What is love?
Believe it or not, I had never really thought about it till last week. Or if I have, it was more about how language shapes and constrains our understanding of love — but not about what love really is, the reality this word points to. This reality of love must predate language, both in the evolution of humankind (just think about dogs!) and in an individual life story, beginning in the circle of parental love; it is this un-linguistic reality that I have never even tried to think about. In retrospect, I believe this is because the concept of love seemed unproblematic, just as any concept which matches direct experience easily and organically, like “apple”, or “joy”, or “sky”. You wouldn’t just pause to think “What is apple?”, would you?
I was shaken out of this blissful, un-thinking, dog-like understanding of love about three weeks ago, when I joined an online course on Shakespeare. Come to think about it, it had to happen sooner or later: how can one work with Shakespeare’s sonnets without facing this challenge? The first play to be studied in the course was “Romeo and Juliet”; but it was not the play itself that problematised love for me, but some discussions on the course forums: a surprising number of them revolved around one or another way of devaluing Romeo and Juliet’s love (“puppy love”, “physical love”, “childish infatuation”, “superficial”, “just hormones” — I am sure you get the gist). Let me share with you my favourite recording of the first balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet”; had I been asked what love is three weeks ago, I might have pointed to it and say: This is love.
After reading these forum discussions, I knew it mightn’t have worked. I am not generally given to the well-known “someone is wrong on the internet” syndrome, but I felt as though these conversations bared a hidden rupture in the very fabric of life. Here was a difference in worldview so painfully deep that it makes no sense to argue, but it — in a sense — hurts just to see it. But I couldn’t put my finger on the source of this frustration until I read one of the introductory lectures to the second play of the course (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), “What is love?” by Joshua Calhoun.
Calhoun’s core point is that the English word “love” is ambiguous: it covers a range of disparate experiences, and it is this ambiguity Shakespeare exposes and plays with in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Greeks, he believes, got it right (or at least less wrong) with their four different words:
- Agape for charity, compassion, the love of God for man and of man for God,
- Eros for sexual passion,
- Philia for affectionate regard and friendship, and
- Storge for child-parent relationship.
“I like to think of these as Grecian urns, appropriately labeled so that love can be sorted out. The English language dumps all four containers—Eros, Agape, Storge, Phile—in the middle of the floor in a big pile, much like my daughter used to do with her toys when she was a toddler.”
But is that so? Languages move from specific to abstract along with the humankind’s attempts to increase knowledge and understand reality — and ambiguity and abstraction are very different things. If dumping all the toys in a big pile is a metaphor for ambiguity, then abstraction would be figuring out that some toys belong to the same category (for example, sorting them by colour), or, at a still higher level of abstraction, discovering the very concept of “toy” (as opposed to other, “grown-up”, things).
The existence of many different kind of toys doesn’t make the word toy ambiguous, and there is a good test for that: one can talk about toys without meaning anything more specific. If I say “Kids love toys”, I don’t necessarily have any specific toys in mind, and you — if you hear or read it — are not supposed to disambiguate this statement and figure out which particular toys I meant. Compare this with the word word, which can mean “a unit of language” or “a piece of news”, but it cannot mean both at the same time. If I say: “the first word of this sentence”, I mean the former, and if I say “I received word from home”, I mean the latter. In either case, the listener would resolve the ambiguity, that is, pick the meaning appropriate to the context.
What about love, then: is it ambiguous, as Calhoun argues, or is it a valid abstraction? When one says “love”, does one always mean something more specific, something which would nicely fit in one of those Greek urns? Or are there contexts where these distinctions don’t matter, and, furthermore, it is essential not to make such distinctions to grasp the meaning? Here is an example of such a context, a quote from Alan Watt’s “The Wisdom of Insecurity”:
“The further truth that the undivided mind is aware of experience as a unity, of the world as itself, and that the whole nature of mind and awareness is to be one with what it knows, suggests a state that would usually be called love. For the love that expresses itself in creative action is something much more than an emotion. It is not something which you can “feel” and “know,” remember and define. Love is the organizing and unifying principle which makes the world a universe and the disintegrated mass a community. It is the very essence and character of mind, and becomes manifest in action when the mind is whole.”
