Third Dialogue on the Nature of Love

*In light of Valentine’s Day, a third dialogue on the nature of love. The first can be read here and the second here. All characters and events are fictional, and are used to convey philosophical arguments. My own personal views are not necessarily reflected by the views of any characters or statements herein; the dialogue is just meant to work out and develop some thoughts.

Thomas: So do we now understand what love is?

Reuben: I think we have a start.

Thomas: What more would you want to say? We have agreed that love is the active will for the good of the other, and that the emotions follow the will, but that the emotions also feed the will, and the will is directed towards certain emotions.

Reuben: I agree that this is one account of love. But I wonder if it is the whole of love?

Thomas: What could there be beyond this?

Reuben: Before I answer that, I have another question.

Thomas: Ask it!

Reuben: We said much earlier that love cannot be a desire, since desire results from some need or incompleteness within ourselves, and hence to desire another must ultimately be selfish, merely wanting to use the person as a means to an end of our own emotional fulfillment.

Thomas: We did indeed say this.

Reuben: But must it be true that all desire as such results from some need or incompleteness within us?

Thomas: That is an interesting question.

Reuben: Furthermore, is not “will” itself essentially just desire? To will to do some action is just to desire for that action to be accomplished, is it not?

Thomas: It would seem so.

Reuben: So either not all desire is selfish, or else we must admit that love is selfish.

Thomas: I think you have hit the mark here! Well done. Let us discover what the answer might be.

Reuben: I myself do not know.

Thomas: We shall work it out together, then. Do you agree that all action seeks some end?

Reuben: I am inclined to think that this is probably true, though I am not entirely sure what this amounts to.

Thomas: We would have to work that out more fully another time. What I mean simply here is that whenever we undertake some action, we do it for the sake of something, for a goal or purpose. Correct?

Reuben: That seems likely.

Thomas: So for any action, we can identify three aspects: the will for the action, the action itself, and the end which it seeks.

Reuben: That does make sense.

Thomas: But now it seems we can distinguish types of actions in accordance with the object of their ends. For some actions, the end is placed within the self.

Reuben: I do not follow.

Thomas: Consider something simple, such as eating a meal. The purpose of this action is health, to provide sustenance for the body. So it is done for your own sake, due to an incompleteness within you that needs to be filled.

Reuben: That seems so.

Thomas: But some actions are different. These have their end, at least most immediately, in another. So if you share with a friend, or give to the poor, you do so for the sake of their good, not your own, even if your own good necessarily follows.

Reuben: That is true.

Thomas: So you were correct to say that not all desire is selfish, for not all desire results from a need. You share something with a friend precisely because you do not have a need for that thing. Your desire is for their good, not your own.

Reuben: So could we say there are two types of desires: desire to possess, and desire to give?

Thomas: That is an interesting way to put it.

At this point in the conversation, the two come across a man–Antonius–who looks extremely depressed and miserable.

Thomas: Hello there, Sir. How are you?

Antonius: I am miserable!

Reuben: You look quite dreadful, whatever is the matter?

Antonius: I am lost and broken, for I have loved too fiercely, and the flame of my heart has burnt out, quenched on its own passion.

Reuben: How horrible!

Thomas: What do you mean, exactly?

Antonius: I have loved, I have loved, with all my heart I have loved! She was a dream to me, a queen of light, all that I had ever wanted.  To the darkness of my soul she was the bright fire of a thousand stars. Ah, how deeply I loved her! But she did not return my affections, and all my hopes came crashing down. Now my heart is in ruins. She was my everything, and now I am nothing!

Reuben: Unrequited love, how you plague the hearts of men! What wrenching pain you bring upon us!

Thomas: You will survive.

Antonius: I do not wish to survive even a single minute without her, the delight of my soul.

Thomas: I am very sorry, Sir. But we must be on our way.

Thomas and Reuben continue on their way, leaving Antonius behind.

Reuben: Thomas! Could you not tell that that man was heartbroken? How could you be so ruthless?

Thomas: That man was not a lover, for he has loved nothing in his life save his own passion.

Reuben: This is the whole trouble with your account. If that poor man was not a lover then there is no one worthy of the name. Have you no pity for all that is human? For all that is alive and breathes and feels. Yes, we ought to will the good of others, but man is more than his mind, he is his heart as well! And the heart is full of life and flesh and all that is warm and aflame. The mind may see but the heart roars, and in that roar is heard the whole human condition. I would never know what it is to be alive, if I had never felt the wind in my face, and wept at heartbreak and laughed at a sunrise.

They now come across another man on the side of the road, a monk named Arizossa.

 Thomas: Good day, Brother. How are you?

Arizossa smiles warmly.

Arizossa: Hello, friends. I am well!

