In 1893 Milton Bradley published a book by American education reformer Emilie Poulsson entitled In The Child’s World: Morning Talks And Stories For Kindergartens, Primary Schools And Homes, and it is a window into another world. In fact, some of the stories are hard for a reader with modern sensibilities to stomach (future pun intended). In one a pigeon is upset because she does not feel useful:
It seems to me I am not good for anything at all. The hens lay eggs for our mistress’s breakfast; the cow gives milk to drink and to be made into butter and cheese; the turkeycock will be fatted for Christmas, he says, and will be served on a big dish with a string of sausages all round him; that will be grand!…But I am good for nothing.
On the other hand, much of the material is remarkably charming, and can be appreciated as commentary on modern culture if nothing else. One example, especially relevant this month, is the long poem that comprises most of chapter 21, “St. Valentine’s Day.” Here’s part of the first stanza (read “unfortunate” with a long “a”):
“In the month of January, in the year of eighty-eight,
Little Master Philip Urbis had been so unfortunate
As to have the mumps and measles both, besides the whooping cough,
So away to get the country air his mother packed him off.”
Now, Philip loves St. Valentine’s Day, and looks forward eagerly to giving and receiving valentines “With their wonders of lace paper and their pictures gilt and gay,” but a heavy snowstorm makes it impossible for Philip and his aunt to get to “Danvers Center” to get them.
“So it seemed that snowy morning as if not a ray of joy
Could be coaxed to shine upon the disappointed little boy.
But his Auntie put her wits to work to somehow celebrate
On this fourteenth day of February, eighteen eighty-eight.”
She composes eight valentine poems on scraps of paper and puts them where Philip will find them throughout the day – pinned to his sheet, folded in his napkin, etc.:
“When Philip does his breakfast eat,
Of baked potato and minced meat,
Oh! may his heart to me incline,
For I’m his loving valentine.”
In the afternoon the butcher, making his rounds (yes, the butcher), happens by in his sled with a load of official valentines sent to Philip by friends, but by this time, as you have already guessed, Philip prefers the home-made ones!
What is really striking about this St. Valentine’s Day story is that the intimate poems featured are from an aunt. Think about it. Nowadays, if some adult aunt sent her young nephew eight poems like this one: “Porridge hot, Porridge cold, My love for you, Cannot be told,” someone somewhere would be tempted to call Child Services…after they looked up the word “porridge.” Nowadays Valentine’s Day is pretty much exclusively for lovers, not relatives. Why is that? True, the association of romantic love and Valentine’s Day goes way back, but so what? The question remains. Why don’t we have a holiday that celebrates an aunt’s deep love for her nephew? Is an aunt’s love categorically different from romantic love? What about our love for a neighbor, a teacher, a cousin, or certain music, food, colors, activities, etc.? Are those loves similar to the feeling we celebrate on this fourteenth day of February, two-thousand sixteen? WHAT IS LOVE ANYWAY?
What is Love? This is a mystery that has driven everyone with a pulse absolutely crazy at some time or other and in this month of love-focus some of us are surely tangled up in it again. America, let us no longer resign ourselves to frustration, confusion and ignorance. Let us beard the lion in his den! Let us try to define Love. That’s what Progressives do after all: search for truth fearlessly! (Besides “Love” appears to be a kissing cousin [so to speak] of one of our Progressive values, but more about that later.)
As you probably know, the ancient Greeks had four words for love. Or was it thirty? According to Greek scholars, it depends on the context. We have all heard about the three most likely to appear in a sermon or speech this month, “Agape,” “Philia,” and “Eros,” but these terms are pretty slippery in actual usage. In a nod to the narrative that Ancient Greece was the golden age of logic and reason – and because we need these concepts in order to write this blog – let’s just agree on the following: “Agape” means unconditional love (eventually for everything and everyone), “Philia” means both love among family members and love among comrades and friends, and “Eros” means romantic/sexual love. Two other loves not mentioned as often but just as important are Pragma – the love between long-term couples, and Philautia – love for oneself. Unfortunately, while this categorization is both poetic and illuminating, it doesn’t answer our question. Are these five things essentially the same thing or essentially different things? Intuition, and millennia of linguistic application, suggest the former, so we must ask: “What is the common denominator?”
Recent exploration has yielded what may be a revelation. English novelist Iris Murdoch is cited by another author as suggesting that
Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.
This… is heavy dude. Last month we talked about boxes we inhabit at different times for different purposes, but we all exist in another box that is not so porous – that of our physical and mental perceptions and activity. First, consider that we all live literally and unavoidably in the past, since it takes time for physical perceptions to travel to the brain, be interpreted and then reported to the consciousness. Everything we “see” and “hear” actually happened a split-second ago, and we don’t catch up so we never actually touch objective reality. Second, we all perceive different “realities” because we are all of us confined to discrete bodies and brains. A person who is 5′ 9,” for example, will sense a different world than someone who is 5′ 10. Given these conditions (and others not covered here), would it be impossible that we subconsciously doubt the objective reality of anything other than ourselves (it’s called solipsism)…and that, furthermore, we are aware, at some level, of that doubt? Well…how does it feel to subconsciously entertain the notion that nothing else in the universe exists? Too weird and lonely for words? It certainly isn’t something most of us would wish for consciously. Under these circumstances, the assurance, however fleeting, that we are not absolutely alone, that there is a larger objective reality we can be a part of, would be precious indeed.
Think of the first time you heard a musical piece you “loved.” Would it be accurate to say it “transported” you? The first time you saw the “love” of your life (if you have found such a creature) – did you logically note the occasion from the confines of your discrete mind-space, or find yourself, suddenly and gloriously, outside of yourself in a world without limits? When you eat one of the foods you “love” or read an unexpectedly sublime literary passage, do you not break temporarily into another realm? This is probably what Murdoch is referring to, and it appears to be a common denominator of Agape, Philia, Eros, and Pragma at least. (Philautia would take more time than we have here to unravel.) So “Love” could very well be the appreciation of whatever causes us to transcend ourselves. And, since we don’t consciously control the cause of our transcendence, Love is blind. It comes unexpectedly. We “fall” in love. Somehow the person or thing hits the right buttons and whoosh! we are outside of ourselves and part of something larger.
And here is where our inquiry curls back into Progressive values. Inclusion, the acceptance of people unlike us, also has its roots in first, a conviction that there is an outside objective reality and second, a willingness to share that reality. Is it possible for consistent, sincere inclusion to lead to Love? Well…think Mother Theresa.
Tis yet another reason, among so many, to be a Progressive. Have a wonderful St. Valentine’s Day!