Category Archives: Love

What is Love?

I have discussed love in a number of previous posts herehereherehere, here, here,  here, and here. But it occurs to me that we need to carefully define love. We need to answer the question, what is love?

The Different Kinds of Love

The Greeks distinguished at least 6 different kinds of love:

1) Eros was the notion of sexual passion and desire but, unlike today,  it was considered irrational and dangerous. It could drive you mad, cause you to lose control and make you a slave to your desires. The Greeks advised caution before one gives into these desires.

2) Philia denoted friendship which was thought more virtuous than sexual or erotic love. It refers to the affection between family members, colleagues, and other comrades. However these persons are much closer to you than Facebook friends or Twitter followers.

3) Ludus defines a more playful love. This ranges from the playful affection of children all the way to the flirtation or the affection between casual lovers. Playing games, engaging in casual conversation, or flirting with friends are all forms of this playful love.

4) Pragma refers to the mature love of lifelong partners. After a lifetime of compromise, tolerance, and shared experiences a calm stability and security ensues. Commitment between partners is the key; they mutually support and respect each other.

5) Agape is a radical, selfless, non-exclusive love; it is altruism directed toward everyone (and perhaps to the environment too.) It is love extended without concern for reciprocity. Today we would call this charity; or what the Buddhists call loving kindness.

6) Philautia is self-love. The Greeks recognized two forms. In its negative form philautia is the selfishness that wants pleasure, fame, and wealth beyond what one needs. Narcissus, who falls in love with his own reflection, exemplifies this kind of self-love. In its positive form philautia refers to a proper pride or self-love. We can only love others if we love ourselves; and the warm feelings we extend to others emanate from good feelings we have for ourselves. If you are self-loathing, you will have little love to give.

These distinctions undermine the myth of romantic love so predominant in modern culture. People obsess about finding soul mates, that one special person who will fulfill all their needs—a perpetually erotic, friendly, playful, selfless, stable partner. In reality no person fulfills all these needs. And the twentieth-century commodification of love renders the situation even worse. We buy love with engagement rings; market ourselves with clothes, body modifications, Facebook profiles, and on internet dating sites; and we look for the best object we can find in the market given an assessment of our trade value.

This is not to suggest that everything is wrong with the modern world or that the internet isn’t a good place to find a mate—it may be the best place. (Although I’m much too old to worry about it!) Rather I suggest that to be satisfied in love, as in life, one must cultivate multiple interests, strategies, and relationships. We may get the most stability from our spouse, but find playful times with our grandchildren or our golfing partners; we may find friendship with our philosophical comrades; and we might find an outlet for altruism in our charitable contributions or in productive work.

As for our most intimate relationships, we would do best to lower our expectations—again no one satisfies all our needs. As I said in my previous post, this is not the idealized love of Hollywood movies, but it is real love. No, you won’t have heart palpitations every time you see your beloved after 35 years, but you will feel the presence that accompanies a lifetime of shared love, a lifetime of struggling and fighting and working together. You will feel the continuity of knowing someone who knew you when you were young, middle age, and old, and they will feel the same. The accompanying serenity is peaceful and priceless. I hope everyone can experience this.

1. Rousseau made a similar distinction between amour-propre and amour de soi.  Amour de soi is a natural form of self-love; we naturally look after our own preservation and interests and there is nothing wrong with this. By contrast, amour-propre is a kind of self-love that may arise when we compare ourselves to others. In its corrupted form, it is a source of vice and misery, resulting in human beings basing their own self-worth on their feeling of superiority over others.

50th Wedding Anniversary

My parents on their wedding day in St. Louis, October 27, 1938

Yesterday is but today’s memory, and tomorrow is today’s dream. ~ Kahil Gibran

The last wedding anniversary my parents celebrated was their fiftieth, in 1988. I remember all my siblings and I pitched in to send them on a vacation. They never made it; my dad died just two months later. But they had a good marriage; their love satisfied and comforted them—it was sufficient in its own time.

