Editor’s Note I: This piece is an adaptation from a talk originally presented November 13th, 2019. The talk was heavily influenced by the writings of Irving Singer and Simon May. Two philosophers whose contributions to The Philosophy of Love are absolutely admirable and thoroughly unmatched.
Editor’s Note II: We maintain that this piece is too long for a blog post, however Carrot is defiantly optimistic, and believes ‘if you write it people will read it’. We aren’t so certain!
Studying the history of love is kind of like playing the game of telephone with a transcript…we hear the difference between where we started and ended, but the transcript allows us to see the little changes along the way.
There are so many types of things we refer to as love, so many ways that we claim to love, and so many different things that receive our love. It seems as though the concept has become an oversaturated generalization without much in the way of definable qualities.
There are a lot of inquiries we can make into the Philosophy of Love, but I think looking into to the ontology of love, i.e. Love’s existence can help resolve some of the other inquiries such as how we come to know love, how we come to be loved, the beauty of love, and the logic of love.
To understand the point I want to make within the philosophy of love, I think it’s important to delve into the history of love. I’ll be looking primarily at love in the western world. For our purposes here, the time and place to which we begin our inquiry makes no difference. Love in the west is what I am most familiar with so that’s where I decided to begin.
Plato’s Symposium (427-348)
I probably could and maybe should write an entire article on Plato’s Symposium, but here I want to focus on what is sometimes referred to Plato’s Ladder. Love according to Plato is an ascension from loving something that is beautiful to loving The Beautiful itself.
There isn’t really much difference between one person and another, and as we grow we realize that, and seek something more than physical beauty, perhaps we find something deeper like the love for the soul of another, but what’s the difference between the beauty in one person and the beauty in another? Nothing, and from here we realize that it’s not the beauty of the person that we love it’s Beauty itself. And once we get to that point it’s a type of awakening or maybe as Aristophanes (Socrates Counterpart within the dialogue) would say a type of merging with The Beautiful which we arrive at through ascending the ladder from the beauty of an object to Beauty itself.
Love = a bond between individuals for the sake of flourishing. Philia = Wishing and doing well to others for their own sake. It was Friendship over The Good. For Aristotle Philia was unconditional and height of love. From teacher to student we already start to see disagreement in our understanding of love.
Love is merely the unwitting servant of the instinct for self-perpetuation…Grand Passion begets grand stupidity – Love is a delusion that can be tamed in three ways. Meditation leads to tranquility of mind. Where that fails marriage! That combination will soon put an end to the delusions about our beloved, and make both parties see realistically. The final option is promiscuity…seek release wherever you can find it, allowing you to get back to more important things. Love is not virtue, love is ruin! It’s an addiction fed by an outside power to procreate, and unlike other desires it cannot be satisfied. Lovers are seized by an impossible craving to merge. And we can see here an overlap with Plato.
Love is kind of war and no assignment for cowards, but one can excel at it given talent, skill, cunning, enthusiasm – and self-restraint. For Ovid Love was a sport complete with rules for winning. Sexual pleasure is central to the game…let the performance bring equal delight to the two.
Some of the rules for men – put in the effort, hunt in the right places, don’t be too coy, get your timing right (it’s worth making a try when she’s grieving), well groomed, but casual, some education (the liberal arts are a blessing), damn her husband to hell.
Some rules for the women – don’t be prudish, pay attention to hygiene (keep the rank goat out of your armpits), disguise imperfections, laugh and cry with restraint, have a separate man to fulfill each need, talk dirty and moan.
This raw dangerous sport is also beautiful, imaginative, and an uplifting art.
I don’t have to spend too much time on this, it’s the dominant thought in the west throughout the last 2000 years. As you well know according to Christianity…
God is Love…love is the essence of the Divine. We are commanded to Love God/neighbor/enemies. It’s difficult to pin down an explicit definition of Love, but we get the point that without love, life is nothing! Moving us to a morality based on love. “Our actions are judged not on the basis of what each of us knows but the basis of what each of us loves” – Augustine.
It’s through love that we become god-like. If God is love and we have the power to love, then our actions may be considered divine! (I think you can see some of the Platonic idea that love is a ladder, in loving your neighbor, you get closer to God). Sometimes referred to as Agape – Love is a kind of covenant of God for humans, as well as the human reciprocal love for God; the term necessarily extends to the love of one’s fellow man. Sometimes it’s understood to be unconditional, and has the essence of being a moral maker, but that is debatable?
Fin Amor = Refined Love
Love and the troubadours (12/13th century) …the beginning of courtly love. The cult of love shifts from the heavens to the earth. “They invented a way of loving based on ideals of erotic pleasure, grace, proportion, play and service.”
It’s a move that played a similar role to acquiring virtue through an object that is generally out of reach.
“Each day I improve and grow more pure,
For I serve and worship the most noble
In the world – this I can tell you openly.
Hers I am from head right down to foot…” (Arnout Daniel)
If you replace “her” with “God” you essentially have Christian Love.
