Love

This article is part of a series on the Philosophy of Emotion. See also:
1. Guilt; 2. Love; 3. Emotion

There seem to be two primary, perhaps opposing, forces which create attraction. Excitement: the fluttering glory of someone dazzling, elitely perfect, and, most of all, utterly inaccessible. Companionship: the warmth and recognition of deep, mutually shared understanding and sympathy. Which of these is a stronger force? Which is more meaningful? Can one get in the way of the other? Most importantly: how can an understanding of these forces lead us to love?

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Excitement is the feeling felt towards an impossible perfection. It’s the substance of brilliant daydreams and the cause of bursting dejection. It’s felt by the boy enchanted by the beautiful girl in class who he’s never once talked to; it’s felt by the girl who pines for a prince or an athlete or a magnate. Excitement is felt by the young main character of Ivan Turgenev’s First Love when he, wandering through the garden of his family’s rural summer home, catches a glimpse of the neighbor’s older daughter: “I blushed terribly, snatched up my gun, and pursued by resonant but not unkind laughter, fled to my room, threw myself on my bed and covered my face with my hands. My heart leaped within me. I felt very ashamed and unusually gay. I was extraordinarily excited.” (1)

Companionship is built over long shared hours and meaningful conversation, shared interest and shared values. Companionship is the feeling that, in another’s presence, the world is shining, meaningful, and without wrong. Companionship is felt by two young lovers of the Decameron: when the couple is caught naked in the morning by the girl’s parents, the girl’s wise father, though initially outraged, senses a solution; he requests a commitment to marriage. The boy joyously, and nakedly, agrees on the spot.

Excitement, we may imagine, is the “baser” of these two motives. It leads one to shower the uninterested with unrequited adoration, to chase dead ends and fight rejection, to value, ultimately, the pursuit of “glory” over the pursuit of happiness. Excitement leads us to love those who don’t love us back. Companionship, meanwhile, is the only foundation upon which a healthy, long-term relationship can rest.

A theory emerges. Excitement is necessary to enter a relationship, while companionship is necessary to sustain it. Excitement encourages the first nervous conversation, the thrilling feeling that something worthy is beginning. Companionship may become crucial only later. Novelty fades, things become regular, and only a deep, unbreakable, eternal connection remains. It must be a strong one.

But is this how it should be?

This is a terrible state of affairs! Excitement is a frivolous prerequisite; companionship alone sustains a healthy relationship. How often has an absence of the former prevented the presence of the latter? How often have we turned someone down because we deemed them less-than-glorious? How often have we been turned down because we were less than glorious? If companionship alone were sought – after all, companionship alone matters – the world would be a much happier place.

Why do we continue to value excitement?

Biological Vestiges

Humans are animals. It’s conceivable that, burdened by artifacts of natural selection, we’re prone to making consistently “irrational” decisions. Social prowess was once, much more than it is now, necessary for success and survival. Tendencies towards the pursuit of social standing could be vestiges of a time when fitness – and not fulfillment – was our primary concern. It should be no surprise that we act in ways contrary to the pursuit of a modern notion of fulfillment.

This theory consigns excitement to historical obsolescence. Must we consciously neglect excitement, dismissing it as an archaic distraction? Or does it have a value in our modern world?

Self-Evaluation and Approval

It’s possible that excitement plays a more meaningful role. Happy relationships’ members must value where they are. They must evaluate their relationship, examining not only its intrinsic worth, but also its position within their larger worlds of values, ambitions, and life goals, and conclude, finally, that “I wouldn’t choose anyone else.” This feeling is underscored by an element of excitement. It’s also important.

Have we established excitement as valuable after all? To complete the puzzle, this evaluation must rely on a sound value system. A schoolboy, evaluating his school’s social dynamic, might abandon his emotional and intellectual soulmate for a more popular girl. This is obviously incorrect. Healthy adult relationships, however, could lack excitement because a party has weak social support or misaligned interests. Such challenges might have merit, and should perhaps be evaluated empirically.

In any case, we’ve found a role for excitement, as an indicator of a well contextualized relationship. Provided that this evaluation system is sound, moreover, its conclusions are likely to be helpful. Perhaps we should wait for – and listen to – that excitement after all.

