A Socratic Dialogue About the Nature of Love

*In this post I’m attempting to imitate the “socratic dialogue” form of writing employed by Plato. The characters and events are all fictional, but are used to convey a philosophical argument.

Thomas: Tell me, what do you think love is?

Reuben: What do you mean, what is love?

Thomas: I mean, when you say that you love something, or are in love with someone, what is it that you are referring to?

Reuben: It is interesting that you ask. How can we define something, without even knowing what it is we are trying to define? It seems that we are stuck in a loop. We do not know what love is, and we cannot learn what it is without already knowing what it is.

Thomas: Hm, that does indeed seem like a problem. But maybe it is not so drastic as you make it out to be. Tell me, what is the sun?

Reuben: Why, the sun is a star.

Thomas: And what is a star?

Reuben: A star is a massive sphere of certain elements undergoing nuclear fusion.

Thomas: And how do you know that?

Reuben: That is what the astronomers have discovered and told us.

Thomas: Did ancient people know these things?

Reuben: No, how could they have?

Thomas: And yet, would you say that the ancient people did not see the sun and stars and discuss them?

Reuben: Of course they did!

Thomas: But they did not know truly that to which they were referring?

Reuben: No, I suppose not.

Thomas: So it is possible to know something vaguely and incompletely, and refer to it, without having a full, in depth knowledge of it?

Reuben: It seems so.

Thomas: And would you say that they knew the sun and stars because of their experience of these things, not because of a technical, explanatory account?

Reuben: I would say so.

Thomas: And that they knew these things by experience first, and then, because they knew them by experience, they could seek out fuller, explanatory knowledge of them?

Reuben: Yes.

Thomas: So, can it not be the same with love? Have you never experienced something which you thought was love, and called it love, even if you did not know exactly what it was or what it meant?

Reuben: It is as you say.

Thomas: So, when you experience love, what do you think it is you are experiencing?

Reuben: It is a feeling you have towards someone you are close to.

Thomas: And what is a feeling?

Reuben: A feeling is a state of emotion towards something.

Thomas: So love is an emotion?

Reuben: Yes, towards particular people. How else would you be able to experience it?

Thomas: Are you suggesting that all experiences are emotions?

Reuben: It would seem so to me.

Thomas: Tell me then, when you see something, do you experience it?

Reuben: I suppose you would say so.

Thomas: Is sight an emotion then?

Reuben: Surely not.

Thomas: And yet sight is an experience, so not all experiences are emotions. Though they are perhaps related in certain ways. But while we are on it, what would you say that sight is?

Reuben: Sight is one of the senses.

Thomas: And what is a sense?

Reuben: It is perceiving information stimuli from the external world.

Thomas: Is to perceive an action?

Reuben: Yes, I believe it to be so.

Thomas: So the senses are types of actions performed by the body. Since we have said already that they are also experiences, and since emotions are experiences as well, do we have reason to think that emotions too are types of actions?

Reuben: I have never thought of them in that way. I would need to search the matter more before I decide.

Thomas: Let us do so together then, and let us start from a different angle. As things are now, what do you understand an emotion to be?

Reuben: I understand an emotion to be a particular state of mind, a subjective quality of the consciousness. I do not know how to define it further. It seems to be one of those things, as you said, which one does not have explanatory knowledge of, but which one knows only by experience. I cannot describe, for example, what the emotion anger feels like, but I know it myself when I feel it.

Thomas: So we have said so far that two things are like this: love, and the emotions. This would seem to support your statement that love is indeed an emotion.

Reuben: Yes, so it would.

Thomas: But I wonder if there is not more to it. Let us use an example to search the matter further; and since you mentioned it already, let us use anger. You say that anger is not something you can describe, and yet you know it by how it feels.

Reuben: That is correct.

Thomas: And you say that all emotions are such. But, if all emotions are truly like this, one and the same, why do we say that there are many emotions, and not only one?

Reuben: I’m not sure what you mean.

Thomas: If all emotions are such that we cannot describe or define them, but only experience them, then how is it that we distinguish the different emotions? How is it that you know “anger” as distinct from and opposed to “sadness” or “happiness” or “fear”. How is it that we learn that these are different things?

Reuben: I suppose we learn such things from our parents and teachers.

Thomas: And how do they teach us with regards to this?

