Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What Is Love Anyway?

Philosophers have a way of asking what seem to be obvious questions, as though they were born yesterday. Questions like, "What is place?" or "What is love?" Many people would simply reply to the latter, "What a stupid question. Everyone knows what love is."

But the philosopher's whole point is to show precisely that we don't know what love is, not really. As with anything else, when you really start thinking about it deeply and trying to define it, you soon get lost and confused. Even your physical surroundings and your own self can start to dissolve when you spend any time thinking deeply about what they really are. If it serves no other purpose, philosophy reveals to us how ultimately mysterious everything is.

And what could be more mysterious than love? What is love, anyway? The problem is made more complex by the fact that the English word "love" actually refers to a number of different phenomena, so that any discussion of love without further clarification will inevitably result in a confusion of tongues. The Greeks did better in this regard by having at least four different words to describe four different things that English speakers all lump together as "love":

1. Storge, familial love or affection.

2. Philia, friendship.

3. Eros, sexual or romantic love.

4. Agape, unconditional love.

It is very important to note two things here:

1. The above brief definitions of these Greek words are oversimplified and potentially misleading. Eros, in particular, as the term is used in philosophy, is far broader than its commonly understood meaning of sexual love.

2. These four types of love, though they are different, can of course coexist in various combinations. For instance, one might very well feel all four types of love toward one's spouse.

In this series, I am primarily interested in focusing on eros, which, as I say, means far more than what the above simple definition suggests. Since it is connected and related to the other loves, however, I will also inevitably touch upon each of them in the course of my musings. But it is primarily eros that has become of particular philosophical interest to me. I am especially fascinated by Plato's ideas on the subject, which I explored this summer while composing my novel.

One thing philosophy accomplishes is that it shows us how our concepts are often unclear, and that we can conflate and confuse things that should be differentiated, or that we might fail to see that what we think are a variety of phenomena are actually different aspects of one and the same thing. In the case of love, it has become very clear to me that we fail to make certain crucial distinctions, a mistake that leads to much unnecessary unhappiness.

We have already touched upon one of these problems, which is inherent in the English language, and that is the fact that we have but a single word that is used to refer to a variety of phenomena, thereby generating confusion when anyone speaks about "love". My next step is to attempt to show that even the subcategory of erotic love needs further subdivisions in order to help us understand and properly respond to our desires and feelings.

In an age that is split between puritanical overcautiousness and Freudian oversexualization, it is nigh impossible to arrive at a proper and healthy understanding of eros, in all of its complexity and richness and fullness, without the aid of philosophy. Because of the peculiar misunderstanding of eros that characterizes modern Western (and especially American) society, much damage is done not only to relationships and individuals but also to the potential for happiness that exists in each of us and in each of our lives.

My hope is that with a proper understanding of our desires, much unnecessary fear might be overcome and that more people would be capable of having fuller and richer and deeper relationships with more people. We have become liberated sexually at the grievous and unnecessary cost of having become more repressed in terms of our nonsexual relationships.

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