Love is

Love is Selfless, Love is Selfish, Love is Heaven, Love is Hell

Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, Ronald de Sousa takes readers on an emotional journey in his book “Love: A Very Short Introduction” and answers questions that often plague us: how we choose who to love, selfish or altruistic are the desires of love, why the most wonderful feeling in the world makes us do terrible things.

“Love is the acute awareness of the impossibility of possession.” ~ Arnold PERN

Some people go crazy with love. Some die for it, some kill. To be honest, the latter doesn’t happen all that often in real life. But it happens to characters in operas and plays all the time.

Everyone expects something like this when they watch or read about love as a tragedy, and they seem to think, Oh, this could happen to us too. You yourselves, dear readers, may have fallen madly in love once or twice, felt the thrill of shared love or the mysterious, so majestic agony of rejected feelings. Poets, musicians, artists and philosophers have been inspired by this emotion and driven by love, they have given both the best and the worst of themselves. They have been rivals in the battle to express the power with which it changes our lives; and yet, when most of us try to do the same and describe it, love is mercilessly drowned in a sea of platitudes.

Although the vagaries of love often seem incomprehensible, the crowd of poets, novelists, philosophers and composers who blather on about love have recently been joined by biologists and neuroscientists who promise to explain it all. Will they unravel the mystery? Perhaps they will finally give us the long-sought after pill or potion that will seal the love affair forever – or free us from its spell. Whether this is possible, or whether it is desirable to happen, are among the questions that will be raised in this book.

Love stories rarely have happy endings. The greatest usually end in death. The lighter ones we know as romantic comedies end in marriage: but the imposed idea that marriage is a happy ending also suggests that marriage is really the end, which is a kind of death. Not the death of the lovers, not even of their love, but the death of the love story. Fortunately, many successful marriages testify that both love and history can survive the wedding; but then it’s death’s turn again – this time the real one that comes to tear us apart. In the end, all love stories are sad. Yet how glorious is this journey… at least while it lasts! In the words of the poet Andrew Marvel: “If we can’t stop the sun, we’ll make it run!”.

So what is this thing, called love?

I would not go into a detailed study of all the uses of the word “love.” Any dictionary will provide us with about four dozen approximate synonyms. Each synonym has a different nuance; some are quite distant from each other. Affection is not adoration; liking is not lust; partiality may or may not be a consequence of passion; ecstasy is quite different from delicate sympathy. There are also more mysterious, Greek words that are used to distinguish between different types of love. Three of them do not even hint at the presence of sexual desire. Philia speaks of close friendship. Storge means “care”, in the sense of caring for someone, which implies caring for the interests and well-being of a loved one, as we might care for close friends or our family. But storge is not incompatible with sexual desire, unlike agape (agape), sometimes also seen as “benevolence”, which is more of a generalized, universalized and asexual storge.

The virtues of agape are described in one of the letters of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians: “Love is longsuffering, full of goodness, love does not envy, love does not exalt itself, is not proud, is not violent, does not seek its own, is not angry, does not do evil. thinks… forgives all things, believes all things, hopes all things, suffers all things.” These are qualities that we could find in any human relationship. But it is precisely for this reason that agape lacks two of the obvious characteristics of love as it is usually implied.

First, love is always about choosing one person (or at least a small number of individuals) as exceptional and irreplaceable. Those we love play a role in our lives that the bulk of the human race is supposed not to have. Whereas agape requires us to benefit all our neighbors without excluding anyone. Second, the command to love one another implies that one can do so at will. But love (or withholding that feeling) isn’t something we can just decide to do whenever we feel like it.

The fourth Greek word, eros, best represents the theme of this book. Eros is usually associated with intense sexual attraction. It is eros, not agape or storge, or even philia, that has inspired more poems, pieces of music, works of art, and crimes than any other human feeling. For eros in its most extreme, obsessive, anxious and passionate romantic form, I will borrow from the American psychologist Dorothy Tenov the term “limerance”. Despite the word’s unpopularity in common speech, there are good reasons for coining a special term for what George Bernard Shaw called “the most furious, the most insane, the most deceitful, and the most transitory of all passions.” Even though it does not embody all erotic love, limerence contains a considerable part of the tension so typical of love.

Contrary to what is often taken for granted, love is not just an emotion. Of course, the word “love” probably conjures up in our minds the image of delicate and tender feelings. Such loving feelings are indeed emotions, but they are definitely not the only emotions that make up erotic love. Depending on the circumstances—where you are, in exactly what love story—love can produce sorrow, fear, guilt, regret, bitterness, sadness, contempt, humiliation, rapture, rejection, anxiety, envy, disgust, or murderous rage. So think of love more as a condition that shapes and guides our thoughts, desires, emotions, and behaviors related to the person in our focus, the “beloved.” It is a kind of optical prism through which all kinds of experiences are refracted – even those that do not directly involve our loved one.

I’ll call it a syndrome—not a feeling, but a complex pattern of potential thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that tend to “run together.” And since love also causes a disturbance that may require medical attention, the term “syndrome” is quite appropriate in this case. It is often said that a person in love, especially if they are in the limerance phase, is “crazy with love”.

This short introduction to the subject of love is written from the perspective of a philosopher. Philosophy loves riddles, and love offers plenty of them. We don’t have to be very humble to admit that love often confuses us. Love is selfless; love is selfish. Love is tender; love is cruel; love is transitory; love is everlasting. Love is heaven; love is hell; love is war. Love borders on the divine; love justifies the worst crimes. Some say that God is love – and surely both God and love are responsible for many things. Communing with the divine can be dangerous, even to casual observers.