It’s through this idealized noble woman that we become our best selves…Love here again is seen as a moral maker.
It’s important to realize love in this sense is not for your spouse … “love cannot exert it’s powers between two people who are married to each other” and a suitor may not cheat on his love, even with his wife. Love in this sense is unconditional, and all marriages come with conditions.
In essence, courtly love was an experience between erotic desire and spiritual attainment, “a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent. It is a giant step toward moving from God is love to Love is GOD.
Which is the direction that comes next in the middle ages.
New idea à a single person might be worthy of the sort of love that was previously reserved for God. God was seen through nature, then through the human body, and to love the human body was okay as it was loving a creation of God’s. The painters and artists of the renaissance helped to normalize crafting, admiring, and touching the human body, it was in step with God, but it was just a short step to keeping the admiration without keeping God…We see this in play with the letters of Abelard and Heloise and also with the story of Tristan and Isolde.
If you have read either of these, then you quickly notice the way they talk to one another is in a language that was previously reserved for God. The exaltation that we hold for God becomes the exaltation that we hold for our beloved.
From the acceptance that love is natural we move to…
Barunch Spinoza (1632-1677) – An agent of the devil and a saboteur of good order.
Spinoza makes the move to eliminate a dichotomy between God and Nature. God is the whole of nature and the whole of nature is God. We are part of nature, and love affirms the infinitesimal, but unique place in the vast, impersonal order of nature. The ladder is gone, the nobility is gone, we are determined by nature, and acceptance is the most we could ask for in all things, love included.
Schlegel (Love as Religion) 1772-1829
Between 1500 and 1800 human understanding and perspective of the world changed at a rate unparallel to anything since the classical age of the ancient world. The earth was no longer considered the center of the universe, humans were more autonomous as the dictates of social and religious roles were unfastened, individual rights and the pursuit of liberty grew out of the relaxed grip of absolute monarchy, and the basis for thinking that life evolved all lead to a new view that we are alone in an impersonal universe.
Friedrich Schlegel promotes Love as A great unifying force. As in reason vs. emotion, body vs. mind, Male vs. Female, and self vs. other, love unifies as the holiest miracle of nature. Love unifies the sexes through sensual passion. A merger of two into one. It is the supreme good, the creative source of all things; absolute being; immortal; true; nameless…Love has become God! Love unifies and love thy neighbor is irrelevant to the passion between two people! It is itself the supreme Good, the creative source of all things, absolute being; immortal; true; nameless. With love, the loneliness of an impersonal universe can bring comfort and unification to all of its followers. Love offers belonging!
Stendhal (Love as creation) 1783-1842
Love is largely self-generated. The beloved is less a person one meets than a person one creates. Without us our beloved is just a stick. We adorn lignified cellulose with the pearls of our imagination. Love is a delusion.
Schopenhauer (Love as the urge to procreate) 1788-1860
Love = a ruthless drive aimed at procreation and self-gratification. All desire driven action is propelled by sex. We are merely the plaything of unconscious instinct that is directing us, through trial and error to the right mate. As a result of this instinct we imagine that what is in fact an utterly impersonal and unspirited drive is instead the most personal and spiritual of all drives.
It is the ultimate goal of almost all human effort; it has an unfavorable influence on the most important human affairs, interrupts every hour, the most serious occupations…it knows how to slip its love-notes and ringlets even into ministerial portfolios and philosophical manuscripts. Every day it brews and hatches the most perplexing quarrels and disputes, destroys the most valuable relationships, and breaks the strongest bonds. It demands the sacrifice sometimes of life or health, sometimes of wealth, position, and happiness. Indeed, it robs of all conscience those who were previously honorable and upright and makes traitors of those who have hitherto been loyal and faithful. Love is merely a by-product of the will-to-live.
Freud (Love as sexual desire) 1856-1939
Love is the expression of sexual energy that desires release and pleasure. Its core aim is tactile stimulation which by a certain age comes to be concentrated in the desire for sexual intercourse. Freud explicitly includes all love, including love for parents and children, friends, humanity, as well as concrete objects and abstract ideas. Once we find this out, sex becomes the model for all gratification and the central drive of our life. “Genital eroticism is the central point of life”. Of course, Freud does his best to explain why this is the case, an explanation that’s had lasting effects even to this day, but we aren’t here to discuss why, just what. And for Freud Love was simply an expression of sexual desire.
Proust (Love as terror and tedium) 1871-1922
Love is reciprocal torture! Love is revealed as remorseless dialectic of anxiety and disappointment, hope and tedium, delight and dread. Love, in the pain of anxiety as in the bliss of desire, is a demand for a whole. It arises from the corrosive pain of aloneness, which yearns to be assuaged by the absolute presence of a loved one. If all human beings have an urge to love and be loved, it is because all human beings suffer from isolation and helplessness. Love’s insane desire is therefore to possess the loved one so perfectly that all vulnerability will be abolished…and this of course is impossible! Proust offers a litany of reasons, the most unique I think is that there is no such thing as a loved one, the object of your desire is a moving target, this idea is expressed dutifully by the immortal words of Heraclitus who demands that we cannot step into the same river twice. To say you love person X…they have already changed to person Y
Irving Singer (Appraisal and Bestowal) 1925-2015
I think Singer has written and studied more about love than anyone ever and is kind of a personal hero of mine.