Reuben: Why, when we are young, and they see that we are displaying the outward signs normal to a certain emotion, they teach us the label. So a babe who has not gotten something it wants will cry and scream and throw a fit, and the parent will say, “You are angry.”

Thomas: Ah, but just here you have arrived at what I was reaching for. The way we distinguish emotions, based on your account, seems to be by their outward objects, including both cause and effect.

Reuben: You will have to explain this more simply to me.

Thomas: When a person is angry, we say that he is angry about something. And when sad, we say that there is some reason or object of his sadness. When one experiences the death of a family member, we recognize that this event is a cause of internal sadness. But we also recognize the effects. The babe crying and screaming, for example. These things are not identical to his internal, subjective state, but they are effects of it. So every emotion, we might say, has a cause, an object, and an effect.

Reuben: Now I understand. Yes, I believe it is as you say.

Thomas: Now anything which is always necessarily caused by another, and which always necessarily follows certain events as night follows day, we say that this is a reaction. For an emotion, it seems, never causes itself, nor comes about uncaused, even if we cannot definitively identify its cause in every case. Do you believe love to be like this?

Reuben: I do. I think, indeed, that we now have some real proof of love being an emotion.

Thomas: Really, and what is that?

Reuben: Why, just what we have just said. An emotion is an internal qualitative state that has a cause, an object, and an effect. And that is exactly how we experience love to be. Whenever we love, we love something; there is something which is the object, and this object causes within us an experience of affection to this object that is a strong and powerful feeling, often even overwhelming. And the effects of being in love are obvious. A youth in love will not be able to sleep or eat or focus on anything at all, except that which is his love. The object of his love will fill and consume him, driving him almost to the brink of insanity, all in desire of possessing that which is his love. And he will thus be inspired to action, to seek and pursue that which is his love. I cannot see it in any other way.

Thomas: That does seem to be a rather strong case. As it is now, I do not know how to refute it. And yet I cannot myself agree with it, for whatever reason. Shall we continue to examine it, from a new perspective now?

Reuben: I am not opposed to doing so.

Thomas: I am glad. Now I’ll ask you, do you think that love is good?

Reuben: We have not yet defined what “good” is, but I am inclined to say that absolutely love is good.

Thomas: We do not have time now to give a full account of what good is, for that in its own right is an entirely different discussion. But explain, why is it you say that love is good?

Reuben: Because love produces the greatest happiness in those who experience it!

Thomas: Ah! Now I think we have run into many problems. Let’s examine them in turn. You say that love is good because it produces happiness. So is love not good in itself, but only to the degree that it leads to something beyond itself?

Reuben: Hm, that is not what I would have wanted originally to have said, but it seems to follow from my account.

Thomas: Thus making love not an end in itself, but only a means to an end?

Reuben: It would appear so.

Thomas: So we must judge love on the basis of how successful it is at taking us to that end of which it is the means?

Reuben: That seems fair.

Thomas: And you said that the end of which it is a means is happiness?

Reuben: Correct.

Thomas: But did you not also say that love drives people crazy, even to “the brink of insanity”?

Reuben: I did.

Thomas: That does not sound like happiness to me. But let’s take it even further. We said of all emotions that they have an object, a cause, and an effect. But love seems to be different in this way, that whereas other emotions are of or about some object, they are never in themselves the desire of that object; and love, as you present it, always is the desire of that which is its object.

Reuben: I see the difficulty. But maybe this is not always true. If, to use your earlier example, the object of one’s sadness is the death of a family member, is not their sadness a desire for that person to be alive? Or if one is angry, do they not have a desire for peace again?

Thomas: This may be true. Let’s examine it. Suppose you are sad because you lose a job. The object of your sadness is the loss of that job. Now, sadness may indeed include a desire, but it is not for that object. For if the object of your sadness is the loss of a job, your desire surely is not also for the loss of the job. Rather, your desire is for the possession of the job, which is the opposite of the sadness’s object. The same is true for anger. Suppose you are angry because a neighbor has wronged you. The object of your anger is the injustice committed against you. But, if anger does include desire, that desire is not for the object, for the object is the injustice! Your desire instead is for justice, which is again the opposite of the object. So we might say that, whenever an emotion includes a desire, the desire is for the opposite of that which is its object.

