Greg Spearritt does an Aubrey’s Brief Lives on some renowned philosophers from the Western canon, with a focus on their love lives.
We sometimes think of philosophers as disembodied thought machines. They are, however, people, with feelings, emotions and relationships. Warren Ward’s Lovers of Philosophy (Ockham, 2022) examines how, in the words of its subtitle, “the intimate lives of seven philosophers shaped modern thought”.
It is perhaps unremarkable that philosophers might be inclined to buck the usual mores of their society. Six of the seven that Ward surveys – all white, Western men – share a flouting to some degree or other of the Good Christian Expectation that they will restrict their libidinous expression to marriage.
Ward’s book prompted me to look further into the lives of these and other well-known philosophers. ‘Philandering’ may not be an entirely accurate term for some of those I researched, but it seems appropriate for many. My suspicion is that the tendency to have affairs amongst this cohort is less about a principled intellectual position and more about successful people (mostly male) simply taking advantage of their position and their celebrity.
Descartes did not marry, but had at least one relationship, with Helena Jans van der Strom, a domestic servant at the house he lodged in in Amsterdam. Their daughter Francine lived only five years.
John Locke (1632-1704)
Locke did not marry and had no children. He did have a close relationship with Damaris Cudworth Masham, wife of Sir Francis Masham, a lady he found “so well versed in theological and philosophical studies, and of such an original mind that you will not find many men to whom she is not superior in wealth of knowledge and ability to profit by it”. 1. Though he was attracted to her mind, their relationship is said to have been platonic.
How reliable this last might be is an open question, in light of criticism from an erstwhile friend of Locke’s that he was “avaricious, vain, envious, and reserved to excess” and “he took from others whatever he was able to take, and he profited from them”. 2.
Voltaire did not marry, and had no children. He did, however, have a succession of mistresses and lovers, including most likely his own niece. His most significant relationship was with (the married) Émilie, Marquise du Châtelet, a talented mathematician, of whom Voltaire declared:
“That lady whom I look upon as a great man… She understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short she makes me happy.”
The arrangements between Voltaire and Émilie were apparently accepted by her husband.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Though Kant had a long-term, reciprocated interest in the intelligent and refined Countess Caroline von Keyserlingk, there’s no evidence to suggest it amounted to a physical relationship. Thoughts of marriage were a mere fantasy: she was simply, literally, out of his class. For Kant, “the moral law within me” was of prime importance. He is, perhaps with Locke, an exception to the rule of famous male philosophers making the most of their influence by philandering (and, indeed, often by flaunting their philandering). It seems he was a lifelong celibate. 4.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)
At the age of 36, with his head newly full of dialectical idealism, Hegel the virgin took a bedsit in the German university town of Jena. His landlady, Johanna Burkhardt, some ten years and four children into an unhappy marriage, became his first lover. Johanna was not well to do, and poorly educated. Her husband, an unpredictable alcoholic, abandoned the family soon after her affair with Hegel began.
At the same time as demands were increasing from Hegel’s publisher for a manuscript of his first philosophical work, Napoleon’s forces were advancing on Jena. To boot, Johanna delivered some sobering news: he was going be a father. Following the French invasion (during which he had hived off – without Johanna and brood – to more secure lodgings offered by the parents of one of his students) he returned to Johanna. By time baby Ludwig was born Hegel and his lover were almost destitute. A friend found him employment some 120 miles away, and he set off, promising Johanna he’d send money and return in the spring to marry her.
At Bamburg and subsequently Nuremburg, Hegel gradually gained social respectability and regard. The Phenomenology of Spirit was well-received. He began to feel the need for a marriage more in keeping with his new social status, and quietly forgot his promise to return to Johanna, though he did try to provide monetary support for his son.
Baron von Tucher’s 19-year-old daughter Marie caught his eye, and though she was from the nobility, she consented to marry the 40-year-old philosopher. Hegel’s worst fears came to pass, however: Johanna heard about the impending marriage and arrived in Nuremburg seeking restitution. Until that moment, the von Tucher family knew nothing of Hegel’s former relationship or bastard son.
The marriage, remarkably, was not derailed, and Marie can be credited with behaving in a graceful and dignified manner throughout their long partnership. After many ups and downs, the marriage ended with Hegel’s death from cholera in 1831.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Nietzsche declared himself an “immoralist”, and hated “being enmeshed in the whole ‘civilised’ order of things”. He was enamoured of a few women, including Cosima von Bülow, the (married) mistress of Richard Wagner, though there’s no good evidence their particular relationship was physically consummated. It seems he was repeatedly unlucky in love. He finally declared marriage to be “a barrier and a disaster along [the] route to the optimal” and in a fit of misogyny called women “weak, typically sick, changeable, inconstant”. Clearly, however, Nietzsche was no celibate: his final collapse into illness and madness was the result of syphilis rather than mere philosophical angst.
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
Russell was married four times, and his affairs, during his bouts of marriage as well as between them, were numerous. They included T.S. Eliot’s wife, Vivienne. Russell’s own take:
“I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness – that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what – at last – I have found.” 5.
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)
In his 30s, with his wife Elfride and two young sons at home, and becoming a philosopher of some note, Heidegger began an affair with one of his students, the 19-year-old Hannah Arendt. While that continued, he took another lover also. He remained in touch with both women for much of his life.
Heidegger’s wife came to know at least of the affair with Arendt, and was terribly jealous. As Elfride, however, had confessed to her husband that their second son was not in fact his, she did not have a moral high card to play. Their marriage lasted, but Elfride was plagued throughout it with jealousy of Arendt, as after the terrible period of Nazi Germany Arendt went on to become a renowned philosopher in her own right and continued, at the very least, intellectual engagement with Heidegger. Indeed, after joining the Nazi party during the war, Heidegger found himself relying on his friendship with Arendt to help rehabilitate his reputation.
Arendt married twice, the second time with reasonable success. There is no evidence her physical relationship with Heidegger continued beyond the initial affair.
Ayn Rand (1905-1982)
Rand married actor Frank O’Connor; their marriage lasted 50 years, until he died. There is no suggestion either of them ‘strayed’.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
These two philosophers had a famously open relationship. Though in many respects they were ‘soul-mates’, they didn’t marry each other, and both took many other lovers. Sartre in particular was notorious in this regard; even in his 70s he took a young mistress and boasted of having nine women in his life. He did support many of his lovers financially and in other ways, it must be said, including this last mistress when a psychotic episode on her part ended their relationship. In his later years, a female confidante of Sartre’s found a number of young women willing to have lunch with the aged philosopher and accede to his requests to grope them under the table while they told him salacious details of their sex lives. 6.
De Beauvoir had both male and female lovers, including a 17-year-old student who was a pupil at the school where she taught. For this last situation de Beauvoir was formally suspended from teaching in France. She did, of course, go on to become a renowned feminist philosopher, though her relationship with Sartre remained central to both their personal and professional lives.
- Cited in https://www.themarginalian.org/2014/02/14/voltaire-in-love/
- Though Kant decried prostitution, it has been argued that Kantian duty-based ethics could be used to argue in favour of it.
- The Prologue to Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography: https://users.drew.edu/jlenz/br-prolog.html
- Lovers of Philosophy, p.222
Disclaimer: views represented in SOFiA articles are entirely the view of the respective authors and in no way represent an official SOFiA position. They are intended to stimulate thought, rather than present a final word on any topic.