You can find love all around you. It is likely the muse of your favorite song and the highlight of the greatest movies. There are so many ideas of what love is and why it drives some of us to the brink of insanity. We might find peace in being with the one we love or spend our afternoons daydreaming about what love must feel like. Is there a way to accurately and successfully navigate a subject so many of us hold dear to our hearts?
The Basics of the Philosophy of Love: Plato’s The Symposium
“Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature. Each of us, then, is a ‘matching half’ of a human whole… and each of us is always seeking the half that matches him.”
To start, we need to go all the way back to the Greek mythological origin of love. In Plato’s dialogue, The Symposium, scholars, and playwrights gathered together for a banquet in celebration of Eros – the god of love. After a few glasses of wine, the attendees of this banquet decided to give speeches in his honor. These speeches were from the heart as much as they were a comedic relief. Imagine men gathered together in tunics, wine glasses raised, discussing life’s secrets. In the midst of this, Aristophanes shared what he believed to be the true origin of love.
It is said that there were originally three types of humans. The male, who originated from the sun. The woman, who originated from the earth. And an androgynous figure comprised of both male and female parts, that originated from the moon. These “humans” were originally in the shape of a sphere – four arms, four legs, two faces, and two sets of genitalia. They were a powerful bunch and one day decided to climb Mount Olympus to challenge the Gods. Zeus caught wind of this and put them to a halt by severing their bodies in half – thus, making them the “humans” we are today.
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Doing this created a longing for our “other half”. It is the explanation as to why we desire to find the person who makes us feel whole. It explains both homosexual and heterosexual relationships. The original four-legged men are on a constant search for their missing male counterparts. And this ideology applied to the women and androgynous four-legged creatures as well. This is more of a whimsical approach to love, but the underlying message of the story still resonates with quite a few of us. We are all just searching for our missing half in life, the part of us that was severed many years ago.
A Taoist Perspective on Love
Now let us look at love from a completely different perspective. If you strip away the sense of belonging and possessiveness from love, what are you left with? This means no longer perceiving love as finding the missing half of your soul (as if you are incomplete) like it was taught by Greek mythology.
According to Taoist philosophies, to say “I love you” to someone with the intention of owning that individual is going against the flow of life. Today in our society, we often feel as if love and possession go hand in hand. And with this, two people loving each other becomes a very controlled dance, rather than a free-flowing lyrical number. The notion of wanting full control over someone is actually going against the spiritual essence of love entirely. It also raises the issue of attachment. When we become overly attached to someone, it poses the threat of losing a part of ourselves – which, in turn, causes immense pain if the relationship ends.
This is where the art of detachment comes into play. Taoism is not implying that you are wrong to experience love, instead, it is encouraging you to detach yourself from any particular outcome regarding love. It means to love someone unconditionally in this very moment, without placing expectations on the potential future of the relationship. In Taoism, love helps to create what they refer to as “the Tao” or “the way”. This implies that love surrounds us, and it is larger than telling someone that “they are yours forever”. Love and control are not synonymous. Love is the act of free-falling into the unknown without having control.
Think of it like this – We are here together now, and I love you, but you do not belong to me. We may grow together, learn together, and offer each other a shoulder to cry on today – but, if you decide to leave tomorrow, I will not stop you.
This perspective on love is both refreshing and maddening. We as human beings are flawed and cannot always handle emotional matters in a perfect fashion. With that being said, if you love someone and they decide to leave you unannounced – you have every right to feel sadness and grief. To feel all of the emotions life has to offer is the very reason why we are here in the first place. Ironically, Taoism encourages this as well. The pain that follows heartache is nothing you should suppress. Embrace it, feel it, and continue on.
Does Love Mirror Possession?
“Tied to one another by the bonds of the earth, by intelligence, heart and flesh, nothing, I know, can surprise or separate us.”
Albert Camus to Maria Casarès
Of course, there are different aspects of love. You “love” food, and the taste of home-cooked meals warms your heart. You “love” your family, and seeing them during the holidays fills you with a sense of peace (most of the time). These feelings of love are based on personal interest and fulfillment, as well as the importance of family. You never really second guess why you love these things because it simply makes sense to our human nature.
The love which I am addressing in this article refers to the intense connection that borderlines obsession with another human being. Something that is beyond our control. It can be an instant connection or a gradual build-up of emotions. Either way, it is a feeling of absolute vulnerability mixed with a willingness to do anything that would make the other happy. So what do well-respected philosophers have to say about this matter?
Most philosophers – such as Sartre and Nietzsche – agree with the Taoist perspective of love. Sartre specifically states that often love can thrive off of the illusion of possession. When you have two people desperate to control the other while taking away the factor of free will, issues are bound to arise. He says that this drives lovers into vicious circles of sadomasochistic power games. The couple is no longer being fueled by the love they previously shared, but instead, they are being consumed by the egotistical need to possess the other.
On the other hand, Nietzsche claimed that love is “the most angelic instinct” and “the greatest stimulus of life” – but that it becomes destroyed by ego once it manifests into the greedy desire for control. He even went as far as to describe love as having a pet bird. You love your pet bird, but you keep it locked away in a cage because you fear that it will fly away. Nietzsche believed that although love is a magnificent thing, it is ridiculous to think that you can possess someone forever. But, if you simply appreciate the love while it runs its course, then you are able to experience the positive side of relationships instead of eventually being consumed by control.
Love Versus Marriage
It appears as if the recurring philosophical theme here is to love without restraints. If you fall in love but there comes a time that the two of you are no longer happy or fulfilled, you should let each other go. But, society has made this a very complex task because of the pursuit of marriage and the legal agreement to long-term commitment.
Because we have put the idea of love in this controlled box, it has caused a bit of a domino effect. Unhappy marriages with children can often lead to divorce. And thanks to Hollywood, pop culture, and fairy tales – impressionable children are likely taught that they are supposed to love and marry one person forever. Then they see their parents going their separate ways, which could cause childhood trauma to resurface later in life. If you have been a child of divorce, you understand what I mean. You begin to question if love is even real and it instills a fear of “ending up like your parents”. Inevitably this creates an entire generation of young adults who subconsciously view love as a legally binding agreement. And that pressure of “who am I going to spend the rest of my life with” weighs heavy on your shoulders. Imagine if we were never conditioned to view love this way and we simply looked at it in a more lighthearted sense.
Your childhood trauma and disdain toward the societal pressure to get married does not mean you are not worthy of love. This just means that maybe Taoism, Sartre, and Nietzsche are all on to something. Perhaps love and long-term commitment do not go together at all. If we changed our perspective on love and started to look at it as a constant journey rather than the final destination, would we be better off?
But What IS Love?
So now we understand how to better navigate love: approach it in a detached sense, and don’t view it as a means of control or power over another person. Also, putting the legal pressure of long-term commitment on someone can drive them insane since humans are not caged animals – according to Nietzsche.
But, what exactly is love? What is the thing that pushes people into long-term commitment anyway? What is the initial feeling? And how does love have the power to convince us that we want to spend the rest of our lives with one single person?
From a scientific aspect, love is stimulated by three different chemicals in the brain.
Noradrenaline, dopamine, and phenylethylamine – these three chemicals together produce feelings of excitement, nervousness, and pure ecstasy. This feeling is very similar to the high you experience on drugs and alcohol. It also stimulates a feeling of addiction, so you constantly feel the need to be around the person that allows your brain to have this chemical reaction. But, similar to drugs, this feeling eventually crashes. Suddenly you find yourself in a long-term relationship and things just don’t feel the way they used to.
This is where the saying “love becomes a choice” comes into the picture. Once that chemical crash occurs, you could begin to wonder if the relationship has come to an abrupt end. But – you made a legally binding vow to be with this person until death do you part. Love is no longer a high you’re riding out. Instead, it becomes work. You are now choosing to make a connection work because that initial physical feeling of “love” is gone. Is this inevitable? And are there ways of keeping these chemicals alive with the same person over a period of time?
Will (The Philosophy of) Love Prevail?
So we have a whimsical perspective on love that derives from Greek mythology, claiming that we are incomplete and our missing half is out there somewhere. The Taoist perspective, which encourages us to love each other without feeling the need to control. Sartre’s and Nietzsche’s perspectives, who both believe that monogamous long-term commitment is just an insane act of possession. And finally, a scientific explanation as to where those physical feelings of love come from in the first place.
Love is beautiful, timeless, and complex. The fact that so many questions, ideas, and theories are derived from its very existence explains just how spectacular it truly is.
In the end, this article is merely comprised of theories – nothing is based on absolute truth. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, each person might experience love differently from the other. But how wonderful it is to live in a world where love can even exist at all.