But we must not conclude that all emotions necessarily include desires. For consider happiness, which may be a response to some external event, such as a raise of wages. You would not say that you desire the extra wages, because you already have them, and you do not desire what you already have. The possession itself of the extra wages is the cause of your happiness, and there is no desire in it. And even in those other cases, the desire is not in the emotion in itself, but rather is sometimes included as an addition to the emotion itself. But sadness or anger is not by itself a desire.

Now love is entirely different from these things. Because, according to your view, love is a desire for that which is its object. And the desire is not included as something in addition, but is identical to love. And the desire is not for the opposite of the object, but for the object itself. Do you disagree?

Reuben: I am not entirely sure. I declared that love is an emotion. Can desire by itself be an emotion? To me, whenever I experience love, it is a feeling, a passion, a delight. But I wonder, is it necessarily always a desire? I am confused about the matter.

Thomas: Well, let’s continue our examination. You said that love is good because it produces happiness, and we agreed that therefore we must judge love on the basis of how effective it is in actually producing happiness. So let me ask you this: what of love that is unrequited? Love that is spurned and rejected? Love that turns out to be ugly and unhealthy? Or love that is beautiful and lovely but ends in tragedy? Do these instances of love produce happiness?

Reuben: No, not at all! They rather produce precisely the opposite of happiness! For there is no worse pain than unrequited love, or a hurtful love, or a tragic love. Nothing at all can so destroy a spirit as these things.

Thomas: So I see now, in your answer, two further problems with the original position. First, what other emotion has it as its very purpose and nature to produce some other emotion? Other emotions may lead accidentally to other emotions, but no other emotion that I am aware of always, necessarily leads to another emotion. And second, if the purpose of love is indeed to produce happiness, and we are to judge it on this basis, and yet we say that very often love produces exactly the opposite of happiness, to the horrid extreme of pain and sorrow, then how at all can we praise love, or judge it to be anything other than cruel and awful?

Reuben: Ah, what a dilemma! For I would never want to so profane the name of love! What can be done.

Thomas: I see as your options that you must either reject love as something terrible, change your definition of what love is, or else change your reason for why love is good rather than bad. For it cannot be good because it produces happiness, as has been shown.

Reuben: I will choose the latter, for the former two are not acceptable to me.

Thomas: Then why will you say that love is good?

Reuben: It must be because love itself is something good and beneficial for people to experience. I do not have an account deeper or fuller than that.

Thomas: That is understandable, since we don’t yet have a working definition of what good is. We will accept, then, that love is good, for the sake of argument. But this just raises even more problems.

Reuben: How so?

Thomas: Well, we have said that love is an emotion, and as an emotion is the desire of that which is its object. But when you desire the object, what is it exactly that you want?

Reuben: I suppose that when you desire something you want to possess it as your own.

Thomas: And this makes sense for some instances of love, such as the romantic love between a man and a woman. For when we are in love with someone in this way, we desire to be with them and have them as our own. But surely we will not say that this is the entirety of love. For what about the love between family members, such as brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers? How can you desire to possess them, if you already have them as your family? Or if you say, “I love this book or this work of art”, what exactly would it mean to say that you desire to further possess these things?

Reuben: That is indeed problematic.

Thomas: But here is the real issue. We have said that love is good. But tell me, is unloyalty good?

Reuben: Of course not.

Thomas: Is it good to be fickle, unreliable, inconstant?

Reuben: No.

Thomas: And finally, is selfishness good?

Reuben: Definitely not. But how is this relevant to love?

Thomas: I will explain. But first, tell me, what is the nature of emotions?

Reuben: What do you mean?

Thomas: I mean, how do they behave?

Reuben: They come and go and come again. They are complicated and interact with other emotions. They are deep and difficult to understand and impossible to control.

Thomas: You have hit the mark. They come and go. In other words, they are subject to change, often and without warning. They change unceasingly. They are extremely and utterly mutable. We cannot escape the onrush of an emotion, nor can we force it to stay. In a word, emotions are fickle.

Reuben: It is true.

Thomas: But if love is truly an emotion, then is love fickle? What is to determine whether one day you are madly in love and the next you are disgusted with the same person? If this is the case, what is there to stop love from constantly changing? What is there to actually unite people, if the emotion cannot be trusted to be loyal or stay constant? At the slightest gust of wind it will scatter and be gone. So is love indeed fickle, disloyal, unreliable?

