Love in the Romance Genre: Friendship, Ethical Improvement and Conditionality

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 13 November, 2019

Aristotle "makes friendship, rather than sexual relationships [...] the supreme form of love" (May 56) so initially one might assume that his view of love would be at odds with that of most romance novels. However, what he termed

philia is a form of devotion that is best translated as 'friendship love', but that flourishes not only between what we normally think of as friends, but also in all these other sorts of relationship [to spouses, siblings, children, parents, or sexual partners] at their best. And so sexual intimacy, for example, isn't in principle opposed to friendship-love. (56)

In this type of relationship, the friends identify with each other "as if they were 'a second self'" (56). As Guin K. Guin points out in "An Aristotelian Approach to Jane Austen's Mansfield Park", "If there is any relationship in which we are called on to love our “friend” as a second self, it is marriage. As marriage is also meant to be a permanent relationship, it requires the same stability arising from the virtue of both parties as does complete friendship" (Guin 12-13).

Jane Austen's heroines often express a need to respect and have similar views to their future partners, although admittedly some of her protagonists need to change before they can achieve an Aristotelian type of "complete friendship" in marriage. Here, Erin Stackle argues, Austen actually "supplements Aristotle" (202). He argued that philia "is, in its very essence, ethical. It is possible only between two individuals who are good - and indeed are good in similar ways. What Aristotle means by 'good' is much more than simply agreeing on rules like telling the truth, or not stealing, or keeping promises. He means that they share an entire conception of the best way to live life" (May 57). What we see in Pride and Prejudice is an illustration of

how falling in love can convert to virtuous friendships characters otherwise likely to remain blinded in vice.

In Austen's novel, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are the most virtuous characters presented. There remains, however, a serious disparity, not only between them and complete virtue, but also between the two of them. The scene in which Austen presents Darcy's proposal of marriage to Elizabeth clearly articulates how unlikely is a virtuous friendship between them, and starts the mutual character conversion that leads to their ultimate friendship. (202 Stackle)

I wouldn't say that every romance depicts such a conversion or even that an Aristotelian "virtuous friendship" is present in every romance HEA, but I do think it's present in many. In a way, philia is much more compatible with an obligatory HEA than is pure eros:

Erotic love, like ambition for power, can kill those who get in its way or refuse to submit. A certain possessive violence that cares nothing for morality, or at least for conventional mores, seems to belong to its nature, and, indeed, is often seen as proof of its authenticity and strength. We disapprove but aren't completely amazed when lovers stalk, or turn on, loved ones who fail to reciprocate.

Whereas if a friend started behaving to us like this, consumed with jealousy of our other friends, determined to possess us, and furious if we failed sufficiently to requite his affections, we would be impressed not by the power of his friendly feelings but by their poverty.

This isn't because friendship is an anaemic bond compared to erotic or romantic love. It is a very different sort of love. It is, in its essence, a two-way relationship. [...] Though in perfect philia one experiences one's friend as one's 'other self', and to that extent as continuous or even identical with oneself, one does so in a way that explicitly respects his integrity and agency and distinct life, and is dedicated to finding, nurturing and enjoying the good in him. (May 57-58)

An attraction with a strong ethical component, between people who "share an entire conception of the best way to live life", is also necessary if, as Pamela Regis has argued, one of the essential components of romance is a "society [which] is in some way flawed; it may be incomplete, superannuated, or corrupt" (31) and which the protagonists "must confront in their attempt to court and marry and which, by their union, they symbolically remake" (31).

On the other hand, the RWA's definition of the HEA states that "the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love" and Simon May argues that philia is incompatible with unconditional love:

Aristotle's insistence that philia depends on - even essentially is - an ethical relation means that he is dead set against [...] two myths about ideal love [...]: that it is unconditional (it loves the other regardless of her qualities or of changes in her qualities); and that it totally affirms the beloved, her 'bad' as well as her 'good'. [...] But if love is so conditional, then - contrary to another myth about ideal love - it isn't necessarily constant, let alone eternal. [...] It isn't just that philia cannot be expected to be constant if the other person becomes irreversibly bad. Aristotle seems to go further: one should drop a friend under these circumstances. (58-59)

With regard to the protagonists' future, I think that, as Stackle observed in Austen, the emphasis is on depicting love improving protagonists and creating a bond which supports the continuation of that virtue into the HEA. This minimises the possibility that either will become "irreversibly bad". As for unconditionality, my suspicion is that when the RWA decided to use the term "unconditional" they did not mean it in the sense that the love between the protagonists is entirely unrelated to their qualities. I think they meant that the love would develop into the kind which, once fully established, does not continually set new conditions for it to continue. This sort of unconditionality, as well as constancy, can be considered almost certain given that

Normally, of course, we would expect philia to survive because it is based on something as robust as the friends' excellences of character ('their friendship lasts as long as they are good - and excellence is an enduring thing'). These qualities are so fundamental to who someone is that to love him in this way is to love him 'for his sake'. It is to love him for the person he is, and not merely because he is useful or pleasurable to us. (May 59)

These are issues I'm going to be thinking through a bit further in my current project. I'd be interested in others' thoughts!


Guin, Katherine A. "An Aristotelian Approach to Jane Austen's Mansfield Park". Ph.D thesis, Florida State University, 2015.

May, Simon. Love: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Stackle, Erin. "Jane Austen's Aristotelian Proposal: Sometimes Falling in Love Is Better Than a Beating." Philosophy and Literature 41.1 (2017): 195-212.

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