What is Love? ~ Beneath the Surface with Paul Murano

By: Paul Murano – February, 2015

In last month’s column we tackled the question of happiness. We were prompted to explore its meaning as 2015 began with many wishes for “Happy New Year”. As we concluded, happiness is often confused with a temporary emotion; yet it is integral human fulfillment primarily of our higher rational nature. Happiness is flourishing through virtuous living and the contemplation of truth. This includes doing what is right – despite the consequences.
Now it’s February, St. Valentine’s month, and we turn our attention to another question: What is love? Like happiness, love is essentially an act of the will, a choice one makes despite the consequences, even to those that are gravely unlikable. But is this what most people understand to be love?

There are two challenges. First, English is at a great disadvantage for having only one word for love, and it has been grossly over-used. You can ‘love’ your mother, your dog, your car, the Red Sox, chocolate, oak trees, the color red, or your favorite shoes. This is compounded by living in an era of subjectivism, where love can be virtually anything we say it is. Many behaviors are now claimed to be an expression of love, simply because there are consenting adults. To counteract these two problems, two factors must be explored: the different kinds of love, and whether love has an objective meaning.

To begin, let us borrow three ancient Greek words for love: philia, eros, and agape. Philia is a friendship-love (hence, Philadelphia is the “city of brotherly love”). Eros is of attraction-love, which is also a need-love, born out of natural desire. Agape refers to a selfless, sacrificial love. This love is not a movement of the passions like eros, but rather is an active choice of the will. Agape is to will the good of another. While eros seeks satisfaction from another, agape commits to the other regardless of how unpleasant. Eros focuses on what you can get; agape, on what you can give. Eros is conditional; agape, unconditional. In sum, eros says “I love you because of…”; agape says “I love you in spite of…”

Eros works well for us much of the time. We may desire a candy bar, or find pleasing a beautiful painting or a majestic palm tree. Many things, and persons, attract us physically and emotionally. We often think the notion of being “in love” means real love. Herein, however, lies the danger. With things, eros works well: We can use things for our pleasure and discard them when we’re through. For persons, however, eros without agape leads to selfishness and abuse, and consequently broken hearts and major scars. It is highly unethical to use people for one’s own pleasure and benefit, as one would use an object or thing. Wise people and wise cultures understand this and maintain overt disciplinary measures to protect people from being used. However, our more adolescent society, which now thinks using and abusing people is okay as long as there is mutual consent, is in the process of learning the hard way. There is still hope that we can learn before obsession, addiction, and broken families destroy us.

The second consideration of the nature of love is its expression and objective meaning. Can unnatural acts be loving if both parties consent? If a whole society consents? No. Personal preference can never trump the truth of human nature. True love goes beyond itself to give life to the other; and, like happiness, love animates human nature. It does not, and cannot, contradict it.
So the essence of love is more than a passive emotional high or physical desire. It is an act of the will, a commitment to the objective good for another. We see this kind of commitment codified in traditional marriage vows: for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part. There is no provision for getting tired of each other or for eventually finding younger co-workers more attractive. It is a permanent commitment to the other despite all circumstances, whose natural purpose is union and procreation, and whose supernatural purpose is to help each other get to heaven. Ultimately, therefore, love cares about the other’s eternal destiny.

St. Valentine is said to be a 3rd century Christian martyr who died in a Roman prison upholding the truth about love. Unless we commit and choose to condemn all of love’s counterfeits, we dishonor St. Valentine and the true meaning of Valentine’s Day.