Love arises in a variety of different circumstances. This essay represents an effort to arrive at a general theory of love. After exploring the question of love, it is proposed that what is termed ‘love’ is best described as a ‘positive augmentation of Being.’ Many questions are left open by this essay, in particular the question of Being and a seeming state of incompleteness which necessitates the positive augmentation.
What is love?
‘Baby don’t hurt me’ …. that’s what you’re saying, isn’t it? At least if you are a mischievious soul!
Jokes aside, it is valid to explore the question of love, given that it is such a ubiquitous part of human culture. Less universal topics, such as freedom, have been pondered and meditated upon in innumerable instances. However, while some cultures are obsessed with freedom, many others are not. On the other hand every culture has love built into its DNA.
The problem of love as a philosophical problem remains in spite of its ubiquity. Today is Valentines’ Day but love, which will be venerated in many countries, is not a tangible thing. If I asked; “what is a tree?,” you could lead me to an object with something called a ‘root’ and which possesses ‘branches,’ which grows from something called a ‘seed,’ etc … Similar objects to the one you pointed out would be also types of ‘trees.’ This could be replicated for other objects. They would be defined and any objects answering the call of the definition would be members of this class.
If I then asked “what is love?” where could you lead me? Could you show me an object called ‘love’ with certain characteristics such as those that help define a tree? You could show me a couple who spend 60 years together and say “this is love.” You could bring me to a maternity ward where mothers are holding children in their hands and say “this is love.” You could bring me to an army barracks where soldiers salute a flag and say “this is love.” Perhaps, we could even go to a football stadium and point out the passion of a crowd and say “this is love.”
There are infinite manifestations of what we call ‘love.’ There is love for other people, there is love for objects, there is love for oneself, for being part of a group, for ideals, for famous historical figures, for God. There are disagreements about what constitutes love; was the love of that couple real love or merely lust, for example?
2. First Steps
How do we go about making our way in an inquiry concerning love? The first step is ideally to remove ourselves of any pre-existing notions so we avoid circularity; in other words, if we see a faithfully married couple, we can’t say that this is love because that already implies that we know what love is before we investigate it; the circular argument would be ‘love = fidelity, therefore fidelity = love.’ Yet we are forced to rely on – what are essentially – empirical manifestations of love. Otherwise we would know what we are looking for. If we had never loved, or been loved, then we would not know what love is. We have subjective views of love at the same time we are hunting for an objective thing called ‘love.’ Therefore, circularity probably can’t be avoided but we should be aware of being trapped by it.
I’ll back up a little and look at love in a linguistic sense. Language often gives a good indicator of the nature of a thing. However, when one looks at the etymology of ‘love’ or ‘amour,’ (both are derived from Latin) then there seems to be nothing but self-evident confirmation of the word; the word love seems to be derived from love!!
Greek offers a more interesting alternative to Latin. In Greek, at least according to the following article, there are at least 6 different words for love; eros, philia, ludus, agape, pragma, and philautia. These can be quickly termed as words denoting (1) a feeling of passion; (2) a feeling of friendship; (3) a feeling of playfulness, (4) a duty to care for others, (5) a mature sense of caring for someone over a prolonged period of time; (6) a concern for one’s own needs.While the list may not be comprehensive, we do, as a matter of course, understand love as encompassing a variety of contexts and situations. These six can further be boiled down to the following:
“I love someone”; something called ‘love’ is directed to an external object.
“I love doing”; something called ‘love’ is ‘mixed’ in with an action.
“I love having”; the possession of something is important to the degree that ‘love’ is present.
“I love being”; a particular state called ‘love’ is desired.
What are we to make of all this? What is the common factor between an all-consuming desire and a Stoic patience, or between a healthy enjoyment of fun and a sense of charity, or between enjoying someone’s conversation and a self-centred egoism? What unites all these?
The answer is that, at this stage, I just don’t know. However, maybe we should try a different tack. Maybe we should ask what love is not, as well as contemplating love is. And we can use the Greek varieties of love to frame the discussion.
