A Philosopher’s Guide to Love

The selfless and selfish sides of affection

Photo by Joanna Nix on Unsplash

Love has many manifestations. There’s the charming and alluring spark of a new partner, the dependable stability of a strong family unit, the warm familiarity of affection, and the deep connection of a long-term companion.

Love can, equally, be a divider motivated by envy, lust and pride — a possessive objectifier and a blind partisan.

Of course, it’s reductionist to praise or blame love for all of our best or worst qualities. Nevertheless, we should reflect on what love is and how we can get the best out of this ever-important emotion.

It is also worth considering what we wish for love to be; although the biology of love is fixed, our social attitudes towards it can change.

This article aims to present some of the many faces of love and encourages the reader to reflect on their relationships and how accepting they are of others.

Two Parts Make a Whole

In Plato’s Symposium, the character of Aristophanes presents a myth which recounts the story of what would now be considered “soul-mates”.

The popular tale suggests that humans began their existence with two heads, four arms and four legs. There were also three sexes: man, woman and man-woman.

As is customary with stories concerning humans and the gods, the humans aimed to prove themselves worthy of divine status. They attempted this by scaling Olympus and attacking the gods. Zeus, in his wrath, provided a fitting punishment for their hubris — he cut them in two and asked the god Apollo to fix the appearance of the newly severed individuals.

As a result, humans resembled our present form, with one head and a pair of arms and legs.

We are no longer, Aristophanes mused, truly whole. Instead, we spend our days searching for our other halves in an attempt to be complete.

Aristophanes concludes:

“Human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love”.

It’s fascinating how the myth from the Symposium has had such a long-standing legacy. Whilst most might not attest to truly believing in soul-mates, many will search tirelessly for the right “one” and monogamy is very much the social norm for relationships in many cultures.

The myth shows us a love which is at its core deeply romantic. It appeals to the intensity that many feel when in love, which is to say, they are a better person as a result of their partner. It is also quite inclusive since it embraces homosexuality as a norm.

But love has many expressions, and this myth shows itself to be deeply flawed as an allegory for how we should attempt to view love in our societies.

A modern take on Aristophanes’ tale called The Children of the Dirt, written by Simon Rich, exemplifies one of the flaws.

In Rich’s account, the female pairs are known as “Children of the Earth”, the male pairs are “Children of the Sun” and the mixed pairs “Children of the Moon”.

Yet there is another much more substantial group who are the “Children of the Dirt”. These children are burdened with hopelessly searching, and will…

“never find what they’re looking for because there’s nobody for them, not anybody in the world”.

The picture painted here is bleak but perhaps an honest reflection of our world. Many never find true love. Others believe they have, only to watch as it eventually becomes distorted by the pressures of a strained relationship.

On reflection then, love can be very exclusive and at the same time promote suspicion and ridicule towards those who aren’t or don’t want to be in its embrace.

What is Love?

Carrie Jenkins in her book What Love Is: And What It Could Be, analyses this further. She states that Aristophanes’ myth and other similar understandings of love cement the worldview of amatonormativity.

Amatonormativity says:

“Romantic love is the normal or ideal condition for a human life, so lives that don’t include it are imperfect or abnormal.”

This is, clearly, a damaging way to view love and other people. It presents those who do not pursue the same way of life as being somewhat less human.

In the introduction, I also alluded to the fact that love can become very envious and possessive. This could be potentially exasperated in cultures who push love as the expectation.

Jenkins references groups like the “Incel” (Involuntary celibate) community, who discuss romantic partners as something that they don’t have but deserve. As if, in a fair world, they would be able to have what is wrongfully denied to them now.

When love is reduced to this, it is hard to even call it love in a recognisable way. It’s as if Aristophanes’ vision ended not with people becoming whole, but with people being consumed, used and left empty.

Taking A Critical Approach to Love

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis explores Affection, Friendship, Eros and Charity, encouraging us to think critically about how we love. While there are many excellent examples from the book, I will focus on his section about Affection.

Affection is defined as a Need-love and a Gift-love. It is needed by children and gifted by parents. Parents also need to give it.

Furthermore, affection is easily extended outside the family; it is merely the “warm comfortableness” and “satisfaction” of being together. It relies on familiarity.

In a positive light, affection can bring all sorts of people and animals closer together. Due to the fondness developed with familiarity, affection does not always require much from the other party. We’re inclined to think that our pets cannot consciously pay back our generosity in the same way a person might, but both ourselves and the animal feel a deep comfort in each other’s company.

Affection also helps promote the longevity of the other loves. Lewis suggests that as a friend becomes an “old friend”, the small parts of their character that might have played no role in why you initially became friends, become important in a sentimental and familiar way.

However, perhaps the most endearing quality of affection is its power to unite people who start as opposites. We can likely all recall growing fonder of a person who we initially thought little of — that is the power of affection slowly allowing you to see the world from their perspective, even if you don’t see eye-to-eye.

In a negative light, affection can lead us to become set in our ways and to be wary of the changes others are pursuing. As time goes by, our affection for others can become possessive. We like how they are; they bring comfort to us because we know what to expect.

The problem begins when a friend or family member takes on a new interest which is out of our experience or our understanding.

Lewis is particularly suspicious of how people tend to get jealous when a loved one starts to take an interest in things which might be intellectual or self-improving. The “affection” then aims to discourage these new endeavours out of a fear of being left behind.

The Takeaway

Love will always be an essential factor in the lives of many. It really can be the most important part of our lives. It is nonetheless, important to make sure that when we love that we are not doing so selfishly.

In regards to romantic love, Carrie Jenkins warns not to be so obsessed with its allure that we grow to expect it. She also encourages us to widen our horizons past the view which sets life-long monogamy as an expectation. If people want to live as singles or are in love with more than one person, society can learn to be more accepting.

As for Affection, C.S. Lewis points out that to be genuinely loving, we must be mature enough to notice when someone is growing, changing or pursuing a new path.

Love should not be possessive — those whom we love are not objects to be owned.

Instead, affection should:

“Work towards its own abdication. We must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say ‘They need me no longer’ should be our reward”.