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Philosophy

What is Love?

Is there a subject more discussed but less understood than love? What exactly love is has as many definitions as there are people. Philosophers have tried for millennia to understand what love is. The Symposium of Plato famously presents multiple interpretations of love. Aristophanes tells the story of how love is the desire to join together with your other half which we lost when Zeus split humans in two separate beings. Socrates explains that love is the child of Plenty and Poverty[1], or having and desiring, meaning that you can never have enough but can always give. In this essay (and an essay it is because I do not claim to know the answer to this question) I want to dive deeper into the concept of love. What is it? Is it possible to love multiple people? Can you love things?

         The first thing we can say is that it is possible to love many different things. You can love people, for example, you can love your mother. You can also love objects, for example, you can love your teddy bear from when you were young. You can also love activities, for example, you can love reading or writing. You can also love abstract concepts, for example, you can love history. It seems you can love just about anything! But what seems to be common among these examples? Every example is a relation. We are always in love with something. This implicates that to love we need a subject that has a particular (loving?) relationship with another thing.

         We have established that love is a relation. But is every relation the same? Or has it the same value? Immediately we would say no. Some relations are more important than others. We would look weird at the person who would choose to save her teddy bear instead of her mother when the house is burning down. There are gradations of the relation of love. Now we need to look at what establishes these gradations. Why is it that the mother is more important than the teddy bear? It seems it has something to do with what kind of something it is we have a relation towards. An object is valued less (or at least intuitively should be) than a person. Why is that? Maybe because the person can also give love back, while the object can’t?

         What do we do with objects? We use them. They are a means to an end. We value money because we can use it to buy things. We value the teddy bear because it remembers us of our childhood. The object is something we use to receive something from it. Be it pleasure, be it protection or whatever else we can think of. A person, however, isn’t something to be used as a means to an end. Kant famously stated this: “Act so that you treat humanity always as an end and never as a means only.”[2] Intuitively, we would look down on someone who is using another person for his own ends. When the other person agrees and the goals align, then we don’t have a problem with it. But when this isn’t the case, it seems to be a form of exploitation. A person then is something that has goals of her own and is autonomous in realizing her goals. We should have a certain degree of respect for other subjects that we don’t have for objects. Even the respect we have regarding objects can be attributed to a person. Why don’t we destroy a wooden fence? Because the owner of the fence would be mad. But take the subject away and it is a lot more permissible to destroy the wooden fence.

         Now that we have distinguished the relation between subjects and objects, we can look at the different gradations within the different concepts. It is clear that with both subjects and objects there is a hierarchy of love. A stone on the floor has a very weak relation of love towards you than the teddy bear which might have a lot of emotional meaning. With objects it seems that the hierarchy forms from the meaning that we give to the objects. Can we state the same with persons? It seems so. The stranger in Abu Dhabi is lower in the hierarchy than your father because the meaning we give to the relation with our father is greater than the meaning we give to the relation of the stranger.

         On a sidenote, we can say that this hierarchy is never fixed and always changing. With every action you take the hierarchy shifts its form, which makes the hierarchy mysteriously obscure. This means that we might not consciously know where something has its place in the hierarchy, and we might only realize it when it’s gone. We can (and most likely will) be wrong about the place objects and subjects take within our hierarchy. But the careful eye can see where the place is by looking at the actions of the person. The actions show us the value hierarchy of the person. Is the person willing to exploit workers in order to make money? Then he values money more than workers. He might claim different, but his actions show his true values. Carl Jung reportedly said: “If you cannot understand why someone did something, look at the consequences – and infer the motivation.”[3] If you want to know if a person has changed, look if his actions have. If they haven’t, they aren’t honest with you or with themselves.