4. Good and Bad
We do not love that which we find to be bad (it is another matter whether what we find to be bad is indeed bad). People feel lonely, they seek company. When someone satisfies their need for company, they gravitate towards that person. Then again, someone may live in a big city or may have grown tired of a person. They are sick of company. Therefore, they may seek reclusiveness. They then love that reclusiveness. Someone may feel a need to exert themselves; they then love the activity that they exert themselves in. Love is a feeling of participation, and of enjoyment; it is not a feeling of boredom. Then again it may not be a feeling of excitement either. Nonetheless we can see that things are not bad ‘in and of itself’ when it comes to love.
So, is love an ointment for bad, even if the bad is not intrinsically bad? That may be wrong if we consider the Greek pragma; someone may embrace bad for the sake of fulfilling a higher purpose. It may also be inapplicable for agape. Charity often involves embracing bad things, like witnessing suffering, or enduring hardship. Yet, bad, on this reading, may not refer to objective things, but to subjective feelings or intellectual motivations. A person is not relying on someone else to relieve their sense of non-love, they are seeking ‘within’ to overcome a bad that they perceive.
It appears that love is not something ‘out there,’ so to speak. It is something that is subjective, that is particular to each person but which, sometimes, requires other people. However, a radical subjectivism does not appear correct. In other words, we cannot merely reduce ‘love’ (whatever that is) down to the personal inclinations of someone. The reason for that is empirical. It is a plain fact that mothers sacrifice for children, comrades-in-arms for each other, sometimes strangers for each other (this can also be done away from prying eyes thus negating the idea that sacrifice is really done for a personal audience and such sacrifices also occur amongst animals, some of whom are less sociable than we are). The word ‘sacrifice,’ commonly seen as a proof for ‘love,’ by definition involves a setting aside of personal dispositions towards a material good. And, if we say that someone is ‘sacrificing for an ideal,’ we have to ask what does that mean? We can’t deny that a sacrifice occurs but how do we link what is thought of as ‘pure love’ with more ‘impure’ forms of love?
5. A ‘State of Love,’ perhaps?
How about if we say a ‘state of love’ exists? But we are thrown back again onto circular thinking because erotic love, charitable love, and pragmatic love (which would be recognized as forms of love by just about everyone) which are ‘states of love’ are so called because ‘states of love’ correspond to these forms. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how we can do without knowing what love is in advance before defining; we know that if we see two people (or one of the two people) bored in their company, then a state of love doesn’t exist. If we see two people engrossed in each other, we can say that a state of love exists. On the other hand, a married couple often experience boredom and even hatred for each other at times, yet it would seem sophistry to claim that two people who spend 60 years together did not love each other, while two people who spent a passionate week together did; that would be linking ‘love’ to a feeling of intensity and passion as opposed to one of faithfulness and mutual concern.
It is of course possible that ‘love’ is a poor word to describe various forms of personal and mutual feelings which are called ‘love’; the Greek sub-divisions hint at this. Yet even in the Greek designations, there is the recognition of something ‘higher,’ that goes beyond material exchange or personal satiation. And while we don’t want to go endlessly around in circles, we all recognize the fact that we feel a sense of something called ‘love’ in various environments and can feel this ‘thing’ either alone or in company.
6. Something Higher
Maybe calling love ‘something higher’ is another path we can follow? What do we mean by ‘higher’? We mean something that lifts us out of the ordinary; it is not necessarily something that is welcome or one that is ‘positive.’ It may not be something that is present because the idea of sacrificial love is that the cheque of love is drawn down at a later date. When we talk of ‘love’ we are definitely talking about something extra-ordinary. Sacrifice is extraordinary, the heights of passion are extraordinary, a friendship is an extraordinary thing. What is extraordinary may not be love; if a ton of bricks fell on your head out of the clouds it would be extraordinary but in no way related to love. However, love is conditioned by being extraordinary in some sense.
