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Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved: Part II

Brian Leo Small

This is the second post in a series of three exploring philosophical questions about love inspired by Beethoven’s letter to the Immortal Beloved.

PART 2. Evening, Monday, July 6 (or, “Love, Firm as Heaven”)

“Is not our love truly a heavenly structure, and also as firm as the vault of Heaven?”

Of firm things, the vault of Heaven might not be the first to come to mind. Grips, handshakes, and mattresses maybe; but Heaven, one supposes, is actually quite unfirm – ethereal.

So, if Beethoven’s love for the Immortal Beloved was indeed “truly a heavenly structure”, what about its being heavenly made it firm besides?

Beethoven’s association of divinity and firmness recalls the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. For Plato, knowledge and its objects are the firmest, most divine things around. Plato doubts we’re able to acquire knowledge through sense perceptions. You see that stick and think it’s straight? Suppose I put half of it under water so now it appears bent; what would you think then? And more importantly, on account of what do you say that you ‘know’ either way?

Plato’s point is that we form different opinions based on our sense perceptions in different situations. Yet knowledge is something far firmer; only when reasoning intellect grasps unchanging truth can we properly be said to ‘know’. In this way, knowledge and the objects of intellect are firm, divine in contrast to opinion and the objects of human sense perception.

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“…herein lies the divine in man – I weep when I reflect that you will probably not receive the first report from me until Saturday…”

Plato and Beethoven don’t agree on everything. Sure, they may both see divinity and firmness walking hand in hand. But where Plato locates “the divine in man” in knowledge, Beethoven locates it in love – specifically the kind of love he had for the Immortal Beloved.

Perhaps you’re wondering, But what kind of love is this?! Heavenly and firm sounds good to me, but what’s actually involved?

Beethoven points us to this: It’s love that weeps at absence. It’s love that mourns distance. It’s love that, even in absence and distance, devotedly reaches for union. And there’s something divine about a human heart stretching beyond itself in this way.

If Beethoven’s love is divine in this way, then its firmness lies in its unrelenting reach for something beyond itself. So passionate yearning may be as stable and unchanging as grasping truth with intellect.

This view of love may explain what Maynard Solomon refers to as the “continual series of flirtations” that characterized Beethoven’s romantic life – he never could rest fulfilled. But if that’s one edge of the sword, perhaps the other redeems it: a famously daring, ever-ambitious musicality.

“Oh God – so near! so far!” Beethoven writes. And all the firmer because of it.

Noelle Lopez studies Philosophy at the University of Oxford; her doctoral project explores prospects for an interpersonal ethics rooted in Plato’s thought on love. Sometimes in her free time she writes other things too. Her creative fiction, poetry, and playwriting have been performed at venues in California, Arizona, and England.

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