         We have established that there is a hierarchy in the relation of love and that that hierarchy is ever changing. Now, we might look into how to the relation can take a certain space within the hierarchy. Why is it that we put our mother higher in the hierarchy than a random person on the street? And what would it mean if we didn’t? The first thing we can say is that love cannot exist just on its own. It is a relation and thus needs something to love. According to Erich Fromm, a social psychoanalyst, human beings have this inherent need to transcend loneliness.[4] Those who feel lonely have no relations with subjects or objects. Here we need to make a distinction between being alone and being lonely. A person can perfectly be alone and not be lonely. Being lonely implies that the person lacks the certain relation that she desires. That is why a person who is surrounded by people who love her, can still feel lonely. If she doesn’t take the step to accept the relation the others want to have with her, then she won’t stop feeling lonely. Why she doesn’t accept this, is another question and not one to analyze here, but we can give reasons like fear of rejection, having the feeling of not being good enough, bitterness towards the world, etc.

         Fromm argues that we all want to escape that loneliness and we can do that in many different ways. We can escape into drugs that don’t make us feel lonely, like alcohol. But also, braindead shows on television. We try to escape the loneliness of our existence through hedonistic pleasure seeking. They are not meaningful but at least they make us forget the precarious situation of our existence. Another way Fromm gives to escape this loneliness is through conformism. You join a particular group with a particular vision, and you adhere to that vision without question, because asking a question could result in you being thrown out of the group which would render you being lonely again, something we want to avoid at all costs. An example would be joining an extremely religious group and not being able to ask a critical question in fear of being expelled from the group. Or in high school, you behave a certain way to ‘fit in’, in fear of being rejected by high school peers. The third way is through creative labor. By working on something, we can escape the feeling of loneliness because we have the feeling that what we are creating has certain value and meaning.

         All these ways, however, lack the personal dimension. They lack subjects. If we analyze the previous ways closely, we see that all three focus on objects instead of subjects. The drugs we use are a means to feel good. We use the group to have a sense of belonging. We create things so we feel productive and valuable. But all these things are valuable insofar their relation with subjects, insofar that they have a goal, an end. And this end is given to us by other persons. The only true answer, says Fromm, comes from the unity between two individuals, between two subjects.[5]

         The relation between two individuals, however, also has a gradation of meaning and value. The relation between people we kind of know will be different than our relationship with friends and that will be different from our relationship with our partner. To answer this distinction, I believe we need to first look at the content of the relationship we have. According to the sort of value and meaning we give, there will be a different gradation of love here.

         We have established that according to Fromm humans want to escape their disposition of loneliness. While this definitely is the case in my opinion, it doesn’t necessarily explain love itself. We can, however, state that love is not something passive that happens to us. Instead, it is an active force where we must continuously perform actions to bring this love into the world. This is implicit when we talk about love as a relation. Love isn’t just passively having certain circuits of your brain getting fired up and you passively experiencing them. Instead, we need to continuously engage with the object of our love to receive it. We need to actively want to love. We can regard love as a choice. The choice to actively engage in it. The choice to actively create the relation with the object of our love. It is in love that we stop being lonely, as Fromm would put it, because we now have something to strive towards, an ideal. And everything that you love will contribute to that ideal, or at least you believe that it will contribute. It could always be that you are wrong about this. You can use drugs to escape loneliness, but they won’t contribute to that ideal.

         Before we continue with the ideal and how it contributes to our love relations, I need to delve into the concept of responsibility. Responsibility is the ability to take the weight of what needs to be done to achieve that ideal on your shoulders. Responsibility like love is a relation. We are always responsible for something. It is the starting point of existentialism that we are responsible for ourselves. As Sartre writes: “That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free: condemned, because once cast in the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”[6] We are always responsible for something, and there is always something that holds us responsible. We need both those elements if we want to be able to say that we are responsible. Here we can fit in the idea of the ideal of the person. It is the ideal that holds us responsible, and it is our responsibility that we try to achieve that ideal. For this we need continuity in our thinking. Søren Kierkegaard calls this stage of our life when we allow continuity in our thinking the ethical life.[7] I will return to this when I talk about why we are not choosing for love, when it seems like it’s the best way to go.

