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Question of the Month

What Is Love?

The following answers to this crucial question each win a signed copy of Mark Vernon’s new book, The Meaning of Friendship.

Within the English use of the word ‘love’ seven kinds of implicit bonds or commitments appear. There is the satisfying of a basic appetite (‘I love eating’); the desire to form a mutual relationship; and an emotional attachment formed through prolonged contact. These three forms can apparently be experienced by both humans and domesticated animals. The last form may be applied to objects as well as living things. A fourth conception of love is a chosen disposition or attitude to behave beneficially to another person, or towards one’s self. This use is formalised in a marriage ceremony as a commitment to love one another.

When it is depersonalised, the concept of love as a commitment of intent gives rise to a fifth form. It may be a devotion towards unspecified people or animals or something abstract: eg ‘I love music’. A loving disposition generally towards people might be called ‘altruism’. It offers no expectation of reward save that of reinforcing one’s self-esteem. This fifth form can be refined into a more abstract commitment, that is, to adopting a state of mind, as in ‘grief’ or ‘optimism’. This is the form of love which binds a person to the intention of acting lovingly without expectation of a reward, and even in spite of natural emotions. It is long-suffering, does not exalt itself, and thinks no evil, in contrast to the seventh form. Being in love has a dominant characteristic of ‘enchantment’. It is elusive in that it may arrive without intention and disappear spontaneously.

Neil Leighton, Totnes, Devon

Classical Greek accounts of the nature of love include many kinds of disparate states under the heading ‘love’. In The Meaning of Things, A.C. Grayling reminds us of the range: agape – an altruistic form; ludus – a playful affection; pragma – emphasising a long established commitment and understanding; storge – a loyal attachment among siblings and comrades, and mania – featuring obsession, and often associated with sexual passion. Drawing on Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of language, and the aesthetics of Wollheim and Weitz, it’s possible to argue that rather than them having shared properties, it is more a case of ‘strands of resemblance’ among the diverse kinds, levels and types of love; for example, between lovers, spouses, partners, and family members; or toward pets, the arts, sports, food, motor cars, deities (and their love of adherents), etc; and of course, toward philosophy (a double love). Clearly the uses of ‘love’ are not limited to that which “over-throws life. [Is] unbiddable, ungovernable – like a riot in the heart, and nothing to be done, come ruin or rapture” ( Shakespeare in Love, 1998). Nevertheless, there surely is a need to claim something general, if not strictly generic, about the state of being in love with somebody, something, or some activity or occupation. That is, despite the possibility of ruin or rapture, there appear to be survival advantages to being in the state of love, from the evolutionary sense of promoting progeny, to enhanced thriving – spiritual, utilitarian and/or aesthetic absorption – whether transient, superficial, intense and passionate, or profound and enduring.

Colin Brookes, Woodhouse Eaves, Leicestershire

Love is a long-term state of Being involving the emotions and the intellect which is characterized by existing in relation to an Other. Emotions, although not all of love, form a major part of this state. Obviously, positive feelings must exist, but they are of a different calibre than more common positive emotions. ‘Like’ and ‘love’ hold hands, yes, but only over a wide gap, despite what teenage girls squeal at each other. So, what is the difference between liking and loving? One intuitive answer is that ‘love’ is to ‘like’ what ‘happiness’ is to ‘pleasure’. Another answer is that love lasts and is capable of existing in the presence of negative feelings. Try liking someone while disliking them. Hard to do, isn’t it? But we all know that you can love someone while disliking them.

The intellect also contributes to love. One of the things that sets love apart from the other positive emotions is that it involves a choice. Liking and disliking are often controlled by impulse; but love is a choice, despite what the romantics say. This choice to love is the beginning of the commitment that forms the thinking part of love. The intellect is able to rise above the often irrational emotions which generate like and dislike, and thus keep love intact when one’s beloved develops the annoying habit of eating their peas one at a time, say.

So, emotions plus intellect equals love? Try another – make that an Other; love requires something to love. To love is to exist in relation to an Other; to not want to exist out of relation to that Other: to love establishes a link between the lover and the beloved that makes them two sides of the same coin.

Love is best thought of as a timeline. It begins with the positive emotions. Next comes the choice of commitment. More time passes. Finally, the emotions, bolstered by the commitment, form the lover’s worldview, until this view permanently includes the beloved. A new state of Being is born – love.

Matthew Hewes, Edmond, Oklahoma

Perhaps we should start by saying that ‘love’ is merely a subjective classification for a group of feelings and qualities that we hold in the highest regard. When someone or something fulfils all these criteria at the same time to a high degree, I will say to myself “Ah, this is love.” If I value intelligence, laughter and good manners, and someone or something can meet these all, I will find myself feeling love. ‘Love’ then is a classification for the meeting of pre-developed criteria, which may or may not be applied consciously. The perception of these qualities, when found in a combined form, outside or inside ourselves, can be called love. How it is felt depends on the grouping of feelings and qualities which are of most value to each person.

