Despite its title, Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of Love is not a systematic history of the subject, but a series of loosely-linked essays examining love from many different angles, many of them literary. It is the latter on which we will concentrate, but the rest of the book makes very good reading as well.

Ackerman is a poet and independent scholar rather than a specialist researcher; and her scholarship is not always impeccably up to date, but she is generally trustworthy and always stimulating.

Note: the pages below are treated in order of the assignments for this class rather than strictly chronologically. They cover somewhat less than half of the book.

pp. xxvi-xxiii

Identify a statement she makes about love that you find particularly insightful or which you agree with and explain why. Identify a statement about love which you find strange or surprising and explain why. What is it that she says remains the same about love throughout history? What changes? You may be surprised to find after her opening statements here how extremely variable she finds love to be in the following chapters. What do you think of her claim that “The way we love in the twentieth century is as much an accumulation of past sentiments as a response to modern life”?

pp. 1-17


What is the most interesting (to you) thing she says about Cleopatra? What was special about Egyptian attitudes toward women? Ackerman assumes here that King Solomon wrote the Song of Songs commonly attributed to him; but many modern scholars believe it was written much later than his time and associated with him because of its subject matter. Egyptian women are often depicted hunting birds and fishing with their husbands. What is the reason the woman in the second poem has returned home without any birds? Do you agree with her that we tend to idealize all the qualities of beautiful people? What does she argue is the reason that we tend to use nature images in love poetry? The word “mnemonic” means “having to do with memory;” it is not clear to me what she means by it in the phrase “Love is often depicted as a state of mnemonic possession” except that she is probably punning on “demonic possession.” Perhaps she means “possessed by a memory.” Have you ever encountered the concept of love as a disease before? Does it make sense to you? In what way does she say that being in love and being a child are similar? What genetic reason does she give for the incest taboo? When she says that “the Bible often refers to (and condones) incestuous marriages,” she is probably thinking of relationships like that of Abraham and Sarah (half-siblings, see Genesis 20); but the Hebrew scriptures are generally quite hostile to incest. From what bit of evidence does she deduce that homosexual love existed among the Egyptians?

pp. 17-39


In what way does she say Athens in the fifth century BCE was like America in the sixties? In what ways were women restricted in ancient Greece? Why did these restrictions lead to homosexual behavior among men? What qualities set courtesans apart from ordinary Athenian women? What moral qualities did some Greeks ascribe to homosexual love? What was the Greek attitude toward the relationship between virtue and beauty? In what way did Greek attitudes differ from the modern emphasis on the primacy of the nuclear family as the basis of society? What was the relationship between love and marriage? The story of Orpheus and Euridyce has been told in many works of art, literature, and music. It was a particularly popular subject for early operas because Orpheus was made into a sort of god of music. Which do you find the most interesting of her speculations as to why Orpheus turned back?


Describe Roman attitudes toward women. The story of Dido and Aeneas has been depicted in many works of art and in the famous opera by Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens. This story well reflects Roman values because it depicts the triumph of duty (and imperial conquest) over love; but Ackerman tells the story from Dido’s view, which somewhat obscures this point. Which wedding customs do we inherit from the ancient Romans? The mistaken notion that the Romans engaged in constant orgies is a result of the scandal-mongering of historians like Tacitus and Suetonius, who hated the imperial family and attributed to them all manner of outrageous behavior. The point to remember is that these scandalous stories were repeated because they were considered scandalous: regular Romans did not approve of such goings-on, and were in fact generally more “Victorian” in their morals than modern Americans.

pp. 39-43

Neither of the explanations Ackerman gives for the low birth rate among noble Romans is supported by current scientific research. In fact, it is a well-known fact that when people become well off financially they tend to have fewer children. What was Augustus’ attitude toward marriage? What do you think of Ackerman’s attitude toward Ovid? Do you agree with it or disagree? Explain.

pp. 95-99

What is the meaning of Aristophanes’ fable? How do religious supplicants use erotic imagery?

pp. 314-322

Choose one or two of the uses of erotic imagery by religious mystics discussed here and react to it. In what ways are nuns the “brides of Christ?” What does Ackerman mean by saying that she is agnostic but deeply religious? In what ways does she compare the love of God to human love?

