The Meaning of Love
What is love? This is probably the most thought about thing in the whole of human history. In line with this, some have said that love is “all there is”, or “all you need”, but these are really just comparisons. So, then, is love really all we need or do we even need it at all? Well, here’s the thing, the truth is that these sentiments just define love, by contrast, saying it’s more important than all other things. Of course, this only serves to rank the concept of love, not to define it. More to the point, if love is a thing that can be properly defined, then how can it mean so many different things to so many people? This is precisely why the debate has lasted for millennia, and it will never end until we do. Love is more than just a construct, but at the same time, it’s very much culturally dependent. In this sense, love is really a fake concept that we all convince each other to try to live up to for a false sense of purpose. However, this can be viewed through a number of different dimensions, including personal, emotional, historical, legal, spiritual, and more.
Throughout time scholars have identified numerous different kinds of love. As an example, in theology, there is the concept of divine love, which is known as “bhakti” in the East and “agape” in the West. Bhakti is a Sanskrit word that can be translated to mean attachment, participation, fondness, homage, faith, love, purity, devotion, or worship. It was originally used in Hinduism to refer to devotion and love for a personal deity or a representational deity by a devotee. Bhakti in Indian religions is “emotional devotionalism”, particularly to a specific god or goddess, or to certain spiritual ideas. As such, the reciprocal love between Radha (the supreme lover) and Krishna (God as the Supremely Loved) is the subject of many poetic compositions such as Hari Bhakti Shuddhodhaya and the Gita Govinda. Similarly, agape is a Greco-Christian term referring to the highest form of love, which is the love of God for man and of man for God, or of Goddess for woman and woman for Goddess. The verb form of the word agape goes as far back as Homer, literally translating to affection. However, this has since come to mean an unconditional feeling that transcends and persists regardless of circumstance. This is also infinitely more potent than a mother’s love for her child, being different in both kind and degree.
Along with this, Chinese tradition has two philosophical underpinnings of love, although one is currently far more prevalent. Regardless, Confucianism centers on benevolent love (“ren”), while Mohism centers on universal love (“ai”). The former focuses on duty, action, and attitude in a relationship rather than on love itself. That is to say, Confucius wanted people to express their benevolent love by performing actions such as filial piety or loyalty to the king. Meanwhile, the latter seeks to replace what the philosopher Mozi considered to be the long-entrenched Chinese over-attachment to family and clan structures. The idea is that we are meant to be loyal to our species over our nation. Thus, the concept of the Mandarin term “ai” was first developed by Mozi in the 4th century BCE in reaction to Confucius and his notion of “ren”. However, due to the dominant influence of Confucianism, the phrase “I love you” now carries with it a very specific sense of responsibility, commitment, and loyalty. So, rather than frequently saying “I love you” as in some Western societies, the Chinese are more likely to express feelings of affection in a more casual way. Consequently, “I like you” is a more common way of expressing affection in both China and Japan.
The thing is that humans haven’t always fallen in love with each other in the same way. In fact, prior to the thoughts espoused by the Romantics, marriage was seen as entirely transactional, and not at all emotional in nature. Weddings were arranged to bring about the expansion of kingdoms. Therefore, kings would have mistresses because their wives were not necessarily their lovers. In sharp contrast to this, marriage is now thought of as a much different kind of commitment in the eyes of God and man. Just over two centuries ago, in Scotland during the year 1812, a daring new couple got married in a secret ceremony. The groom was a nobleman named John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, and his wife was a woman named Harriet, the illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Cholmondeley. The problem was that their families were furious and desperately tried to stop the wedding. However, the couple was modern which meant that they believed that love should come first and practical considerations should come second in a marriage.
The following year, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published in England in 1813. In the groundbreaking novel, a rich and handsome man named Fitzwilliam Darcy proposes to a woman named Elizabeth Bennet. His offer of marriage promises to fix all her problems, but she still says no to him. Elizabeth believes that a woman should love the man they have betrothed themselves to. In her book, Jane Austen is deeply concerned about romance and money. Her analysis is that to marry only for security is just as bad as marrying only for love. This is one of the last great fusions of the philosophy of Classicism with that of Romanticism. That is to say, in Pride and Prejudice Darcy and Bennet have to be improved. He has to be done with his pride and she has to be done with her prejudice. So, the moral of the story is that we have to work together to build loving relationships. This was a radical departure from what had been done before, further ushering in the Era of Romanticism.
Later, Americans in the early 19th century believed that marriage was an important aspect of life to fulfill human happiness. Middle-class people wanted their home to be a place of stability in an unstable and uncertain world. This conventional mentality created a vision of strongly defined gender roles and social expectations, which provoked the advancement of the free love movement in the mid 20th century. Thus, the hippies of the 1960s stepped outside of their constraints, in an unconscious effort to make humans more like bonobos. “Free love” gave rise to a social movement that rejected the institution of marriage, which was seen as a form of social bondage. The movement’s initial goal was to separate the state from sexual matters such as adultery and birth control. These came to be seen as personal rights. As part of this, the “sex radicals” were strongly opposed to the idea of forceful sexual activity in a relationship. They also advocated for a woman to use her body in any way that she pleases. These beliefs then became central to Feminism, urging us to move from patriarchy to matriarchy. This was also very much a paradigm shift from concerns of national warfare to personal welfare, and it all touched on the notion of love in one way or another.