As for marriage in general, it is hard to talk sensibly for, as George Bernard Shaw noted, “There is no subject on which more dangerous nonsense is talked and thought than marriage.” Will Durant wrote somewhere that no institution was so designed for unhappiness as marriage—and this from a man happily married for 68 years.  All I can say is that anyone happily married for 50 years has succeeded in one of the hardest jobs in the world: living and loving a single person for a half a century. That is no small feat. They have instantiated in their microscopic world what is so desperately needed everywhere.

So if your parents or friends are celebrating 50 or more years of a happy marriage, think to yourself “in at least one respect, they are worthy of respect.” Remember too, as Will Durant said, “The love we have in our youth is superficial compared to the love that an old man has for his old wife.”

As for how to have a good marriage, the most poetic advice I’ve ever heard was from Kahlil Gibran, an almost embarrassingly sentimental (some would say mawkish) poet whose work I encountered as a teenage. In his most famous work, The Prophet, Gibran says:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Different Kinds of Love

I have discussed love in a number of previous posts herehereherehere, here, here,  here, and here. But it occurs to me that we need to carefully define love.

The Different Kinds of Love

The Greeks distinguished at least 6 different kinds of love:

1) Eros was the notion of sexual passion and desire but, unlike today,  it was considered irrational and dangerous. It could drive you mad, cause you to lose control and make you a slave to your desires. The Greeks advised caution before one gives into these desires.

2) Philia denoted friendship which was thought more virtuous than sexual or erotic love. It refers to the affection between family members, colleagues, and other comrades. However these persons are much closer to you than Facebook friends or Twitter followers.

3) Ludus defines a more playful love. This ranges from the playful affection of children all the way to the flirtation or the affection between casual lovers. Playing games, engaging in casual conversation, or flirting with friends are all forms of this playful love.

4) Pragma refers to the mature love of lifelong partners. After a lifetime of compromise, tolerance, and shared experiences a calm stability and security ensues. Commitment between partners is the key; they mutually support and respect each other.

5) Agape is a radical, selfless, non-exclusive love; it is altruism directed toward everyone (and perhaps to the environment too.) It is love extended without concern for reciprocity. Today we would call this charity; or what the Buddhists call loving kindness.

6) Philautia is self-love. The Greeks recognized two forms. In its negative form philautia is the selfishness that wants pleasure, fame, and wealth beyond what one needs. Narcissus, who falls in love with his own reflection, exemplifies this kind of self-love. In its positive form philautia refers to a proper pride or self-love. We can only love others if we love ourselves; and the warm feelings we extend to others emanate from good feelings we have for ourselves. If you are self-loathing, you will have little love to give.

These distinctions undermine the myth of romantic love so predominant in modern culture. People obsess about finding soul mates, that one special person who will fulfill all their needs—a perpetually erotic, friendly, playful, selfless, stable partner. In reality no person fulfills all these needs. And the twentieth-century commodification of love renders the situation even worse. We buy love with engagement rings; market ourselves with clothes, body modifications, Facebook profiles, and on internet dating sites; and we look for the best object we can find in the market given an assessment of our trade value.

This is not to suggest that everything is wrong with the modern world or that the internet isn’t a good place to find a mate—it may be the best place. (Although I’m much too old to worry about it!) Rather I suggest that to be satisfied in love, as in life, one must cultivate multiple interests, strategies, and relationships. We may get the most stability from our spouse, but find playful times with our grandchildren or our golfing partners; we may find friendship with our philosophical comrades; and we might find an outlet for altruism in our charitable contributions or in productive work.

As for our most intimate relationships, we would do best to lower our expectations—again no one satisfies all our needs. As I said in my previous post, this is not the idealized love of Hollywood movies, but it is real love. No, you won’t have heart palpitations every time you see your beloved after 35 years, but you will feel the presence that accompanies a lifetime of shared love, a lifetime of struggling and fighting and working together. You will feel the continuity of knowing someone who knew you when you were young, middle age, and old, and they will feel the same. The accompanying serenity is peaceful and priceless. I hope everyone can experience this.