pp. 43-60

In what ways have women been associated with cleanliness? What was the Church attitude toward tournaments? How did the Crusades affect French noblewomen? What was the Medieval Christian attitude toward sex in marriage? What ideas about love did Medieval readers take from Greek and Roman authors? In what ways is Ibn Hazm’s attitude toward love similar to that of Medieval Christian thinkers? Those who idealize the troubadours are often surprised at the behavior and writing of the first of them, Guillaume IX (here called “William”). In fact the troubadours were far more earthy and sexual than they are often depicted. What was the “avant-garde and dangerous idea” they advanced? What were the principal characteristics of love in their view? Strictly speaking, “troubadours” were always Provençal-speaking poets from southern France. Their northern equivalents, coming somewhat later, were called “trouvères.” Both words mean “finder” or “creator.” The notion that courtly love affairs were not consummated is widely held, but false. One has only to read the prose tales of such love affairs rather than the poetry–which is better known–to find abundant sex (see, for instances, the lays of Marie de France. Poets wrote about their frustration as a way of persuading women to make love with them, but when they succeeded they tried to be discreet. The result is that we have a lot of poetry about love-longing, but not much about fulfillment. Ackerman is following an old-fashioned, nineteenth-century view of courtly love of as perpetually suspended in the non-physical realm. Otherwise she does a good job of describing the stages through which a courtly love affair was expected to pass. How are they similar to or different from the stages we expect a love affair to pass through today? What does it mean to say that “Virtue became the European harem?” When Ackerman says that jealousy was considered noble among lovers she is exaggerating somewhat. Most Medieval guides warn against jealousy among both husbands and lovers, though lovers often express their jealousy in their poems. How does she say that the notion of intimacy between lovers arose? What do you think of her claim that love has been the main subject of writers since the eleventh century? What do you find appealing about Medieval attitudes toward love?

pp. 105-112

The story of Tristan and Isolde was even more popular in the Middle Ages than the very similar story of Lancelot and Guinevere, which is better known today. The finest Medieval version is the Tristan of Gottfried von Strassburg. In what ways does this story seem different from the patterns described earlier as characterizing “courtly love?” The word “passion” is actually derived from a Latin root meaning “suffering” (as in “the passion of Christ”). What do you think of the statement that “three years is about as long as ardent but unthwarted love can last?” In what ways does she argue passion is a kind of longing for death? Do you agree? Why do you think people enjoy reading about unhappy lovers?

pp. 66-75

What were the conflicting attitudes toward women during the Renaissance? In what way did earlier centuries depict women in the way that we have tended to depict men in modern times? Love matches became popular in fiction and drama in Shakespeare’s time, but more as an escapist fantasy than as an attainable ideal. Romeo and Juliet is in part a lesson on the dangers of impulsive young love–undoubtedly exciting but potentially deadly. Even in the next couple of centuries, when true love triumphed over parental inflexibility, it usually did so through compromise, with the beloved turning out to be just the sort of person the parent wanted for an in-law all along. It is worth noting that although fourteen- and fifteen-year-old girls did marry in Elizabethan England, the actual average age of marriage was much older. What makes Shakespeare’s lovers different from Medieval ones? What are some of the different sorts of love depicted in Romeo and Juliet?What characteristics were admired in courtly women during the Renaissance?

pp. 75-82

We know about Casanova’s adventures because he wrote about them in great detail in his memoirs, The History of My Life. Ackerman neglects to mention that whereas Casanova was a very real person, Don Juan is fictional. Does the account of Benjamin Franklin make you feel differently about him? How?

pp. 177-196

What qualities make human lovemaking different from animal mating? Do you recognize her description of flirting? Is it familiar behavior? Ackerman’s examples of evolution among various races to match their climates have been challenged in recent years by some biologists; she notes herself a number of exceptions to the seemingly obvious linkage which people have traditionally made. What survival advantages does “cuteness” confer? What reasons does she give for women cutting their hair short? What do you think of her arguments?

pp. 255-256

What sorts of things does she find erotic? Can you think of other examples in art you have seen?

pp. 82-91

What change in the late eighteenth century caused the shift toward placing a value on the individual? What quality in the Enlightenment was the Romantic movement reacting against? Beethoven did not write all of his quartets while deaf–only the final ones. There is a recent–very bad–movie about Beethoven’s love life entitled Immortal Beloved. It departs radically from what we know about his real life. In what ways did the nineteenth-century Romantics revert to Medieval patterns? What was distinctive about the new attitudes toward love? What were the effects of Victorian ideals on sexual behavior? What events and movements have caused our time to be so radically different from the Victorian Age?

More study guides for Love in the Arts:

Created by Paul Brians August 29, 1997.