In laying the foundation for his theory of special relativity, Albert Einstein insisted that in order to call geometrical propositions “true” they must have a physical reference frame to have truth about. Any mathematical description of a physical object or event has less reality than the object or event described. While logically coherent, Euclid’s system, as an edifice of the mind, does not quite qualify as “true” in the strict sense, since truth means the mind’s conformity to the world. An actual building, for instance, even if architecturally imperfect (or incomplete), has more reality than the most perfect blueprint of that building. In comparison to the real building, the blueprint is simply a system of geometrical abstractions. The mistake often made by the children of the Enlightenment — which Einstein attempted to correct — recalled the mistake made by Plato and his children, first corrected by Aristotle and re-corrected over and again by philosophers of moderate-realism throughout the ages. Because the problems dealt with by Einstein in the twentieth century so resembled those of ancient Greece on through the Renaissance, this modern digression has oddly sufficient relevance to Shakespeare or, for that matter, any of his contemporaries. Sub sole nihil novi est.
In “Sonnet 116,” love possesses a dual character. The first aspect, Love as an ideal entity, functions like a blueprint. A blueprint, albeit without substance, still provides the vitality requisite to the project of construction, based on hordes of previous experience by those who have already built; blueprints organize the ideas of the architect to convey to others what he has in mind. With outlandish humility, the blueprint guides the construction of what will end up something more real than itself. Shakespeare uses Love in the first sense like a blueprint, “an ever-fixèd mark,” a constant. Another principle uncovered by Einstein indeed concerned constancy, namely, of light. Everything begins and ends with light: light which has slowed down means essentially the same as objects with mass, or objects simply. All things, in a sense potential light, imitate light by reflecting it. “Love’s not Time’s fool” in principle since the latter — the numbering of motion or change, relative by definition — cannot affect Love which, like light or a blueprint, remains constant. Love maintains its nature (“is not love which alters”) regardless of the fickle nature of lovers (“when it alteration finds”). This introduces the second aspect of Shakespeare’s twofold use of love.
The hitherto discussed meaning of love in “Sonnet 116” found Love as a constant. The relative has no meaning without reference to the constant. The second meaning in this duality consists of love relative to Love, as an analogous, dynamic, act of loving. Love is to light as the act-of-loving is to time. In Aristotle’s adjustment of Plato’s Forms — in which the ideal’s only actual locality resides in material substances — whiteness, for instance, does not exist except in white things; form only exists in substance, the “marriage” of form and matter. Similarly, the form, Love, exists in the substance, man. Since love imitates Love, one cannot be a lover but by loving — abstract Love in concrete lovers. Imitating an ideal, the lovers’ imperfect imitation still has more perfection than the ideal, at least in the Platonic sense. In the Thomistic sense — that alchemical union of Plato and Aristotle — the lovers participate in the ultimate Act-of-Loving, or God, an expression of Itself more real than physical objects, from which these objects derive their existence, which in turn shape the mind of man by means of their intuitive structures. Aquinas salvages and revitalizes Plato’s Forms by relocating them in God (Ipsum Esse). Love in the latter sense culminates in a real, objective standard for lovers, especially taking the Thomistic analogy into its wider Christian context, namely the eternal reciprocity of the Trinity. In either case, nothing gets lovers out of some anchoring schema which withholds “true minds” from admission of impediments. True love, the “marriage of true minds,” requires conformity with Love’s yardstick, as it were, without which one may call it neither “true” nor “love.”
Shakespeare’s couplet would only appear foolishly mawkish without all the foregoing explanation. The terse argument concerns the relationship between knowing the truth (“if this be error and upon me proved”) and the generation of being (“I never writ, nor no man ever loved”). Love, in either aspect, generates being, reproducing its basic generosity (families, after all, categorize the layers of being among them by the term “generations”). The generation of being occurs when the relative participates in the constant, when lovers-in-action participate in the Act-of-Loving, when post-luminous mass reconstitutes itself to constant light. Construction imitates blueprint, and what lovers do (present active infinitive) now imitates what their parents did (perfect, frozen past). The speaker means exactly what he says. The absence of light results in chaos; of God, non-existence; of a map or blueprint, strandedness or homelessness. Thus “if this be error,” the speaker “never writ,” not in addition to, but because “no man ever loved.” Without a constant — whether God, light, or a blueprint — nothing has intrinsic intelligibility, no ruler by which anything else may measure, resulting in total disorder. But one cannot discern disorder except as a contrast against, departure from, or privation of, order. Without light one could not observe motion. A profound realism, not a hackneyed idealism, pervades the thought that “if this be error and upon me proved,” Shakespeare, his speaker, his hearer “never writ, nor no man ever loved.” Measuring their love-action to Love, lovers ought acquire and live Love’s nature that their act-of-loving might become that constant and “ever-fixèd mark, that looks on tempests and is never shaken.” Love’s architecture, imitating and giving life to its blueprint, alters “not with his brief hours and weeks.” It finds perpetuation beyond thought and beyond time in lovers, who bear “it out even to the edge of doom.”