         We now have the concept of responsibility and how it is linked with the ideal. We also know how love fits in this equation. We can maybe formulate an answer to what love is. Love seems to be that which allows us to progress further towards the ideal self that we have through the relations we create with things. That which we loves makes us progress to the ideal we act towards. I do need to make clear here that the ideal isn’t good or bad. You can have bad ideals and good ideals. The ideal is the reason why you act. Every action you take contributes to that ideal. It is through reason that we can see what that ideal is and if that ideal is worth pursuing. So, whatever we act towards is an object of love.

         I now want to take the time to investigate how people fit into this equation. People have their own goals, their own ends, their own ideal. This ideal and yours can conflict but there can also be points where they converge. If we want to start from treating people as subjects, as autonomous beings, we can’t use them as means. Otherwise, there is a love relation on object level and not on subject level. But can’t we say that we always use friends as a means to achieve the ideal? Not when we both acknowledge one another as subjects and acknowledge that we both have ends. Then we can work together so each of us can come closer to the ideal. Instead of using one another as objects, we acknowledge one another as subjects and work together instead of making one or the other a slave to a master. This, in my limited opinion, is the whole underpinning of true acknowledgment with Hegel. According to Hegel we realize that we are self-conscious because we acknowledge the other as self-conscious.[8] Or rather, by acknowledging the other as a subject we realize that we are a subject as well and are able to go into a particular relationship.

         Aristotle wrote about friendship quite a lot. He deemed it one of the greatest things we could pursue in our life. But he saw distinctions in friendship. We have friends that we use for our own gains. For example, we might befriend someone because they can get us higher on the social ladder. But this isn’t real friendship. Real friends are friends for the good of one another.[9] Again, we see that love requires the mutual acknowledgment of each other as subjects.

One of the fundamental aspects of friendship was that first you need to love yourself. We haven’t really talked about self-love yet, but we can say that for Aristotle we need to have the same loving relationship towards ourselves as we have towards our true friends.[10] That means that you need to treat yourself as you would a friend. What would you do if your friend is having a rough patch? You would help him get back up his feet. Hopefully (and maybe this can be a criterion of realizing who your real friends are), they will want to see you succeed in whatever it is that you are doing, and they will be genuinely happy if you achieve it. Real friends aren’t those who are there for you when you’re having a hard time. Real friends are there to celebrate with you when you have achieved something good regardless of what is happening in their own life. In order to achieve self-love, you need to have the same attitude towards yourself as well. You need to treat yourself as you would a true friend. Paradoxically this is the only way to treat someone else as a true friend as well. To treat someone else as a subject, you need to treat yourself as a subject as well. To treat someone else as an autonomous person, you need to treat yourself as one. To love someone else, you need to be able to love yourself.

         We now have established the foundations of friendships. But there is a particular relationship of love that towers above all of them, namely the relationship you have with a partner. The kind of relationship we mean when we say that they have a ‘relationship’. I will call this true love. Or rather, the paradigmatic ideal of what love can be. Friendships contribute to the ideal of the person. If the friend would not contribute to the ideal, we could not establish a loving relation with that person and therefore they could not be a friend. Within friendships, however, both persons have their own autonomous ideal which is separated from one another. With true love this is different. The ideals of both persons converge into one ideal shared by both. Fromm said that in (true) love there is a paradox where two people become one but still remain two people.[11] I would say that in true love our ideals become one while staying two. The idea behind it is that we now treat the ideal of the other as if it is our own ideal. Even more, it becomes our ideal as well!

