Talking with Andrew Shaffer on philosophy
More folks might sign up for philosophy 101 if they knew the truth about philosophers. Or so Andrew Shaffer suggests in his new book, "Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love" (Harper Perennial, $12.99 paper), a wry collection of tales about the love lives of the Western world's greatest thinkers, in all their fumbling, adulterous, lecherous glory.
There's Jean-Jacques Rousseau (a flasher), Jean-Paul Sartre (adopted his mistress), Simone de Beauvoir (adopted her alleged mistress) and Louis Althusser, who (accidentally, mind you) strangled his wife in her sleep.
Shaffer, who lives in Iowa and runs a greeting-card company, the Order of St. Nick, offers up what may be this year's most offbeat Valentine's gift.
So . . . were you a philosophy major and wanted to prove your degree could be useful?
No, I was an English major and wanted to prove my degree could be useful. I didn't take many philosophy courses in college. It gets very esoteric.
What sparked this idea?
It started with Friedrich Nietzsche. I was really into Nietzsche, before college. Jim Morrison, Marilyn Manson, all these rock stars would reference Nietzsche. So I read some of his works. They're pretty interesting, but you get the idea this guy's a little . . . crazy.
Did you really work on the book during your honeymoon?
We went on an Alaskan cruise. I'll be kind and say that a cruise is . . . an acquired taste. There's a lot of down time.
Still - your honeymoon.
You know, for months I read stories about [thinkers] so obsessed with their work they never found time for love. I thought - am I gonna turn into that? Then I'd say, "At least I don't throw knives at my wife," like Auguste Comte.
Of the 37 philosophers you profile, who's the worst?
Rousseau fathered five children with this one woman - a seamstress - and told her they had to give up the children to orphanages, because they weren't married and that would bring shame on . . . her. Not him. Her. He also flashed women in alleyways - and wrote about it. I mean, basically, he was like a combination of Tiger Woods and Brett Favre.
Althusser's no prize, either.
He was a 30-year-old virgin who had sex, broke down and had to have electroshock therapy. That's a good indication that maybe this isn't for you. But he got married, then at the end of their relationship, something like 40 years, he accidentally strangled her - or at least that's what he says. He wrote his autobiography [and it's] fairly disturbing to read his account of it.
I've had some people say, "I don't know if I should read your book, I'm not that smart. I didn't take any of those classes in college." But this is a human-interest story. You don't need schooling for that. I usually say, "Hey, it has pictures in it."