1. Rousseau made a similar distinction between amour-propre and amour de soi.  Amour de soi is a natural form of self-love; we naturally look after our own preservation and interests and there is nothing wrong with this. By contrast, amour-propre is a kind of self-love that may arise when we compare ourselves to others. In its corrupted form, it is a source of vice and misery, resulting in human beings basing their own self-worth on their feeling of superiority over others.

Is Love Stronger Than Death?

For many people dying is like moving to a better neighborhood. This is not surprising, as belief in the afterlife is widespread. To sustain this belief, people cling to any indirect evidence they can—near death experiences, tales of reincarnation, stories of ancient miracles, supposed communication with the dead, pseudo-scientific studies, and the like. But none of this so-called evidence stands up to critical scrutiny. Many believe, not because there’s good evidence, but because they want to.

Yet such faith is hard to sustain. Every single moment we are alive confirms at least one truth—those who are dead are dead. We may hear the voices of the deceased in our heads, but we don’t take the departed out to lunch. We could live in a world with evidence for the afterlife—for example one where the dead regularly appeared and described post-mortem existence—but we don’t. Belief in the afterlife is probably just wishful thinking.

As for science, it generally ignores the so-called evidence of an afterlife for many reasons. First, the idea of an immortal soul plays no explanatory or predictive role in the modern scientific study of human beings. For instance, doctors no longer attribute mental illness to demonic possession of our souls—only Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the scientifically illiterate might do that.

Second, the overwhelming evidence suggests that consciousness ceases when brain functioning does. If ghosts or disembodied spirits exist, then we would have to abandon scientific ideas that we hold with great confidence—like the notion that brains generate consciousness. In fact, the idea of a soul is incompatible with everything we know about modern physics—best-selling books to contrary just prey on human credulity.

Professional philosophers also tend to be skeptical of the afterlife, as good arguments for it are virtually non-existent. Moreover, almost all philosophers today are physicalists  regarding the mind. This means that mind—or soul if it even exists—depends on the body. In other words, when the body dies our consciousness is extinguished; there is no ghost in the machine.

Of course this cursory treatment doesn’t establish the impossibility of an afterlife; after all, reality is mysterious. Still, given what we know about how our brains work, disembodied consciousness is unlikely. Clearly the scientific and philosophical winds blow against such ancient beliefs, and people increasingly reject belief in god, miracles, and the afterlife.

But if death is the end, how should we feel about it? We might be undisturbed by death, finding consolation in the words of the Greek philosopher Epicurus: “When I am, death is not; and when death is, I am not.” Epicurus taught that fear of the gods and death is irrational. If we think about death, we will see that it’s not bad for us since we have no sensations after death. Yes, the process of dying can be bad, and our deaths may hurt others, but Epicurus argued that death can’t be bad for the deceased. For how can what we don’t know hurt us?

We could reject this argument, claiming that we can be harmed by something without being aware of it. For example, intelligent adults reduced to the state of infancy by a brain injury suffer a great misfortune, even if unaware of their injurious state. Perhaps the dead are similarly harmed. But we can still ask, how can the dead be harmed? Perhaps Epicurus is right after all, death shouldn’t trouble us.

Yet despite Epicurus’ argument, we may still find the idea of our death unsettling. For one day the sun will set for the very last time for us, and every thought and memory we have ever had will … vanish. When we are gone we will no longer read books, take trips, or hear familiar voices. We will never take another walk, catch another baseball, or play in the snow. We won’t know about new music, inventions, ideas or what will happen to our children or grandchildren. This is why we don’t want to die.

In response we could hope that science and technology save us, and there are plausible scientific scenarios whereby death might be overcome. Still, such technology probably won’t be developed in time to avoid our own deaths. We could also buy a cryonics policy, but there are no guarantees this would work, or that we would wake up in a reality that we would want to live in.

Moreover, even if we did extend our lives indefinitely, the universe itself is doomed. In that case, life seems pointless. For how can anything matter if all ends in nothingness?  The only way around this conclusion is if our descendents become gods and somehow escape the death of the cosmos. Unfortunately, such fantastic futures aren’t only unlikely, they also don’t comfort us when we look at our spouse or our children and realize that someday we’ll never see them again. Never. Death doesn’t care about our desires; our attitude toward death appears irrelevant; raging against death seems futile. As Philip Larkin wrote:

… Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

For now, with the reality of death looming, resignation and acceptance probably serve us best. Yet we can find some consolation—all is not lost. For if our interests are large enough, if we detach ourselves from the concerns of our little egos, if we identify with something large like the future of cosmic evolution, then there is a good chance that what we care about will continue. Maybe such thoughts can lessen the sting of death.

Most importantly, if we truly feel the reality of death, we might be kinder to each other. If the thought of our non-existence has any value, this may be it. For all the pain we cause each other is pointless against the backdrop of eternal nothingness. If we are all dying together, why not be nicer to each other, why not fill our little time with less pain? Maybe, if we could see ourselves from this cosmic point of view, we could even say with the poets, that what survives of us is love.

This may be too poetic, and it may not be all we want. But love is remarkable. It appears in a world of cruelty and savagery, in a species whose roots are “red in tooth and claw.” Love brings the peace of knowing that someone cares for us, waits for us, listens to us. In the unfathomable infinity of space and time, in the infinite cold and darkness which surrounds us, love relieves loneliness, love connects us, love sustains us. And perhaps the traces of our love do somehow reverberate through time, in ripples and waves that one day reach peaceful shores now unbeknownst to us. Perhaps love doesn’t disappear into nothingness; perhaps love can be perfected; perhaps love is stronger than death.

Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility: Romantic Love and the Idea of “Settling”

A problem for many, especially the young, is that then they seek long-term partners they are moved by sexual passion and physical desire. They often fail to seek substantive people with whom they can experience a lasting, mature love based on compromise, tolerance, stability, and commitment. I realize this is a trite advice and  admit this thought did not occur to me when I was twenty years old either. Still it is surprising how many disregard this advice. Here is an example. 

Before a college class about twenty years ago two young female students were discussing the movie “Sense and Sensibility” which was based on Jane Austen’s novel of the same name. In the movie the beautiful Marianne Dashwood believes she is madly in love with the dashing John Willoughby. Here is the scene as they first meet. Marianne has hurt her ankle and the strong, dashing Willoughby has carried her home. “He lifted me as if I weighed no more than a trite leaf,” she says. She is immediately smitten.

As for the wealthy, stable, but older and less dashing Colonel Brandon, who dearly loves Marianne, she has no use. Marianne has mistaken her passionate enthusiasm for love and, shortly thereafter, Willoughby discards her for a more wealthy patron.

Finally she begins to realize that Willoughby loves money more than he loves her—she realizes that Willoughby is more form than substance. She eventually marries the Colonel and by all accounts they have a happy, stable marriage built on mutual love and respect. (The character of David Copperfield in Dicken’s novel has a similar experience. He marries his longtime, sensible friend and finally finds true happiness. This is a common theme in world literature.)

My two young female students found this outcome disappointing if not downright depressing. Marianne shouldn’t have “settled” for the Colonel. She should have waited for a better man. The Colonel was only rich, kind, wise, just, stable, honest, smart, and good looking. What a terrible husband he would make! But why couldn’t the beautiful Marianne find all that in a man as handsome, passionate, and strong as Willoughby, my young students wondered? By contrast, I doubted if a man as good as the Colonel even existed. I concluded that these young women had an immature and naive view of romantic love. Somehow the Colonel fell short of their ideal mate—a mate that doesn’t exist. My young students wanted to marry a chimera.

Many people, especially young ones, foolishly reject potentially wonderful mates for those who only appear good, as Willoughby appeared to Marianne.  And this is partly why the Greeks thought erotic passion was dangerous and irrational. It clouds our judgment; it misleads us.  We are naturally drawn to external beauty and passion, often missing a deeper beauty right in front of us. Our senses sense external beauty, but our good sense, our sensibility, determines if a person is truly beautiful. Hence the title of the novel.

That was Jane Austen’s message is that we should seek true beauty. Fortunately, in the end, Marianne comes to her senses. She recognizes the serenity, if not the unending passion, of true love.

“For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto an other brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.”

― Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene