What is Love?

Celia Coll
14 February 2016


what_is_loveAnd before you all reply ‘baby don’t hurt me’, let me explain what I’m trying to do here. Unless you have been living in isolation for your entire life (and in this case, congratulations for being able to read this), you will be aware of the concept ‘love’ and of instances in which it is deemed appropriate to apply it. For instance, you will know, if you’ve read Emma, that Mr Knightley loved Emma, but that Mr Elton did not love Mrs Elton. You are able to point it out whenever you see it with a high level of accuracy, but as soon as you try to define it, trouble arises. My aim here isn’t to try and tell you what love is. If three years’ worth of philosophical training have taught me anything, it’s that giving definitions of concepts willy-nilly is just asking for trouble. Instead, what I propose to do here is to explore what we all understand by love, at least in the West. Sadly, I don’t have the knowledge to talk about how the concept is understood elsewhere. Also, given it is Valentine’s Day today, it seems thematically appropriate to make my discussion revolve around erotic love rather than other sorts of love. Let us begin, then.

These days there seems to be a contention as to what love really is. Some think of it as this made up social thing that you’re meant to strive for, and others seem to think it’s this strange metaphysical force which binds us all together- the stuff of life, if you will. I personally prefer the latter approach, but I think that’s because I really like the idea of mysterious metaphysical forces- maybe they look like force fields. But whichever explanation you prefer, it doesn’t really matter ultimately. There are lots of made-up things out there (laws, money, art) which have very real impacts on our lives. They even, in some cases, make or break our happiness. This perhaps is not the case for erotic love- I am not about to eschew some Cosmo-esque reprimand against the happiness of single people. It might be more useful to think of love, not just erotic love, as a whole as the stuff of life. This seems plausible to me, but I should also point out that the last time I had a date on Valentine’s Day, I was told off for staying out after curfew- it was a while ago. What I’m trying to say here is not that having a date on Valentine’s Day is necessary for the experience of erotic love, but rather that most of the love I have felt has been of a non-erotic nature and that it has sustained me just fine. It seems, however, like having genuine erotic love in one’s life does seem to help towards one’s happiness. It also seems to be the stuff of life in the sense that it seems to enable the making of babies. As those of us who have sat through that very awkward class in our early teens where the girls got spoken to separately from the boys will be able to tell you. But lust also has this property. And this is only true of erotic love if you are in the sort of relationship which could lead to reproduction or child-rearing of some sort. As the rambling here suggests already, reducing the idea of erotic love to anything, even something general and vague like ‘the stuff of life’, will lead to trouble. Yet we all understand the idea of true erotic love being what makes or sustains life, whether you buy into the idea or not. So let’s tap into this idea of this true, erotic, life-sustaining stuff.

The idea of ‘true love’ is programmed into us quite early on. This is especially if you happen to have watched a lot of films which involve princesses as protagonists. The question now is, then, what sorts of elements separates a ‘true love’ from a lesser sort of love. In order to get a bit clearer about this, I looked at the Symposium, which of course is a rather famous text on this subject matter. Here, various criteria are considered. My favourite bit of the text has always been when Aristophanes talks about soul mates. So I’m going to talk about that. Aristophanes makes his speech after some other guy at the dinner party is done talking about how true love can’t just be about sexual desire. So Aristophanes chooses to tell us the story of how man came to be. In his story, the first humans were made up of what we would now consider two humans. They were attached to each other and did everything together. This first humans were very strong and the gods got worried about its power. So Zeus did the reasonable thing and sent Apollo down to cut these people in half and to tidy up all their scarring in their bellybuttons. These new individuals felt gutted and died of despair. Zeus felt so bad for them that he gave them genitals in the front of their bodies so that they could, ahem, reconnect. The people then desperately would cling on to anyone just to feel whole once more. The thing is you can only reach that true wholeness if you reconnect with the creature you were once whole with. Now, I am not asking you to buy into the idea of the soulmate. This story is clearly metaphorical. And there are many ways of reading the metaphor. You might allow for one’s being able to have more than one soulmate or not believe in them at all. But whatever your opinion, I think you will agree that there seems to be an element of truth in the idea that we are better suited to higher connections with some individuals than with others, and, that to feel that higher connection with a fellow human being is to feel a wholeness that we have been made to experience but had forgotten about. Or at least this is the case if we are to take (in a most anti-platonic fashion) most poets’ word for it. I personally think that John Donne’s metaphysical poetry captures this feeling really well.

Another thing that seems to separate true love from its lesser counterparts is passion. I hasten to add that by ‘passion’ here I am not talking about anything that glossy magazines are trying to pick out with this word. Nor am I talking about the highly unlikely scenario of Mr Rochester calling out to Jane Eyre in blinded despair and her hearing him, from miles away. The sense in which I am trying to use the word is most associated with Christianity, and with Christ more specifically. We call Christ’s sacrifice a passion because the fact that he gave up something precious in the name of something else means that he was passionate about that something else. So to be truly passionate about someone or something is the willingness to give up things that are really important to you in the name of that someone or something. I am not trying to suggest here that love should always be some sort of martyrdom. Simply that love, if it is passionate, is about being willing to make sacrifices, from an afternoon when you really wanted to be in the cinema instead of cleaning up your sick lover’s vomit, to career choices, or whatever. Like with passion for anything else, passion in erotic love seems to come in waves. You might not feel it as strongly today as you did yesterday. But if we are to believe what certain old codgers say about it (which we might not), it seems like true passion is constant. It changes over time, but it doesn’t die.

A final thing I wanted to talk about is the distinction between conditional and unconditional love. A condition, broadly speaking, is a statement which involves the word ‘if’. In the sentence ‘if it rains, I’ll stay in tonight’, ‘if it rains’ is the condition under which I will stay in tonight. With this in mind, we can have a very clear picture of what conditional love is. It’s love modified by an ‘if’ clause, e.g. ‘I love you if you’re beautiful’. Conditional love appears in subtler forms as well. Let’s think about what’s going on when we say that we love someone ‘because’ of something. ‘I love you because you’re beautiful’, is, when we do the logic behind it, also ‘I love you if you’re beautiful’. The ‘because’ implies the object of this individual’s affections not beautiful, then she would not have the individual’s love. Each and every ‘because’ we employ to explain our love for someone is a condition under which your love is bound. Note that this isn’t necessarily the same thing as loving something ‘about’ someone. But even if this is so, it seems like most of the erotic love we have felt has been conditional in some sense. Maybe you only love someone if he remains faithful to you, or if he keeps his addictions at bay. It’s certainly different from the love a parent has for his child. I was actually discussing this particular point with some friends not too long ago. They asked me whether I thought unconditional erotic love could actually exist. I replied that I hoped so, but I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe there is something about erotic love which makes it different from the love parents have for their children and it’s better not to open the can of worms which draws the parallel too closely. It might depend on the conditions under which one loves someone. In any case, it would seem, from this that ‘loving someone unconditionally forever’ is an awful way of testing whether one’s erotic love is true. Unless of course, you are willing dismiss all loves which don’t last for the rest of the lover’s life as unreal. Remember that if you love someone unconditionally, there is nothing which can make you stop loving the object of your affections. You might think this way. Personally, I’d rather not.
Now I’ve discussed some of the points people think are important when deciding whether the love they feel is ‘real’ or not, and I have probably told you nothing you didn’t know about love already. It seems like, if anything, I have just pointed out how difficult it is to know anything other than what you already know about love. But if I have done my job properly, I have also provoked you to think about the whole thing more deeply than you do usually. And erotic love seems to be an appropriate topic upon which to ponder on a fine cold evening of the 14th of February.

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