Reuben: It cannot be, if love is good.

Thomas: And we said that love is the desire to posses that which is its object. But why do we thus desire?

Reuben: I haven’t thought of it.

Thomas: Well, let’s consider water as an example. We all desire water. Why?

Reuben: Because we need it in order to survive.

Thomas: So could we say that we desire because of some need or incompleteness within ourselves?

Reuben: Yes, I would say so.

Thomas: So when we desire someone, we desire them for ourselves, for our own sake? We desire them because we have some incompleteness within us that we want to be made whole?

Reuben: That makes sense.

Thomas: In which case, wouldn’t we say that we are treating that person as a mere tool to be used for our own sake, that they are only a means to our own ends? And is that not the epitome of selfishness? For in that case we do not value them for who they are in themselves, but only for what they can do or give to us.

Reuben: My goodness, that seems to be the case, and how awful it is to think of it like that!

Thomas: So if love must be good, love cannot be selfish, and thus love cannot actually be the desire to possess that which is its object, for this is entirely selfish and disgusting, to treat another human being as a lowly tool for our own pleasure, to be used and discarded as we see fit.

Reuben: Then what in the world can love possibly be?

Thomas: I think it is time that we reject the original proposition, that love is an emotion. For we have seen how problematic that notion is.

Reuben: I believe you might be correct, though I have no idea where we can go next, if all our work so far has been in vain.

Thomas: No, never in vain, for it has taken us to where we are now, and now we are open to finding the truth.

Reuben: But how will we do so?

Thomas: By looking at love as it is in action, in its purest and realest form.

Rueben: And what is that?

Thomas: I think most would agree that love in its purest form is that of a parent for their child.

Reuben: I would say so.

Thomas: So, then, what does this purest love look like? First, the parents give up much personal freedom and happiness in order to raise their child. They devote countless time, hours upon hours, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, for the rest of their entire lives. There is never a pause or break or moment of rest. It is one of the most difficult, demanding, frustrating, often excruciating labors known to humankind. There is pain and anger and much stress involved. There is constant worry and fear, such that the parent can almost never think of their own safety or needs but only that of the child. Every parent would, without a moment’s hesitation, automatically sacrifice all they have, their very life, to save or help the life of their child. The child dominates their time and thoughts. And in the end, the child is given up unto adulthood. The parents have spent decades of constant work raising the child, only for it to leave and live on its own, separated from those who gave it everything. And yet the parent does not object, does not try to stop the child from leaving into the world, for the parent recognizes that this is for the child’s own good, that it is necessary and beneficial. Indeed, even from the very first moment, they understood that all their efforts would ultimately be for this very purpose, and yet they did it anyways.

Reuben: That is a true and beautiful account.

Thomas: So in all this, it is clear that the parents’ love is not a desire to possess their child, since everything they do is ultimately to prepare to give the child up. In everything they do, what would we say their motive is? Personal gain or happiness?

Reuben: Not at all. It is clear that their motive is for the child itself, not for themselves.

Thomas: And what is their motive for the child?

Reuben: That he be healthy and happy and fulfilled and prepared to be a real human being in the world.

Thomas: So, in short, their motive is for the good of the child?

Reuben: Yes, indeed.

Thomas: So everything they do is to achieve and bring about the child’s good?

Reuben: Very much.

Thomas: And all these things we have said the parents do for their child, are these actions?

Reuben: Of course.

Thomas: And where do actions stem from? What controls what actions we commit?

Reuben: I suppose it is our will which directs our actions.

Thomas: Ah, indeed! So if they act to achieve the good of the child, they must will the good of the child?

Reuben: That would follow.

Thomas: And if this is the purest instance of love known to humanity, then surely we can say that this shows the very essence of what love is?

Reuben: Surely.

Thomas: So it seems we have arrived at this conclusion as to what love is. Love is the active will for the good of another.

Reuben: This conclusion seems rational, given our entire discussion. And yet I am still not entirely sure what this means, and what its implications are. And I think I have a good many other questions to ask about it. In fact, I think knowing this definition is only the very beginning of my journey into understanding love.

Thomas: Wonderful! Let us embark upon this journey together then!

*To be continued in a future post.


Cover image in the Public Domain in the United States, taken from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Starry_Night_Over_the_Rhone.jpg



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