Reuben: See, Thomas, here is a man happy and full of emotion. Would you deny his wisdom?

Thomas: Tell us, Brother, have you ever been in love?

Arizossa: I love all things and all the earth. It is my work as a human being to love relentlessly!

Thomas: But have you ever been in love, with a woman? Have you ever felt the passions of romance?

Arizossa: Ah, romance, yes indeed. When I was young once I was engaged to be married to the love of my life, a girl who was to me like starlight upon a glistening meadow; such beauty! such hope! such overwhelming ecstasy! To love and to be loved! But she passed away before our wedding, and my soul was thrown into darkness and despair. For months I wallowed in misery and the blackness of night, until I became determined to take my own life. For me then, a world without the beauty of my love was a gray and dismal place, unworthy to be looked upon by eyes which had once gazed in rapture at such a splendid grace. So one night when the stars had hidden their fires behind deep clouds, I hiked to the top of a high cliff, tears in my eyes the whole way, my soul raging in pain within me, prepared to throw myself off. The abyss below that cliff was nothing compared to the abyss consuming my heart from within.

Reuben: What happened?

Arizossa: Before I jumped, I knelt to the earth and pressed my face upon the damp grass. The stars remained silent, but I felt beneath the ground the heartbeat of the world. A purple flower jutting out from the dark green blades was picked up by the wind and carried over towards the side of the cliff, but I jumped up and stretched out my hands and caught it at the last moment. And I realized in that instant the absurdity of my despair. I said to myself, “I am a human being, I am here to do the work of a human being.” I realized that the grass was good, and that the purple flower was good, and the wind which carried it away was good. And it came to me then that there can be nothing else, that my work was to do and be the good. So I hiked down from that cliff and climbed to the top of another hill, upon which was a monastery. There I joined the brothers and learned to love all things, the grass and flowers and stars, but also my fellow brothers and sisters, and all the creatures of this wandering planet. It was there that my happiness was awoken, and I have been filled all these years with unending joy that grows in its power and strength every day.

Thomas: I am glad to hear it, Brother. Your story warms my heart. Now, we must be on our way.

Thomas and Reuben continue on their way.

Thomas: So tell me, Reuben, which of these two men we have just encountered was a lover?

Reuben: Why, they both were.

Thomas: I very strongly disagree. Only the monk was a lover, and he only became as such once he had given up all romance and taken his vow of celibacy.

Reuben: You cannot be serious!

Thomas: I have never been more serious about anything in my life.

Reuben: How am I to trust a single word you say, if you hold to a position as outrageous as this? I am about ready to renounce everything you have previously said!

Thomas: Why is that?

Reuben: Because it is so cold and impersonal! Why is it such a bad thing to you to feel and experience the passions that are all too human? Heartbreak is a terrible and wrenching pain but it is a human pain. Would you give up all the ecstasy of romance merely to rid the world of the sorrow of heartbreak? I would never! I would rather have my heart shattered a thousand times for a single chance at a true romance than to give it all up in order to spare the pain.

Thomas: I think you misunderstand my position. I am not denouncing emotions or passions as such. I am merely saying that they are not what love is in its essence.

Reuben: I do not know about all that, but I assert now that there can be no love if it is not emotional! A love without passion is not a human thing, whatever else it may be. And another thing: we earlier distinguished the “desire to give” from the “desire to possess”, and we said that the latter of these is necessarily selfish.

Thomas: Indeed.

Reuben: Well now I reject this, or at least I am not convinced that it must be so.

Thomas: Why is that?

Reuben: I do not think that desiring to possess something is necessarily selfish, even if it is a result of some lack or need or incompleteness within the self. Consider, for example, eating food. We eat food because we hunger, because we have a lacking that needs to be filled. So we desire the food because of our need, but would anyone say that it is selfish to eat? Hardly!

Thomas: That is an interesting point, but I think it is not entirely accurate. I agree that of course eating is not something selfish, but I disagree that this analogy works for love.

Reuben: How so?

Thomas: We agree at least that even if eating is not selfish, it is still using the food as a means to an end, correct?

Reuben: Perhaps.

Thomas: We do not desire food for its own sake, we desire it because it gives to us something we need. This is not selfish, though, because food is not something which ought to be used in any way other than as means. Human persons, however, are much higher, and have much more value and dignity, than mere objects, or at least I would want to say.

Reuben: I would say so as well.

Thomas: To use human persons as means to an end is selfish, because human persons ought not be treated as such. To treat a person as a means to an end is essentially to say that you value this person only because of what they can give to you for your own use, not because of who they are in themselves.

Reuben: I see. But I am not sure that this is what the romance I am supporting actually is. Even if I desire a person because of some need or incompleteness within myself, that does not mean necessarily that I do not value them in themselves, or that I am necessarily using them as a means to an end.

