Love: A History, by Simon May, Yale University Press, RRP£18.99, 304 pages

The philosopher Simon May has hit upon a novel and fruitful solution to the problem of how to address a subject about which everything that could be said has been said: say all the best bits again, but better. There may not be a single original thought in Love: A History, but May could just have achieved the seemingly impossible and produced a truly original philosophy of love.

To call it a history is far too modest, and curious, since there is a sense in which love has always been the same. That is why the poetry of Ovid speaks as lucidly to us today as it did in ancient Rome. But May argues that the idea of love has changed over time, and that the way we think about it shapes the way we seek, practise and despair of it. By examining these changes, May is able to draw out what is true in each age’s perception of love, discard what is misleading, and synthesise the result into the most persuasive account of love’s nature I have ever read.

The historical progression May identifies consists of four transformations, beginning with Deuteronomy and still playing out today. First, love is made the supreme value, identified with God. Second, by divine gift, human beings are given the power to achieve the highest love. Then love comes even further down to earth, as people and nature become as worthy objects of love as the deity. Finally, love becomes the means by which the lover realises her fullest and most authentic nature.

Suspicion at the neatness of this historical narrative may well be warranted, but it works as a device for identifying the key aspects of love that have fed into the way we understand it now. In particular, May is keen to stress the enduring extent to which love has been identified with the divine. Indeed, what we now practise, he argues, is nothing less than a religion of love. Otherwise scientific, secular people still find in love “a taste of the absolute and the eternal that they rigorously deny to any other realm of life”, assenting to Larkin’s line that “What survives of us is love”.

The immortality of love is not the only false accretion of its history May identifies. We also suffer from two other prevalent illusions: that it is unconditional and selfless. The potency of these myths can be explained by the fact that love is an expression of a feeling of “ontological rootedness”. What May means by this unwieldy phrase is that we love what grounds us; that which makes us feel at home with ourselves and the world. When we find such people or things, we believe we love them unconditionally, eternally and selflessly, but in fact, we only love them for as long as they continue to provide this grounding for our existence.

I doubt whether any definition of love can capture its multifaceted nature, but May’s conception is both specific enough to be useful and wide enough to encompass the varieties of forms and objects of love that otherwise seem so disparate, from passion for a football team, through the very different forms of devotion shown to life-partners and children. It also explains why we can love things that otherwise inspire loathing in us, and perhaps, although May does not explore this, why badly matched couples can nonetheless be bound by a kind of pathological love, having got so used to each other’s company that they can no longer imagine life apart.

Whether or not you agree with where it ends up, the trip alone merits the ride. May has a remarkable ability to bring out what is most true and interesting in his sources. He is the only person I have read who has invoked Schopenhauer and made him sound insightful and prescient, rather than absurd and grandiloquent. Perhaps that simply reflects May’s claim that to love well requires skill and tutoring, and the fact that this book is itself a work of love: one which looks for what is best in its subject and, thanks to the wisdom of the lover, finds it.

Julian Baggini is author of ‘The Ego Trick’ (Granta)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.