Second Dialogue On the Nature of Love

*This is the second post in a series imitating Plato’s “socratic dialogue method.” The first post can be read here. All characters and events are fictional, and are used to convey philosophical arguments.

Thomas: So we have established, based on our conversation, that love is an “active will for the good of another.” But you expressed some doubts about this?

Reuben: Yes, I am not entirely sure what it means. And I am beginning to wonder if perhaps it is not entirely true.

Thomas: Well, to see if that is so, let us retrace some of our steps.

Reuben: That would be helpful.

Thomas: You began by saying that love is a particular emotion.

Reuben: I did.

Thomas: And we agreed that absolutely love is good?

Reuben: That is correct.

Thomas: But then you said that love is good because it produces happiness, but that would make it only a means to an end, and not and end in itself. We also said that all emotions have some object which they are about, but that an emotion is not identical to a desire for that which is its object, where love (according to our earlier understanding) is a desire for that which is its object, so it cannot be an emotion. We mentioned other things as well, to show that love cannot be an emotion.

Reuben: This is all true.

Thomas: We then discovered that if love truly is a desire to possess that which is its object, then love is intrinsically selfish. But it cannot be so, because we agreed that love is good.

Reuben: Necessarily.

Thomas: We then looked at love in its purest form, that of a parent’s love for a child, and we concluded that this love is the active will for the good of the other. And that is where we are now.

Reuben: In short, yes.

Thomas: So what exactly is your doubt?

Reuben: I have many. First, I am not altogether convinced that our current definition will work completely for all love.

Thomas: Why so?

Reuben: We based our definition on the example of the purest form of love, that of a parent for a child. But that surely cannot be said to be the entirety of what love is. For it seems to be obvious that that love is extraordinarily different from the love of a husband for his wife, and yet they both are called by the same name, “love.”

Thomas: That is an excellent point.

Reuben: In addition, there is a love between brothers and sisters, love between friends, and others as well.

Thomas: Indeed.

Reuben: So any definition of love must fit all these various different types.

Thomas: And ours does not?

Reuben: I cannot see how it would. For it is true that the love a parent has for a child consists of willing the child’s good. But it seems to me that, for instance, romantic love has much more to do with feeling and emotion, and, again, with the desire for the object.

Thomas: Perhaps that is fair, and it does present us with a problem. For we have two instances of very different things, and yet we know both of them by the same name. How can we resolve this? Must we, perhaps, deny that one is actually love? Or can we reconcile them somehow?

Reuben: I do not see how.

Thomas: Well, if we do have to deny that one of these is actually love, which should it be?

Reuben: I do not want to deny that either is love. But, given our options, I would have to reluctantly say romantic love. For how at all could we deny that a parent’s love for a child is actually love?

Thomas: That makes sense. But it presents us with yet another problem. For if we deny that romantic love is actually love, we are saying that is in inferior to parental love. And yet, it also seems to have a priority over parental love. For before two people are parents loving their child, they are spouses in love with each other. So what we have called “romantic love” comes before what we have called “parental love.” So romantic love is prior to parental love, and yet we are trying to demote it as inferior?

Reuben: Ah! How complicated this is!

Thomas: But let’s go further. Why exactly did you insist that romantic love consists of emotion, feeling, and desire?

Reuben: Well, that is just how it obviously seems to me.

Thomas: That may be so, but let us examine it to come to some certain understanding. We will begin by asking what romantic love is.

Reuben: I suppose it is the love of attraction between two people.

Thomas: Hm, and what is this attraction?

Reuben: Why, it is when you are drawn to someone, and something about them induces desire for them within you.

Thomas: So we are back to love as desire?

Reuben: It appears so.

Thomas: So tell me, when you become attracted to someone, what is it about them that you are first drawn to?

Reuben: In most cases, one first is drawn to the physical appearance of another.

Thomas: Yes, and this is a function of our biological drive for reproduction, is it not?

Reuben: That is what we are taught.

Thomas: Can one consciously decide to whom they are attracted?

Reuben: That does not seem to me to be how it most often occurs.

Thomas: So if we define romantic love as attraction, and attraction is a biological function not consciously decided by the person, does that not mean that romantic love is not actually an act of the will?

Reuben: That would follow.

Thomas: And yet surely we will not say that all of romantic love reduces to mere attraction? For the love of a man or woman for their spouse is often pure, powerful and completely unselfish. Would you not agree?

Reuben: I would, but I do not understand how this works.

Thomas: Well, let’s try to take a different approach now in understanding these things. Would you say that marriage is the natural end of romantic love?

Reuben: Yes, that is probable.

Thomas: If marriage is the natural end of romantic love, what is its beginning? In other words, why do we humans experience romantic love in the first place?

Reuben: Why, we have already said. It comes from our biological need for reproduction. Although I am inclined to think it is more than this.

Thomas: Yes, perhaps. But let us take only one step at a time. So romantic love arises out of a biological drive for reproduction. So why would we say that marriage is the natural end of romantic love, and not producing children?

Reuben: I do not altogether like where we are heading. I think there must be more to love, even romantic love, than a mere biological drive. For many people in love have no thought or desire for producing children. Their love is rather concerned with each other, and their own relationship to each other.

