The philosophy of love is one of the smaller areas of philosophy but one that has fascinated thinkers since ancient times. Love is a very complex phenomenon that encompasses sex, friendship, self-love and selflessness, as well as God’s love in many religious traditions.
Is love patient, or just expensive?
“Love is patient, love is kind,” St Paul wrote. It’s also fiendishly complicated, as everyone can attest from their own experience. In this series of posts (which are based on my university course on love), we will try to examine love over the course of the next three months, and to answer, as best as anyone can, the old question of the song: What is this thing called love?
Is love patient, or just expensive?
Like many other phenomena in our culture, our understanding of what love is has been commercialised and used to make us buy things: “Sex sells” is the universally acknowledged rallying cry of the advertising business. The media and the advertisers have an interest in narrowing down our understanding of love to only these aspects of it that can be made into products and sold: pink plastic hearts filled with chocolates, eroticised fashion that one needs to buy every half year from scratch, expensive beauty treatments and skin care that is in no way different from the love potions of older times. “Now with blue corn!” the blurb on the skin cream says, as if the stranger the ingredients, the more likely the cream will be to have genuine magical powers (an ounce of bat’s wings, a teaspoon of tiger’s teeth…).
But love has been around a lot longer than commerce, and it is a lot more varied than we usually think. Our time has finally, again, freed homosexual love from its centuries-old suppression by a conservative, church-led society. But while LGBT appears to be a new thing, the truth is that two thousand years ago, in ancient Greece, homosexual love was considered the only true Eros. Yes, we needed the other sex to make children, but that was a practical matter. The highest form of love was reserved for the love between men (okay, there has been some progress in this respect, too) and when you talked about the ideal couple, you would perhaps point to Socrates and Alcibiades, the old philosopher, running around the town square barefoot, and his dashing, young officer boyfriend. Love between old and young was common, and not frowned upon, and even lesbian love was tolerated and, sometimes, celebrated, as in Sappho’s poems. (She lived on the island of Lesbos, nowadays known better for the horrors of the Moria camp, which, by a terrible irony of history, has the same name as Tolkien’s deadly mines of Khazad-dûm).
Another form of love, often forgotten today, is the love of monks, nuns and hermits towards God. Hard to commercialise, it seldom appears in Facebook ads, but it has been going strong for the better part of three thousand years, and some of the best women and men of every generation, and in every country of the world, have devoted their whole lives to it.
But love has been around a lot longer than commerce, and it is a lot more varied than we usually think.
But then, one might ask, is this really love? Or rather, is it the same love as what happens between lovers? Is Christian love not something entirely different, a kind of better friendship perhaps, that only accidentally we use the same word for?
Well, look at this description of love:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth –
for your love is more delightful than wine.
Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
your name is like perfume poured out.
This is from the Bible (Song of songs), and presumably describes the love of God. Or this:
My heart and my arteries, and all my limbs quivered and trembled with desire. I felt myself so violently and dreadfully tested, it appeared that if I did not give satisfaction to my lover entirely, to know him, to taste him in every part of his body and if he did not respond to my desire, I would die of rage…
That’s the 13th century Christian mystic and poet Hadewijch of Antwerp, and it’s easy to find similarly racy descriptions of God’s love in many of the medieval mystics, even those who have been proclaimed saints of the church, like Hildegard von Bingen or St Teresa of Avila, who wrote:
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.
So it seems that the boundaries between the Christian and the carnal are more fluid than we like to imagine.
Romance, sex and friendship
But then, what is romantic love? And how can we distinguish it from friendship, for example? Many movie comedies play with the story of friends who, at some point, and often rather against their will, become entangled in a love affair with each other. Is then romantic love just the same as friendship, but with sex included? And is an asexual romantic relationship at all possible, or would the two partners then become “just friends”? For that matter, can we live a worthwhile life entirely without sex? Monks seem to think that we can. How about a life lived fully without any love at all? Is this possible, and would we want to lead such a life?
But then, what is romantic love? And how can we distinguish it from friendship, for example?
The questions go on and on. We can all identify with the hero(ine) in a movie, falling madly in love with the handsome/beautiful/brilliant love interest. But why exactly do they fall in love? Is it because the other is so handsome, beautiful and brilliant? If that’s the case, then what would happen if, a week after these two met, another person comes along who is even more handsome, beautiful and brilliant? Should the two now separate, admit that they got the wrong partner, and switch to the new one who has the right properties to an ever greater extent? But then, why would anyone just stay with their student boyfriend or girlfriend, instead of marrying the attractive professor? We don’t seem to behave in this way, and indeed, such opportunistic behaviour seems to be morally bad in some way. One who drops their partner at the first sight of someone more handsome does not seem to us to be a particularly good person. We value faith. But why?
And what if Peter married Anna, one of two twins, and now, after half a year, Anna discovered that Peter is not really her type? But her twin sister Bella, indistinguishable in every way from Anna, has in the meantime grown to like Peter just fine. Could they just switch identities one night, so that Peter wakes up in the bed with Bella, believing for the rest of his life that he’s living his marriage to Anna? Would replacing Anna in this way be in any way problematic? And why exactly?
We think that being selfish is not good. We all are, to some extent, and we often feel bad about it, as if being selfless was the only really good attitude towards one’s own interests.
And yet, a career requires not only ambition, but also the willingness to outcompete others, to harm them, by snatching away the position that they, too, have applied for. Is it then bad to be selfish? Should we be entirely without self-interest? But then, would we ever make friends? Isn’t the point of friendship to find someone with whom I can share my life in a way that benefits me, or is pleasing to me, too? I have the friends I have, and not others, because these friends give me what I need: a kind of companionship, common interests, understanding, support… and I do the same for them. It seems that if I was entirely disinterested in any benefit that I might get from a friendship, there wouldn’t be much reason to have friends at all. Or I could just, indifferently, aspire to be everyone’s friend to the same extent (which probably would mean being no one’s friend).
So is self-love morally right, wrong, necessary, meaningless? Are selfless love and friendship even possible?
The mysteries of love
We could go on like this for another ten pages without running out of questions. Obviously, love is as complex as it is badly understood, and the more we experience its complexity, the less we seem to understand it. In the following posts in this series, we will try to bring some light into the matter. We will examine what philosophers have thought about love, from Plato to the present, and we will see how love was experienced through different times in human history, and how it is, even today, seen very differently in different parts of the world.
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