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January 2015

Epicurus on Love

Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived between 341 and 270 BC. He had some unconventional ideas on love, summarised here in an article from the Montreal Review:

“Love, for Epicurus, falls under the category of desires that are both unnatural and unnecessary. It is not anything in nature that makes us desire to have one sex partner to ourselves, but rather dictates of the society around us… Basically, we would not consent to the arrangement known as love if we had never heard of it before. It is essentially to make oneself obsessed with fulfilling a desire that can never be fulfilled, therefore condemning oneself forever to unhappiness.”

Epicurus saw love as a combination of friendship and sex, but crucially, considered the whole to be less than the sum of its parts:

“Whereas friendship and sex are both, to varying extents, worth pursuing, love is nothing more than mental disturbance... As Stephens writes, "Sex satisfies the body and is a natural pleasure. Love crazes the mind and leads to heartache."”

Sherwin Nuland on Love

In my quest to understand what we mean by “love”, I recently came across a quote from surgeon and author Sherwin Nuland:

"When you recognize that pain — and response to pain — is a universal thing, it helps explain so many things about others, just as it explains so much about yourself. It teaches you forbearance. It teaches you a moderation in your responses to other people’s behavior. It teaches you a sort of understanding. It essentially tells you what everybody needs. You know what everybody needs? You want to put it in a single word?

Everybody needs to be understood.

And out of that comes every form of love."

This seems to imply two broad sources of love: that which arises when we feel understood, and that which arises in the act of understanding.

When we feel that someone understands us, we feel some form of love for that person. This is the appreciation of a child for a parent who is able to help them navigate the world; the gratitude of someone suffering for a person who empathises with their pain; the romantic attraction of one adult to another who finds them in some way admirable. This is love as an emotion.

Choosing to make the effort to understand someone else also gives rise to love. This is the reassurance a parent gives to their child; the support offered to a friend; the admiration of one adult for the another. This is love as a verb.

Conversely, the greatest threat to love, in Nuland’s view, would presumably be a lack of understanding.