♦ LAST UPDATED ON March 5, 2021 ♦
“What is love?” is an often asked question. Yet, a definition and the meaning of love (which are not the same) cannot be rendered in a few simple sentences.
Love is passionate by default, as in ‘being in love.’ Poets and novelists intuit love as a most delightful phenomenon of highly personal and deeply intimate relationships. Love breaks molds, begets new belongings, and makes life worth living. Thus, love is rather virtuous. Here’s more of what to know, more of what the meaning of love is.
This is Us
Surely love — passionate as it always is — cannot arise without mutual attraction and be nothing less than profound affection and some esteem for each other. Reciprocal and non-exploitative, love eventually kindles surrender due to enchantment and thus delight in each other, both in body and mind so as to not leave anyone wanting.
Yes, that is a lot to ask of love.
Out of Reach for Many
Does love happen all the time, always to its fullest, and everywhere to everyone? Nope. Just imagine what a young, single male living with his parents in an Alaskan village of 187 people has to figure to make love come true for him. Or what about that single, middle-aged mother working as a street vendor in New Delhi, India? Can she worry about anything else than feeding herself and her kid?
Realistically, love seems to be out of reach, unnecessary, or otherwise not feasible for a whole lot of folks on Planet Earth.
Nevertheless, it is not just a safe, new belonging that people seek, but also the delights of passionate love — often rather secretly.
There aren’t that many delights to be had while ‘being loved’ or ‘being cared for’ by either a mate or a deity. Such one-sided love induces shame after all. More delights are found in the undisturbed act of reciprocal and non-exploitative loving between a man and a woman. That is to say, ‘being in love’ with another in both mind and body is truly exhilarating!
And yet, love and its delights are also regularly dismissed, forgone, or forsaken as being too indulgent, unsafe, impractical, or inconsequential. Surely, love does not simply make a man or woman an outright ‘good’ person.
Some folks, especially those afflicted with an overdose of nostalgia, may be unable to appreciate what they would call love’s capriciousness. Human love, they point to, not the sacred love of a divine being. But what possibly is the nature of love that humans ought to return to their deity?
Even the love of a god can be capricious. Some members of new religious movements may remember once ‘dropping everything’ so as to join such a movement, much to the consternation of their parents. Oh, and what about the medieval Crusades? No, God’s love is not necessarily any less capricious, risky, or unsafe.
Profane or sacred, sacred or profane? The romantic and/or erotic beginnings of real love in lasting conjugal relationships deserve to be recognized with respect instead of mere suspicion.
Often, however, the themes of sex and family dominate the center stage of life. Human love is then viewed as a risky extravagance, even for people living in privileged circumstances, and rather kept under wraps.
The prevailing cases of men abusing dependent women do not help to install confidence in love, either. However, women know how to have it their way as well.
Not to be Taken for Granted
A love surely can also be short-lived. Some folks, man and woman, go intentionally only for the cherry on the cake and then move on from each other. That is not us.
Having perhaps survived bouts of romantic love during teenage years, most folks seek stable, long-time relationships and understand that real love relationships are not to be taken for granted. That does not sound very romantic, but life –they say — is such that there appears to be no ‘gain without pain,’ even for the most optimistic.
Finding the right mate then amounts for the cautious — for most — to settle for a good-enough Mr. Right or a good-enough Ms. Perfect with whom it is probable to ‘double the gain by halving the pain.’ The few more daring, however, try to find the elusive One within whom to delight, as well as with whom the journey of life promises to be delightful. That is, regardless of gains or pains!
And yes, there are gazillions of fairly happy couples out there in the world –always have been, always will be — no matter their race, country, or religion.
Love does not necessarily reveal itself by virtue of a fancy diamond ring or elaborate marriage ceremony, but rather by the small, almost trivial, and yet delicate and imponderable glances, gestures, and tones in daily life. Of many vanilla ‘things’ being equal — as in biceps and bosoms — what people probably find so charming about the other, so loveable (or not), are the many nuanced demeanors only perceptible on close-up.
There is that twinkle of the eye, the pitch of laughter when caught off-guard. What about the rush of emotions when being touched accidentally? Or the resolve or lack thereof regarding much about nothing, in private? All of it making him or her so unique, so charming, and so endearing.
In other words, we admire but do not love another for his or her virtues, and we cannot come to love another without being privy to his or her vices — if ever so few. In love, we do not have to play a role — although we can, we do not have to put on a show — although we can. In love, each one reveals him or herself as he or she is.
