Thursday, April 14, 2011

On Love

I have long been dissatisfied with the ambiguity of the English word ‘love.’ It covers such a range of emotions and relationships that at times it seems to have no meaning at all. The word is thrown around to mean an extreme affection or desire – as in my love for chocolate tort – but when referring to humans indicates a romantic attachment, though if in reference to someone one would be unlikely to be romantically involved with it regains its assumed hyperbole. One can thus say that they love chocolate tort, Viggo Mortenson, and their significant other, and still be considered a sane and articulate person. It is this linguistic weirdness that I intend to clarify, if only for myself.
In Ancient Greek there are four words that are translated roughly to mean ‘love’: ερως, αγαπη, φιλιας, and στοργη. For the purposes of this analysis I will use the first three.1 Philia is dispassionate love, it involves duty and devotion and can refer to family, friends, and even community or country; patriotism would be a form of philia. Agàpe is brotherly love, the Greeks generally considered it to be the truest form of love; it can refer to close friends, one’s children or even a spouse. The third is eros, which is sexual love or more broadly and by my own insistence, romantic love. In short:
philia is admiration and devotion
agàpe is affection
eros is desire.
In their purest states these can be arranged into a hierarchy so that higher forms contain those under them. I will posit that philia is the lowest form and eros the highest, leaving agape as intermediate. Therefore true ‘eros’ love, the kind one would have for a mate, would contain genuine affection, devotion and admiration. The Ancient Greeks, the Medievals and likely many today would be appalled by this but I believe that the biological necessity of reproduction and the way that it shapes all human motivations elevates romantic (sexual) love above the others.2
In order to define love it must be placed on the spectrum of how humans feel about each other: hate - dislike - ambivalent - like - love. But speaking personally, those whom I dislike I do not care about, and so can grouped with ambivalent. And it has been long enough since I encountered anyone I truly hated that the term as the extreme opposite of love is a practically useless category. Thus there are three divisions: those I am ambivalent toward, those I like, and those I love. The word love will be used in the modified Greek senses defined earlier, but its critical attribute is that it involves a great intensity of feeling. For the purposes of this analysis I have identified the six people that I love; though this risks embarrassment, to proceed on a purely abstract level would be useless. They are as follows: my parents (philia), my sister, Ian, and Kerice (agàpe), and her (eros). This leaves the majority of people I interact with regularly in the category of ‘like’ with a few of them, acquaintances, and everyone else that I don’t know, as ‘ambivalent.’
That last point is an interesting dilemma,
how does knowledge of someone affect one’s feeling for them?
To what degree does one have to know someone to say that one loves them?
To like or dislike requires only a passing interaction, we constantly make these judgements. I believe some psychologists have claimed that we decide whether we like or dislike a person within a split second of meeting them. And to love is not fundamentally different than to like, admiration, affection and desire can all be present in one’s ‘liking’ of someone, just to a much less degree than to in ‘loving.’ Ultimately, it must be recognized that what we love is not truly the person, but our idea of the person, the image of them we have in our mind, whether true or false. A man whose wife is cheating on him may love her because she had hid her betrayal from him, his idea of her remains untainted despite her actions. Should he discovers the affair he may no longer love her, but he cannot claim to have never loved her; for the love he felt was always in him and not in her, nothing she did beyond his knowledge could affect it. Therefore one technically loves another only to the degree that they know them, love for someone barely known is not less real, it may be weaker, but it is not less genuine - never a pejorative ‘infatuation’ or ‘lust.’
The difference between like and love addressed briefly above is a difficult one to define, since our culture often sees love in terms of sacrifice I’ll use the classic ‘to die for’ idea. I would die for those I love, obviously; but also for those I like and many of those I am ambivalent toward, it is a matter not of affection but of honor. The manner in which I would die is the crucial point. If someone I liked was going to be killed and I could attempt to save them with a decent risk of my own death but also a decent risk of success I would do it, but if neither of those were the case I would not; that is outside the bounds of honor. For someone I loved though, honor is secondary and I would attempt to save them even if the chances of my death were very high and the chances of stopping their death very low.
The following is an analysis of why I would attempt to save someone I loved with the assurance that I would die and without any hope of success. Part of it is probably because I would consider that to be a worthy death, it is a death I would be content with. But the greater motivation would be because I would have a hard time imagining my life without these people. Which, when considered, is odd; because I have rather limited contact with at least one of those listed. The knowledge that they exist though, that they continue to live, is instrumental to how I justify my own life. Assuming I have no contact with any of them, and would not whether they lived or died, my actions would (should) not change.
Two of them are my past, my history, I would guard them out of an extreme form of honor but also out of the same fervor with which I horde my childhood toys or my old school papers; in an evolutionary manner they are a part of me, this is philia - devotion. For others that I love (agàpe), my motivations vary. For one of them it is tied to that same nostalgia, I wish for them to live in the manner one wishes for a plant one has watched grow from seedling to survive, the emotional response to their death would be qualitatively the same, though not quantitatively, to that of any sort of needless waste. The other two of the agàpe beloved are partially this nostalgia, this protective, almost parental, instinct, but also a more abstract hope. I see them as a projection of my own failed desires, they succeed where have not and cannot and never will, they are my hope for the world, for society. If they succeed, if people like them can succeed, then things will carry on in an acceptable fashion. For the last of them, the sixth beloved, the feeling is even more intensely personal; I feel that they are my hope, that if any personal good can exist it would come from them. That without their existence, likely with it as well but definitely without it, I would be both emotionally and evolutionarily doomed.