         We can now introduce the concept of choice. We can say: all well and good, converging the ideals and such, but how do I know that I made the right choice? Here, I would say that you always choose, you have no choice in not choosing. Again, I will bring Sartre to the front: “In one sense, choice is possible; what is impossible is not to choose. I can always choose, but I must also realize that, if I decide not to choose, that still constitutes a choice.”[12] But that does not guarantee that you will make the right choice. You can only make the right choice when the other also makes the right choice. That means that only if you both make the choice, that you can achieve the right choice. If one of the two doesn’t acknowledge the other as subject, then the person who does take the risk makes the wrong choice. Only if both make the choice, can the right choice be made. Even more, it is because both make the choice that the choice itself becomes right. We can now claim that true love is a choice we make.

         The idea here is that the person we love isn’t an idealized human being. Our partner is (and we are as well) a fallible human who makes mistakes and fails. The vision that romantic cinema has given us, is that there is no effort in love. We have a ‘soulmate’ waiting for us. But this is passive. You react to forces which are not within your control. We have established that love is an active choice, not passive. Thus, in love we can acknowledge the faults our partner has, but rather we accept them and try to overcome them together in the light of the ideal we now share. We don’t see our partner in the absolute beauty, we see the absolute beauty in our partner.[13] I choose you means I want to share your ideal as if it was my own and allow you to do the same.

         We have now made an investigation of what love is. That true love is a choice might seem self-evident and easy. We could say: If it was that easy, why don’t people just do it? Why can’t people just have meaningful relationships with other people? We can now investigate the fear of love.

         First, I would like to state that there are many reasons why people don’t take the step to love. They might be content with the relationships they have. But I want to investigate why people are afraid to take the step to love. Universally not particularly. There are many reasons why in a particular situation someone might not take the leap of love. But universally, it comes down to fear. Kierkegaard (and many existentialists like him) believed that the basic choice we make is whether we acknowledge our freedom or choose to evade it.[14] Freedom for the existentialists implies responsibility and it is this concept that frightens us. We are responsible for our actions even though we feel like we aren’t. Remember that we characterized responsibility as being held accountable by the ideal. The ideal functions as a judge of our actions. Taking responsibility means acknowledging that we make mistakes and that we might not live up to the ideal that we envision. This can make us sad, feel bad for ourselves and give us a whole array of ‘negative’ (or rather unpleasurable) emotions. And we can honestly ask the question why we would ever do things that can give us these unpleasurable emotions.

         Here we find ourselves back to what Fromm was writing about when he talked about escapism. Why not just take drugs? Why not just have random sex with whoever? Why not follow a particular ideology without question? They make the person feel safe and secure because it takes the responsibility away from them. The ideology I adhere to can’t make mistakes. It’s not my responsibility because I was drunk so it wasn’t my fault. I just want to have pleasure. These are all reasons people give to stave of responsibility but with that, however, meaning and love as well.

         An example should make things clearer. In a relationship with a partner both need to make the choice to stay with one another. But what if someone better comes around the corner? This is a phenomenon which is more prevalent because of the sheer amount of choice between partners we have nowadays. Take Tinder. The app brings thousands of potential ‘matches’ literally at your fingertips. You go on a date with a lady and she’s a lot of fun to be around. The problem is: she is a brunette, and you like blonde ladies a lot more. So, you find a blonde on Tinder. You go with her on a date. However, she seems to be interested into horses which you couldn’t care about in the slightest and you detest listening to horses all day. So, you find someone ‘better’. So, the cycle continues, prohibiting us of creating a meaningful relationship.

Another example would be that your parents are divorced so you don’t believe in lasting relationships anymore. You believe that every relationship is doomed to fail and thus are afraid to make the commitment when someone you like presents himself to you. You might go in a relationship with that person, but you decide that you don’t want to fully commit and want to leave whenever there is a rough patch (which will certainly happen). The fear of the pressing responsibility means that we are not able to commit to love. We are afraid to make the choice. We don’t want to feel ‘negative’ emotions anymore. But maybe it is because there is the possibility of so much pain and suffering that the beauty of love is present.