In love, each one genuinely cares for the other more than for him or herself — perhaps for the first time in life. In one’s life weighted down by duties, obligations, or moral bookkeeping, passionate love is that shared oasis of no duties, no obligations, no moral bookkeeping, no hidden agendas, no propaganda. Daring as it may seem, passionate love is virtuosity par excellence.
In the now-famous love letters between Héloïse and Abélard, she speaks of love as ‘true tenderness.’
The few words of a text like these musings cannot aptly describe the love that people are secretly longing for. Nothing can substitute for the actual experience of love, not the reading of cheap romance novels or the secret viewing of erotic videos.
More Perspectives on Love
Otherwise, the phenomenon of love resists a neatly comprehensive, all-inclusive formulation.
Plato said that love is a ladder to the good. North African bishop Augustine said that love is a craving. Empiricist David Hume said that love is a passion we suffer. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud said that we extend instinctual affection to those who care for us. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that love is a veiled sex instinct and thus entirely an illusion.
Phenomenologist Max Scheler said that love is a felt emotion and at the center of many types of feelings. Psychologist Robert Trivers said that love is a mechanism acquired by humans in order to reproduce and to keep children alive. American art critic Arthur C. Danto said that what we love is not the other but the representation of him or her in our mind. Matchmakers say that coupled intimates will surely love each other once they had sex.
Fearlessness is what love seeks, said philosopher Hannah Arendt. Thinker and writer Simone de Beauvoir said that love better be authentic, which is reciprocal and non-exploitative. Mother Theresa, a woman of faith, said that love is not without benevolence for another and charity for most all.
Psychiatrist Scott M. Peck said that love is about giving yourself and the other person what is needed to grow. Family advocates say that love, on its own, is unsafe. Playwright William Shakespeare and countless poets and novelists say in their prose that ‘love is not a child’s play.’
1 Corinthians 13:1 says that love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
Movie star John Wayne said that tough love — harshly or sternly with the intent to help in the long run — seems to be of necessity more often than wished for.
Social scientists say that love surely has a strong biological basis. This basis is undoubtedly worked on by cultural norms to shape the person. The importance of one’s own volition in the processes of love and life must be noted as well.
Despite the controversy they provoked, such perspectives often attained the status of conventional wisdom. Perspectives are not necessarily wrong. Some are analytical by dissecting the impersonal ‘mess under the hood’ and beyond, others are rather practical by offering actionable insights. By definition, perspectives are just never complete and therefore anyone’s is not really the last word.
Love Unfolds & Folds over Time
Other than that, love is experienced not only in an ephemeral moment — as that of perhaps just having fallen in love. Love is also experienced as a seasonal episode — for example that of being in love. And love is experienced also as a decades-long or even life-long affair. However, there appears to be nothing intrinsically about love being able to last, there are no guarantees…
Pop culture feeds on the many failures of relationships between its stars. This breakup, that breakup, and everyone say “Oh, so sad.” Many Hollywood movies end when the two actors finally, and against all odds, confess their love and drive off either into the sunset or over the cliff. But there is more to the story of love.
Love takes time to develop as each lover will struggle, at least in the beginning, for control over his or her spot in that relationship. There is a constant back and forth, an ongoing orientation as two lovers can never merge into just one, other than in that minute erotic climax. Ever so close, the remaining microns between them can even seem to be as frightening as any abyss.
Younger folks may look forward to ‘falling in love’ and ‘to be in love.’ However, trying to find love in old age is a real stretch and no theme of interest for Hollywood. With increasing age, people are likely to lose a bit of that delicious ‘tenderness of youth.’ Youthfulness beckons for love to bond, while not yet resisting the flow of life.
Between ‘falling in love’ and ‘falling out of love,’ or love having no end in sight or love just slowly petering out, or love being medicated by a deity or love being treasured over distances, love can be superfluous and is perishable. Yet, it has endured the follies and frailties of ever-changing epochs.
The homoerotic version of love between elder and younger men, as it was customary in ancient Greek, never became mainstream. The honor of being mainstream today belongs to a Christian/Shakespearean vision of love — the marriage between a man and a woman — and as popularized by 18th Century novels by Jane Austen such as ‘Sense and Sensibility.’
In any case, real love may have its beginnings as a romantic and/or erotic affair. Perhaps love kindles after years of only friendship between two, or only after an arranged marriage managed to bear fruits (kids). Who is to tell?
And while love endures, it does so not without morphing in ever-changing stages and intensities. From romantic love to real love to true love, from a passing inclination to a vehement passion to friendship, love nevertheless manifests as hot or passionate, warm or friendly, and cold or empty. Over time, the ‘color’ of love will change as passionate and erotic love can be hardly the same for the young and the mature.
