Philosophy of Love: What Philosophers Have Taught Us in 3 Major Works

Love is everywhere: Love of family, friends, significant others, objects, the list goes on. This article will look at three major works on the philosophy of love.

Jun 26, 2021By Jordan Bourque, BA Philosophy

valentine three hearts berlin jones love song edward


Love is a pervasive phenomenon in all human life and comes in many forms: love of people, animals, objects, ideas, and more. The philosophy of love seeks to explain and rationalize the nature of love. Below are three works by philosophers that explore the question of love. First, we will look at Troy Jollimore’s book Love’s Vision, in which he explains the vision view of love. Next, C.S. Lewis provides a Christian account of the nature of love in his book The Four Loves. Finally, we will look at Plato’s dialogue The Symposium, in which we see a metaphysical account of love and its connection to beauty.


Love’s Vision: Troy Jollimore’s Philosophy of Love

edward malbone eye maria heyward painting
Eye of Maria Miles Heyward, Edward Greene Malbone, 1802, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Troy Jollimore’s philosophy of love focuses on providing an account of love that explains the contradictions often found when examining the nature of love: “[love] being both a moral emotion and a potential source of immorality, an emotion that encourages clear-sightedness in some contexts and delusion in others, and an emotion that involves, in significant ways, both reason and unreason.”


Love and Morality


“Love is something in between the purely moral and the deeply immoral and between reason and utter unreason.”


He first looks at the concept of love and morality. Jollimore argues that reason guides love but, at the same time, not entirely. To illuminate this point, he asks if love is moral. He points to the idealistic notion that lovers want each other to flourish. Thus they treat them better than anyone else in their lives. In contrast, he points out that sometimes lovers want the beloved all to themselves; they remove them from their family, friends, and society.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


master die isolated subject story psyche drawing print
Isolated Subject from the Story of Psyche, Master of the Die, 1532, via The Art Institute of Chicago


Thus, while some may positively treat their lover, it’s important to acknowledge that many treat their lover in an immoral way and inflict harm and violence in the real world. Long-term commitment often leads to resentment, hostility, and unkind treatment. Further, and more worrying for Jollimore, excessive focus and kindness on the lover lead to neglect of other important things.


Love is Blind


“In speaking of love in terms of vision… love is, in a very real way, a kind of perception, a way of the seeing the world. And perception is always a matter of being limited because a perceiving agent is situated in a particular time, place and situation.”


He then looks to the concept “love is blind” and believes this is flawed. Two notions of love guide Jollimore’s vision view of love. First, to love another person is to place them at the center of your world, such as the earth that revolves around the sun. Second, love illuminates things that we were blind to before, and we perceive the world in this light.


The second notion is fundamental to Jollimore’s argument in his philosophy of love: he believes that love not only alters the way we see the lover and the world positively but, love also makes us not see, notice, or react to certain aspects of the world.


william powell frith lovers painting
The Lovers, William Powell Frith, 1855, via The Art Institute of Chicago


Love and Reason


The idea that love has little or nothing to do with reason is closely connected to the idea that love has nothing whatsoever to do with reasons. Reasons, in the context of love, are frequently regarded as simply irrelevant.”


Finally, he looks to the idea that reason does not guide love. Jollimore thinks that the (hyper) rationalist viewpoint of the philosophy of love is flawed. The rationalist view being that love is not a condition or matter of reason or rationality in any sense; any list of properties in the beloved will not obligate the lover to love them.


But he doesn’t want to go so far as to defend an anti-rationalist view of love which denies the claim that love is a response to a person’s characteristics or properties. He thinks love is something in between, and to illuminate this, he references a passage from Plato’s Symposium in which Socrates corrects Agathon’s view of love.


It will be easiest for me to proceed the way Diotima did… she showed me how, according to my own speech, Love is neither beautiful nor good.


So I said, “What do you mean, Diotima? Is Love ugly then, and bad?”