Although monogamy is practiced by many different species, fidelity is something uniquely modern to the human condition, and it may even be an aberration. Either way, scientific evidence would seem to indicate that chemicals in your body stimulated by another person can make you develop a habit for that person. That is to say, the person comes to satisfy a physiological craving, and your brain wants more. This materialist view of love is that it is a kind of physical addiction primarily guided by lust. So, from the perspective of evolutionary psychologists, love is just a facet of sex. As such, this reductionist take on love is that it’s our DNA’s optimal method for bringing about its own replication. Moreover, these kinds of arguments can be made regarding every mating behavior of Homo sapiens, from how we display ourselves to potential mates, to how we treat each other in relationships, to how we raise our children, and so on and so forth.
The thing is that this is only half the story, at best. This is because love is something that we feel deep in our souls, as well as our bodies. In one sense, love is just an attempt to escape from loneliness and suffering. In other words, love is something that makes us whole. Some have even said that love is what makes us whole again. The classic example of this is found in Plato’s Symposium. As the story goes, there was a dinner party, at which Aristophanes, a comic playwright, regaled the guests with a story of his own. In it, humans were once creatures with four arms, four legs, and two faces. Then, one day, they angered the gods. As such, Zeus sliced them all in two. Since then, everyone has been missing half of him or herself. This longing for a soulmate is what the ancient Greek polytheists believed to be the emotional basis for love.
The idea is that we need someone to complement, as well as compliment us. Simply put, the aspects of our partners that we find most desirable indicate what we admire but lack. Thus, our personal inadequacies explain the direction of our desires. The French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir put her own twist on this and proposed that love is the desire to integrate with another and that it infuses our lives with meaning as such. The thing is that she was much less concerned with why we love and far more interested in how we can love better. She understood that dependence on another to justify our existence could easily lead to power struggles. So, to avoid this trap, Simone de Beauvoir advised loving authentically. From her perspective, lovers should support each other in discovering themselves, to enrich everyone involved. In essence, she was saying that by losing ourselves we will find ourselves, in each other.
In The Art of Loving, the psychologist Erich Fromm asserted that love isn’t merely a feeling but that it’s also actions and that the emotion is superficial in comparison to one’s commitment to love via a series of caring deeds over time. In this sense, Fromm held that love is ultimately not a feeling at all, but rather it is a commitment to, and adherence to, loving actions towards another, oneself, or many others, over a sustained duration. Fromm also described love as a conscious choice that in its early stages might originate as an involuntary feeling, but which then later no longer depends on those feelings, but rather depends only on a conscious commitment to the other person. Philosophically, this is an existential approach to the concept of love that returns to the classic notions described by the ancient Greeks. This is what Jane Austen wanted everyone to learn. Love is a team-building exercise that has to be practiced even though it can never actually be made perfect.
In many ways, love is about tempering ourselves. To some, it can be just as much about abstinence as indulgence, which requires a great deal of prudence. According to the philosopher Bertrand Russell, we love in order to quench our physiological and psychological desires. Similarly, Buddha proposed that we love because we are trying to satisfy our base desires. However, the former believed this to be a good thing, while the latter believed it to be a bad thing. Siddhartha Gautama even left his wife and child to become the Buddha. He came to believe that our passionate cravings are defects, and attachments, even romantic love, are a great source of suffering. As such, the “Awakened One” developed the noble eightfold path, to help people extinguish the fires of desire so that they can achieve Nirvana. Granted, not all Buddhists think this way about romantic and erotic love, but this does reveal a completely different way of thinking about the concepts specifically. This is very much at odds with the original tantric teachings, such as those found in the Kama Sutra.
Ultimately, the bottom line is that the diversity of uses and meanings combined with the complexity of the feelings involved makes love unusually difficult to consistently define, especially compared to other emotional states. An example of this wide range of meanings is that the love of a mother differs from the love of a spouse, which differs from the love of chocolate, and so on and so forth. However, most commonly, love simply refers to a feeling of strong attraction and attachment. Plus, as time goes on we will undoubtedly uncover new types of love. You see, the ancient Greek philosophers only identified a few different forms of love, but since then there have been numerous other versions added to the list, including things like unrequited or infatuated love. So, as I said before, love can be thought of as something positive or negative. That is to say, love is a virtue when it leads people to be compassionate, but it is a vice when it leads them to be codependent. So, really, when you get right down to it, the meaning of love is whatever we make of it, for better or worse. Such is the philosophy of fondness.