Thomas: I cannot see how that would be so. Have you yourself ever been in love?

Reuben: As a matter of fact, I am so now, which is why all that we are saying has a special significance for me.

Thomas: Ah, I see. Tell me of your love.

Reuben: There is just a woman for whom I hold very strong affections, whom I desire always to be with, and for whom I feel great pain if I am ever apart.

Thomas: So let us work through this now together. When you are apart from her, you feel pain, but when you are with her you delight. Is that correct?

Reuben: It is.

Thomas: So is it not that you desire how she makes you feel, rather than who she is in herself? In other words, you desire her because you desire to feel delight rather than pain. But if you felt no difference either way when she was with you or away, would you still say that you are in love?

Reuben: I must confess I do not know. I am not sure what to think about this.

Thomas: It seems to me that all too often what we call love is merely a desire for passion or for a particular feeling, rather than for the person itself. And even when we do desire the person, it is often because we feel lonely and unappreciated and wish to receive the attention and affection of that person.

Reuben: That is true. But I cannot see this as a bad thing. Indeed I find my pains at her absence a beautiful thing, in a way. To be so enthralled and invested in a person that the world grows dimmer at their departure, as if a star had died and fainted into the vast blackness and the shadows in turn grow longer upon the earth. These feelings for another, of completeness and fulfillment at being together with them, is this not divine?

Thomas: On the contrary, not only is it not divine, it is brutish.

Reuben is at a loss for words.

Thomas: But that may not in itself make it a bad thing. It may be that that is a good thing, in its proper place. But what it definitely cannot be is love.

Reuben: If that is not love then all of human history is a lie and a scandal.

Thomas: Is what I am saying really so far fetched? Consider this. The difficulty is really a semantic one. We throw the word “love” around so frequently and unreservedly that its meaning is dulled. We say that we love this or that food, this or that book or show or song. But these are all ridiculous statements. The Greeks were right all along when they used different words for different types of love. But even the Greeks never stooped so low as to have a word for love in reference to mere objects. Even if desire of and affection for and delight in particular things such as food or music is good in itself, it can never in any real sense be love, no matter what it is called. In the same way, I say, this passion for others cannot truly be called love.

Reuben: What is it, then?

Thomas: It is merely that: passion. But we share passion with the animals. You keep saying these feelings are human, but on the contrary they are literally what unites us to the beasts! It is the reason and the will that make us human.

Reuben: But what good are reason and will without emotion and feeling? Why should I care to know the circumference of a circle if I cannot weep in glorious awe at the rising of that greatest of all circles, the sun?

Thomas: Perhaps reason and will would not be worth anything at all without emotion and feeling, but emotion and feeling without reason and will would be to give up all that is human and return to crawling upon the earth, controlled by appetite and lacking all knowledge of truth and beauty.

Reuben: So what is the correct way?

Thomas: First, another question. Of the two men we came across, which was happy?

Reuben: Why, the monk, of course.

Thomas: And why was he happy? What did his happiness consist of?

Reuben: What a question! How am I to know?

Thomas: What did he conclude that it was his work to do?

Reuben: To love all things.

Thomas: Precisely. Do you think he meant by this that he feels a passion for all things in the way that you feel for the woman you are enchanted by?

Reuben: I suspect not.

Thomas: How did he find happiness right after the woman he had so loved died before their marriage? How, if love flows from some lack or need or incompleteness within ourselves, how could he be happy if his love was lost forever? And he did not go out and try to find another love; instead he took a vow of celibacy and promised to forgo romantic relationships for his entire life. And yet he is the most joyous man I have ever met. What can explain this?

Reuben: I do not know.

Thomas: I think it must be that he realized that true love can never flow from an incompleteness within the self. It can only flow out from a completeness, a wholeness that spills over. I think that in a very real sense, one can only love insofar as one is whole and complete in one’s self.

Reuben: But what does that make of our romantic passions then? Explain this further.

Thomas: If one desires relationship with another because they feel lonely and unloved, and the relationship gives them a feeling or a perceived feeling of meaningful fulfillment and contentment, then one is not really loving the other. They do not really desire the other person except insofar as the person brings this feeling to them, as I said earlier.

Reuben: But is not all romantic love like this? Is all romantic love bad, then? Should we all take the vows of the monk? Is this the only way to be truly happy?

Thomas: I do not know, to be completely honest. I am only saying what I am led to believe in pursuit of truth. Perhaps all romantic love really is a farce and a fraud, a mockery of our dignity and nobility as human beings. Perhaps no romantic love can escape from the dust and ash of passion to something higher and truer.

Reuben: How horrible a thought! But I wonder, in what sense can a person desire any other person at all, except in relation to some feeling that person brings them? Is this not a problem for all loves, and not just romance?