Irreducibility

Love is a complex, subtle emotional phenomenon. It evolves, from early stages to later stages, shifting its characteristics, needs, and demands. To attempt to break it down – to analyze its ins and outs, ups and downs, strengths and faults – is to attempt to reduce an emotional phenomenon to an intellectual one, and to misunderstand it altogether.

This doesn’t mean emotional autopilot necessarily is intellectually satisfying. To question love’s intellectual value, however, might be to drive the boat off course before it’s left the harbor. This excitement is perhaps not a useless hurdle, but a valuable signal, conveying to the emotional mind that a relationship is right. Perhaps it’s a sign that companionship will follow.

In the end, it seems dreadfully convincing that this dichotomy doesn’t exist. These two intellectual ideas, excitement and companionship, have been extracted from a colorful, complex emotional web; there are likely many more intellectual placeholders which I haven’t even mentioned at all. The answer to our big question might be that an intellectual understanding of these ideas doesn’t lead us to love. Love is too complex to analyze. It must be fallen into.

“I think I have not yet related what happened as we rode home from the ball, nor have I time to tell you now. It was a most magnificent sunrise: the whole country was refreshed, and the rain fell drop by drop from the trees in the forest. Our companions were asleep. Charlotte asked me if I did not wish to sleep also, and begged of me not to make any ceremony on her account. Looking steadfastly at her, I answered, “As long as I see those eyes open, there is no fear of my falling asleep.” We both continued awake till we reached her door… I left her asking permission to visit her in the course of the day. She consented, and I went, and, since that time, sun, moon, and stars may pursue their course: I know not whether it is day or night; the whole world is nothing to me.”

– J. W. von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther (2)

In what divine ideal, what lofty sphere
Is found the pattern from which Nature made
That face so fair wherein she might parade
Proof of her heavenly power to mortals here?
Were ringlets ever loosed of gold more sheer
To wayward breeze by nymph in pool or glade?
Was every virtue in one soul displayed
Ere now?—and how the noblest cost me dear!
Who knows her not can never realize
How beauty may the heart of man beguile
And who looks not upon my Laura’s eyes
Knows not how love can kill and otherwhile
May heal us; let him hear how soft she sighs
And gently speaks, oh, let him see her smile!

– Petrarch: Sonnet CLIX, Canzoniere (3)

  1. Ivan Turgenev’s First Love. I recommend the Isaiah Berlin translation, though was unable to find it online.
  2. The Sorrows of Young Werther, full text.
  3. Petrarch’s Canzionere. I recommend the Thomas Bergin edition.
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6 comments on “Love

  1. Josh says:

    I think that my article Sunrise at Montmajour has a lot of relevance to this one. Why do we value excitement in love, as opposed to mere companionship? This question is very similar to the one I ask: why do we value rarity and fame in art, as opposed to mere aesthetic and intellectual beauty?

    The answer comes down to practicality. In a perfect world, beauty would be art’s sole criterion for value. Sunrise would be priceless, were it created by Van Gogh or by his lowly apprentice. The problem, though, is that we don’t have the time to sift through the work of every lowly apprentice, simply because there are too many of them. Thus, we place immediate value on the rare and famous. Even before we see them, we know these works are good.

    The same is true for love. For all we know, every not-so-stunning classmate or coworker might be that perfect companion. Practical limitations, though, prevent us from becoming close enough friends with each of these acquaintances to determine the extent of that companionship in the first place. Thus we need excitement to drive us towards achieving that initial closeness. Our brain’s logic goes: if we’re excited about this girl (guy), she (he) must be the one! Disclaimer: even Van Gogh painted lackluster works.

    • Ben says:

      Haha! Great insight. But aren’t you, at the end of the day, falling prey to the same mistake I identified: rejecting emotional response in favor of an attempt at logical outmaneuvering?

      • Josh says:

        I’m attempting to explain our tendency to obey emotion, not necessary claiming that we should reject that tendency–or that such a rejection is even possible.