Thomas: Ah, but we must ask again why this is so. And we said that it is due to a biological drive within them.

Reuben: Well now I must retract my earlier answer. That is one reason, perhaps. But another is due to an emptiness and loneliness within the person, which their beloved fills and completes.

Thomas: Are you sure you want this to be your answer? Did we not conclude earlier that if this is so, then love is selfish? For it treats the other person as an object to be used, a means to the end of one’s own emotional fulfillment, rather than as a true person in their own right, an end in their own self?

Reuben: I am at a loss. Perhaps romantic love is indeed selfish.

Thomas: But that’s not all. We must also ask why so many people have this “emptiness” and “loneliness” within them, as you said?

Reuben: It seems that we are born with it, intrinsically.

Thomas: But is this feeling of emptiness and loneliness not, to a degree, just an aspect of that biological drive? You say that this reduces romantic love, but let us follow it out to its conclusion.

Reuben: Alright, we can try.

Thomas: If producing children is the natural end of our romantic love, then where does marriage fit in? Is it not that the commitment of marriage between two people in love is most conducive to producing children and raising and nurturing them healthily?

Reuben: That seems plausible.

Thomas: See if you can follow this jump, then. If our romantic attraction and love is born from and directed towards producing children, and marriage is meant to be a safe haven for this process, does this not mean that our romantic love is actually directed to the future children which are to result from this process? The feelings of attraction are meant to bring two people together to produce the children, and marriage is meant as the appropriate medium for raising and developing the children. And so both processes are directed towards the good of the future children, first for their actual coming into existence, and second, once they have come into existence, for their good in being raised?

Reuben: Why, that makes sense.

Thomas: So even in romantic love, the ultimate end really is the active will for the good of another, just as we said; even though, in this case, the “other” whose good is being willed is only potentially existent, not yet actual.

Reuben: By Jove, and we said earlier also that romantic love is prior to parental love, and now it is clear that parental love actually flows out of romantic love.

Thomas: Indeed. And both are fundamentally the same action, the will for the good, and yet they have different objects and contexts.

Reuben: But wait, I’ve suddenly thought of a problem. If romantic love is the active will for the good of the future child, does that not mean that romantic love is not actually love for the spouse? That the spouse is still only a means to the end of achieving the good of the child?

Thomas: Hm, that is indeed problematic. Let us examine the issue. First, we said that romantic love is an attraction to and desire for another. But we also agreed that romantic love can be something much deeper, unselfish, and more powerful. This can be seen, for example, in people who have been together many years, and many decades. Their unceasing love is for each other, and it is solid and unshakable. This we might call a fully mature romantic love.

Reuben: Indeed.

Thomas: So it seems to me that romantic love is not identical to attraction, but rather that true romantic love is born from attraction.

Reuben: That would make sense.

Thomas: Further, we must ask why we have this drive to produce children in the first place?

Reuben: Why, it is a natural function of all living things, to further the existence of their species.

Thomas: So, in a sense, romantic love not only wills the good of the potentially existent future children, it also wills the good of the entire race, including those presently alive?

Reuben: Yes, that is true. But . . . Ah! I do not like this. We are still making romantic love about something other than the spouse, the beloved herself.

Thomas: So far, yes. But let’s keep striving. You said that producing children is a “natural function” of human beings. Would you say that it is good for us to fulfill our natural functions, in a healthy way?

Reuben: I would.

Thomas: So is it not a good thing for a person to participate in the action and process of producing and raising children? Good both for the children and the species as a whole, but also for the individual children?

Reuben: Hm, I suppose.

Thomas: Thus in romantic love are we also not willing the good of the spouse?

Reuben: I do not like this. This makes romance something cold, calculated, not at all full of passion and beauty as it is meant to be! You are trying to force romance to fit in the mind, when it is a matter of the heart!

Thomas: And what is the heart, but the source and center of our emotions? So you are stuck on holding that romantic love is an emotion.

Reuben: I cannot see how it can be otherwise, and remain what it is. For even if you are right, and these other things, these acts of the will, are what romantic love should be, I reject that they are actually what romantic love is in reality. Just examine two young people in love, and you will be overcome with emotions yourself, at the sight of their joy  and pleasure and pure delight in each other!

Thomas: Ah, so now you have introduced an important distinction: that between love as it really is, and love as it should be.

Reuben: The same is true, I think, for all types of love.

Thomas: And the love as it really is, is most often emotion; while love as it should be, is the act of the will for the good of another?

Reuben: Yes, but I do not accept that the emotions are in themselves bad, or that love can exist without them.

Thomas: Why is that?

Reuben: For a human person is not his mind alone. The whole soul of a person includes his emotions as well as his intellect and will. To take one away from the other is to take away our full humanity, what it means to be fully human.

Thomas: That is an excellent point. We are both. And yet, we need each part of ourselves to be put in proper order. In order to examine this more fully, let’s return to what we said much earlier about why love cannot be an emotion. Did we not say that it is because emotions come and go, and that they are uncontrollable, and thus that they are fickle?

Reuben: Yes, we did. But I think that some really strong emotions are more inclined to being constant and stable.