In this context, the word love cannot, I believe, be replaced with either of the more specific Greek alternatives. This thought itself could not have been expressed without a concept abstract enough to cover all kinds and types and shapes of love. Another example, even more to the point, from Joseph Campbell’s essay “The Mythology of Love”:
“We can safely say, therefore, that whereas some moralists may find it possible to make a distinction between two spheres and reigns—one of flesh, the other of the spirit, one of time, the other of eternity—where ever love arises such definitions vanish, and a sense of life awakens in which all such oppositions are at one.”
One can, of course, disagree with these thoughts — but I happen to believe that Shakespeare expressed a similar sensation of essential unity of all forms of love in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (and, moreover, in the parallels between this comedy and the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet).
In thinking about these two plays, and the meaning of love in them, I’ve come to a somewhat idiosyncratic metaphor of love as water: it can be in a glass, in a pool, in a river, in an ocean, in a waterfall; one can drink it, wash something in it, swim in it, stand in front of it in awe and wonder, and one can drown in it. Shapes are different, experiences are different, but it’s still water. And so love can take different shapes, and be experienced in a variety of ways, from rapture to agony, from comic to tragic — but it’s still love. For me, denying the truth of Romeo and Juliet’s love sounds like saying that there is no water in Niagara since one can neither drink from it nor swim in it.
Language can constrain the mind and force it into superfluous divisions and dangerous metaphors, but the concept of love seems to give an example of the opposite situation: language provides us with a unified abstract concept, which has psychological validity for some people, while the others see it as an ambiguous umbrella term for experiences that have little, if anything, in common. In the latter case, nothing remains but to stick adjectives in front of it for disambiguation, or try and narrow the concept to one or another “right” sort of love. In a sense, it is a case of ambiguity after all, but on another level: love can point either to specific experiences or to the unified reality behind all of them.
In the essay already quoted above, Campbell tells of five degrees of love “through which a worshiper is increased in the service and knowledge of his God” in Indian theology. The first four are described through appropriate social relationships: servant-master, friends, parent-child, spouses (in this order). But what is the fifth, highest degree of love? Campbell writes:
“It is passionate, illicit love. In marriage, it is declared, one is still possessed of reason. One still enjoys the goods of this world and one’s place in the world, wealth, social position, and the rest. Moreover, marriage in the Orient is a family-made arrangement, having nothing whatsoever to do with what in the West we now think of as love. The seizure of passionate love can be, in such a context, only illicit, breaking in upon the order of one’s dutiful life in virtue as a devastating storm. And the aim of such a love can be only that of the moth in the image of al-Hallaj: to be annihilated in love’s fire.”
What is recognised here, I believe, is that a human society is built around taming the natural energy of love into a range of “useful”, constructive forms, which maintain the community and its order rather than disrupt it, just like we do it with fire and water. If we try and understand “true love” in terms of these experiences only, it is bound to feel ambiguous. But just as fire and water, love cannot be fully domesticated; it doesn’t make it less of a love, rather more — and that’s the truth of Romeo and Juliet’s love. Their love is, of course, formally sanctified — they are married, albeit in secret; but it still has the same quality of a devastating storm breaking against the social order, of a moth flying towards fire, of the highest and purest degree of love. “The underlying thought here, Campbell continues, is that in the rapture of love one is transported beyond temporal laws and relationships, these pertaining only to the secondary world of apparent separateness and multiplicity.”
So, what is love, after all? I agree with Alan Watts that one cannot “define” it, but Joseph Campbell comes close in linking the unified concept of love to Schopenhauer’s contemplation of the ability of an individual to put themselves and their life in jeopardy for the sake of another (in “The Foundation of Morality”). This ability comes “…out of an instinctive recognition of the truth that he and that other in fact are one. He has been moved not from the lesser, secondary knowledge of himself as separate from others, but from an immediate experience of the greater, truer truth, that we are all one in the ground of our being.”
This is love.
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