Thomas: That is an interesting question. We have said that to love is to will the good of another. But what does this mean? If I desire and actively seek good for some person, is my love only my action? If I give food to a homeless man as I pass him in the streets, do I only love him in that one instant in which the food passes from my own hands to his? Do I then cease to love him, because I have ceased to actively bring about his good?

Reuben: But surely your love for that man must be something different than your love for your family or for a wife or for a friend. Surely we cannot say that the love of a mother for her child is only equivalent to the goodwill of a nice passerby to a needy person. However noble and laudable giving in such a way is, can we really say that this is love in its fullest sense? Your love for that man does not extend beyond your giving. You do not desire to spend more time with him, to converse with him for long hours, maybe even to ever see him again, at least not actively. And yet all these things are true of our love for family and friends. What is the difference? If love is just to seek their good, then why spend time with them at all? Why not just send them gifts to meet their own needs, whatever they may be?

Thomas: I think you are right, we must say that there is some real difference in these instances, and hence we must say that there is, at least in some aspects, more to love than just willing the good of another.

Reuben: But what is it, then?

Thomas: I am not sure, as of yet. But perhaps we can discover the answer by returning to the example of our happy monk and examining him.

Reuben: Perhaps so.

Thomas: I say he is a happy man, and he is happy because he is complete in himself. That is not to say he never feels the emotion of sadness or pain, that he is never hurt. But that these emotions are like mere gusts of wind to him, coming and passing in their turn, but never shaking the firm and immovable ground beneath his feet, which is the foundation of his joy. He loves others not because he needs to be filled in himself, but because he himself is whole, and his gladness is radiant, and like the light of sun he seeks to share his happiness with all things. Thus he seeks their good, for only in the good is happiness to be found.

Reuben: Indeed.

Thomas: So could this happy man ever fall in love? I do not know.

Reuben: Here is another question. I wonder if incompleteness is necessarily a bad thing? Is there not some good in being vulnerable, in needing other people in order to find well being? Is man not by nature a social creature?

Thomas: That is correct, man is indeed a social creature by nature. Man does indeed need community as he needs water and air and light.

Reuben: So man needs others in order for his own good to be complete.

Thomas: I think this is a complex issue, and perhaps we are straying from our original questions. We shall turn to all these things in time, but let us first come to some conclusion about romantic love.

Reuben: I agree.

Thomas: Is there ever an instance of someone falling in love with another, when they do not desire the other out of some incompleteness within themselves?

Reuben: I am not sure.

Thomas: But, perhaps we should return to what I said before. Perhaps what we call romantic love is not love at all, but perhaps this does not render it necessarily selfish or bad. Consider this: how does romantic love begin?

Reuben: Well, one person becomes attracted to another.

Thomas: Exactly. It begins in attraction, which is a feeling associated with a desire.

Reuben: What next?

Thomas: Next the attraction, if reciprocated, would seem to grow into a kind of mutual affection and fondness, which are likewise emotions. But the emotions are not in themselves bad. As we said much earlier, emotions in themselves can be good, if they submit to and are guided by reason. So these emotions of attraction and affection which blossom ultimately into fully mature romantic relationship, these emotions in themselves can be good.

Reuben: I would agree.

Thomas: But I do not think we can call them love. In fact, I still do not know whether or not they always flow from an incompleteness in the self. I am lost and confused on this issue. This is the question pressing against my soul: Can a happy man fall in love? Can any man in love be a truly happy man? Here is the crux. The man in love must be dependent upon the woman he desires. That is the whole force of romance. If a man can say to a woman: “I am happy and complete with or without you; your affection makes no difference to me. There are stars for me without your light. Whether you return my love or spurn it, I shall not care either way”. If a man can say this to a woman, then surely it is not romance. Sure he is not a man in love. Whatever else romance is, it is not indifference. The man in love must be passionately invested in the outcome of his desires. It must matter to him whether his delight loves him in turn. Suppose Romeo were to say, “Ah, Juliet, how unfortunate your loss, but I shall not join you in death, for life to me is golden with or without you.” If this were the case, the play may no longer be a tragedy, but it would also at once lose all its charm and eternal power. But for the happy man there can be no contingency or dependency. The happy man is complete in himself. And so here is the whole paradox of human passion. We seek romance and companionship to fulfill ourselves, to make us happy; and yet the happy man is the one man for whom there can be no real romance. A man in love is a man who seeks happiness; but a happy man is a man who will never be in love. Love, he will; but fall in love he will never. Like east and west the two shall never meet, and there is all the world between them. This is the mystery of my heart. I do not know the answer. I do not know.

*To be continued


Header image in the Public Domain in the United States, taken from Wikimedia Commons:



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