What is love?

Although I can glean some value from this triangular theory of love, it, to me, seems to do more in a practical way, rather than giving me some hope of identifying some clue as to what love actually is. Sternberg has merely (although, not at all uselessly) given us some more words to use in discussions of ‘love’, within the fairly limited scope of person-to-person relationships. Although the truth within Sternberg’s theory should be acknowledged, it goes little distance in answering the question, ‘What is love? ‘ So, in our search for an answer, we move elsewhere.

Arguably the greatest psychologist-cum-philosopher of the twentieth century, Erich Fromm, discusses his theory of love in his book, The Art of Loving. He first explores that human beings, supposedly the only species blessed with the power of reason, are the only animals that are aware of their separateness and loneliness – he writes that we live a “disunited existence in an unbearable prison”. He refers to the Biblical story of Creation: after Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they notice their nakedness, and are ashamed.

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But rather than this being mere prudish embarrassment at having their genitals on display, this ‘shame’ is, Fromm posits, a new awareness of their separateness, and of their difference (in that they are of different genders). While recognizing their separateness, they remain strangers, because they have not learned to love, as made clear by Adam’s blaming of Eve for the act, rather than protecting her. The only way to overcome this isolation that we have earned by our knowledge of good and evil, and the only way to return to this pre-Fall state of – not just with the partner, but, indeed, with nature itself – is love.

Fromm also returns to the story of Genesis with the significance of Eve being made from Adam’s rib, suggesting the necessity of male-female polarity in relationships: “Man – and woman – finds union within himself only in the union of his female and male polarity. This polarity is the basis for all creativity”. He refers both to the biological interpersonal creation – the union of sperm and egg for the creation of new life – and to a wider existence of this male and female principle throughout nature – the polarity of penetration and reception is reflected in that “of earth and rain, of river and ocean, of night and day, of matter and spirit”.

Because of this, Fromm labels the “homosexual deviation” as a “failure to attain this polarised union”, which would hence cause an emptiness and isolation in the soul of the homosexual. But if we skip back a couple of millennia, to the Symposium, we can see some very different points of view. Written by the great philosopher Plato, it details a drinks-party in which the each of the guests gives a speech praising Love. Phaedrus, who, in the book, suggests giving speeches on Love, says “if there was any mechanism for producing an army of lovers and boyfriends…

they could defeat the whole human race”, referring to the adolescent-to-adult male relationship (pederasty), a common aspect of the Greek culture. This relationship (as agreed by the members of the Symposium) was generally regarded as a ‘higher’ relationship than that between women and men – a conclusion completely contrary to that of Erich Fromm. But despite this, Phaedrus does posit that love between men and women could be as strong, such as the mythical story of Alcestis, who dies for her husband, for which she is rewarded by Hades and sent back from the underworld.

But Socrates, one of the fathers of Western philosophy, takes the discussion in the Symposium further, bringing the idea of love as education. When we think about loved ones, he suggests, we try to find their admirable qualities – perhaps they are beautiful, sweet, popular or witty – and we love them for these qualities. But we are particularly attracted to those qualities that we do not have (or do not believe to have) ourselves – it would be absurd, Socrates posits, to crave what you already possess.

He then puts forward the idea that we somehow believe that, in loving the other, we can come, by some magical process, to possess the qualities. An adult male desires an adolescent youth for his athletic prowess, his body, and his innocence; an adolescent youth desires an adult male for his wisdom, his maturity, and his guidance. But then, advancing his theory, Socrates brings in the idea of the ‘ladder of love’ – once we recognise that it is the good qualities that we love, not the person themselves, we can ascend a ladder of knowledge, building our love for abstract universal virtues.

He depersonalises true love – the concept becomes an absolute appreciation of general goodness. We have now before us theories of love ranging wildly from a male-female union that brings the soul closer to nature and away from our natural post-Fall psychological isolation state, to a belief that love is merely a step to an appreciation of virtue as a whole. Due to the undeniable fact that philosophy varies so extensively on this topic, with no real glimpse of a definite conclusion, perhaps we must come to the unsatisfying deduction that, yes, there isn’t a definite, absolute definition of ‘love’.

The natural assumption may be that if there is not at least one characteristic that is shared with all that we label ‘love’, the word would become meaningless. Must we come to the conclusion that love is too mysterious for us to understand? We could use the work of Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein to challenge this idea. He points out that a whole range of ordinary words that we use are, in fact, impossible to entirely define. He takes the example of the word ‘game’. If you try and posit that a game is always competitive, then what about solitaire, or sex games?

If you say that they always have rules, consider a child’s game of make-believe? So the word ‘game’ seemingly cannot be adequately defined; yet this isn’t because there is something so incredibly mystical about its nature that we cannot grasp. Wittgenstein has questioned the underlying assumption that there is a factor which unites all the things we call by the same name – perhaps there need not be a definition for love. In addition to this, Wittgenstein also conceived an argument that he referred to as the ‘private language argument’.

Imagine, he says, that everyone has a small box in which they keep a beetle. However, no one is allowed to look in anyone else’s box; only in their own. Over time, people talk about what is in their boxes and the word “beetle” comes to stand for what is in everyone’s box, although, in fact, there is no way of telling what is in any box but your own. This curious analogy can be applied to the concept of love. There is no way, as entirely internal emotions, that we can understand what concepts such as ‘pain’, ‘anger’, or, indeed, ‘love’ mean to another person.

Thus, we could be drawn to the conclusion that ‘love’ itself cannot be defined any more than ‘that which we refer to as love’, just as our beetle cannot be defined as any more as ‘that which is in our box’. Wittgenstein felt that most modern philosophy, including the philosophy of this abstract concept, love, was fundamentally misconceived by a misunderstanding of language – holding the preconception that language corresponds to the basis of philosophy – logic – which he arguably exposed as erroneous by this ‘private language argument’.

It is tempting to conclude that, due to this suggestion that the barrier of language blurs all non-mathematical concepts from any kind of definition or truth, love perhaps does not, in any real sense, exist. But I think this hypothesis is missing the point. Wittgenstein concludes his first masterpiece, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, with: “Wherefor one cannot speak, thereof, one must remain silent’. And, in this uncertain silence, that eternal, unanswerable question – what is love? – can perhaps linger on.

Bibliography

Armstrong, John

Conditions of Love