Now, let’s think in terms of opposites. If love is something extraordinary (although what is extraordinary is not love), i.e. if love is conditioned by an extraordinary quality, then is what is ordinary incapable of conditioning love? Obvious objections would be to the pragmatic marriage or the Stoic patience of giving charity. These would appear to be ‘ordinary’ because they are monotonous. Yet the quality of extraordinariness can still be maintained. To spend day after day after day with the same person is an extraordinary feat and charity involves the same sense of departing from the ordinary. So the mundane would seem to be excluded from love. Extraordinariness is a quality that love must possess. It is characteristic of love. Note that this extraordinariness must be extraordinary as viewed by the subject. A wedding is not an extraordinary event in human history but for the person involved it is extraordinary.
We can think of extraordinariness as an ‘augmentation.’ Whether someone wants to give, to feel, to experience, or to strive, in an extraordinary sense, they want to augment, or are augmenting, ‘themselves.’ Unfortunately, we are constantly resorting to metaphysical ideas but there seems to be no way of making progress otherwise. If I say “I am augmenting myself” what is this ‘augmentation of the self’? It is difficult to answer but we can say, rather metaphysically, that I feel ‘incomplete’ and therefore need to be ‘augmented’ by something ‘extraordinary.’ Especially with something like childbirth – which brings torments and pains in its train – there is a feeling of incompleteness that necessitates an augmentation of Being.
So now, as before, we ask whether there is a symmetrical relationship between augmentation of Being and love. If a ‘state of love’ exists is there an augmentation of love? We can say yes. Does an augmentation of Being correspond to a state of love? As far as I can see, the answer must be negative. Someone’s Being is augmented (they experience an extraordinary feeling) if in a state of fear, for example fleeing a danger. Nonetheless, augmentation of Being does seem to capture something of love. If we go back to our example where someone wanted company, but then wanted to be alone we can see that the constant is an augmentation of Being. However, and I warn the reader to be careful, this Being should not be thought of as an individual unit. The question of Being may involve positing some sort of human communal Soul … this again is metaphysical but so is the positing of an individual. Nevertheless, we have still fallen short because an augmentation of Being may occur with or without love.
8. A More Specific Augmentation
So, if we are talking about an augmentation of Being, we have to ask which specific augmentation of Being is specific to condition a ‘state of love?’ If fear is something ‘negative,’ however, and love is something ‘positive,’ then I would denote love as a ‘positive augmentation of Being.’ ‘Positive’ corresponds to an act of will and therefore a phrase like ‘falling-in-love’ would not be applicable (if taken literally). Once more we have to ask whether there is a symmetrical relationship between love and what we have identified: Love is what is termed a ‘positive augmentation of Being’ but does a ‘positive augmentation of Being’ equate to love. I would argue in this case that this is a satisfactory definition. I can’t see how someone could be augmented in a positive sense (i.e. in a fulfilling manner that they would either welcome or feel a sense of virtue if in that state) without being, by definition, in a state of love or enmeshed in a wider architecture of love (as in a sacrifice). This ‘positive augmentation of Being’ would also appear to be fundamental and therefore non-circular. This last claim merits further investigation, of course.
Obviously, the examples cited may be open to question and that is a matter of ensuring that the method is as sound as possible. What was attempted herein was a definition of love based on common-sense understandings of the word. Whether we are talking in individual terms or in communal terms is also important. If it is said “I love you” do we mean that “My Being is positively augmented by you” or is it more correct to say that “A general positive augmentation of a communal Being” has occured (the first would seem more likely if a ‘rejection’ occurred but there are reasons why that answer would be inadequate).
Finally, the positive augmentation of Being tells us that humans are incomplete and gives an indication as to why they seek company, i.e. as a consequence of their incomplete nature. It remains a matter of much speculation to focus on what it means to be incomplete, to be augmented, to move in a positive as opposed to a negative direction, but I hope this essay has gone some way to answering the question of love and pointing in the right direction.