On the Meaning of Sex 4: On the Perfect Marriage of Dante and Beatrice (Hey! Wait a Second!)

[This is part of a series on J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of SexRead my Introduction here.]


Maybe the Christmas spirit has gotten to me, but I don’t see a whole lot to argue about in Chapter 4 of On the Meaning of Sex. I do have to raise two objections, which I’ll get into in my next post. But, in the spirit of the season, let’s start with some praise.

Chapter 4 is Budziszewski’s attempt to show that love and marriage belong together, that, quoting Chesterton, “it is in the nature of love to bind itself” (68). To do that, he’ll first delineate the different types of love, and situate the places of romantic and sexual love in that schema. Basically, he says: romantic love is a specific type of sexual love (“erotic charity” is the term he prefers), which is itself a specific type of charity (“an attitude which exults in the sheer existence of the other person,” 70). Enchantment, which he defines as “the lovely emotional infatuation in which a particular man and a particular woman can’t get enough of each other” is not actually love, though it may lead to love. It’s all outlined in this handy visual aid:


Then he goes on to outline the stages of romantic love using illustrations from 1) Dante’s sonnets to Beatrice and 2) the Song of Songs. And he lays a foundation for, later, suggesting that the joy we take in romantic love reflects the joy we feel in realizing God’s love for us.

And, you know what? The chapter is not bad. Budziszewski argues that love (charity) is an act of will rather than an emotion; I think it’s more complicated than that, but I don’t think he’s totally wrong. Also, I think that there’s something misguided about trying to cordon off different types of love, to say that enchantment stops here and romantic love starts here, etc. And I think that if you want to learn about something as complicated as love, you start with literature and personal experiences, rather than charts and hierarchies.

But I think Budziszewski realizes that his efforts are compromised from the start, that he can’t get at exactly what he means, and that’s why he points us to poetry to help illustrate his points. And saying his approach is flawed doesn’t mean that he hasn’t done us a service. He’s giving us words to talk about these things, a vocabulary to approximate something that, really, is inexpressible.

Another reason this chapter is relatively non-obnoxious, I think, is that not once in it does Budziszewski mention the word “procreation.” What Budziszewski called the ultimate meaning of the sexual powers in Chapter 2 is absent from his chapter on the meaning of sexual love. In fact, I don’t think Budziszewski realizes this, but except for a few reflexive nods to “polar complementarity,” the whole chapter could apply equally well to gay relationships as to straight ones.

Look at the two relationships he takes as paradigms of romantic love:

First, procreation plays no part in the Song of Songs. There may even be some evidence that suggests the poem was been written by one man for another. That’s a controversial position, though, and I am nowhere near qualified to judge its merits.

But I do know something about Dante and Beatrice. And, you know what? It’s really weird that Budziszewski chose those two as his models of romantic love in a chapter that he promised would reconnect love to marriage.

Because, um, Budziszewski?

Dante and Beatrice weren’t married.

In fact, in real life, Dante Alighieri and Beatrice Portinari were each married to other people. Which brings me to my two objections.

But I’ll get to those next week.

(The image at the top is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Beatrice, Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast, Denies him her Salutation,” 1851-1855. Via wikipaintings.org)

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