  2. Richard says:

    I do not believe, as you conclude, Ben, that ‘love is too complex to analyse’, we can at least analyse it up to a certain point. As early Plato’s Symposium we have analysed love in a philosophical way that manages to hit on something correct. And, as early as Schopenhauer’s 1851 essay The Metaphysics of Love, prior to Darwin’s and Freud’s publishing, philosophers have had ambitions about understanding love in a scientific way too.

    Excitement and Companionship? The dichotomy is supposed to be exhaustive? Maybe it is, though, as you rightly conclude it isn’t exclusive. Though there is a distinction, true. I think that it should be possible for there to be relationships to arise in which there is love and companionship, but never really excitement. Or, at least, never really anything which the lovers would consider exciting – the mere stimulation of momentary coital ‘excitement’ aside.

    I think a better word than ‘excitement’ might have been ‘passion’, used in a broad sense. It seems fairly clear that there could be love and companionship without passion, even as a temporary prerequisite. Simple familiarity and custom could turn into a sort of quiet mutual affection which deserves the title ‘love’, even if it is not accompanied by the passion of a more idealised relationship.

    Also worth mentioning is that companionship is a seat of love far beyond love’s romantic form, so excitement need not apply to some forms of love at all.

    Another reason to think the excitement-companionship distinction isn’t exhaustive is because you are implicitly using ‘love’ only its romantic sense. The Greeks would have had less confusion about this. They had at least four words for which we anglophones use ‘love’. ‘Eros’, the erotic attraction which ties in with your idea of excitement. ‘Philia’, which can exist between lovers but also between mere friends as when there is a sense of loyalty. It can also be love for an enjoyable pursuit, like playing chess. ‘Storge’ (‘Store-jee’) is natural affection, as for one’s child, or any child, or perhaps a helpless animal. And finally (most interestingly too, in my opinion), there is ‘agape’ (‘ah-gap-eh’), which signifies and abstract, impersonal love, e.g. one’s love for humanity or God.
    _________________________________________________________

    Josh, your explanation here, in your comments, doesn’t really do enough explaining, I think. Citing a need to mark out certain paintings/love interests as special (valuable/exciting) in order merely to save time, because we can’t enjoy them all equally, doesn’t explain why we focus on certain features rather than others. It would save just as much time if we preferred people with any rare quality x as it would if we preferred people – of equal rarity – with the qualities we in fact do value (e.g. physical attractiveness, social status etc.)

    Suppose the available community of prospective lovers for some person, Smith, say, had only two people in it, Jones-A and Jones-B . Trouble is, for a variety of hypothetical reasons, Smith thinks for a while that Jones-A and Jones-B are the same person (appearances, manner and lifestyle are too similar for him to discriminate, etc.) For a few weeks Smith carries on a romantic relationship with both Jones-A and Jones-B. Eventually, Smith concludes he is falling for Jones-A/Jones-B and wants to make the relationship more serious.

    Alas however, brute astronomical luck runs out. It is revealed to Smith that there are two Joneses. After the initial bafflement and confusion, the Joneses put to him the ultimatum: “Choose only one of us, or loose us both!”

    Question: Do we think, despite the confusion etc., Smith would still want to be with at least one of the Joneses as he did before?

    I think the answer to this question is ‘yes’. Though he may be at a loss as to how to decide, Smith still wants to continue his relationship with the person he thought was just one person, and so to at least one of the Joneses.

    This (admittedly rather laboured) thought experiment is meant to make the simple point that, even without distinguishing characteristics necessary to elevate some of the prospective lovers above others, there could still be a drive or desire to have a relationship anyway. Saying that the sheer quantity of available options is what prompts the emphasis of certain characteristics overlooks the fact that people can be attractive as romantic companions sometimes merely in virtue of being other human beings. Certainly, options provide a lot of distraction and so we must find a standard for choice, but the presence of options among prospective partners is not necessary for us to recognize characteristics desirable enough to prompt pairing. This is what the thought experiment is meant to show. It’s an unsurprising residue of our evolutionary development that we should be prepared to pair even if pickings are slim, so to speak. Otherwise nature wouldn’t have selected for much in the way of reproductive fitness.

