There is a fascinating aside in How To Read A Book, in which Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren discuss what is meant by the word “love”.
Even once the authors have whittled down the definition, for the purposes of their example, to love between two human beings, the meaning of the word remains difficult to pin down.
Is love about what you can get for yourself, or what you can give to others?
“You would find, for instance, that love is said by some writers to consist wholly in acquisitive desire, usually sexual desire; that is, love is merely a name for the attraction that almost all animals feel toward members of the opposite sex. But you would also find other authors who maintain that love, properly speaking, contains no acquisitive desire whatever , and consists in pure benevolence. Do acquisitive desire and benevolence have anything in common, considering that acquisitive desire always implies wanting some good for oneself, while benevolence implies wanting a good for someone else?”
Is love an intellectual act rather than an emotional one?
“At least acquisitive desire and benevolence share a common note of tendency, of desire in some very abstract sense of the term. But your investigation of the literature of the subject would soon uncover writers who conceive of the essence of love as being cognitive rather than appetitive. Love, these writers maintain, is an intellectual act, not an emotional one. In other words, knowing that another person is admirable always precedes desiring him or her, in either of the two senses of desire. Such authors do not deny that desire enters into the picture, but they do deny that desire should be called love.”
Even if we just focus on romantic love, what exactly do we mean by that?
“Is the love that a man and woman have for each other the same when they are courting as when they are married, the same when they are in their twenties as when they are in their seventies?”
Are there different kinds of familial love? If so, how are they different?
“Is the love that a woman has for her husband the same as that she has for her children? Does a mother’s love for her children change as they grow up? Is the love of a brother for his sister the same as his love for his father? Does a child’s love for its parents change as he or she grows?”
What’s the difference between love and friendship?
“Is the love that a man has for a woman, either his wife or some other, the same as the friendship he feels for another man, and does it make a difference what relationship he has with the man— such as one with whom he goes bowling, one with whom he works, and one whose intellectual company he enjoys? Does the fact that “love” and “friendship” are different words mean that the emotions they name (if that is in fact what they name) differ? Can two men of different ages be friends? Can they be friends if they are markedly different in some other respect, such as possession of wealth or degree of intelligence? Can women be friends at all? Can brothers and sisters be friends, or brother and brother, or sister and sister? Can you retain a friendship with someone you either borrow money from or lend it to? It not, why not?”
Can we love someone very different from ourselves, or someone we have never met?
“If humanoid robots existed, could human beings love them? If we discovered intelligent beings on Mars or some other planet, could we love them? Can we love someone we have never met, like a movie star or the President?
To these, I’d add my own question: is love a feeling or, as Stephen Covey asserts in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a verb, something that we choose to do?
The authors don’t provide any answers. They’re simply making the point that if you read for insight on a given subject, it can be more difficult than you might think to identify exactly what that subject is.
Nevertheless, they’re fascinating questions and I’d very much like to read some books that explore them further. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments.