what is love?

What is Love?

What is love? Poems have been written about it, songs have been sung about it, and philosophers have philosophised about it. Yet through all of history, there has been no single, universally accepted definition for love.

One reason for this is that love can appear different to different people; for some, it is the greatest joy in the world, for others it is the most painful emotion ever to be experienced. It can be gentle and soft, or it can be powerful and fierce. It can be dreamlike and insubstantial, or it can be an almost tactile substance. Is love merely a physical desire, or is it a true connection of the spirit?

Let us start our quest for knowledge with the succinct dictionary definition of love:

Love: noun

1. a tender or passionate affection for a person.

2. a feeling of deep affection, as for a parent, child, or friend.

3. sexual passion or desire.

4. the benevolent affection of God for His creations.

5. strong liking or enthusiasm for something: his love of movies.

There. Question answered.

Or is it? Do you feel that those crisp academic definitions of love completely encapsulate what love really is? Are those few words sufficient to describe such a deep experience as love? Is love even a subject that CAN be defined in scientific terms? Could love be beyond the scope of a technical and purely objective definition?

Love seems to be something that can come unbidden, yet it may also be actively sought. It can happen early in life, later in life, or never at all. A person may find themselves suddenly feeling the most exquisite passion for a person whom they never before desired. It does not need to be logical, and indeed, love is sometimes at its most potent when it appears to make no sense at all.

People may find themselves enchanted by a person with whom they have no connection, nothing in common, no obvious reason to be infatuated, and yet their love burns strongly.

Conversely, a friendship of many years may slowly grow from comfortable companionship, to an unassailable romantic love for one another. Where once they merely enjoyed an occasional movie together, now they could not imagine being apart.

Maybe defining love should be the exclusive providence of poets, whose words are of love more than any other subject? The famed writer Sir Walter Raleigh composed a beautiful poem on just this topic:

Now what is Love

Now what is Love, I pray thee, tell?

It is that fountain and that well

Where pleasure and repentance dwell;

It is, perhaps, the sauncing bell

That tolls all into heaven or hell;

And this is Love, as I hear tell.

Yet what is Love, I prithee, say?

It is a work on holiday,

It is December matched with May,

When lusty bloods in fresh array

Hear ten months after of the play;

And this is Love, as I hear say.

Yet what is Love, good shepherd, sain?

It is a sunshine mixed with rain,

It is a toothache or like pain,

It is a game where none hath gain;

The lass saith no, yet would full fain;

And this is Love, as I hear sain.

Yet, shepherd, what is Love, I pray?

It is a yes, it is a nay,

A pretty kind of sporting fray,

It is a thing will soon away.

Then, nymphs, take vantage while ye may;

And this is Love, as I hear say.

Yet what is Love, good shepherd, show?

A thing that creeps, it cannot go,

A prize that passeth to and fro,

A thing for one, a thing for moe,

And he that proves shall find it so;

And shepherd, this is Love, I trow.

– Sir Walter Raleigh

Like many poets, Raleigh is content to answer the question in an artistic, though enigmatic way. He does not seek to answer it matter-of-factly; his desire is for the reader to experience and understand the sensations of love, rather than just receive a cerebral definition. He writes “it is a yes, it is a nay”, and truly, such are the complexities of love!

Could love be a purely physical or evolutionary state however? When a person is experiencing strong feelings of love, they can actually have measurable physiological reactions to the condition. The human body, and the human brain in particular, is a curious thing.

When a person “falls in love”, they can have noticeably higher levels of the chemicals phenethylamine, dopamine, and oxytocin in their system.  The combination of these naturally occurring neurotransmitters can have the effect of a stimulant upon the person in love, similar to drinking too much coffee or caffeine. The heart rate can increase, palms can become sweaty, and they can experience feelings of mild anxiety, light headedness, excitement, or even euphoria. Do those symptoms sound at all familiar?

However, even considering the physical effect of one person’s desire for another, most scientists still agree that “love” is more than just a chemical reaction. There are clearly emotional and intellectual reasons for love that play a more important role than mere biology.

It is well known that music can inspire strong emotions, and can even stimulate the intellect. Perhaps music holds the key? The singer Haddaway’s classic song “What is Love” proclaims:

“What is love?

Baby don’t hurt me

Don’t hurt me, no more

What is love?”

Although he did also sing:

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, uh, uh

whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, uh, uh”

 . . . so maybe we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from his lyrics.

Perhaps in philosophy we will find an accurate definition regarding the mystery of love?

The French philosopher François-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778), better known by his pen name “Voltaire” said that, “Love is a canvas furnished by Nature and embroidered by imagination.”. A beautiful sentiment, though clearly intended to be metaphorical, rather than literal.

The Roman writer Publius Ovidius Naso or Ovid (43 BC – AD 17) said that, “Love is a driver, bitter and fierce if you fight and resist him, Easy-going enough once you acknowledge his power.”, which is undoubtedly sound advice.

Let us look even further back in our search for enlightenment. The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) maintained that, “Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.”. Perhaps he too was being metaphorical, or perhaps his statement is the literal truth about love, it’s secret hidden in plain view?

A more modern philosopher named Matt Groening wrote: “Love is like racing across the frozen tundra on a snowmobile which flips over, trapping you underneath. At night, the ice-weasels come.” 

A slightly gory, but not altogether uncommon perception of love alas. 

So what is love?

Is it: Love, N. a tender or passionate affection for a person?

Perhaps love is as Sir Walter Raleigh writes, “It is a yes, it is a nay, A pretty kind of sporting fray”?

It is simply a chemical imbalance? A condition that any good doctor would be able to cure with medication?

Is it as philosophers have remarked in ages past: “Love is a driver, bitter and fierce”?

Perhaps it is something altogether different? Perhaps Cupid really is sitting upon a cloud, mischievously aiming arrows of love at whoever he feels is in need of it? Maybe all the reasoning and considerations of love are just a vain attempt by humanity to try and understand something that is essentially unknowable? Perhaps love is fated?  It may be that we have no more say in the workings of love than we do of the stars in the sky.

The thing about love however, is that finding a definition that everyone agrees on isn’t really important at all. Love is many different things, to many different people. There is no need to put love into a box, to classify it, and then to say, “That there is love. That alone, and nothing else”.

The truth about love is this:

Whatever love is for you, is what love is.

It doesn’t matter if my love is different that your love. It doesn’t matter if one person’s love is a chemical imbalance, and another person’s love is a gift from God. It doesn’t matter if my love is quiet and gentle, and your love is hot and passionate. It doesn’t matter if a person has loved once, twice, or a hundred thousand times.

Whatever love is for you, is what love is.