The Primitive Cruelty of Modern “Love”

Several weeks ago, Saint Valentine’s Day at my school came and went. There was no dance. There was no concert. There was no ice cream social. There was no party for trading little gifts. There was no showing of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or Marty or Goodbye, Mr. Chips or Casablanca. There were no foolish and innocent flirtations on the way to class.

But there was some small notice taken of the holiday. A group of women, as has been customary for several years, rented space at a local theater to stage there what they are not allowed to stage at our Catholic college, the dreary, hapless porno-twaddle called The Vagina Monologues. A few hundred of our students made the trip across the city to watch it, including some young men motivated by a sort of homeless chivalry. The stated justification for the show is to protest violence against women—though, in Eve Ensler’s initial version of the play, the only violence against a woman was a lesbian drug-rape of a teenage girl, and that was celebrated as liberating.

So it’s come to this: Even lust now is gray and dispirited. The girls celebrate Valentine’s Day by putting on a series of vulgar and angry skits, to instruct the boys in how rotten they are, and the boys, most of whom have no particular desire to treat girls badly, roll their eyes and go along with it, or file it away with all the other petty resentments of our lonely contemporary existence.

Of course, there isn’t a feminist on my campus who will admit to these young women that if they really want to be protected from violence, they should marry a decent man and stay married to him, because such married women are less likely than any other group of Americans to be the victims of a felony.

Nor will they call for a return to chivalry, because that would imply an exchange of gifts, from man to woman and woman to man; and gifts are incompatible with the squint-eyed reckoning of those who see all human relationships in terms of dominance. It’s why they will never say to them, “You know, artificial estrogen is a class one carcinogen,” or, “For physiological reasons that are perfectly understandable, induced abortion puts women at a much higher risk for breast cancer.”

Doubtless the same people who affirm that women ought to enjoy special protection against physical violence—for men, after all, are both the main perpetrators of violence and the most frequent victims of it—were cheering the recent decision to plunk female soldiers into the ranks of the infantry and send them against young men at the peak of a man’s physical prowess, armed to the teeth, and on fire to kill, maim, loot, and rape.

It’s rather like desiring to live in a place never known to man, a half-a-jungle, or a jungle on even-numbered days and a Victorian drawing room on odd-numbered days. It cannot be. And make no mistake, a jungle it is, because lust by its very nature is cruel. The promoters of the sexual revolution thought that good will between the sexes was immutable; we could alter the conditions of their dealings with one another, and they would adjust accordingly, and they might even treat one another more honestly and humanely, once the starched-collar “rules” were dispensed with.

We should have known better. It’s never easy for men and women to admire and love, not just one exceptional member of the other sex, but the other sex generally. The triumph of undirected eros—old brute lust—has made that situation worse, and wrought a new sadness in the world. Men and women now have almost nothing kind to say about the other sex. It’s not that they don’t love one another. They don’t even like one another. The girls, I’m told, see the boys as threats—the creatures who will hurt them, drug them, and have their way with them, cajole them into bed and then dispense with them; and the boys see the girls as manipulative, hot-and-cold, quick to accuse and blame, and, frankly, emotional roller-coasters after the high winds have struck and left the soul a looped and tangled mess.

As I said, we should have known better. The great poets of our heritage could have taught us. Christopher Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander” is a tour de force of young love; it’s from him that we derive the great rhetorical question, “Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?” The beautiful lad Leander, struck by the beauty of Hero, becomes a “bold sharp sophister,” coining one chop-logic line of reasoning after another, all to win Hero over to his will—even though he is still too innocent to know exactly what that will desires. He will find out, though. He toys with Hero as with his sister, yet something in his animal nature leads him to suspect that “some amorous rites or other were neglected.” So he presses her to his bosom; she, as if afraid to be thrown to the floor, strives against him (in both senses of that preposition), and

the more she strived,
The more a gentle pleasing heat revived,
Which taught him all that elder lovers know.
And now the same ’gan so to scorch and glow,
As in plain terms (yet cunningly) he craved it;
Love always makes those eloquent that have it.