Thomas: Perhaps to a degree. But if emotions are uncontrollable, we have no choice in the matter of when they come and go, is that not true?

Reuben: I guess so.

Thomas: Furthermore, we have been arguing over whether love is emotion or whether love is an act of the will. But can it not be that, while not identical to an emotion, love can yet be emotional in nature? In other words, that the essence of love is not an emotion, and yet that it contains emotions?

Reuben: That is an interesting thought.

Thomas: Has it not been that in every case of love we’ve examined, emotions have been involved, and yet we have said that love also ought to be something higher and more firm?

Reuben: That is so.

Thomas: So love perhaps cannot be less than emotional, but, in order to be true, must be more than emotional?

Reuben: I might be able to agree with that.

Thomas: And what is higher than the emotions but the will?

Reuben: Indeed.

Thomas: So it seems that, in love, the emotions and the will are inextricable bound together, wrapped up in each other.

Reuben: That is a beautiful way to put it.

Thomas: For is it not the case that most instances of love begin in and are born from emotion? Romantic love begins in feelings of attraction to another, parental love begins in the feelings of awe and amazement and wonder at the sight of a newborn child, the love of friends begins in feelings of comfort and peace in the presence of another person, and so on.

Reuben: That is the way it looks.

Thomas: And, to take both romantic love and parental love, the feeling of attraction then grows to affection, does it not?

Reuben: So it does.

Thomas: And affection then deepens and strengthens until eventually it is full of delight, correct?

Reuben: Correct.

Thomas: And examine this: When one delights in another, do they not delight in what is good for the other, and resent what is bad or harmful for them?

Reuben: Yes, that is true!

Thomas: And yet, to know what is good or bad for another is a matter of the intellect. For emotions are not capable of grasping any knowledge at all.

Reuben: I would agree.

Thomas: So the emotions and the intellect here must work together. For the intellect knows what is good or bad, and yet, oftentimes, we do not actually act in accordance with our knowledge, but rather on the basis of how we feel. For example, often we do what is pleasurable, even if we know it is destructive to ourselves to do so.

Reuben: That is often the case.

Thomas: So it is only when how we feel and what we know are aligned and reconciled that we actually do what is good. It is only when our emotions and our intellect are in agreement that we actually will the good, either for ourselves or for another. So in love, both must be joined together.

Reuben: Ah, so it is!

Thomas: But, as we said, our human emotions are weak and fickle and subject to frequent change and alteration. Thus we do not feel any goodness towards them, and yet true love mandates that we will their good regardless. And when we continue to persist in actively willing their good, despite our feelings to the contrary, do not our emotions feel the tension between their feelings and the intellect and will, and the feeling of tension is disturbing to them, and thus do they not eventually try to reconcile and realign themselves with the will?

Reuben: That is plausible.

Thomas: So the intellect and will are safeguards and shepherds of the emotions, maintaining and preserving love when the emotions have fled, and then guiding and directing them towards what is good and right despite how they may feel, so that, ultimately, the feelings too come into proper order and return to their rightful state of joy and delight.

Reuben: How wonderful!

Thomas: Now, is it not true that we ought to will the good of all people?

Reuben: Yes. Though that is a high and optimistically lofty ideal.

Thomas: Indeed. Now we are brought back to our earlier distinction. For we know that we ought to will the good of all people, and no one achieves this. We mostly only actually will the good of those close to us, in whom we delight.

Reuben: That is how it is.

Thomas: Why is this?

Reuben: I am not sure.

Thomas: There seem to be many reasons. But the most obvious and glaring is that the human will is curved in on itself. It ought to be directed outwards to all people, and yet it is bent inwards towards the individual self, so that we are naturally inclined to will only our own good.

Reuben: How sad!

Thomas: Thus if there were only a will, and a will alone, would it not always be naturally bent inwards on itself, so that we would never actually do as we ought and love any others, at all?

Reuben: That is horrible to think!

Thomas: And yet, though the will is curved in towards itself, when we come into contact with others, for whom we feel attraction or affection or delight, does not the will begin then to curve itself outwards a tiny bit towards the object of those emotions? Is it not so that, at first, we feel attraction and affection selfishly, because the object of these emotions make ourselves feel good, and the intellect detects that these feelings are good for itself, so the will reaches out towards them? But then, when it has reached out away from itself, even though its intentions are still for itself, yet in the very act of bending away even slightly from the self, it comes in time to be directed away towards the other, and to actually will their good because it delights in them.

Reuben: Why, I have never thought of that!

Thomas: So it seems that not only are the emotions guided and directed by the will, but also, in the beginning, the will itself is actually guided and directed by the emotions!

Reuben: By Jove!

Thomas: So our understanding of love must be something thriving and whole, with the will for the good of the other at its very core and center, but as a heart beating and pumping blood is also fed by that blood, so the will for the good is born from and surrounded by the emotions, and even is directed towards them. For, as we said, when we will the good of the other, our emotions follow our will and come to have joy and delight and happiness.

Reuben: That is a glorious account!

Thomas: Yes, and the only one worthy of love itself, for love is a glorious thing.

*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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