    The Robinson Crusoe-esque figure who awakens in an empty land, from a fog of absent memories, might find the very first woman he met an exciting prospect for a companion, though there aren’t any other women around from whom this excitement is derived contrastively. (Indeed, if some of the literature of situational sexuality (particularly in prisons) is to be believed, this might also happen if Crusoe met a man. See this.)

    So, although many many features which contribute to excitement are only emphasised due to the persuasive effects of socalisation, there is still a possibility that any given individual, independently of having options, and as a result of mere biological inheritance, may be excited by certain intrinsic features in a prospective mate. Which features these in fact are is an empirical question.

    Another way to put my point is by comparing it with that awfully cliched question about the tree falling in the forest and nobody being around to hear it. I’m trying to motivate as being somewhat similar the question: If a saintly mannered, supermodel-bodied genius were alone on an island, and nobody else around to appreciate her, would she still be attractive? (Exclude self- appreciation).

    My point, then, is twofold: (1) it is so hard to separate individual group-neutral characteristics marking out reproductive fitness (‘excitement’) from those derived from group life/behaviour that it may be that, yes, the woman on the island is attractive in some biologically objective sense. But also, (2) even if (1) is answered negatively or not answerable without specifying group-induced standards, then it may be that there is a bare minimum of physical eligibility/desirability for human pairing that any human has just by being human and in virtue of which they can be considered ‘attractive’ in the Robinson-Crusoe sense.

    • Josh says:

      I might have understood Ben’s terms differently than you. The way I interpreted the essay, “companionship” might be better phrased as “personal compatibility”. Excitement, on the other hand, might be better phrased as “societal compatibility”.

      I completely agree that societal compatibility is largely a social construct. Certain mates seem prestigious to certain suitors, because society deems them so. A doctor –> lawyer power couple would seem socially right, whereas a doctor–> gardener couple might raise eyebrows. Conventional physical attractiveness also contributes largely to a potential mate’s societal compatibility.

      On the desert island, the societal compatibility requirement disappears, because there is no society. Perhaps more accurately, the societal requirement is easily satisfied. All potential mates–all one of them–are societally-compatible enough to merit pursuit. Societal compatibility is a heuristic used to parse an otherwise-vast pool of potential mates. When the pool is no longer vast, the heuristic is no longer necessary.

      Note that, in choosing mates that are societally-compatible, we’re not simply choosing quality x to save time. We’re selecting for factors like beauty, intelligence, and health. We’re quite literally seeking mates that, given their social status, have been already deemed by others to be worthy, so we don’t have to find out ourselves whether or not they’re worthy.

      Of course, just because the societal requirement will be met does not mean that the personal requirement will be met. Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe could quite easily end up just not getting along. And I argue that personal compatibility is much less motivated by contingent trivialities than is societal compatibility.

      I do believe, though, that personal compatibility plays a role in establishing societal compatibility. Put simply, one who shares your personality is likely to wind up achieving a similar social status to you.

      In regards to physical desirability: I would actually argue that desirability, or Eros, stems much more from personal compatibility than it does from societal compatibility. Societal compatibility, then, is used to narrow our pool of search, thus making it more likely we’ll come across a mate who is personally compatible. But social compatibility is by no means necessary for personal compatibility. That coworker we never noticed might, several years down the road, reveal herself to be entirely personally-compatible, and therefore a worthy mate.

  3. Richard says:

    Well, if by ‘excitement’ all that is meant is social (I despise the word ‘societal’) compatibility, then I don’t see that my points apply exactly as I’ve stated them, unless social compatibility implies the reading of ‘excitement’ I gave.

    It’s strange how you interpret ‘Eros’, unless you include personality traits as directly constitutive of physical attractiveness – but that seems like a conceptual falsehood. One’s personality, presumably, exists as a separate category of thing to one’s physical form. It’s true that the two are connected though, as when the vain person works to make himself more attractive or when the conventionally ‘ugly’ person develops a more diffident personality. But they are nonetheless distinct, and the entirety of the fashion industry probably relies on people judging attractiveness independently of knowing personality traits. I take this to be empirical.

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