He says: Love is a way of valuing something in the sense of affirming goodness. Love is a type of valuation, and without this valuation there would be no love.
This valuation with regard to love comes in two steps first appraisal, then bestowal.
Appraisal seeks to find objective value, but bestowal is created by the affirmative relationship itself, it is not verifiable, and it cannot be erroneous. With bestowal it is the valuing alone that makes the value.
Let me offer an analogy that may illuminate how this process works.
Think of the value of a new house, as you well know…some things you might consider when purchasing a house are location/schools/sq footage/yard/surrounding home sales/whether or not the smoke detectors are possessed… you’ll do all this to get a proper idea of what the house is worth, and this is what we call appraisal, which to a certain degree has an objective value.
With bestowal a house can take on a special value beyond our desire for shelter, this is in a sense when a house becomes a home. A marked wall may actually bring down the appraised value of a house, but it may be something a homeowner couldn’t put a price on, especially if the marks represent the various heights of one’s children throughout the years or perhaps the memory of a furry little friend. This could conceivably happen to anything (a book, a car, a comic book, anything)
The difference between a house and home is that a home we value for its own sake, and this goes beyond any type of appraisal. Such is the difference between an object of our association and an object of our love.
Simon May (Love as ontological rootedness)
Love is the feeling that May calls ‘ontological rootedness’ – ontology being that branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and experience of existence. His suggestion is that we will love only those (very rare) people or things or ideas or disciplines or landscapes that can inspire in us a promise of ontological rootedness. If they can, we will love them regardless of their other qualities: regardless of how beautiful or good they are; of how (in the case of people we love) generous or altruistic or compassionate; or how interested they are in our life and projects. And regardless, even, of whether they value us. For love’s overriding concern is to find a home for our life and being.
Love as Chemistry (Reductionism)
Primitive areas of the brain are involved in romantic love.
When we are falling in love, chemicals associated with the reward circuit flood our brain, producing a variety of physical and emotional responses—racing hearts, sweaty palms, flushed cheeks, feelings of passion and anxiety. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase during the initial phase of romantic love, marshaling our bodies to cope with the “crisis” at hand. As cortisol levels rise, levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin become depleted. Low levels of serotonin precipitate the “intrusive, maddeningly preoccupying thoughts, hopes, and terrors” of early love.
Being love-struck also releases high levels of dopamine, a chemical that “gets the reward system going,” Dopamine activates the reward circuit, helping to make love a pleasurable experience similar to the euphoria associated with use of cocaine or alcohol.
Other chemicals at work during romantic love are oxytocin and vasopressin, hormones that have roles in pregnancy, nursing, and mother-infant attachment. Released during sex and heightened by skin-to-skin contact, oxytocin deepens feelings of attachment and makes couples feel closer to one another after having sex. Oxytocin, known also as the love hormone, provokes feelings of contentment, calmness, and security, which are often associated with mate bonding. Vasopressin is linked to behavior that produces long-term, monogamous relationships. In other words, love is reduced to chemical reactions.
What then is the “real” meaning of Love?
With hundreds of attempted definitions over thousands of years, I don’t think there is one definition of love. This is not to say that there are in fact several definitions of love, it is to say that love cannot be defined. Not because there is no definition, but rather there is no love. Logically speaking, I would call this a term with no referent. Over thousands of years one would expect to find some foundational aspect of agreement, when in fact we have none. If we were each asked to record a definition of love right now, I suspect there would be as many distinct definitions as there are readers on this site. We could readily object to any of the definitions I have listed here today, but I think the most telling objection to the idea that love exists is the number of vastly different interpretations that we’ve had throughout “love’s” prolonged history. Debating the definition of love would be as frivolous as debating the height of a unicorn’s horn. And were we to find agreement we would still be left without truth, fact, or datum.
I maintain that…
Love is a meme!
A meme (if you’re not familiar) is an idea, behavior, or style that can spread from person to person and culture to culture—conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, concept or meaning represented by that meme. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one person to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Memes are regarded as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.
Memes are considered a viral phenomenon that may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution. Memes do this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, each of which influences a meme’s reproductive success. Memes spread through the behavior that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. Memes that replicate most effectively enjoy more success, and some may replicate effectively even when they prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.
In closing, while I don’t think love is a thing, I think we’re stuck with it, or perhaps more fitting, it’s stuck to us. For better or worse, in sickness and health till death do we part.
And so no…I don’t love climbing, I don’t love! And neither do you.
Because. Love. Is. Not. A. Thing.
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Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
May, Simon. Love a History. Great Britain: Yale University Press, 2011.
Singer, Irving. The Nature of Love. Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2009.