Yes, Valentine’s Day recently passed and many of us experienced mixed reactions that range from chocolate-heart-comatose to embracing the very intrusive Singles Awareness Day. Apart from the obvious commodification of this holiday, just what is love exactly? I looked into what some of the best thinkers have said about this question.
Some of the ‘highest standards’ I’ve found frame love as something that must not be understood as a choice but instead, as an unconditional commitment to a teleological quest for fulfillment or actualization. It rises above us and exists as a formative mental process grounded in our evolutionary makeup; something we never fully attain yet an inescapable characteristic of human nature.
The Greco-Christian term agape provides an effective understanding of this conception of love, effectively summarized in this biblical excerpt:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs…It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Agape frames love as a higher form, a sense of charity. Theologically rooted, it is the love of God for humanity and the love of humanity for God. Under this interpretation, love can be viewed as external to us, beyond our will, and as a collective endeavor. Love and love activities must be viewed holistically and communal for reason that individual perspectives, “I this…”, “You that…”, emphasize only a narrow definition of it.
Many of the common colloquial expressions that refer to love as something we “fall into”, as in “falling in and out of love,” depict love in a rather shallow way—presupposing love as a (mental) state or feeling.
This further presupposes that love materializes biologically, thus is a sort of physical or psychological ‘human condition’—which can be scientifically classified, and resultantly, mimicked and exploited. Neuroscientists, for instance, have found that love as a ‘human condition’ is linked with certain variants of testosterone, estrogen, dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin.
Naturally then, under this interpretation, it’s possible to have a rational or scientific examination of love. In the same way that drugs can induce altered states of mind, love as a mental state or feeling would be grounded in a similar logic. Is it possible to reduce love to a series of neurochemical reactions? Comparatively, are interpretations of love which label it as the pursuit of a higher human endeavor attainable or realistic? Conceptual analyses of love may well be helpful for discussion yet it’s reasonable to conclude that even Cupid would view them with suspicion.
1. Stendhal. 1975. Love. London, ENG: Penguin Group.
2. Zeki, Semir. 2007. “The Neurobiology of Love.” FEBS Letters 581(14):2575-2579.
3. Fisher, Helen E., Arthur Aron, and Lucy L. Brown. 2006. “Romantic Love: A Mammalian Brain System for Mate Choice.” Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 361(1476):2173-2186.