If the perennial question, what does it mean to love someone, can be answered thus: to guard them as if they were part of yourself (because on some emotional level they are), one might think that the Christians are right, and love is not a feeling but an action, to feel love is not to love. But this is to confuse what love is from what love means, love is an intense devotion, affection and/or desire, loves means a great many things, among them to guard the beloved. So the essential dilemma remains,
what does it mean to love someone in this age, when to guard them has little significance?
If self-sacrifice is the central expression of love, what can it mean to love someone who professes no love for you?
I cannot help but suspect that if it elicits no loving action the feeling must be unreal, false in some way; and I find this profoundly disturbing. The previously mentioned eros love, and to some degree my agàpe love as well, has no practical expression. What I said about how much the beloved mean to me may be true – they are part of how I justify my existence, without them I am a frail, painfully mortal creature – but it seems to be a terribly self-absorbed love if it does not affect them at all.
The only justification I can then conceive of for my love is readiness, if the opportunity arose I would guard them with my life; but as I will likely never be called upon to fulfill this promise, it is an easy claim to make. It is therefore necessary to come up with a different way to judge love, a way that perhaps had some conceivable practical significance. This entire essay has, in fact, felt a little disingenuous; as someone with nihilistic tendencies and an overdeveloped honor fantasy, putting the whole thing in terms for sacrificial death is more than a little self-indulgent. The whole point of claiming that you would die for someone is that you do not want to die, if death is not an evil but something more similar to a desired outcome the entire exercise is meaningless and I should instead pick something I would be much more reticent about doing; like, say, telling someone that I loved them. This is of course, a useless example, as however terrified I am by the idea of telling someone I loved that I loved them, I would certainly not have an easier time saying the same to someone that I didn’t love. It is dangerous however, to speculate on practical actions toward the beloved when one’s conclusions could have immediate ramifications. In other words, this thought experiment is getting frighteningly close to real-life application.
To return to the abstract then, the whole idea of sacrificial death is that it is putting the beloved before oneself. And so if this is unavailable or otherwise disregarded the underlying motivation – selflessness – can remain. Believing though, that love, and indeed all human activity, has essentially selfish motivations, complications arise. If I love someone because of what that person means to me, are not any actions I take toward them selfish in motivation? Preserving their life would certainly be selfish, as would seeking their company, or other manners of ‘loving’ actions. But if selflessness is defined not in contrast to selfishness, but in terms of the good it does to others, one’s own good can be completely removed from the situation. Selflessness thus means doing what is best for someone else not in contrast to what is best for oneself but irrespective of what is best for oneself. If to love someone means to do what is best for them, then preserving their life remains one of the greatest acts of love, no matter how one personally benefits from the action. But to do what is best for someone can mean a great many things one would not usually consider as loving actions; and the whole “tough love” concept is only part of this. To return to one of the questions that prompted this digression, what it means to love someone unrequitedly, to do what is best for the beloved can be quite nearly to do that which is worst for oneself. To let someone be, to remove from them all expectation, to close off all hope and desire can be extremely painful and difficult. But there is a sense in which even this is self-serving, with the removal of all contact passion tends to fade, and with it the torment.
The two questions that formed the second half of this essay can thus be answered, to love means to act without regard for the self. This is problematic for a strict naturalist3, if a man’s ultimate (often subconscious) motives must be biological, how can this sort of love be accounted for? It does seem that all loving actions have some sort of personal benefit attached, if this, and not selflessness, is what is making these actions biologically justifiable, then love is meaningless. Sometimes actions produce good for others, sometimes good for others leads to good for the self, but without the self, without an essential selfishness is in ever human, there could be no ‘loving’ action. The actual definition of love remains intact, but at the very least its meaning must be redefined. However all motives are selfish, love does seem to provoke a different kind of action, a different kind of selfishness. The willingness to sacrifice one’s own life has deeply selfish motivations, but these are very different motivations from the desires to eat, drink and reproduce. The key is to see love as a relational binder, love is what holds societal units – families (eros), communities (agàpe), countries (philia) – together. And for these things we have selfish motivations, it is our best interest, and the interest of our offspring,4 that our family and friends survive. The self must then be redefined, there is a micro-self, one’s own body, and a macro-self, one community, or on a more primitive level, one’s tribe. It is this macro-self, through our genes and our memories, that allows us to achieve immortality. Love therefore means the sacrifice of the micro-self for the macro-self, the choice eternal life over temporal life.
I will conclude with the following digression. Love then, as the binding agent of all society, must the supreme force of humanity. And thus the Christian notion of God as love is perfectly logical. Christ, the perfectly loving, chose his macro-self - the world (For God so loved the world…), over his micro-self - his body and his life, and achieved true immortality. No serious historian could doubt that his name will never be forgotten. But all of this assumes a certain anthropocentrism I am not sure that I am comfortable with. Humans are hardly the pinnacle of existence. The central flaw that I see in so much rational philosophy, be it Christian or Platonic, is an inability to account for the truly other. The world is full of strange and inhuman things, things more marvelous than any we could create; to this world the concept of love is not even relevant. Where is love in the crevasse or the tide or the thunderous, pelting storm? Love may be the supreme force of humanity but it is hardly the supreme force of the universe. Could the same god that rules us rule them? Or is it nothing but our arrogance that extends the same judgements we place upon ourselves to the greater world?