This way of looking at love enables us to account for love in all its different forms; good and bad, gentle and tough, limited and unlimited. Love is as unique as we are individual. But as with anything, love is not quite as simple as that. Obviously, as a civilized society, we place values on what makes up a person’s love. I mean, the feelings and qualities which make up love are shaped by society and its laws and values, at least to some degree – so that although love can be seen theoretically as a truly individual thing, it is impossible in practice to fully separate it from the influence of the wider views of humanity. But we ought to take the individual as a product of society anyway, so we can say love is still individual within these boundaries.

Anoosh Falak Rafat, Erith, Kent

I am inclined to suggest that love is not an emotion, but an action. When one says “I love x” what is being said, whether x is your spouse, pet, hobby, etc, is that you care about this thing enough to tend to it and constantly maintain your relationship with it. In this way love becomes the same type of action no matter what object is being discussed. Love defined as an act of maintenance means it is not confusing to say you love your spouse and love your hobbies, because you are no longer implying that you somehow have the same emotion for such different things. If you love a person, for example, you are supportive of them, you listen to them, and you make an effort to keep your relationship strong. If you love reading, you will maintain your relationship with books too, this time by reading often, and by seeking out new literature.

Defining love as an action rather than an emotion helps make clear the distinction between the emotions you may feel toward a variety of things, and helps describe your relationship with the things that you love. In this way you can avoid the problem of explaining how these emotions can be related, because it is in fact not an emotion at all.

Catherine Welch, High Point, North Carolina

“Tell me again how much you love me.”

“Oh dearest, no laboratory can concoct the endocrine messengers that I hold for you! Come, dearest! Fuse with me!”

“How I love it when you talk dirty!”

Evolutionary biology is apparently the bane of poets, romantics and the religious. What was once a sublime, divinely endowed attribute is now unmasked as fraud, a concoction of neuropsychological and hormonal messengers that principally serve to bond us for only as long as it takes to fuse egg and sperm, and perhaps to raise the product into adulthood.

So much for romantic love (a by now discredited noun). Unlike this noun form, the verb form of love is costly. Anyone can feel noun love; indeed most of us seek it, and often we obtain more than we give. Romantic love is entirely egoistical. Doing love, on the other hand, requires more than simply finding someone to adore us. It requires thoughtful actions that entail sacrifice and commitment. But these actions do not come cheap, and, depending on the depth of love, the cost can be as much as a life. However, the world would be dull and morbid if loving only involved hurling ourselves between a loved one and a bullet, or donating a kidney, or even secretly feeding them more food than ourselves during a famine. So we may thank evolution not only for endowing us with exciting romantic love, but also for letting us know about it. Romantic love is pleasure itself. Therefore, although romance often ends in heartbreak or acrimony, one thing the poets can’t intelligently moan about, is that we know and feel it.

The same is true of acting in sacrificial love. But whereas romantic love is essentially for taking, sacrificial love is purely for giving. An evolutionary advantage attaches even to sacrificial love, perhaps through strengthening bonds; yet meaningful change is a good reason for valuing highly this kind of love even beyond its evolutionary benefits.

Humans will never be entirely altruistic lovers. That would require us to be ideal beings without needs or the capacity to suffer. Love, one guesses, is something only a mortal can feel. Yet, the fact that we would, if we could, be entirely selfless lovers, not only elevates love to the heights of the poetic and sublime, perhaps it takes us beyond. Love, although a critical evolutionary vehicle, is nonetheless an undeniable feeling about which we can indeed also wax lyrical.

Habeeb Marouf, Salerno, Italy

The English metaphysician F.H. Bradley, who for a short period in the early twentieth century was hailed as Britain’s greatest philosopher, showed us that fundamentally, love is an experience beyond self: love is the experience of the Absolute. Whatever is your life, whether you are a motor mechanic, a dentist, or an astronaut, says Bradley, love is what you experience when you become aware what you really are – when the subject and the object becomes one, whole and indivisible. That is a ‘real’ experience – every other experience is a mere ‘appearance’. What you believe is real experience is like watching a 3D movie. It caters to your senses, it can be either pleasure or pain, but it is never an experience of deepest truth, as love is. The problem is that none of us can remain in the present because we live in time, and time is constantly changing. When we learn to stand still, not at the level of the body, but at the level of the mind, and become aware that we are not what we thought we were, then love may manifest itself in experience and become absolute for a simple split second, or more. In Buddhism this is called ‘Enlightenment’; in Christianity, ‘Heaven’; and in our ordinary day-to-day life, ‘ Happiness’. So love is happiness experienced at the level of the mind, devoid of time, when you become one with the Universe, without cares, worries, pain or pleasure. Don’t seek it, go after it or chase it, simply experience it – then you will ‘know’ what love is.

Ignatius Udunuwara, Univ. of New England, NSW

Next Question of the Month

The next Question of the Month is: Who Or What Am I? The prize is a random book from our stockpile. Let us know what it means to be a person in less than 400 words, please. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 25th January. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Submission implies permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically.

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