But she said, “Watch your tongue! Do you really think that, if a thing is not beautiful, it has to be ugly?… Don’t force whatever is not beautiful to be ugly, or whatever is not good to be bad. It’s the same with Love: when you agree he is neither good nor beautiful, you need not think he is ugly and bad; he could be something in between.”


holland day beauty truth photo
Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, F. Holland Day, 1896/7, via The Art Institute of Chicago


Vision View of Love


“I suggest that we take advantage of Diotima’s metaphorical scheme and explore the notion that love, is, indeed “something in between.”


Love as a vision means love is largely attention directed towards the positive qualities of the beloved. Because of this, the lover is often blind to negative attributes. Love leads us to create and hold false beliefs about the beloved; the lover finds value in the beloved’s subjective qualities and has true in their heart that these are objective qualities. Thus, love is irrational in two senses. From a moral standpoint, love can inspire immoral, wrong, and selfish behavior. From an epistemic perspective, love causes us to live in a false reality.


wollaston portrait woman painting
Portrait of a Woman, John Wollaston, 1749/52, via The Art Institute of Chicago


Apple of Your Eye”


“Loving someone is, in large part, a kind of positive, appreciative response to her in virtue of her attractive, desirable, or otherwise valuable properties. The way of seeing the beloved, and the world in which the beloved lives, places her at the center of the lover’s field of vision.”


The “things” that the lover has this positive response to are universal qualities or properties used to judge everyone in desirability; the person’s physical attractiveness, intelligence, morality, sense of humor, etc. These properties seem unique, such as beauty, but even if another person were beautiful in the same way, it would not make the lover value the individual’s beauty less. Instead, it is how we see the beauty of the important individual, and this is through the special attention we give to the beloved.


This special attention causes the beloved to become the center of our world. As a result, we see the beloved in the best possible light, and although the beloved has flaws, our love renders them insignificant. Doing this allows us to open our eyes to the beloved, which opens our eyes to the world. In doing so, we become blind to many other aspects of the world and the beloved.


domenico maggiotto male nude back drawing
Male Nude Seen from the Back, Possibly Domenico Maggiotto, 1733/94, via The Art Institute of Chicago


The Beloved’s Perspective


“Natural objects, too, can provoke such responses. Some of them – the ocean, the earth’s ecosystem, or the “starry heavens above”… cannot be compared in part because they are genuinely singular; there is simply nothing to compare them to. But the deeper fact is that even if there were potential objects of comparison, comparison would still be out of place. Whatever precise basis for one’s awestruck response to the starry sky or ecosystem, such awe does not seem anywhere to contain the thought of that objects being better…”


Love is a response to the beloved’s universal properties and a response to non-universal properties in the beloved. Human nature allows and forces us to value things from a non-neutral standpoint, a place where detachment and objective standards are forbidden. The lover doesn’t assess these non-universal properties of the beloved but instead identifies with the beloved; this unites the lover’s perspective with that of the beloved. Love is recognizing the beloved’s individualistic nature and valuing those individualistic qualities with no question of comparison.


Thus, love involves reason because it responds to something external, the beloved’s universal properties. But love is also about how the lover now sees the world. The lover doesn’t just see the beloved in a new way but is also committed to seeing the beloved in that new way. Love is an expression of the lover’s identity. When we love something, we can express who we are. The lover expresses their identity by valuing the beloved more than others.


suzuki harunobu lovers dressing beside window woodblock print
Lovers Dressing Beside a Window, Suzuki Harunobu, 1765, via The Art Institute of Chicago


Immoral Nature of Love


“Love, that is, is a genuinely moral phenomenon that poses genuine moral dangers.”


Love becomes dangerous in two instances: when harm and violence occur to the beloved and, even worse, when lovers exclude the people external to the relationship. Since love involves blindness, specifically to most things other than the beloved, the lover often cannot see the damage done to the others by isolation. Circumstances such as this are when love becomes possessive and exclusionary, destructive and chaotic.