Imagine two people coming up to you and telling you that your new haircut is ridiculous. The first person is a random stranger. When he says this, you might feel offended, but after a couple of hours you forget about the situation. Now imagine it is your crush who you admire a lot. This will bring a lot more pain than the random stranger. Why? They both say the same thing. It is because we care more about the opinion of someone we care about than the opinion of someone we don’t. Why? Because the relation of love adheres to the ideal, so when someone you love criticizes you, it is the ideal that criticizes you. This isn’t (or at least a lot less) the case when the stranger criticizes you.

This fear is something we all have. It is, however, by making a leap of faith that we choose for someone who we think is all worth it. This means that you give that person the power to hurt you in a way no other person can. But it is necessary to achieve true love. It isn’t much of a risk when there isn’t a chance of failing and being hurt in the progress. Or as Michel de Montaigne said beautifully: “One can only be noble if he allows himself to face danger.”[15] Treating people as subjects means treating them as autonomous beings and that means that you have a certain moral responsibility towards them. Trying to escape this responsibility implies not acknowledging the other as a subject but rather using them as an object.

This fear extends itself to the fear of treating yourself as a subject. If you treat yourself as a subject and thus create some healthy self-love as we have explained above, you necessarily have a certain responsibility towards yourself. Here the same thing applies and if you run away from your responsibility, you no longer treat yourself as a subject but rather as an object. You use yourself as a means to achieve something else. An example could be that you need money and sell your own body for sex so you can earn an income. This is alienation of labor at its finest, which is something Karl Marx writes about in depth in his Paris Manuscripts. When the worker works for himself because he sees himself as an autonomous being achieving his ideal in the world, then the labor he produces is his own. If he does it for someone else and is used as a means to an end, there is alienation. A musician who is forced by contract to make an album every year but doesn’t feel like his heart is in the project is alienated from his work and by extension himself. Marx believed that we need to become conscious of this situation so we can change it.[16] I would say that we need to be conscious of the concept of love to change how we act upon it.

We have now investigated the fear of love and found that this fear stems from trying to escape the responsibility of being. Trying to escape the responsibility of the choice of love. We are afraid of seeing ourselves as a subject. It might be valuable to investigate what we do when we objectify ourselves and others.

The first thing we could say is: I don’t objectify people; only selfish monsters do that and that’s not me. The first response would be that everyone is capable of doing this. And I would claim that everyone does this, at least unconsciously. Why? Because otherwise we are confronted by a subject and that subject functions as a judge of the ideal we have. And we have established that we are afraid of being judged in this manner.

There are two routes you can take. The route of responsibility and the route of unwillingness to know. The choice here is between freedom and the illusion of not having it. Responsibility can give people meaning, an ideal to strive towards and true happiness in the sense of eudaimonia. Responsibility, however, also holds you accountable and will be the source of many negative emotions. That is why people run away from responsibility. Why not take responsibility, because then nothing matters. But why would we want that nothing matters? Because then nothing matters. Everything you do is permissible. You don’t need to feel bad about what you’re doing because it doesn’t matter. Not taking the choice of freedom and responsibility brings us as human beings to nihilism. And nihilism brings with it the urge to destroy. Because even if nothing matters, we will still be confronted with suffering. And suffering means something. But since we then believe that all positive emotions don’t mean anything we are justified to destroy the world. For Carl Jung this vision was also a choice. He said that the world was cruel and raw but also of immense beauty. It is our own decision of how we want to view the world.[17]

So, running from responsibility gives us the joy of not having to adhere to the ideal. However, the paradox is that the ideal never disappears and will continue to press itself unto us. That is why you cannot choose to not choose. The ideal judges you even if you don’t want to be judged. Because of this, you will still feel bad even though you adhere to nihilism. Your efforts don’t make the ideal go away. You just try to escape the ideal. If you don’t believe in your ideal, if you haven’t chosen to pursue the ideal, you’ll fall into the evil of the world.[18]