Love is an affair that unfolds over time and — instead of folding again — can last if honored and nurtured! Some understand that reciprocal enchantment of the mate is not a one-time task to just get to marriage, but an indispensable act worthy for eternal repetition. Yet, others may rather defer their joined, inner lives to be illuminated by the love of a god or their eventual children. Many find a viable middle ground to walk along their path of curated love, although not all. Spending saved monies on shared hobbies, like traveling, often works during the late, mature years. People quickly lament divorce rates as being too high, but what rate is acceptable?
There aren’t too many role models of lasting love out there, and those who who ‘got it’ stay quietly behind the scene as they prefer to not attract the attention of the crazed to their real bliss. As they say, true love never dies.
Interests regarding Love
One might say that love isn’t even the same for a man and a woman. This is a dicey topic, for sure. It may be so that men and women have diverging interests regarding sex and family, and that makes the ‘feeling’ of love different for people. Some interests are often in sync — like interests in kids and family, others perhaps not always — like interests in sex. Sadly, women have said that men cannot love, and men — to that point — have said that women are useful.
Philosopher of antiquity St. Augustine already insisted that even loving acts, being good and impressive at face value, can be motivated either by a good or a bad intention, by right or perverse love, by charity or pride.
So as to avoid these unpleasantries from potential conflict, lots of single people — including men — are looking for a ‘soulmate,’ that is a soulmate love or relationship. In such a relationship, both mates deeply value or ‘love’ a shared common ground first, before each other — that is before they must eventually face each other as well. That common ground often is a religion, with its prescribed beliefs and conducts. A lesser ground may be a shared affinity for a hobby or even a shared aversion to certain attitudes.
Arranged marriages are not based on the exclusive interests of the two candidates as both are asked to submit to considerable degrees to the interests of parents, etc. As if love could simply be arranged as well. On the other hand, there is no reason why prospective mates cannot choose to honor overarching parental interests as common ground, with their relationship then becoming a kind of soulmate relationship. Especially younger singles may benefit from a supportive involvement of parents and elders regarding lasting love.
It seems that the Unification movement, with its emphasis on the Marriage Blessing, is currently trying to work out an appealing model of intimate, conjugal relationships. By promoting the practices of modern courtship, the Unification and other movements avoid the typical pitfalls associated with luck of the draw, fatuous love, glorified individualism, and no love at all.
And yes, flatlined love is not the end, it can be rejuvenated if one or both are willing to abandon cold routines and other causes of contempt. Yet, many folks rather watch TV on end before seeking a marriage counselor.
When passionate love seems to have perished to a point of no return, the couple may try to acknowledge and honor their relationship, without pretense, as a friendship — a simpler kind of love. Companionate friends do not necessarily ‘make love,’ but they still talk to and affirm each other. No, one cannot step into the same river twice, but one can always step into the river.
As such, lasting love is not so much a thing two people aim at, but a by-product of well-lived lives together. Arguably, well-lived lives and their loves do not settle on the prescribed, the meticulously organized, or the secretly intentioned. And that is what makes well-lived lives so exceptional.
Contradictory as some seem, I reconcile all of the outlined ideas in that love is a complex whole involving all of the above and below. Reciprocal and non-exploitative love is a human construct that may help us build the future. Regardless of whether the glass is half empty or half full at any moment, the intuition of love is meaningful and real and not to be dismissed as a luxurious delusion.
Kinds of Love Experienced
‘Kinds of love’ is obviously metaphorical speech, with each kind necessarily blending into others. Nevertheless, what all these kinds of love have in common, with the exception of narcissistic love, is a sentimental and significant encounter with another human being.
People of all cultures recognize the power of love, if to different extents. Kinds of love weave people’s lives together overtimes, while at the same time people are always looking out for safety in numbers. And that then generates much of contemporary morality here and there.
But as John Stuart Mill already said, ‘people are just like plants, they differ greatly in the conditions needed for their flourishing.’ While all plants depend on soil, water, and sunlight, some do better in shade, others do best in wet soil. Palm trees grow deep roots to survive storms, wallflowers — pretty as they are — do not. Love is a very personal condition, and there appears to be no one morality that can fit all folks — unless it is ‘loving’ enough to have accident forgiveness built-in from the ground up.
Love is personal, and that is also why love is not a child’s play. Even, though, children may grow up dismayed when attention to great sex or religious duties far outweigh any affective, tender love between mom and dad.
What matters to people most, however, is perhaps how they actually experience love in life. There are delights to be had in any kind of love, even in unrequited love. In the end, people do not care so much about where love comes from or what love is, but simply what love promises.
