modern love

Romantic love: why we bother

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In this lovely TEDEd animation, contemporary philosopher Skye Cleary poses the age-old—and perhaps unanswerable—question of why do we choose to put ourselves through love’s emotional ringer? Cleary summarizes five philosophers’ diverse perspectives on what fuels the impetus to love.

Plato held that we yearn for love to make our selves whole. His Symposium contains a speech in which Aristophanes presents a myth of soul mates that still resonates today, nearly 2500 years later (think Jerry Maguire’s “you complete me”…) In Aristophanes’ story, human beings were originally made up of two fused bodies. When they attempted to stage a coup on Mount Olympus, Zeus retaliated by chopping our predecessors in half, leaving us destined to wander the earth in search of our other halves. And—anticipating the Adam and Eve story—even the lucky few who succeed in finding their missing half don’t enjoy a perfect fusion, as only a god could restore wholeness.

In a far cry from the concept of soul mates, in the early 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that romantic love is based solely on sexual desire:

[Sex] is the invisible central point of all action and conduct, and peeps up everywhere, in spite of all the veils thrown over it.

While we may believe that we are searching for a soulmate, Schopenhauer maintained that the illusion of love is merely a trick played by Mother Nature to propagate the species. Attraction, then, is propelled by the traits we subconsciously hold to be desirable for the parents of our children, an idea espoused by evolutionary psychology. But Schopenhauer believed that we can’t actually find the love we seek in our partners and, as such, sexual desire leads to perpetual suffering.

The Buddha, too, taught that love can be a misguided attempt to alleviate suffering. It is not desire in itself that is bad, but our attachment to it, and our unwillingness to accept that everything, including a relationship, is subject to impermanence. If, however, we can loosen our grip on romantic love, it can be used as a means of awakening. In his little gem of a book How to LoveBuddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

True love is made of four elements: loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity…If your love contains these elements, it will be healing and transforming, and it will have the element of holiness in it.

Perhaps the most romantic viewpoint of the philosophers selected by Cleary belongs to British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Russell posited that love is an escape from our loneliness, enriching our lives by quenching our physical and psychological desires. Love helps us overcome our fear of the world and break out of our solitary shells. With echoes of Plato’s Symposium, Russell wrote that:

Passionate mutual love while it lasts…breaks down the hard walls of the ego, producing a new being composed of two in one.

Despite advocating free love, Russell believed sex in the absence of love to be unsatisfying. (Food for thought in today’s warp-speed free-for-all perpetuated by dating apps.)

The French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir—who had an open relationship with fellow philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre—believed that love lets us reach beyond ourselves. However, she worried that the notion that a partner completes us leads to over-dependence. Authentic love, as she called it, is more like a great friendship, in which two lovers are independent but supportive of one other, ideally towards a shared goal of bettering the world.

Among these rather disparate views of love, a common thread does emerge. We have a tendency to put too much pressure on romantic love as a be-all-end-all means to fulfillment. As philosopher Simon May points out in ‘Love: A History’:

Human love, now even more than then, is widely tasked with achieving what once only divine love was thought capable of: to be our ultimate source of meaning and happiness, and of power over suffering and disappointment.

A tall order indeed. We would be well-served to not only strive to love better—by placing more emphasis on ‘standing’ in love versus ‘falling’ in love—but love wider as well. In the same way Eskimos are said to have 50 different words for snow, perhaps we ought to broaden our vocabulary of love.

The ancient Greeks had different words for different types of love, with Eros not considered to be the most satisfying variety. In the Greek ideal, the strongest bonds came from philia, deep friendship. Fulfillment could also be found in storge (familial love); ludus (playful love); agape (selfless love, or compassion); pragma (the understanding developed in a long-term relationship); and philautia (a non-Narcissistic love for the self).

Romantic love holds a strong grip on our psyches, as its message of salvation digs furrows into our collective conscience through repetition in popular culture. But the connection we crave can also be found elsewhere. As philosopher A.C. Grayling puts it:

People attempt love as climbers attempt Everest; they scramble along, and end by camping in the foothills, or half way up, wherever their compromises leave them.
Some get high enough to see the view, which we know is magnificent, for we have all glimpsed it in dreams…Life would be bitter if the dream never became reality, or if the main experiences of love in our lives—storge, pragma, ludus, agape—were not enduring and stabilizing enough to save us when the storms of eros and mania sweep by, leaving bliss and havoc in their wake.

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