That scene is comical; the “love,” little more here than friction, “teaches” Leander everything that a “creature wanting sense” or an aficionado of love will know. But later in the poem, when the consummation comes, Marlowe, deft artist that he is, shifts from comedy to violence. The boy has swum the Hellespont, naked of course, to be with Hero, and shows up in that state at the door of her castle. She flees—into her bedroom, naturally, where she “hides” under the covers, and where Leander pursues her. Female provocation and male aggression, that is what we have here, and a half-hearted attempt by Hero to preserve her virginity, the aptly pronominal “it” that she pretends to want to save and he seeks to have. In vain:

Love is not full of pity (as men say)
But deaf and cruel where he means to prey.

Indeed, the very cruelty of the moment provides for a flutter and flurry of action, all of which adds to the excitement:

Even as a bird, which in our hands we wring,
Forth plungeth, and oft flutters with her wing,
She trembling strove; this strife of hers (like that
Which made the world) another world begat
Of unknown joy.

This is the jungle, and they who live there must be content with the laws of predator and prey.

“The expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” says Shakespeare, “is lust in action,”

and, till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.

It must be so. Beasts copulate; but men and women are meant to marry. They perform the marital act; they know, when they unite in that act, that it is, or it ought to be, the seal of a love that, to quote another of Shakespeare’s sonnets, “bears it out even to the edge of doom.” We are the creatures aware of time, and oriented toward eternity. We know that the act of marriage brings into the bond of love the past generations, whose history we bear in our loins, and the present, and the future, in the child that may be born of the act. We cannot copulate! We cannot forget, when we unite, that we are doing what our parents did, and their parents; we cannot forget that we are saying, with our bodies, “We now may beget a child, to whom we will be devoted together for the rest of our lives.” We can only tell lies, and in doing so mimic the beast, or rather “improve” upon the beast, since we add the power of our unleashed brains to the beast’s frank provocation or aggression.

For lust longs for the innocent mindlessness of the beast; and, to grasp that mindlessness, will pervert language itself, calling sex “safe” or “protected,” and cohabitation “honest,” and relationships “mutual,” which are nothing but forays into a jungle, where the strongest and most cunning survive. There is no way to make such a place habitable. The only choice is to leave it, and return to a land of love, humility, gratitude for the excellence of the other sex, and marriage.

This essay first appeared March 28th, 2013 on Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute and is reprinted with permission. The image above entitled “Hero and Leander” was painted by Nicolas Regnier in 1625-6.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I wish I had seen this article yesterday. I was attempting to explain the difference between eros and agape to seculars. For some reason, the word lust had completely left my mind.

    • JefZeph

      Yesterday? I wish I’d read it 25 years ago.

  • SarMos

    “It’s not that they don’t love one another. They don’t even like one another.”

    I work and study at a large university and have to agree with most of what you say, Dr. Esolen. At my college just 10 years ago boys and girls were “hitting” on each other all over campus during spring. Nothing wicked, just flirtatious. Everyone would dress a little nicer, smell a little better, work up the nerve to talk to that person they had their eye on all semester. A lot of those romances turned into marriage in the end (mine did!).

    Not so at this university. Most of the students walk around slack-jawed, staring into their phones. They wear unflattering stretch pants or baggy jersey shorts all year round. The majority of boys continue to slam doors in peoples faces, don’t say “thank you” for anything, and eat like slobs– it is no wonder they can only “hook up” instead of making it through an actual relationship. Girls are found all over campus whining into their iphones about their parents not sending them enough money or how they are failing classes because they are “under so much stress.” How can they like each other when that is what they’re like?

    • Jim Brickman

      Actually it’s worse yet. I’ve been reading blogs written by a growing population of seriously pissed-off men.

      What is so frightening about these men is their increasing hatred of women, perhaps in reaction to induced by the Feminist hatred they have been subjected to.

      What will Feminists do when “The War of the Sexes” turns into a real war…fought by men with guns and bombs. Against women.

      Imagine millions of half-crazed, angry teenage boys setting themselves to kill and maim any woman they find. Imagine the Boston Marathon combine happening every single week, in every city, inexorable and unstoppable.