What is it to ‘be in love,’ what will love do — to lovers and others? What do lovers do — to each other and others? And can love be lost, can love be rejuvenated, how can it last, and even if it lasts will it be the same kind over time? Marriage isn’t the real issue, it is love — or its absence.
Is a Lover Good?
Love, according to Nietzsche, transcends any classifications of morality. This postulation is subtle and must be taken with a grain of salt. All sayings about love presuppose an often-unnoticed distinction between ‘love’ as a noun, ‘loving’ as a verb, and ‘being in love’ as a state of the psyche.
It isn’t that love automatically makes a person good. Far from it. Love, in the context of a noun, can mislead just as well as any bias and has turned many a lover into a fool (Don Quixote, etc.) and even worse. It is the act of loving, in the context of a verb, that will — over time — esteem even the fool.
Ancient philosopher Aristotle already knew that temperant people discover the “mean” between excess and deficit in the satisfaction of appetite, avoiding both gluttony and starvation. For a man or woman to be good, including when in love, seems to require a bit of self-mastery.
In Praise of Love
In his essay In Praise of Love, French philosopher Alain Badiou makes the case for ‘love being an answer to loneliness.’ To Badiou, love creates a lasting interdependency between and changes the outlook on life for the lovers. Love, then, creates unpredictably new belongings and is an antidote to social engineering. That is to say that promoters of caste systems as well as monarchic and aristocratic lineages are fearful of love. While arranged marriages are still a norm in even present-day cultures, there can never be such thing as arranged love.
In his enlightening book On Love, Spanish essayist Jose Ortega y Gasset points out that ‘what exists in love is surrender due to enchantment.’ Love itself charms or beckons for the involuntary surrender of the beloved. Being in love, then, is one of love’s ultimate achievements: the surrender of an innermost realm of psyche due to enchantment. That is not to be mistaken as submission due to coercive reminders of duty or obligation.
This ‘free from’ shame and ‘free to’ surrender generates a natural exclusiveness in a genuinely fulfilling love relationship. That is because — let’s face it — one surrenders to another as deeply and delightfully as love is allowed to uproot one’s psyche. Can one really be in passionate love with two or three others to the same degree, at the same time? There, then, is only the ‘One.’
Unfortunately, from the outside, from the point of view of rivals, a delightful love may be looked at with envy and then some. Whatever one possesses, another will seek. And from the inside, such love is then protected with jealousy and marriage. This speaks to the conception of ‘love being unsafe‘ and brought on Romans 13:9.
But it is not love that is unsafe, it’s more likely that people are unsafe. Love is just an easy scapegoat. And yes, gated communities of, for, and by the like-minded seem to make life a bit safer — for those behind the physical or mental fence.
Future of Love
It appears that there is, around the world, a turn toward passion being more positively regarded and yearned for more intensely than ever before. Even in Asian cultures, generally understood to be more collectivist than individualistic, love now begins to assert its distinctiveness next to the themes of sex, family, and lineage.
Times are a-changin’ and women are not that much dependent on the economic productivity of men anymore. In this modern economy, more women now can hold their own.
In a slow shift, the arranged marriages of the past are being replaced by relationships between now more autonomous singles, freer than ever to choose their mate as they wish. That is, fewer people are willing to marry someone whom they do not love.
Obviously, with that freedom of choice comes the possible anguish inherent in making choices and then owning them. All that bears on our past, current, and future understanding of love.
What Sexual Orientation
It seems to be the case that social and cultural factors likely play a greater role in shaping human sexuality than mere biology. Within that open domain, many folks fancy constellations of loving relationships other than that between one man and one woman. How a person will conduct his or her passionate love life depends a lot on what one thinks love is, and what kind of relationship one is after.
Love, after all, is not an absolute but a human construct that is somewhat dependent on time, place, and culture. However, the fact that humans only know of two biological sexes, male and female, anchors and defends a conception of love as that between a man and a woman.
Neanderthals and Denisovans were probably sensitive enough to ‘make affectionate love’ when ‘nature called,’ but were they already mindful enough to ‘make love’ out of ‘being in love?’ That is, not just out of a rut but out of being fascinated by and realizing pure delight in the other’s mind and body? Would they already have had even only an inkling of love — something more than just bare liking motivated by physical arousal? We know now that Neanderthals and Denisovans mated with modern humans. What about Adam and Eve?
Passionate human love is still a kind of a rebel in a world organized as a patriarchy. Passionate love, reciprocal and non-exploitative between a gentleman and a lady, can always make the world go ’round!