Several days ago I received a warm email from a young guy in Brooklyn who had read one of my recent articles here. The story, told in the form of a fable, underscored the importance of taking the initiative in matters of love. His questions were these: How do I know when to take the initiative? How can I develop my “initiative-taking” spirit?
My response was that there are no firm guidelines on questions like this. As a general rule, one should always take the initiative, of course; and as for developing one’s capability to do so, this takes nothing but trial and error. But I think he already knew this; what he was trying to relate to me was a feeling of anguish. He was trying to let me know how hard these things can be. And believe me, I do know. I certainly am no authority in matters of love and seduction–do they even exist?–but my own limited experience has perhaps taught me what is good, and what is not good.
But there was something in his email that made an impression on me, and I thought on his situation more. Maybe a better angle to approach the problem is not to be told (for the thousandth time) to “take the initiative” on love, but rather to consider this: what are the impediments that prevent love?
We don’t hear this discussed very often. What are the things that deflect us from the path of love? There is a line from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (IV.35.76) which gives us the answer:
Thus if love were something natural, everyone would love and always love, and they would love the same thing. Nor would one person be deterred by shame, another person by excessive thinking, and another one by satiety.
So there we have it. These are the three things that deter (or discourage) love: shame, thinking too much, and satiety. I have translated satietas here as “satiety”; I suppose the word “over-indulgence” might be an adequate substitute also.
What does Cicero mean here by shame (pudor)? How is shame an impediment to love? Shame is the result of some trauma, some secret wrong suffered in the past. The emotion attaches to us like a parasite, draining away our energy and preventing us from the full enjoyment of live. It is for this reason that we have to identify its source and purge it from our system. When one has been burned, one is hesitant to take to the field again. The feeling is natural. But just because it is natural does not mean that we should indulge it. This feeling we must fight to suppress as being an obstacle to natural enjoyment of life.
And what of excessive “thinking”? The word used here is cogitatio. Too much reflection is a dodge to action. There is a time for thinking, and a time for acting. We must work to learn the difference. Excessive thinking is one of the most difficult vices to eradicate, because it presents itself as a reasonable impulse. But in the end, it becomes nothing more than a paralytic vice, freezing us in our tracks.
The man who remains too absorbed in this thoughts is like the man who refuses to leave his house and conduct his necessary business. There is very little that is new to be discovered in our basements. It is not even a matter of geographical location, either; the too self-absorbed traveler takes himself with himself everywhere he goes, becoming the prisoner of his own mind. He may be in a foreign culture, but sees and hears nothing except the sound of his own mind. As Horace says in his Epistles (I.2.27):
Those who run across the seas change the sky, but not their hearts.
The final obstacle to love is excessive satisfaction, or satiety. Mae West once said “too much of a good thing is wonderful,” but I am not so certain about this. Too much pleasure has a debilitating effect on the body and the mind, corrupting both body and soul alike. Even if we are already in a relationship, we should make a conscious effort to take time away from the other person. This will help refresh the senses and the mind, and prevent amatory fatigue.
As for the voluptuary glutton, his cause is nearly hopeless: excessive stimuli have ruined him. The senses become too accustomed to certain types of experiences, causing the body to shy away from sterner experiences. There is no limit to the body’s cravings, if we leave them unchecked to their own devices. Rivers of fire must be banked and damned, so that they do not overflow their courses and burn everything in their paths.
These are the three things that deter us from love.