A Philosophical Definition of Love
There are few words quite like “love” in the English language. Most people have an idea of what it means, though few could confidently define it. It transcends context — it can refer to how one views their job, life, partner, friends, family, and so on. And we all seem to consider ourselves as knowing how to love yet many of the things in our lives — jobs, relationships — fall apart despite this perhaps ungrounded confidence. How, then, can we define love in a way that accounts for all of the variations in love while simultaneously accounting for the frequency with which many of us fail at it?
Is Love a Feeling?
One of the common conceptions of love is equating it to a particular feeling, such as joy, affection, or appreciation. It isn’t uncommon for us to say that we “feel loved”, for example, if our partner does something nice for us. Yet it is hard to justify defining love as a feeling because feelings are always fluctuating. If you were to ask two people in a romantic relationship if they loved each other in the middle of an argument, they would both probably still reply “yes”, despite the not-so-nice feelings being experienced at the time. Clearly, feelings are somewhere in the equation but they are certainly not the definition of love.
Love Is Voluntary Responsibility
It may sound off to include “responsibility” in the definition of love, but all versions of love come with responsibility. Love of one’s job is an obvious example of this; it comes with a massive to-do list. Love of another person also comes with responsibility. If you love someone, you must spend time with them, help them through life’s challenges, and tell them the truth (to name a few) — it’s an extensive list.
This responsibility must also be taken on voluntarily. Love cannot be forced. You cannot force someone to love their job nor to love someone else or themselves. It must come from a place of willingness despite that responsibility.
The Nature of Suffering
As if responsibility in and of itself isn’t enough we must remember that suffering is inherent in responsibility. Your job may require you to get up early, stay late, and deal with ungrateful people or assertive bosses. Nothing comes for free in life, and responsibility is perhaps the greatest example of this. Responsibility comes with suffering, and since the responsibility is voluntary, we can say, too, that the suffering is voluntary. So, love is voluntarily taking on responsibility, despite the suffering that accompanies that responsibility.
In Pursuit of Flourishing
The definition is close, but the direction is needed: what are we aiming at? One could take on responsibility and accept the suffering in pursuit of destruction, for example. Would that be considered “love”? I would hope not.
In fact, the direction in which we are aiming is the same very direction in which we all aim in our personal lives: a state of flourishing. Some translate that as “happiness”, but this word doesn’t quite get the whole meaning across due to it being a feeling. Flourishing is best understood as a mode of being that is full of meaning and makes the suffering that is inherent in life irrelevant. This is why you are able to love your job despite that coworker of yours that is hard to deal with. It’s also why you are able to say that you love your partner despite the fact that they never close the cupboard doors.
In other words, you could say that love is wanting the very best for that person or group of people. A hard pill to swallow here is that what you need (i.e. what’s best for you) is not always the same as what you want.
A Definition of Love
Finally, we arrive at a definition of love (at least as well as I can put it).
Love is voluntarily accepting responsibility, despite the suffering that accompanies that responsibility, in pursuit of a state of flourishing.
The Different Versions of Love
With the most abstract definition of love, let’s apply that to different versions of love.
Love of a Job
It’s often said that you must “love your job”, but what does that really mean?
Loving one’s job is voluntarily accepting responsibility for work, despite the suffering that accompanies that work, in pursuit of a state of flourishing for the company and the world.
Meaningful work isn’t simply just doing the things that you want to do but rather doing the things that you need to do in pursuit of a state of flourishing. You may not want to get up early, but you may need to if it’s what’s best.
Love of Another Person
Loving someone is voluntarily accepting responsibility for their well-being, despite the suffering that accompanies that responsibility, in pursuit of a state of flourishing for that person.
Loving someone means genuinely wanting the best for them. What’s best for them may not be what they want. For example, your child may want a tattoo at 12 years old, but what they need is for you to tell them that this is quite permanent and that they should wait until they are older to make such a decision.
It’s crucial to love yourself. Again, love. It’s not entirely relevant to whether or not you like yourself. Why would liking yourself be important? Who you are genetically is entirely out of your control. You were born into a personality, physical body, and other genetic components that you cannot change even if you wanted to. What’s most important is whether or not you love yourself.
Loving yourself is voluntarily accepting responsibility for your own well-being, despite the suffering that accompanies that responsibility, in pursuit of a state of personal flourishing.
This is, I think, the most difficult. There’s a detachment that’s required in loving yourself. You must be willing and able to look at yourself objectively and then discipline yourself to do the things that you need in pursuit of flourishing. That’s not easy to do. It may require you to force yourself off of the couch and into the gym or to eat your vegetables. Perhaps it’s putting your phone down an hour before bed and reading. Or maybe it’s forcing yourself to go find some friends.
There’s no question that love is a tricky idea to understand, and it’s no secret that we have to learn how to do it properly. However, the good news is that it’s like anything else in life — we can get better at it over time with lots of practice. And if you’re heading in the right direction, the amount of love in your life should only increase as the years pass by.
Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more, listen to similar reflections on The Strong Stoic Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.