Why do we love?

The following is an excerpt from Love: A Very Short Introduction, by Ronald De Sousa, and looks at the reasons why we love.

Though many people curse the sheer absurdity of their own passion, others will insist that they have sound reasons for their love. But when listed, the reasons are liable to be banal or unintelligibly idiosyncratic. The beloved, for their part, may want to be loved for the right reasons. But what are those?

One common answer is: ‘for who I am’. But when a lover asks: ‘Why do you love me?’ trying to answer can feel like tip-toeing through a minefield. The reasons Romeo would give for loving Juliet are not necessarily those that Juliet would choose to be loved for. When Romeo rhapsodizes about her resemblance to the sun, she might protest: ‘I may be hot, but I’m not a bit like the Sun really. And when I pour my soul into playing the lute, you hardly even listen.’ Besides, whatever the reasons for Romeo’s love, other women may be found who equal or excel Juliet in just those qualities. Even if he does not leave her for someone who more closely resembles the sun, she will surely change. Her beauty will fade, her hair fall out, her wit dry up. And then, quite reasonably, Romeo may no longer love her. Best, all things considered, to die an early death: the solution of choice for legendary lovers.

Is love blind? Let us for now accept that Romeo loves Juliet because she is the sun. It’s not much of a reason, really; but if she is, no wonder he is blinded. The blindness of love is a truism. In fact, it is two-fold: Romeo will fail to notice Juliet’s faults, but he will also be oblivious to the charms of any other woman.

At the same time, love is sometimes characterized as a sharpened clarity of attention. If you want to be loved ‘for yourself ’, you will naturally hope to be seen for what you are. You should not need embellishments, and your lover’s affection should not require illusions to sustain it:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red . . .
. . . And yet, by God, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

(Shakespeare, Sonnet 130)

The importance of seeing and being seen in love is attested by the intensity of lovers’ mutual gaze. In gazing, as we say, into one another’s very soul, the lovers’ mutual desire is enhanced. They feel naked not only physically but in their sense of being exposed and vulnerable to one another. The view that love is unblinkered vision therefore naturally leads to the expectation of reciprocity as an essential aspect of love. When manifested in mutual gaze, reciprocated love can produce ecstasy — a word that etymologically means ‘standing outside yourself ’.

But reciprocal attention can also feed doubts and anxiety. Some lovers live in constant fear of disappointing their beloved’s expectations. From that point of view, love unrequited might be better off: it has no expectations, and so has nothing to be anxious about. In one of the novels of the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a character exclaims: ‘And if I love you, what business is that of yours?’

Indeed, if selflessness is the mark of true love, unrequited love might even claim — however implausibly — to be the best kind: since it receives nothing in return, its manifestations are not exchanged for any favours.

One more consideration weighs on the side of those who think only reciprocated love counts as true love. However realistic the lover’s vision may be, it is always fed with an imagination of shared activities and plans. In requited love, such imaginings are both effects and causes of mutual engagement. In unrequited love, on the contrary, they are pure fantasies, related to a time or situation that is destined to remain unreal. If love involves dynamic change in the lovers, unrequited love will not provide it.

The question of whether reciprocity is essential to love, then, leaves room for contending intuitions. There is no law to be laid down. But if love is regarded as entailing lucid vision, its kinship with agape may suggest another reason not to insist on reciprocity. Agape is the form of love that requires us to become aware, without judgement, of the common humanity we share with all fellow humans. It might be overwhelming to be loved in return by all fellow humans — not to speak of unrealistic to expect it. In addition, agape requires us to abstract from individual preferences. In erotic love, by contrast, individual differences matter supremely. Although these intuitions seem to conflict, they may be reconcilable. Juliet needn't be unaware of Romeo’s faults: it is enough that she not regard them as faults. Rightly understood, then, the blindness of love may be a matter not of failing sight but of failing judgement.

Alternatively, love’s blindness may be due to deception. ‘Take a look at the lovers,’ wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘no sooner acquainted, how quickly they lie!’ A young woman once boasted that she never lied to her lovers. When challenged, she clarified: ‘I only lie to my husband, because I love him. I never lie to my lovers.’ Perhaps she was wise: only with the most beloved are the stakes likely to be too high to tell the truth. Lies are told for many reasons, but most, perhaps, are intended to spare a loved one suffering. Self-deception plays its part as well, as illustrated in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138: ‘When my love swears that she is made of truth | I do believe her, though I know she lies.’ Lovers’ expectations are often unreasonable. Only lies and self-deception can protect those whose expectations are radically unreasonable. So perhaps there is no great puzzle here after all.

Love: A Very Short Introduction, by Ronald De Sousa (Oxford University Press, 2015)

Ronald de Sousa is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He has taught at University of Toronto, Canada since 1966. He is the author of The Rationality of Emotion (MIT 1987), Why Think? Evolution and the Rational Mind (OUP 2007, 2011), and Emotional Truth (OUP 2011). His research interests have been mainly in areas of philosophy that seek to understand the mind. He is also the author of Love: A Very Short Introduction.

Featured image: Love heart. Public domain via Pixabay.

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