Morality in Love


“Opening one’s eyes to another individual and seeing him as he really is, without a vision clouded by presuppositions and prejudices, is a challenging task. Love’s demand that we undertake this task, in the interest of striving for a full and genuinely complete recognition of another humans beings, grounds a strong case for the claim that love is in a very deep sense a moral phenomenon.”


For the philosopher Jollimore, love is moral because it in nature causes the lover to overcome “the partiality to self,” and the partiality to self is a powerful and often destructive motivator of human behavior. The love and recognition for the individual cause the lover to provide a generous amount of attention to the beloved, which involves trust, communication, responsiveness, and appetite for knowledge and action. The lover views the “beloved justly, which is to say, both accurately and generously.”


paolo michetti springtime love painting
Springtime and Love, Francesco Paolo Michetti, 1878, via The Art Institute of Chicago


The Christian Philosopher C.S. Lewis: The Four Loves


The Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis believes it is crucial to be intentional and explain the different types of love because love is pervasive in human life. He draws from the bible four types of love and seeks to give a digestible account of each. Before doing so, he makes the distinction between “Need-love” and “Gift-love.”


Need-love is the type of love a child has for its mother. Our human nature is what generates this Need-love; our condition as humans is that we don’t do well lonely. Gift-love is divine like in nature. An example is a love that moves a person to strive for the well-being of their family. Lewis acknowledges that this distinction is more complicated, though. A mother often has Need-love for a child because she had to birth it or else she would perish, but she also has Gift-love.


mieris mother feeding child happy painting
A Mother Feeding her Child (The Happy Mother), Willem van Mieris, 1707, via The Art Institute of Chicago




The following distinction Lewis makes is between Need-pleasures and Pleasures of Appreciation. He acknowledges that humans use the word ‘love’ in many different circumstances; I love apples, dogs, potato chips, my mom, partner, etc. There is a distinction between the love for apples and the love for one’s partner, but there is a continuity between liking something and loving something. Thus, he starts at mere likings because to like something is to get pleasure from that thing.


berlin jones united valentine three hearts collage
United Valentine (Three Hearts), Berlin and Jones, 1865, via The Art Institute of Chicago


Need-pleasures are those that are preceded by a desire, such as drinking water when you’re thirsty. Pleasures of appreciation are those pleasures that are not preceded by desire but rather bring pleasure as is such with the love of the ocean or the pleasure that comes from the smell of a flower. You were not seeking anything in the second case; it was an unexpected and unsolicited instance of pleasure.


An important distinction between the two types of pleasure is that Need-pleasure is short-lasting while Pleasures of appreciation “claim our appreciation by right.” Need-pleasures often lead the way to Need-love. Unaided Need-love will fade away just as Need-pleasures do. Pleasures of appreciation are more complicated to pinpoint what it foreshadows.


claude monet water lilies 1906 painting
Water Lilies, Claude Monet, 1906, via The Art Institute of Chicago


Lewis states that Appreciative pleasure foreshadows the human experience of beauty. It is impossible to say that individuals do not gain some sense of pleasure from the things they find beautiful. Appreciative beauty calls us to love that thing, whether it be a person or an object; we don’t just like the thing; it is beyond that. We label those things derived from Appreciative pleasures as “very-good” (in the purest sense of the word good). From this, that thing gets more attention, and this type of attention is an act of homage.


“Need-love says of a woman “I cannot live without her”; Gift-love longs to give her happiness, comfort, protection… Appreciative love gazes and holds its breath and is silent, rejoices that such a wonder should exist even if not for him, will not be wholly dejected by losing her, would rather have it so than never to have seen her at all.”


baptiste regnault cupid psyche painting
Cupid and Psyche, Jean Baptiste Regnault, 1828, via The Art Institute of Chicago


Lewis then distinguishes between the four types of love derived from the Greek language: storge (affection), philia (friendship), eros (romance), and agape (charity). These four categories are the foundation of Lewis’ philosophy of love.




