Chapter 2 Learning Objectives
Upon reading this chapter, the student should be able to:
- Identify what the popular views of love typically are and the problems associated with those views.
Watch this video or scan the QR code to see understand more about why we love.
It has been said that love is that wonderful feeling you will know the instant you have it; that when you fall in love, you will know it. It has been said that love is the solution to the problem of man’s alienation from himself, from others, and from the world. That love is aim-inhibited sex. That love is the result of an act of will. That love is the spirit that draws man’s soul to the heights of truth, beauty, and goodness, and makes him be like the gods. That God is love. That love is holding hands. That love is the power that illumines men’s actions, but so often also plunges them into darkest despair.
All the above sound not unlike the self-styled descriptions of concoctions sold by nineteenth century medicine men as they hawked their wares to the multitudes. This wonderful elixir picks you up from dropsy, perks you up on those dull, lifeless days, gets you rolling again when you can otherwise hardly stand; it lets insomniacs find blissful sleep, but miraculously also shakes off drowsiness for those who need to be alert. It is unlike anything else ever invented. Its taste is distinctive. The moment you try it, you know it works. It will let you charm your enemies and love your friends more steadfastly, and it will even help you enter the gates of heaven if you should die, which is unlikely if you drink it as a daily tonic.
Love has been described as involving care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge by Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving. Rollo May says there have been four types of love in Western tradition (page 37 of Love and Will)— sex or lust; eros, the creative drive; philia or friendship; and agape, the love devoted toward the welfare of others. And far too often, I am afraid, love has been thought of as one (or, as above, four) static kind(s) of thing(s), the same or similar for all people and for all time. Love seems to be regarded as something that you either have or feel or that you do not. You are either in love or you are not. There may be slight variations on this theme, but there is only one theme, and it is supposedly basic.
But I think all this is wrong. Love is not described by telling what it can do, any more than water or Dr. John’s soothing snake oil is described by telling what it does—cures thirst or melancholy. Telling what something does is not to explain what it is. To say, for example, that the heart pumps blood and that blood transports oxygen and carbon dioxide is not to tell someone, who does not already know, what the heart or blood actually are. And I will contend later that there is no one set of ingredients of love — that it is different at different times, for different people, and often for the same person at different times, in different circumstances. What it feels like to love is not a similar kind of question to what it feels like to have an itch; it is more like the question of what it feels like to breathe. But the question of what it feels like to breathe does not just have one answer. It feels different to breathe when you have a knot in your chest than when you don’t. It feels different when you have run further than you are in condition to, or when you have a mouthful of crackers, or when you are laughing so hard your ribs ache, or when you feel terror or pride or after you have been under water a bit too long. And, most of the time, and when your mind is on other things, it does not feel like anything at all, because you do not literally feel it.
Likewise, how it feels to love when you are doing dishes or scrubbing floors or running a mile or having intercourse or reading a book or taking an exam or kissing for the first time someone you have silently, secretly, and shyly worshiped a long time, or saying “I do” at the alter, or attending a funeral or feeling guilt or terror or contentedly watching your loved one sleep by your side, or feeling pride, performing surgery, or drowning are very different kinds of things. And this is true whether you are talking about love for a spouse of fifty years, love for a first girlfriend (boyfriend), a spouse on a honeymoon, a son or brother, or clergyman who has been kind in a time of need, your favorite aunt, favorite elementary school teacher, the newest Hollywood (or office) sex symbol, and maybe even your love for pizza. And this is only about how it feels to love; yet I will argue later that love is more than just a (kind of) feeling anyway.
But all this is not to say that love is so unique for different people, or at different times, that nothing of general importance and description can be said about it. Though love is a variety of things and involves a variety of things, the varieties themselves can be meaningfully explained and described, and they can be explained and described simply in terms of everyday experience rather than described away in scientific (or pseudo-scientific) jargon or theory. And though they can be described in specific, accurate, logical, non-mystical and non-mythical prose which will make reflection, decision, and discussion of love easier and clearer, this will not thereby make love seem prosaic. And it may even heighten both the value of love itself and the meaning, poignancy, and perception poetry about it provides.
Let me first explain, however, that I am not so interested in talking about how the word love is used as in talking about how it should be used, since it is used so differently by so many different people that it is virtually impossible to convey a particular idea to someone else just by using the word. In this regard, it might almost even be better to abandon the word altogether, except that it has such a rich heritage of usage, can serve a useful purpose, is as convenient as any that might be coined in its place, and in many previous contexts can be understood in terms of the analysis I will give. What I am going to do is to try to capture and combine the essences of what people mean, try to mean, or seem to mean by the word “love” in a way that will be representative and significant, yet be more specific, accurate, and helpful. In many cases, however, I think people will in fact find it clearer, more accurate, and more useful to think and talk in the terms of the specific components (such as amounts and kinds of feelings, satisfactions, and goodness) that I use to analyze love and other relationships than to use the more encompassing, but more general and vague, word “love” by itself.
