Reflections on Valentine's Day
13 February 2012
Is Valentine's Day a Christian ritual or a consumerist's dream? Do we love with or without reason? Two members of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences shed light on very different aspects of the day of love:
Plato identified an interesting puzzle about the nature of romantic love. Why do you love your romantic partner and not someone else? Arguably, it is because of the qualities that your partner possesses: intelligence, beauty and wit, for instance. You don't love at random. Rather, you love your partner for good reason.
But if it is these qualities of your partner that explain your love, then it seems that you should be willing to switch your affection to any other person who is more intelligent, more beautiful and wittier than your partner. In other words, if you love your partner for his or her qualities, you should be willing to trade up to a better partner.
Yet many people think that the essence of romantic love is not being willing to trade your partner for another, even if you had the opportunity to do so. When you are in love, no one else will do. Even if your partner changed in various ways, you might say, you would still love him or her.
But if you say that you love your partner, rather than your partner's qualities, it seems that you can no longer explain why you love your partner rather than someone else. If you love him or her regardless of what he or she is like, then your love for this person seems arbitrary.
The philosophical puzzle is this: Do I love my partner for good reason, or do I love my partner without reason? Is romantic love a kind of positive evaluation, or is it a freely and arbitrarily bestowed gift? This is what philosophers will be arguing about on Valentine's day, much to the dismay of their romantic partners.
The Catholic Saint Valentine was allegedly a priest during the reign of Claudius II (213-270), known as Claudius Gothicus, who was Emperor briefly between 268-270. Valentine assisted those facing persecution, and was clubbed to death as a result, supposedly on 14 February 270. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that there were three different St Valentines mentioned in early martyrologies (Thurston, 'St Valentine', 1912). It is generally agreed that there are no texts of historical value from the late antique period to establish the bona fides of any of these candidates. However, Jack B. Oruch comments that in seventh century Rome, there was 'a major shrine [dedicated to St Valentine], the first encountered by pilgrims from the north, and the Flaminian Gate nearby was then called the Gate of St. Valentine' (Oruch, 'St Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February', 1981).
By the late thirteenth century, prior to Chaucer's time, the body of the saint had been moved for safekeeping to the church of St. Praxedes and the basilica and Benedictine monastery associated with it were abandoned. Many have argued that the traditional date of 14 February for St Valentine's Day reflects the Roman festival of the Lupercalia, which took place on 14 February. David H. Farmer notes that the Lupercalia was a special sanctified time for finding a partner (Farmer, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 1992).
However, devotion to the cult of St Valentine on the part of lovers did not develop until the High Middle Ages, and then chiefly in England and France. Geoffrey Chaucer's narrative poem 'The Parliament of Fowls' states that 'For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day, Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate'. This suggested that romantic relationships were forged on 14 February.
Even though this could be understood as a Catholic superstition, Shakespeare too observes Saint Valentine's Day in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (Act 4, Scene 1, line 145) and also in 'Hamlet', where he notes the superstition that should two people meet on Saint Valentine's Day they will very probably get married: 'To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine'.
Britain had a special connection with the relic cult of St Valentine. Emma, the Norman wife of Ethelred the Unready and later of the Danish king Canute the Great, was an avid collector of saints' relics. She purchased an arm of St. Bartholomew and the body of St. Ouen (Audoenus) for Canterbury in Canute's time, and upon the burial of her son King Hardecanute at Winchester in 1042 she "for his sawle gief into niwan mynstre S. Valentines heafod thas martires." In the inventory of Hyde Abbey (the name of New Minister after 1109), the monks kept the relic in the Greek shrine, which had also been donated by Emma (Oruch 1981).
After the Protestant Reformation, Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622), who was bishop of Geneva, tried again to formalise the cult of Saintly Valentine, but he was unsuccessful. Eventually, the Church looked for a suitable Patron Saint of Love to take the place of the heathen Lupercus. They found an appropriate choice in Saint Valentine, and in the nineteenth century the modern, commercialised cult of St Valentine (complete with Hallmark cards and rampant consumerism) emerged (Schmidt, 'The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: St Valentine's Day', 1993).
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