It may seem doubtful that philosophers have much to tell us about love (beyond their love of wisdom).
Many of us have been in love, and there have been countless great poems and popular songs written about it. So you’d think we’d all know what it is. Yet a lot of what has been written points to a deep mystery. So—as Cole Porter famously asked—what is this thing called love?
Love is often portrayed as a powerful force, something that can inspire greatness in the lover. Alternatively, it is something that can make the lover act like a fool. Love can be the greatest feeling in the world, but it can also be utterly devastating when it doesn’t work out. How many love songs are really about heartbreak over love lost? Listen to a few, and it’s a wonder we ever love at all.
Given these observations, we might be inclined to think that there’s a significant element of irrationality to love. But we should be careful here, as perhaps love can have reasons too. For example, if you have a significant other, you could probably list off a bunch of reasons for your love: your partner is kind, intelligent, funny, and so on. If you loved someone who was mean, stupid, and boring, that would be irrational. But, presumably, many of us have great reasons for loving who we love, which shows that sometimes love is actually quite rational.
It would be wise to pause, though, to consider whether or not we ever actually love for the reasons we give. Perhaps the truth is that we first find ourselves in love, and then come up with reasons to justify our feelings. Just because we can provide reasons for feeling the way we do about a particular person, it doesn’t follow that we see reasons for loving first, and then develop feelings based on those reasons.
Think of it this way—falling in love because you’ve come up with a list of good reasons doesn’t sound very romantic. It sounds cold and calculating, not something we might even want to dignify with the label “love.” Moreover, it paints a picture that suggests we can rationally deliberate and decide who to love, but for most people, I’d bet that’s not how they actually experience love.
While this might not be how most people experience love, of course, it doesn’t follow that it’s not possible to fall in love for reasons. After all, what we consciously experience does not necessarily reveal the true underlying mechanisms at work. It would be surprising, for example, if the reasons you came up with for loving your significant other—the qualities that make this person so lovable—turned out to be completely irrelevant to your feelings.
Even if we don’t consciously decide to fall in love, it makes sense to think we respond to particular qualities we perceive in others, and we fall in love because of those qualities. That seems to suggest that love is at least potentially rational. However, we should also point out that even if we admit that love can have causes, and that a person’s particular qualities can explain why we love that person, it doesn’t follow that love is therefore rational. An avalanche has causes too, and those causes explain why the avalanche happens, but that doesn’t make an avalanche rational.
So there’s a lot to talk about on this week’s show. What exactly is love? Why do we love? Can we decide whom to love? Is love ever rational? Would we be better off without it?
Those are just some of the questions that come up when we’re talking about romantic love. I haven’t even mentioned any other kinds of love. We can love our friends, our children, our community, even our country. We can also talk about loving more abstract things, like justice, beauty, or wisdom, which raises even more issues. Is there something that all of these different kinds of love have in common? And which kinds of love are most essential to a well-lived life?