First, the most modest love is storge or, as Lewis calls it, affection. For the Greeks and Lewis, the most central meaning of affection is the love between offspring and parents. In a broader sense, affection is love generated through familiarity. Affection comes naturally to us and exists without coercion. Affection is humble in that it comes naturally, and there’s a quietness to the feeling. More often than not, affection exists with one of the other loves and is important to acknowledge for a theory in the philosophy of love.


For Lewis, Need-love and Gift-love are part of affection; thus, it is pervasive and fruitful in our lives. Not only common, but it has a strength to it that ultimately makes it unsafe in certain situations. In terms of Need-love, people expect affection because it seems so natural, but they fail to consider their behavior or the nature of affection. “Affection can die just as quickly as it comes; “the ‘built-in’ or unmerited character of affection thus invites a hideous misinterpretation. So does its ease and informality.” Further, jealousy and smothering threaten affection.


narcisse diaz pena three little girls painting
Three Little Girls, Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Pena, 1870, via The Art Institute of Chicago




The second of the loves is philia or a friendship bond. In modern society, we tend to ignore and undervalue friendship love, unlike the ancients who believed friendship love was the happiest of the loves; we choose friendship love. Lewis makes a further distinction. Friendship love is the least needed of the four; we can live without friendship.


He believes that modern society ignores and undervalues friendship love because we haven’t experienced true friendship love. Friendship is about something and pointing somewhere; friendship love is a deep appreciation for that companionship of their shared interest. There are also some downfalls to friendship such as when groups become clicky or jealousy arises.


“Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure of burden.”


burne jones love song painting
The Love Song, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1868-77, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York



“Very often what comes first is simply a delighted preoccupation with the beloved- a general, unspecific preoccupation with her in her totality. A man in this state really hasn’t leisure to think of sex. He is too busy thinking of a person. The fact that she is a woman is far less important than the fact that she is herself. He is full of desire, but the desire may not be sexually toned. If you asked him what he wanted , the true reply would often be, “to go on thinking of her.”


Third, we have eros or romantic love. An important distinction for Lewis is that sexual desire presents itself differently when eros is involved. Sexual desire isn’t the end all be all for eros. Eros, the state of being in love, makes us want the particular individual, the beloved. The lover desires the beloved rather than sexual pleasure. Thus, Lewis claims that being in love doesn’t specifically arise out of natural sexual desire.


To seek out the beloved does not come from a sexual or emotional goal but rather a deep and sincere interest in who that person is. But, just as all loves have their dangers, so does eros. Eros often makes people submit themselves fully to the beloved in an overindulgent way. Another downfall is people often confuse sexual desire with being in love.


lorenzo lotto venus cupid painting
Venus and Cupid, Lorenzo Lotto, 1520’s, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York




Finally, agape is charity or “god” love. Agape is an unconditional love that will always be present regardless of circumstances. Lewis believes this is a Christian goal: to have god love rise above the three other loves. Further, agape is the highest form of love because of its nature; agape is a matter of giving and is always good. We can feel agape towards God, nature, another human being, animals, the good, the bad, and everything in between.


Classical Philosophy of Love: The Symposium by Plato


The Symposium is foundational to the philosophy of love because it is one of the first works on the topic and because of its profoundness. The dialogue features a symposium that was a meeting of sorts in ancient Greece, where men would join together to drink and enjoy conversation, dancing, music, or recitals. The Symposium is written in the same format as Plato’s other dialogues, with the philosopher Socrates questioning others on the topic.


lydos terracotta column krater symposium
Terracotta Column-Krater, Attributed to Lydos, 550 B.C., via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The banquet takes place at the Agathon’s home, and he begins the dialogue by asking the men to give speeches in praise of the God of love and desire, Eros. Seven notable men discuss the topic of love in a series of speeches that contribute to the “ladder of love” the central concept in Plato’s philosophy of love. It’s important to note that there is a strong and essential connection between love, beauty, and knowledge for Plato. Thus, the speeches present a problem for Socrates: instead of giving accounts of what is beautiful, they all are love stories involving what the individual men find beautiful.