I dearly hope that this analysis does not come across as pretentious, I readily admit that I have no experience what-so-ever with life or death situations or with love in any practical sense of the term. All my talk of dying for people is merely what I imagine myself thinking I should do; what I would actually do (and likely feel guilty about) is a different matter entirely. I admit though, that this came together in a way I did not plan or anticipate. I set out to deal with a crush and ended trying to define the human experience. I therefore apologize for its rather stream-of-consciousness form, at this point there is no way I’m going to try to reformat it into a thesis driven paper.

1 Qualifier: I don’t actually care if this is what the Ancient Greeks meant by these terms, it just allows me to make a useful set of distinctions.

2 The irony of term romantic, relating in some way to the Romans, being equated with ‘eros’ love is recognized.

3 One who believes that there is no soul, no higher nature, no Platonic form of the good; one who believes that the mind, while an abstraction of the brain, is completely contained within it; that all human experience can be explained physically and all biology evolutionarily.

4 One’s offspring being part of the self. To understand this one must understand the evolutionary history of reproduction, the simplest form of propagation is mitosis, in which each offspring is both parent and child. Organisms that practice this can be seen as immortal, without a clear definition of generations to grow and then split in two is just as similar to human reproduction as if humans could re-grow limbs or clone ourselves memories intact. The innovation of sexual reproduction, in which two organisms collaborate to produce more of themselves, complicates the process but the basic idea of looking at reproduction as immortality can be carried through to complex multi-cellular organisms like humans.


  1. I "love" reading your thoughts to see how your mind works and what answers you come up with for yourself. School kills so much of my time, but I won't be taking classes in the summer. We should take a short hike or something, and you can tell me about the year.

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