Looking over the “top songs” in iTunes, I couldn’t help but notice how, even in our sex-obsessed age, love continues to be a fixation of popular music. Even movies and TV pay extensive homage to romantic love, though in terms often indistinguishable from lust (least appetizing example: those fuzzy-lens Viagra commercials in which the wizened couple end up in a bathtub).
I don’t know if love still conquers all, but at least it commands serious investment by the entertainment industry. We are believers (as the song proclaims), despite our pretense of cynicism. We want love. We need love. But we probably don’t much think about it.
What is love, and does it have anything to do with morality?
Like many abstractions we take for granted (“conscience” is a personal favorite), romantic love is an invention of the Christian West. The classical world understood human relations quite differently. Marriage, in the Greek world, was about reproduction, status, and — at best — companionship.
Love was assumed to be separate from marriage, and it was a debatable point whether it could ever happen between men and women. In a famous dialogue of Plutarch’s, a speaker rejects the possibility for the most curious of reasons: between men and women, he argues, love can only be carnal, while two men in love share friendship and other supposedly higher feelings.
To ancient Greece and Rome, love was power, an external force: literally a god, who could drive lovers mad or endow them with tremendous loyalty and courage.
Our conception of love was invented by St. Paul. His first letter to the Corinthians is the greatest love song ever written: “I may have the gift of prophecy, and know every hidden truth . . . but if I have no love, I am nothing. . . There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, its endurance. Love will never come to an end.”
Love, for St. Paul, was an internal state, the highest of the “gifts of the spirit” — the interface between an individual’s subjective limitations and the transcendental kingdom over which Christ was lord. It was wholly desexualized, but all the more life-altering for that reason.
This cosmic ideal was returned to the world by the troubadours of medieval France, who began the tradition of the “romance” or love song. Love remained internal, pure, and a transcendental force, but it attached to a perfect, unattainable person rather than to the Christian brotherhood. Dante’s Beatrice, whom the poet barely knew but to whom he dedicated his life, is the best-known example.
It’s tempting to say that today love has become confused with more basic hormonal urges — but that has always been the case. Consider Romeo and Juliet: two teenagers, who again hardly know each other, doing what they want to do despite their parents’ wishes. It’s no love story. The madness ascribed to love is really the glory of lust. As such, it frequently concerns the moralist, but need not be dealt with further here.
Still, love remains. How can this ideal be imposed on an age of near-infinite access to information and communications, in which every ideal appears negated by contrary evidence or exploited for marketing purposes?
That brings us back to our first question: what is love? Sexual attraction brings men and women — and on occasion, Plutarch would insist, men and men — together. But satisfaction of desire isn’t love. Otherwise, we would fall in love with medium-rare steak and candy bars. On this, all witnesses, ancient and modern, agree.
It happens that human beings are symbolic animals. Many of our most powerful needs are virtual, detached from the flesh. St. Paul’s vision of love spoke to these virtual needs, something beyond the reach of Greek and Roman genius. Many of us find life unbearable without the existence of God, for example. All of us wish to believe, to place our faith in, something larger than ourselves. That is the basis of all morality.
Sexual attraction brings men and women together. Madness ensues, but in many cases that madness includes a loss of self, a subsuming of individual craving on behalf of the beloved, which endures after the early spring of lust has passed. The lover gives way to his love, and both find, in long years shared and future plans dreamed, something much greater than each.
In the ideal, realized more often than cynics think, marriage follows love, and children follow marriage. The family, rather than the individual, is the basic unit of morality, because it is for the family that we most naturally shed our selfishness and most gladly sacrifice our individual desires.
It’s true that the habits of our times are hard on ideals. Lust sells much better than love, or at least is more attention-grabbing. The Internet is filled with pornography, TV has its sex in the city and sexually desperate housewives. In the real world, husbands and wives spend much time away from each other, hard at work on careers that may drive their life-paths apart. But none of this bears on our subject.
Ideal love exists in poetry and song. Real love is a human relation, not an ideal. Because the relation entails a degree of self-surrender, it has never been easy to maintain. For the same reason, it has thrived, from St. Paul’s time to our own. The word “love” in a sense is a falsehood, because in reality no two “loves” are alike. Self-surrender, like self-rule, can be achieved in many ways, and every couple seeks its own. The finding lasts — if not eternally, as St. Paul believed, at least the measure of two lifetimes.
We should not go looking for love, even in the right places. That would be like trying to buy an airline ticket to Plato’s universe of perfect forms. One can’t hunt for an ideal. One can only be open to the development of human relations, and seize the moment when the right one appears.
Every step of the way will be awkward and painful. Emotional nakedness is far more terrifying and fraught with misery than the physical kind. The wish to crawl back into the shell, to pursue only personal satisfaction, will always tempt the fearful and the broken-hearted.
But if the chance isn’t taken, one lives and dies alone.