For the philosopher Socrates, these love stories are delusions; they do not give us insight into true love. Love stories are particular to us and do not provide adequate theories of love. After the dialogues, Socrates begins describing what Diotima has taught him about the art of love, otherwise known as the ladder of love.


thomas rowlandson love print
Love, Thomas Rowlandson, 1785, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Diotima’s Speech


To understand Diotima’s ladder of love, one must understand Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology, namely the theory of forms. The theory of forms is a fundamental doctrine that runs throughout his writings. Plato believes there are two realms of reality, the physical world that we perceive through our senses and a realm filled with entities that he calls Forms. Forms are the non-physical, unchangeable, eternal essences of all things, and the objects of our physical world are imperfect imitations of their Form.


For example, when one draws a circle, the person can do so because of the intelligibility of the Form “circle.” That circle, and all other circles existing in the physical world, are imperfect imitations of the Form, which is the perfect, unchanging blueprint. He illustrates this idea in many dialogues but most notably in the allegory of the cave.


In Plato’s dialogues, he seeks to distinguish between the observable objects and the Form of that object. Specifically, he focuses on the objects that appear beautiful and the Form of beauty which allows the beautiful objects to receive their characteristics. In the ladder of love, we will see the ascension from the object of beauty in the physical world to the Form of beauty.


charles francois daubigny apple blossoms painting
Apple Blossoms, Charles-Francois Daubigny, 1873, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Diotima, prophetess and philosopher, begins by pointing out that it is human nature to love the good and desire good things to be our forever. Beauty inspires human beings to “reproduce” and mitigate this desire for a kind of transcendence of our mortality. For Diotima, reproduction can be understood as “giving birth to something new”; birth to wisdom and virtue. Thus, to know the Form of Beauty, beauty itself, one must ascend the ladder of love.


First, a person’s physical beauty draws the lover in, and the beloved represents beauty itself in the lovers’ eyes. This allows us to have discussions about what we believe is beautiful and provide personal accounts of it. One effect of this is that the lover finds the same beauty the beloved holds in many others; if something is beautiful, there must be more accounts of it.


For example, I find this sunflower beautiful because of its bright yellow petals and its tall stature. But when I look up, I see a field of sunflowers that all are beautiful in the same way as the one I love. It is here the lover comes to realize that physical beauty is not permanent. Since the lover recognizes this, the beloved must be loved in another way.


wenceslaus hollar anthony dyck sunflower etching
Sir Anthony Van Dyck with a Sunflower, Wenceslaus Hollar, 1644, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


To love the beloved in another way is to love the immaterial parts of that individual; the soul. When the lover moves past the response to physical beauty, the lover begins to love beautiful souls and beautiful minds. From this, the individual starts to love the things the beautiful souls and minds create, institutions. This allows the lover to accept the beauty of knowledge and love all types of knowledge.


simon denis cloud study early evening painting
Clouds Study (Early Evening), Simon Denis, 1786-1806, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


“… the man who has been thus far guided in matters of Love, who has beheld beautiful things in the right order and correctly, is coming now to the goal of Loving; all of the sudden he will catch sight of something wonderfully beautiful in its nature; that, Socrates, is the reason for all his earlier labors…”


The final step in the ladder is love for love itself; love for the beauty of beauty itself. The person sees that every particular thing is beautiful because of its form; all beautiful things share in the Form of beauty. The apprehension of the Form of beauty allows the individual to understand what it is to be beautiful and, ultimately, love the beauty of love. Thus, Plato’s philosophy of love is to have knowledge of the Form of beauty.

Author Image

By Jordan BourqueBA PhilosophyAfter graduating from the University of San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, Jordan continued her education at USD as a law student. She is applying for her PhD in Philosophy with a focus in neuroethics, philosophy of law, and political philosophy. Whether it be as a future professor or contributing articles, she is excited to share the world of philosophy with others and expand her knowledge. In her spare time, she enjoys playing with her many pets.