Jesus told us to, ‘Love your neighbour’; however no one would interpret this as a divine duty for Christians to buy Valentine’s cards for all their friends and acquaintances. A patriot who loves their country does not stop every few feet to kiss the ground he is walking on. A Christian who says their God is a god of love means a very different thing than a Pagan saying the same of Venus.
This seems to indicate to me that there is some kind of confusion in the way we use the word ‘love’.
First of all, we need to try to work out what we actually mean by the word. Now, I think there are some concepts which are so central to our being human that any attempt to reduce them to a sum of simpler concepts must fail, and I think that love is one of these. However, whilst I do not think that it is possible to completely describe Love by simpler concepts, I do think it is possible to approximate it by them, to make it clearer precisely what we mean. In a similar manner the skeleton of a horse is not a horse, however if one sees a horse skeleton then it is clear roughly what kind of animal it represents.
So, here goes. Most people have a certain attitude towards themselves. They desire their own preservation. They want good things for themselves; they want their ambitions to be fulfilled, and they want to be happy. If you try to look for a rational reason for this attitude, you will not find one. It is simply the natural attitude to take towards yourself.
I will call this attitude ‘Self- Love’. The skeleton of love is this attitude applied to another person. As far as I can tell, Love is much more than, but consists of, desiring the good and wellbeing of another thing in the same way that you desire your own good and wellbeing.
We can check this definition by comparing it to our common conceptions of Love, and I think that it is valid. We can feel love for our friends, family, country, college or partner and I believe that all these are covered by the above. I think that the difference between the ways in which we use the word ‘love’ comes from the reasons that this love is bestowed.
First of all there is unconditional love. Unconditional Love means to have love for no reason at all. By any notion of justice, the correct response to a person might be hatred. But Unconditional Love shows them love regardless, by which I mean that it involves you wishing good, success and flourishing for that person in exactly the same way as you would wish these things for yourself. In fact, it further deserves the title of ‘Unconditional’ the more it is directed at an object which is loathsome and vile. Of course, a large component of this love would be to want the person to become less hateful- it does not involve wanting the desires and plans that make that person evil to succeed.
To take a fictional example, in Harry Potter it is, I think, unconditional love that induces Harry to attempt to make Voldemort feel remorse, reform and repair his soul. It would certainly be a corruption of this love if it made Harry want Voldemort to succeed. Moving away from fiction, in Christian theology (oh, aren’t I being edgy…), it is the kind of love which God has towards mankind, and which Christians should have towards all people.
I think a lot is said about this kind of love without really understanding it. You probably have heard the Katy Perry song Unconditional. If you haven’t, the central idea is that from now on she will love her partner in a completely unconditional way. Now, whilst this might sound admirable, when you think about it, what she is really saying is that she will go on loving them despite there being no reason to whatsoever. To have this love for every person would be perfection, and is a goal that, in Christianity, everyone should strive towards. But I do not think that it is the correct attitude to have in a relationship.
For that there is Conditional love. This is love for a reason. I feel love towards my friends because I like spending time with them. I additionally feel love for my family by virtue of their being my family. I think that this is the most common kind of love. I also don’t think that it is often consciously recognised as love. However I think if the definition of love is correct, then love is certainly what it is.
Finally there is desire. I do not think that raw desire is a part of love, as defined above. It is probably the emotional result of a biological imperative to reproduce. Of course, when we talk about, ‘being in love’, then there is clearly a strong element of desire. Nevertheless, I think anyone would say that there is a definite difference between feeling sexual desire for a person and actually loving them. Romantic love seems to me to be a combination of desire and of the conditional love defined above.
You can then imagine the different types of love plotted on an axis. At one end you have Unconditional Love. As you move down the axis, you get Conditional Love. As you move even further along the axis, you get desire, and the region where desire and Conditional Love meet is Romantic Love. As I hope I have indicated by this example, there is not a splitting between the different kinds of love- they all merge into one another, and the attitude of one person towards another will be a mixture of all three of these things.
I think that the word, ‘love’ has a much wider application than we normally realise, when we think about what it really means. To love a thing is to wish the good and wellbeing of that thing in the same way as we would wish our own good and wellbeing. This love can be felt either unconditionally, for no reason, or conditionally, for a reason. As a separate thing to love, we have desire, which combines with conditional love to produce Romantic Love. The confusion in our use of the word, ‘love’, seems, then, to come from not realising that there is this additional element of desire in Romantic Love as opposed to the other kinds.
The above makes it sound like I am disparaging Romantic Love. I can assure that is not my intention. I intended to write a nice paean to Romantic Love as a final paragraph; however I am at my word limit, and do not have room to do the topic justice. I’m sure you can make up the deficiency far better in your own mind.