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What Is This Thing Called Love?

by Tim Madigan

There is something perhaps a bit ridiculous about philosophers attempting to analyze the nature of love, and yet ultimately what could be a worthier topic? Unlike Socrates, I do not claim to be an expert on this matter, but I did become enamored, as it were, of various philosophical explorations of love thanks to my good friend David Goicoechea. While I was toiling away as a graduate student in philosophy at the University at Buffalo, David – teaching just across the Niagara River at Brock University in St Catharines, Ontario – was organizing a monumental 10-year series of conferences on the Philosophy of Love. These took place from 1991 to 2000, appropriately enough around Valentine’s Day each year (not the optimal time, I should add, for a gathering in wintery Southern Ontario/Western New York).

Professor Goicoechea’s efforts were, to say the least, Promethean, if not Herculean. Each year dozens of speakers addressed specific areas relating to love, such as the differing kinds of love: agape (divine or unconditional love); philia (friendship and comradeship); and eros (romantic or sexual love). Some of the world’s foremost philosophers with an interest in these areas were invited to give keynote addresses, and participants were urged to study and comment upon their writings. These included such stalwarts as Paul Kurtz, Martha Nussbaum, Tu Wei-Ming, and Raimundo Panikkar. It was thanks to David that I came to know of the work of the first such honoree, Irving Singer, the distinguished professor of philosophy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose prolific writings and deep understandings continue to inspire me, as you’ll see.

David, a self-proclaimed ‘Postmodern Catholic’, had an ulterior motive for organizing this 10 Years of Love celebration. Since the series was due to end in the year 2000 he meant for it to celebrate the coming Millennium, and emphasize the role of religion – particularly the Catholic perspective – in the 21st Century. Indeed, I well remember him telling me of his intention to invite none other than Pope John Paul II to be the final presenter. Being a more pragmatic thinker myself, I had to break it to him that the odds of getting the pontiff to come to St Catharines – regardless of the doubly sanctified name of the city – were pretty slim. But I did suggest that, instead, he should consider inviting the Pope’s right-hand man, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, at the time the Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger had also written extensively on love and, while a busy man himself, would be a more probable attendee. I have ever since taken uncharitable pleasure in reminding David that if he had followed my advice, he might well have gotten the Pope to attend after all, albeit a bit prematurely.

The love-themed articles in this issue address the nature of love in both spiritual and secular terms, and show that it is no easy matter to separate the profound from the profane. Kathleen O’Dwyer gives us an overview of Erich Fromm’s notion of love as an art which needs to be developed and practiced with knowledge and effort. Van Harvey then grounds us in the materialistic concepts of Ludwig Feuerbach, who gave a interesting atheistic twist to the concept of Christian love. Fittingly, David Goicoechea then brings us to the present with an examination of the writings of Benedict XVI (the former Cardinal Ratzinger) and their similarities to the writings of C.S. Lewis, one of the most beloved of Christian apologists. Alfred Geier follows, explaining how one aspect of love, the erotic, was seen by Socrates, the ‘big daddy’ of philosophy, in Plato’s dialogues. And I end this exploration by discussing Irving Singer’s monumental work The Nature of Love and the ways in which the writings of George Santayana have inspired him.

I hope the following articles will themselves inspire continuing dialogues on this thing called ‘love’ and I urge all readers who want to know more about the philosophical perspectives on the topic to read Irving Singer’s works. I must also say that it’s been difficult for me these past eleven years or so not to be involved in David’s Love Conferences. As the old joke goes, if you put up two signs, one saying ‘This Way to Love’, the other ‘This Way to Talks about Love’ the philosopher is the one who’ll take the second road. But for whatever reasons, my Februarys have not been nearly so exciting since David’s conferences ended, and I’m glad to be able to pay homage to them here.

Tim Madigan believes strongly that what the world needs now is love, sweet love, no not just for some, but for everyone.

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