Booklicious: Booklicious Reviews...Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love

February 14, 2011



Andrew Shaffer’s Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love (Harper Perennial) is an entertaining and enlightening little book that sports a philosopher’s share of its own little quirks, among them a Twitter handle printed on the back and text that eschews traditional black ink in favor of a darkish blue. Nearly 40 of the Western world’s supposedly greatest minds grace the pages, displaying a lovelorn mixture of insanity, misogyny, ignorance, and shocking levels of incompetence. This may or may not come as a surprise to readers, depending on whether or not they attended a liberal arts university, but it’s certainly entertaining enough when approached with a certain philosophical mindset: schadenfreude.

Every entry kicks off with a brief introduction introducing each would-be Don Juan and a nuts-and-bolts summary of his or her contribution(s) to the world (or, in the case of the syphilitics, things contracted from the world). In most cases, what follows is more or less a historical version of either a soap opera or a version of The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, in which the title character never gets a girlfriend and continues with a terrible, miserable existence at the bottom of the social heap. Whatever the method, the failures are almost always spectacular (there are a few exceptions, such as Ayn Rand, who was only marginally more of an ass as a lover than a philosopher, and Socrates, who just sort of did whatever he wanted up until the point at which it killed him).

Along with the predictable ones (Nietzsche, rejected by every woman he proposed to and, I’m assuming, every woman he didn’t; Louis Althusser, ‘accidentally’ strangled his wife; Diogenes the Cynic, public masturbator – enough said), there are a few true, unexpected gems. My personal favorites include Swedenborg’s delusionally hilarious tales of angel sex and Rousseau’s ambivalent disregard of his “housekeeper” (read: wife and mother of his five abandoned children) and penchant for being spanked and flashing women: “The more sensible pretended they had seen nothing. Others started laughing.” (But I’d wager it was the more sensible who were probably cracking up.)

GPWFAL is short, bitterly sweet, and mockingly accusative when it comes to the men and women behind the curtain. After reading the book, it is clear that the great philosophers were certainly a “do as I say, not as I do” crowd. It should be required reading for all philosophy majors.


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