Love is something that affects so much of our life, yet we are mostly content with ruling it out as something unexplainable, mysterious, divine. The risk of doing this is that what we do not understand, we cannot control. By leaving love as an unexplainable phenomenon, we are giving it a “get out of jail free card” to any problems it throws us in.
I think the reason many of us don’t look into love from a rational viewpoint is that we are attracted to its mysteriousness. When we try to explain it with reason and logic, it loses some of its lustre, some of its power. However, I don’t think this has to be; I believe we can scrutinize love while still allowing it to sit on the highest of pedestals.
Bring in the Greeks
The best place to start such a daring endeavour lies with the ancient Greeks. In The Symposium, Plato is recounting a discussion that takes place over a long night of drinking; he describes a dialogue with Socrates where they attempt this very discussion. Before we can look at the the proposed definition of love, we must start with a definition of what it means to be good.
The idea of good is the highest form something can achieve. If a knife is good, it is because we feel that it reflects the purpose (form) of a knife to the highest level; similarly a good friend is one that resembles the highest level of an ideal friendship. This also inherently implies that the idea of good is purely subjective (differs from person to person). I may think a walking stick is good, but another person may think not because they are shorter. In a broader sense, any good in the world is derived from the standards which you choose to measure it by. Even those who prescribe to a religious outlook on life, are choosing to use their faiths definition for what is good.
Good is the best ideal or highest form and is subjective
Socrates then goes on to say that, with good being the concept used to regard the highest form of something, then beauty is the recognition of good. If we think something reflects the idea of good, then we say it is beautiful, full of beauty. In this sense beauty is not purely an aesthetic quality, but a description of anything that is thought of as good. This is the core of what it means to be beautiful, that one sees good in it. While not yet at a definition of love, we have now defined that beauty as:
Beauty is the perception of good
Now that we have defined beauty, we can return to our original inquiry and search for a definition of love. Socrates argues that when we love, it is always of something that we perceive as beautiful (good). He goes further to say that we only love what we do not have (or may not have forever); arguing that we do not generally love our foot unless we are at risk of losing it. Similarly, to love a person is to desire to have them forever. From this we can define love as the desire to have a thing of beauty.
Love is the desire to keep a thing of beauty
In defining love as a form of desire is interesting as it resonates with Buddhist thought, in that desire is the root of all suffering. Anyone who has been in love knows that while love is mostly full of joy and pleasure, it also brings with it suffering or opens you up to the potential for suffering. Viewing love as a form of desire also confirms why when we love someone, we generally wish to marry them, because our desire for them is to have this person until we die.
Love Must Be More
However, this definition by itself doesn’t quite cut it. How could Love, the thing that all religions are founded on, that urges people to do selfless acts of kindness, be simply defined as the selfish desire to have a thing of beauty? So we must press on, to understand it better, and expand on this fundamental definition with another thinker who was around over a thousand years after the death of Socrates.
The next clue comes from Immanuel Kant, a german philosopher in the 1700s who is considered one of the fathers of modern philosophy. Without intention, Kant gives a beautiful definition when writing the Groundwork of a Metaphysics of Morals – basically some real nerdy philosophy stuff – he is reestablishing the subjectivity of good, that an action with good intention cannot be assured to be good as the outcome may be unintentionally harmful to others; when he finds one contradiction to this rule: the only thing that is good in and of itself is goodwill. He defines goodwill as the intention to do good; which can likewise be understood as love.
Love is the intention to do good
and is the only thing that is good in and of itself
This definition is grand in that it elevates love to a level that few other things can reach, being the only thing that is good without justification (in and of itself). It also defines love as an idea of the highest form, one that deals directly with good, affirming why all religions, families and social structures are built on the idea of love. It also explains why when we feel love for another, we feel an overwhelming burning desire to do good by them; we want to buy them gifts, and please them, because deep down we have a strong sense of goodwill for that person.
Shake n’ Bake
While neither of these ideas in isolation can be the sole definition of love, when combined, like raw ingredients to produce a meal, they form a definition that both glorifies love, while also explaining the neurotic effect it can have on us. It facilitates our understanding of love as a commitment, as both people are actualising their desire to have the other forever by social law, and as an bond of mutual good intention. Furthermore it respects love as a force for good (quite literally) that this world cannot live without.
So to reiterate, bringing these two definitions together defines love as both an intention and a desire – as something selfless and selfish – that we feel towards things and people that we deem beautiful. Since we have defined beauty as the perception of good, we can really adjust our definition to be:
Love is the intention to do good,
the desire to have good,
and is the only good.