In a survey of college students reported in J. Richard Udry’s The Social Context of Marriage (Udry, 1966, p. 177), 40% believed love was a feeling or kind of attraction and said things like: “Love represents a magnetic attraction between two persons.” “Love is a feeling of high emotional affiliation…which sends a person’s ego to dizzying heights.” “Love is the emotional feeling two people receive when they both have sexual and Platonic love in the proper proportions.” Still, another 20% thought love had more to do with companionship and compatibility, and they said things like: “Love is the physical and mental compatibility of two people.” “Love is the end result of a mature union of two compatible personalities.” “Love is helping the other person whenever he needs it…being his companion. It’s having common goals, dreams, and ambitions.” “Love is doing things together and liking it.” Still another 20% thought of love in terms of “giving”: “Love is giving—time, understanding, yourself.” “Love is to give of oneself to another.” “Love is giving trust.” “Love is a give and take relationship— and mostly give.” And 17% responded they thought of love in terms of security: “Love is having security in being wanted and knowing you have someone to rely on.” “When a person is in love, the world is right and a person has security.” Finally, 3% looked at love in terms of efficiency, practicality, or roles: “Love for the girl is cooking for him, washing his clothes and keeping the home in order. For the man it is providing security, safety, and helping his wife.” “Love to me is faithfulness to my mate and caring for our children.”
I list the results of this survey to show people do use the word differently, though it is easy to prove this yourself simply by asking a few friends how they use the word “love” or what it means to them; you will quickly see a wide difference. Or tell your parents you love someone you know they disapprove of and see how quickly they try to show you what you have is not love for that person but hero worship, infatuation, sexual longings (being in lust or in heat, not in love), rebellious disrespect for your parents, or whatever.
I would like to take the opportunity to show, rather briefly for now, what is wrong with thinking of love as any of the categories in the above survey, and thereby to show some of the kinds of things a correct or useful theory of love must take into account and thus explain or consider.
If love were the kind of feeling mentioned, then how long should it last, how intense should it be, and how frequently should it occur? If the feeling someday goes away, never or rarely to return, was it really love? If infatuation is also that dizzying kind of feeling, how can one tell the difference between love and infatuation? If love is a feeling and if we have little control over what feelings we have, then what sense could there be in promising eternal love, long lasting love, or even love through tomorrow? That would seem more a prediction than a promise. If you have to wait to see how long and/or under what conditions the feeling of love lasts in order to tell whether it is truly love or not, then don’t you have to wait for that time or those conditions before you can honestly tell someone you love them?
If love is the kind of compatibility mentioned, then it would seem that all friends were lovers, that people at work who got along well together and helped each other pursue common ends, etc., were lovers, and that, in general, there is little difference between good friendship and love. Further, it would mean two people could not be in love if they had different goals or joys, even thought they might get along perfectly well together and have great fondness for each other. I am not sure what is even meant by physical and mental compatibility. Cannot big people love smaller people; bright people, less bright people; intellectuals love athletes; and vice versa. And if by physical compatibility is meant sexual compatibility, then aren’t there millions of potential loves for any normal person, since I doubt there is that much sexual incompatibility in the world. “Love is giving” is a popular theme— many sermons in church find this a fond message, usually coupled with some prescription like each person should give 110% or that in most marriages, it is 60/40 (then everyone believes they are the ones giving 60 and getting 40). If giving, though, means being considerate, nice, ethical, doing the right thing, etc., then since we should all be that way anyhow; so does that mean we should all be lovers to each other! It is not clear that giving applies only or specifically to love situations. And if it means always or mostly being altruistic or self- sacrificing, then, as I will argue in the ethics chapter, it is a bad principle. Ethics does not demand self- denial in all, or even most, cases.
I am also not certain what it means to “give” trust, though I assume it means “trusting.” However, we certainly do not always trust children we love to stay out of danger or trouble. And certainly we may not really trust our teenager with driving for the first time—though we may believe showing confidence in him or her is better to do than not to, even if that is to risk a minor accident. And at the adult level, one may not always trust one’s loved one (or even one’s self) to say or do the right thing in various situations, yet one goes forward anyway and simply does not fret over any bad result. For example, minor though it is, one may not trust one’s spouse to make a crucial put-away tennis shot, but it is often better to let the spouse try than to hog the court, because giving him or her the chance or allowing him or her to try is more important than winning some particular point or match. That is not giving trust, however. And it may have more to do with ethical behavior in general anyway. Further, there are certainly people that we trust, that we do not love — some baby sitters, housekeepers, doctors, businessmen, teachers, etc.
Security: being in love certainly does not make the world all right or make all your troubles disappear; just think of loving when one is incurably ill, or think of loving under war conditions or bad economic conditions where it is difficult even to get food or safe shelter. There are many situations in which loved ones are powerless to help one another, and the inability to help a love one in trouble often causes more distress or agony than does the inability to help a stranger. Love certainly does not always bring peace of mind or security.
Faithfulness seems to be a question related to ethics more than only to love, particularly the ethics of sex (generally), about which I will have more to say later; and child care, cooking, etc., seems to have more to do simply with having domestic help of some sort (maid, nanny, butler, valet, whatever) than anything specifically related to love.
Some of the things a successful definition or analysis of love must do then is to allow us some way to distinguish between love and friendship, between love and infatuation, between love and unwarranted sacrifice, between love and every day ethical concern for others, between love and “just” sexual or physical attraction, between love and comfort, and between love and an efficient household. I think such an analysis is possible.
- Realizing that the concept of love is more complex than most people think and that it needs to be analyzed and understood at a deeper level.
- Faithfulness seems to be a question related to ethics more than only to love.
Chapter Review Question
- Question: What do you think love is, particularly what is often referred to as romantic love — love of the sort people seek for marriage or intimate relationships — as opposed to brotherly love, family love, or love of humanity? Explain and justify your answer.
- Question: What are the specific components you should consider when defining love?
- Question: What are examples of people that we trust but may not love?