  • Chris

    Brilliant. A heartbreaking exposition on how far we’ve fallen from God’s original plan for those he made in his image. This piece resonates well with the reason Blessed John Paul gave us the Theology of the Body.

  • woeur

    What is the excellence of the female sex? Emotions? I admit I’m extremely skeptical of them. I see them mainly as gossips who want to humiliate men because it gives them a rush. Today, I sense a movement among younger women for more traditional-style men, basically men who will act in traditional ways without women having to act in traditional ways. It’s just a power struggle.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      There is a French saying: “Whether a man marries or not, he regrets his decision.”

    • Bono95

      If you have been the victim of gossiping or power-hungry woman, Mr. Woeur, I am very sorry to hear that, and can understand why you don’t like ladies much in that case. However, not all women are male-bashers, though their numbers are quite possibly fewer than the male-bashers.

      The excellences of women include sensitivity to others, verbal and language skills, nurturing instincts, more taste buds and color receptors (in the eyes) than men, slightly better immune systems and pain bearing capacity, and last but not least, the ability to carry and give birth to children (hence the immune system and pain threshold things). In the same manner, men’s excellences include math and logic skills, greater speed and strength then those of women, better control over their emotions, and in conception, it is the man’s sperm that fertilizes the woman’s egg, contributes half of the new human being’s DNA, and determines his or her gender.

      It is most unfortunate for decent men and women everywhere that feminists deny these differences and bash men while ironically striving to make women more like men at the same time. What really happens is that both sexes are denied the dignity and respect that befits them. Men are insulted, emasculated, and shoved aside, women are exploited, lied to, and defeminized, and children are confused, neglected, or slaughtered.

      The women you mentioned who want traditional men are on the right track to fixing things, but if they really want things fixed, they’re gonna have to start being more traditional too. If more women start loving and respecting men again, more men will start loving and respecting women, and children will be loved, respected, and cared for by both sexes.

    • Theorist

      They are useful in reproduction. As Aquinas said, “It was necessary for woman to be made, as the
      Scripture says, as a “helper” to man; not, indeed, as a helpmate in other
      works, as some say, since man can be more efficiently helped by another man
      in other works; but as a helper in the work of generation . . . .”

      Of course, we can also say that women are better at practical day-to-day things like maintaining the house, teaching children (although, if men were so intellectual wouldn’t they be the teachers?), etc.

      That is at least partly, the value of females qua females.

    • WSquared

      I’m sorry you feel that way.

      But you’ve at least described a particular type of bad behavior among women, I’ll grant you that. I’m not sure I like emotionalism, entitlement, and gossiping, either, and neither do I like the fact that a lot of that rubbish is what is marketed as “for women,” and that enough women lap it up. I don’t even like the “emotional and proud of it” approach to love, religion and God, whereby the presumption is that because I’m “more emotional,” I’m necessarily more loving, and more “spiritual” than someone who is logical and intellectually inclined.

      But since you asked, the excellence of the female sex is receptivity.

      Where I think you are spot on, however, is that when it comes to the heart, it’s a question not of emotion, but receptivity– but receptivity to *what*? If you’re going to be more receptive to garbage, then it doesn’t take long to see what comes out eventually. For that reason, there’s a huge difference between the Virgin Mary, who “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” and the characters in your average chick-flick.

      Women may be more sensitive to others and more nurturing, but those things have to be rooted in what Fr. Schall has referred to as “the truth of What Is,” else, they run themselves off the rails. Reducing love and being a good person to “being nice” and an absence of “hurt feelings” is fertile ground for emotional blackmail. The far more important question is what a woman is nurturing, and what her sensitivity is being directed towards.

      While I know better than to presume that whatever goes on in any horrid clique is the norm for women, I’m not going to deny that that sort of thing exists, because it does. And we do ourselves no favors when we won’t discuss it. While not all women are as awful as you describe, in so far as women are sinners, they are still capable of behaving like beasts– not just toward men, but toward other women. This is a no-brainer for anyone who has any sense of Original Sin.

      Furthermore, in the absence of charity and truth, and truth in charity, what does the relationship between men and women become than a matter of manipulation? I hope I’m not being unduly harsh, but it’s something that Fr. Barron did point out in his commentary on the hook-up culture and Hana Rosin’s “savvy head-hunters”: all well and good, but what if the savvy head-hunter is outmaneuvered by a savvier head-hunter? What allows the person who is in the position of licking their wounds to know that they truly deserve better? Is it because “I’m worth it!” or is it because I am made in the image of God?

      What is wonderful about the Catholic faith’s teaching is that it states time and time again that love is NOT primarily an emotion, but an act of the will, even if the emotions are involved. Knowing that it’s an act of the will that’s about willing the best for the other as other allows one to acknowledge the emotions while knowing that they’re not the last word– truth, logic, and justice not only still count for something, but are imperative. It nips some very awful vicious circles right in the bud.

      I think Proverbs sums it up pretty well: guard your heart; all that you do flows from it.

      • Mj

        Whether an abortion is “induced” or not has absolutely no impact on cancer risk. As a professor you should be more responsible about the accuracy of your statements. You are entitled to oppose abortion but I would think you would be careful to support your opinion with facts .

        • Maria

          I think he means “induced” to contrast it to a miscarriage. Here is an article which supports his statement:

        • janet_baker76

          Oh, on the contrary, Mj! Pregnancy causes an increase in one type of cell in the breasts which is susceptible to cancer. Where labor and birth occur, hormones released at that time convert these cells to a different type which is resistant to cancer. Where have you been??? Miscarriage also increases the risk of breast cancer. Better read up, and if you’ve aborted, please get regular breast checks.

  • John O’Neill

    Professor Esolen, it should also be noted that the expression “Saint Valentine’s Day” no longer exists in the modern New American World State; I am afraid the word Saint had to be taken out of the name of the day in order to please the empty souls of the PC Americanos.

    • Bono95

      The “Saint” part has actually been gone for quite some time, but that’s all the more unfortunate.

      At least there’s still “Saint” in “Saint Patrick’s Day”.

      • John O’Neill

        In many circles it is called ‘Patty’s Day” and celebrated like a drunken student spring holiday. When I was young St Patrick’s Day was a very Catholic celebration with many parishes participating in the parade. Today it includes very few Catholics ; in Philadelphia the main ingredients of the parade are thousands of little girls jumping up and down as they follow a truck which is blaring ceili music and this is followed up by hundreds of drunken union thugs shouting out vulgarities. There is very little Catholic about the celebration and the green beer dispensaries make a fortune.

  • Dr. Esolen’s readers would do themselves a favor were they to read [again?] Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s encyclical “God is Love.” Follow that with my book “The Virgin Mary’s Revolution, or Love and do what you will”. The subtitle is straight from Saint Augustine; the book is basically guided by Benedict XVI’s encyclical. “[i]n the Virgin Mary’s revolution, she is the subject whose actions debunk the Old Covenant and bring about the New. The Love of God completely restores the world” (From the epilogue). Gonzalo T. Palacios, Ph.D., C.U.A. 1970.

  • susan sherwin

    No wonder. It’s Sts Cyril and Methodius day now.
    I think you’re so viril, please be my methodius cyril!

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  • SinnerJoe

    Beasts copulate to make more beasts. Humans copulate, to feel sensation. If beasts don’t make more beasts, they’re goners. If humans make more humans, they kill them, they’re goners.
    Tell me, who is the animal here?

  • Patsy Koenig

    I enthusiastically like your suggestion that women get married and stay married. Why do you not put your money hwere your mouth is, and denounce No-Fault Divorce for the redifinition of marriage that is: from lifelong, binding committment to going-steady until one or the other gets bored or thinks they can do better. Laws protect the innocent!

    • Dear Patsy — I have been denouncing it for years. I have been jumping up and down, waving my arms, and shouting, “Hey you sorry excuses for statesmen! What are you doing? Why are you ‘experimenting’ with marriage when you’ve already caused great harm with the mistakes you’ve made these last forty years? Why did you reduce marriage to the status of something less binding and less serious than a business partnership?” And to the theologians, “Hey you sorry excuses for thinkers! What are you doing? How can we possibly say to John and Mary, ‘That there child-making thing is for marriage and marriage is meant to be permanent,’ when you are winking and nodding at what Joe and Jim are doing?” The proponents of same-sex pseudogamy accuse us of ignoring all of the other sins against marriage — hey, really? Where have they been?

    • janet_baker76

      Me, too! When when will we begin to fight divorce?

    • poetcomic1 .

      As I am discovering in my own extended family, you can have ‘no fault divorce’ but there is no such thing as ‘no fault children’. Divorce makes children into ‘mistakes’ – they are a ‘misbegotten’ product of a marriage that is declared to have not have been a ‘real’ marriage. The children know and it breaks your heart.

  • Chad Koenig

    A well written article, Professor Esolen. For those who work, teach and live at a university, don’t let the lack of charity get to you. Time Magazine did an article on a study a while back, it found the most self centered, egotistical people are college students. No surprise, give them time, at the minimum they will learn a little humility once their jobs don’t pay 100K to start.

    Look at basic training and civilians to soldiers. They start as the same egotistical no it alls, and end up conforming to the army and being slightly happier because of it, though the training is not the end all be all, but a time tested method for breaking narcissism.

    • cestusdei

      I remember basic very well lol. We had a hard bitten tough as nails DI. My mother upon my return said that every young man should have to go through basic training. She was right.

  • Theorist

    I disagree with the article’s main point which is that men and women should love each other for more than just the possibility of sex. However, considered as such, I don’t think that women and men have any other value since the words “male” and “female” are defined with regard to sexual generation. So if I were to evaluate my “maleness” I would say that it is important w/regard to creating offspring and to go further would be to equivocate what “male” means.

    In my opinion, the sexes suffer from too much love by elevating the process of sex into something which is human and spiritual in itself. By these means, people tend to forget that sex exists to make other humans and that sex derives its value from something higher (new life). Of course, sex keeps a marriage close and this is also a good thing, but we should keep in mind that a marriage is merely the union between males and females which is divinely protected, for the production of other people (here however, I must ask, what about Josephite Marriage which cannot be as it were, “living” marriage since it never results in the “act” of marriage like child-birth?). So even marriage, a highly spiritual thing, is founded on a biological basis. To wax too poetic on marriage is ultimately to invite unhealthy fanaticism. and fetishism.

    • Bono95

      Actually, on your first point, C.S. Lewis theorized that although we often use the words “sex” and “gender” interchangeably, sex is really only a part of gender, which is something more profound. He cited the example of languages like French or Spanish where all nouns are either masculine or feminine. For things like gender-specific articles of clothing, the gender connection is obvious, but what is masculine about cats, dogs, and the sun, or feminine about houses, cars, and the moon? This thought led him to conclude that sex/reproduction is only a part of gender. Male is only a part of the masculine and female is only part of the feminine.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    I wonder what women would think if they really knew, I mean really knew, what the men who are bedding them thought of them. Would they care? My guess is that yes they would but could never allow themselves to admit they do.

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  • Facile1


    Is it even possible for a man to love a woman if he doesn’t love GOD first? By the same token, is it possible for a woman to love a man if she doesn’t love GOD first? Human love carries such an awful burden of expectations. It can crush mere mortals. “If you love me, you will always want to make me happy.”

    When one or both parties love their spouses more than they love God, the marriage still is doomed to fail (even if the parties manage to stay together in this lifetime). “If you love me, it will be forever.”

    For God is the TRUTH and the ugly truth about love is that, for the most part, true LOVE is unrequited. But perhaps LOVING God can protect one (and one’s beloved) from one’s ego and its cruel burden of expectations. “If you love me, you better never die.”

    So while it may stand to REASON that one cannot love another BETTER than one can love one’s self, one may not be able to love at all if one cannot LOVE God first.


  • Jamie

    God Bless You, Tony. That second to last paragraph should be etched on a plaque.

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  • Bill

    Baller article