History from Dante to Catherine of Siena (Harvard University Press, 2017), and the two co-edited volumes The Cambridge Companion to Petrarch (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and Rethinking Gaspara Stampa in the Canon of Renaissance Poetry (Ashgate, 2015). Falkeid is currently the project manager of the international research project The Legacy of Birgitta of Sweden. Women, Politics, and Reform in Renaissance Italy, funded by the Norwegian Research Council (2018–2021)

Christian Refsum is Professor in Comparative Literature at the University of Oslo. He has published broadly on the lyric and on symbolist and modernist literature and film. His latest books are Kjærlighet som religion. Lidenskap og lengsel i film og litteratur på 2000-tallet (Universitetsforlaget, 2016) (Love as Religion: Passion and Longing in the Film and Literature of the 2000s) and Living Together: Roland Barthes, the Individual and the Community (co-edited with Knut Stene-Johansen and Johan Schimanski). Forthcoming at Transcript Verlag, 2018. Refsum is also a published author of a collection of short stories, two novels and two poetry collections.


Published Apr. 22, 2018 5:08 PM - Last modified Apr. 22, 2018 5:08 PM