Archive for April, 2015

What is Love?

I’ve been doing a little housecleaning and spent this afternoon reading several old papers I’d written.  Since I have a dear friend who is luxuriating in a rekindled love, this paper jumped out and insisted that I share it with you.  Originally written in 2008.


We speak of love as if it were a single emotion that has various “flavors,” such as the flavor of parental love, of sibling love, of erotic love or friend love. This diminishes love to a thing that can be lost or found on a whim. Love is more than that – it is a state of being, it is a way of living, and it is a way of seeing life and all around us.

Language is poorly equipped to define love, although that hasn’t stopped us from trying. Sartre seems to find love to be a desperate grasping toward self-completion; Scheler considers love to be one of two opposing modes of spontaneous action (the other being hatred); and hooks, like Scheler, considers love to be action but intentional action as opposed to spontaneous action. I find myself more in agreement with Scheler and hooks than with Sartre on this.

Sartre’s idea that the Other steals a part of us just by looking at us holds a certain merit. I can never see myself the way anyone else sees me. But his contention that we are always striving to recover that stolen piece, and that love is the closest we get to “self-recovery” strikes me as being a terribly sad way to see things. His paradigm of constant conflict with others as we all steal the inapprensible aspects of each other and try to recover our own aspects from the others creates a scenario where true happiness, to my mind, is unattainable, and love, in his view, is almost a form of deception.

For Sartre says that we do not want to be loved simply to be loved. He says that “to want to be loved is to invest the Other with one’s own facticity; it is to wish to compel him to re-create you perpetually as the condition of a freedom which submits itself and which is engaged; it is to wish both that freedom found fact and that fact have preeminence over freedom.” (480). This implies that the need to be loved is the need to have a single conscious awareness continually and voluntarily re-create me as an embodied being and that my embodied being have priority over their consciousness. There is a great deal of fear involved in viewing love in this manner, for if the beloved has the power to re-create me, s/he has the power to not re-create me, and thus I am lost.

This is the love of the unfounded being, the love of one who has limited sense of self and place in the world. If I enter into “love” without having a full appreciation for the depth of my own being, I risk placing too much of my identification at the feet of my beloved. My identity becomes that of “his lover” as opposed to my own being. When the Self is loved as it is, complete and ongoing, I can love without fear. Yes, if the beloved leaves I will grieve, I will feel the loss of him in my life, but I will not lose my own identity. I can only do that if I have given my identity to my beloved, which only happens when I have not grasped the truth of my being. This is why young love is so painful – we do not yet know our true selves and we are utterly devoted to the beloved. Sartre’s view that the lovers see the world through each others eyes, exist for each other alone, is perilous unless the lovers have each found their true selves, in which case the lovers can love even more fully, even more deeply, without the attendant fear of the loss of self. I have no need to repossess that which I never lost to begin with. I can never know how another, including my lover, sees me, so I release the perceived need to reclaim my being from the Other. How they see me is utterly out of my control and to concern myself with it is a waste of time. Better to develop my own self, my own soul, and be the best me I can be. To live my life fully, without fear, with love and compassion for my fellow beings. In that way I share my being with others and their possession of that shared being is a being entirely of their own creation.

Scheler might agree with me on that point, as might hooks, as both see love as an activity rather than a narcissistic need to be the be-all and end-all for the beloved. I would disagree with Scheler on one point, though; where he uses the word “hatred,” I would use “fear.” In his view, love and hatred are both acts and not things; I can’t pull love out of a box and show it to you, I can only act the way love (or hatred) moves me to act and thereby exhibit that state for you.   Love and hatred are both positive acts to Scheler, in that both are actions toward something: “love and hatred cannot be radically distinguished on the grounds that hatred is simply love for the non-existence of a thing. For hatred is really a positive act, involving a presentation of disvalue no less immediate than the presentation of positive value in the act of love.” (152). I think we could substitute the word “active” for “positive act” to clarify this a bit, as hatred (or fear) are not passive where love is active; to hate (fear) something strongly is to actively desire its diminishment in value, worth or power. It is important to know where to place hatred (fear) when talking about love, because all decisions, all actions, are rooted in one of these modes of being. There are differences in intensity, but at essence, love is love and hatred is hatred (fear is fear). What state of being we happen to be in when we make our decisions will have great effect on what we do and how we do it. And unfortunately, many people regard love as a fearful thing. If that is the case, their actions toward the beloved will not come from a love mode of being but from a fear mode (in which case, can we even call the beloved “the beloved?”).

Scheler continues to tell us that love creates that state of being that allows us to see the pure potentiality of the Other in a way that no one else does, and that this state of being is what allows the Other to enact those potentialities. That love is a movement (of energy) toward the increasing value that we all carry within us, that love is what not only allows us but also propels us to the fulfillment of our nature:

Love is that movement wherein every concrete individual object that possesses value achieves the highest value compatible with its nature and ideal vocation; or wherein it attains the ideal state of value intrinsic to its nature. (161).

For hooks, this movement is not spontaneous as it is for Scheler, but it is with conscious intent – I choose to act out of love. On this point I would find a middle ground between Scheler and hooks. I agree that sometimes love’s movement is spontaneous and yet I agree with hooks that we can make very clear choices about who we do and do not love. For instance, if my lover cheats on me, I will feel betrayal and pain, but it is not a given that I will stop loving him or continue loving him. I choose, based on where my state of being is located (love or fear). As I move through life, I find myself more and more in agreement with the M. Scott Peck statement quoted in the hooks essay, where he says that love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” (4). This strikes me as being a much healthier view of love than is expressed by Sartre (but then, I think his views were heavily shaped by war and national subjugation). Love is so much more than we give it credit for, and I’d like to leave you with this quote: “If we were constantly remembering that love is as love does, we would not use the word in a manner that devalues and degrades its meaning. When we are loving we openly and honestly express care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment and trust.” (14).

Works Cited

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology.

Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press.

Scheler, Max. The Nature of Sympathy. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1954.

hooks, bell. All About Love. New York: William Morrow and Co., 2000.


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