One of the characteristics of someone out to destroy (and I mean this on a psychological level, where a person has the urge to break things out of his conception that nothing matters) is that we view people, including ourselves, as objects instead as subjects. Viewing yourself as an object gives you the upside of not having to take any responsibility of your actions. You’re not an autonomous human being so it is literally never your fault if something happens. It’s always something else. It might be the government, the capitalists, or your parents. Whatever you choose it to be, it is never your own fault. That is the upside of not taking responsibility, of not choosing freedom, of staying in the aesthetic life: you don’t have to care about anything anymore. You don’t need to be afraid; you don’t need to feel bad. It all doesn’t matter and if it matters then you can’t do anything about it and it’s utterly pointless. The downside is that nothing matters.

Thus, seeing yourself as an object allows you to escape the unbearable weight of love. But what happens when you make yourself and others an object? Intuitively, we are appalled when someone uses another person as an object, or as a means. But we have all done it. If you have ever watched porn, then you have used the woman in the video as an object for your pleasure. You are not treating her as a subject since you don’t care about the goals she sets. She is also not in the position to acknowledge you because she doesn’t know you are there. Instead, you are a voyeur who uses her body (indirectly since it’s a video) as an object of pleasure.

I will stop here as I have touched on many topics which I need to look into more deeply. I have tried (essay) to develop a notion of love which seemed intuitively right. I have established that love is a relation with something and that something can be an object, a subject or something else. We have investigated the many degrees of love relations such as with objects, of friends and of a partner. There are many more, but I feel like I need to do more digging before I can answer these. I have also looked into why people are afraid of going into relations with other subjects. One great fear was the fear of the ideal that we all have. What this ideal is exactly is still pretty vague, but that is because I haven’t found the right words yet to share this concept. Finally, I have tried to discover how people can treat themselves as objects although this might still be unsatisfactory.

Love needs to be actively investigated by everyone in my opinion. Love is the great reason that we do things. The fact that we have the ability to love and experience meaningful relationships with others is a source of immense joy but also of hellish pain. Becoming conscious of our own loving position only furthers the meaning that we can give to these relations and our lives. It’s an elusive concept but one worth pursuing. It all starts with the question: What is love?[19]


[1] Plato and Waterfield, Symposium, p. xxviii

[2] Kant cited in Rachels & Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, p. 146

[3] Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules For Life

[4] Erich Fromm, Liefhebben: een Kunst, een Kunde, p. 19

[5] Fromm, p. 30

[6] Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, p. 29

[7] David West, Continental Philosophy, p. 141

[8] Georg Hegel, Fenomenologie van de Geest, p. 122

[9] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, p. 144

[10] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, p. 168

[11] Erich Fromm, Liefhebben: een Kunst, een Kunde, p. 34

[12] Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, p. 44

[13] Slavoj Zizek explains this masterfully in my opinion in just 30 seconds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AoNNG9byXuw&list=PLT1aIoci0nD3_R3tP8avYQuTF36eVLUqH&index=29

[14] David West, Continental Philosophy, p. 139

[15] Michel de Montaigne, de Essays, p. 166 (own translation)

[16] This is represented in the dictum: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach

[17] Carl Jung, Herinneringen, Dromen, Gedachten, p. 307

[18] “Als er niets of niemand is waarin je kunt geloven, als je geloof in goedheid en rechtvaardigheid een dwaze illusie is gebleken, als het leven eerder door de duivel dan door God lijkt te worden geregeerd, dan wordt leven inderdaad iets om te haten, dan is de teleurstelling niet meer te dragen. Dan wil je bewijzen dat het leven zelf slecht is, dat de mensen zelf slecht zijn en dat jij zelf slecht bent. Diep teleurgesteld in je geloof en in je liefde word je een cynicus en een vernietiger.” Erich Fromm Het Hart van de Mens p. 26

[19] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEXWRTEbj1I&ab_channel=CoconutMusicGermany

By elenchusphilosophy

I'm a Philosophy student in Belgium, trying to talk and write about ideas of all kinds of sorts.

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