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What is Love?


The word “love" often just means “like", for example, when you say, “I love wine." What I want to take up here is not such a love as a liking. The love as a liking is not equal to love for things as distinct from that for humans. Those who treat the opposite sex as a mere object to have sex with have a love as a liking like wine lovers. What distinguishes the love in the narrow sense from the love as a liking, then?

Image by Gerd Altmann+OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay modified by me.
Love as narcissism

1. Three Fearures of Love

The phenomena of love have the following features in common.

1.1. Sacrifices Without Rewards

Lovers sacrifice for their sweethearts to prove love. Giving the sweetheart a present is a typical example. It is also a kind of sacrifice to give up freedom to have sexual relations with others. But this feature does not distinguish the love in the narrow sense from the love as a liking. Wine lovers pay considerable amount of money for wine. Unlike the case the import trader, who is not personally interested in wine, buys wine for moneymaking, it is consumption for itself, namely sacrifice without rewards.

1.2. Desire to Incorporate with Objects

Wine lovers want to drink wine and lovers want to embrace each other. The incorporation with objects does not necessarily mean physical approach to them. What is meant by the incorporation is that we forget the distinction between subject and object or ego and alter ego, find ourselves in others and desire to incorporate with them. This is also a universal feature of love. The feature that distinguishes the love in the narrow sense from the love as a liking is the next third one.

1.3. Reflection through the Other

We sacrifice much for the object of love because it is lofty. But psychologically the reverse is the case. The more we sacrifice, the loftier the object of love seems to be. And the final aim of love in the narrow sense is to uplift us via the uplifted other who confess love in return. For an ordinary fan, a star singer is far beyond her reach. If she extends her hand, jostled in a thronging crowd of fans, and happens to succeed in shaking hands with the star singer, she must feel uplifted in the air. The more the rival fans are and the more difficult it is to attract his attention, the more highly delighted she feels.

2. Love as narcissism

It follows the essence of the love in the narrow sense distinct from the love as a liking lies in narcissism, the reflective self-awareness through others as media. Narcissism derives from Narcissus, a handsome boy in the Greece myth, who fell in love with himself reflected in the water surface. Narcissism is usually considered to be sexual perversion. Is it so abnormal?

Narcissus depicted by Caravaggio
Narcissus depicted by Caravaggio.

We were all narcissists when infant. About 6-18 months after birth, which is called mirror stage, an infant is all jubilation to find itself in the mirror. Here the mirror image is a metaphor of mother (Yes, m-other is the mirror-other) A smile on the mother’s face is toward her child. So, the child can find itself in the mother’s smile. It imagines it received love from its mother in exchange of excrement as a present. This is the prototype of all subsequent love.

Respect is also sentiment toward loftiness similar to love. The object of respect is a goal that we wish to be. While the object of love is apt to be the opposite sex, that of respect the same sex. A boy infant, for example, will love his mother and respect his father. So, love is different from respect.

Although love is a desire to make me lofty through appraisal by the lofty other, it is different from a desire for fame. To explain the difference, I must point out that love has a character of agape as well as that of eros. Eros is an upward longing of the ancient Greek for the Platonic Idea, while agape is a downward affection of the Christian God for the powerless. As the proverb goes, pity is akin to love and the desire for fame lacks the character of agape.

Still, I would like to insist that agape should be also narcissism. You might oppose it, saying, " When I see a pitiful neighboring single mother who is too poor to feed her children, I will give them money from a purely altruistic motive. Are you going to drag my noble love down to egoistic narcissism?"

Then, suppose that, on receiving money, the mother left you without expressing her gratitude to you. What would you feel? Maybe you would get angry, because you had expected words like, “Thank you." or “I appreciate your help." and so on. But if you helped her from a purely altruistic motive, you should be glad to help the children to be free from hunger. It is because you want to recognize that you are a being that can help the poor and to imagine how happy they would be thanks to your help that you expect a word of gratitude.

3. The structure of love

Let’s compare agape with eros at the following figures. For the sake of simplicity, suppose you are the loving being on the left side, while the loved being on the right side is the other. Red, blue and green parts correspond to three elements of love: sacrifices without rewards, desire to incorporate with the other and reflective self-awareness through the other.

3.1. The structure of eros

Fig. 3 depicts the structure of eros:

Image of the structure of eros
  1. I uplift the loved being by making a sacrifice.
  2. I feel eros toward the loved.
  3. I am uplifted through the appraisal by the uplifted other.

In the mirror relation of narcissism, I look at my image beyond the mirror and at the same time look at myself from a viewpoint of the other. This reversal relation is found in love. The blue eros arrow and the opposite green appraise arrow are in such relation. On one hand, I feel happy, imagining how happy the other will be to be loved by me, and also how happy I will be, if the other confesses love to me in return. The two squares enclosed with the dotted line show that they are imaginary being and the unrequited love turns double imaginary happiness into double pain of illusion.

3.2. The structure of agape

Fig. 4 depicts the structure of agape:

Image of the structure of agape
  1. Making a sacrifice uplifts me.
  2. I feel agape toward the loved.
  3. The loved other is uplifted by me and I recognize myself through the gratitude by the other.

On one hand, I feel happy, imagining how happy the other will be to be helped by me, and also how happy I will be, if the other thanks me for the help. The two squares enclosed with the dotted line show that they are imaginary being and the refusal of help turns double imaginary happiness into double pain of illusion.

Though eros and agape seem contrary, they have the same structure.

4. Beyond egoism vs. altruism

Those who take narcissism as sexual perversion, confuse narcissism with egoism. However, narcissists not only find themselves in the other, but also find the other in themselves. Narcissism has a reversible symmetry of mirror and to love oneself is, at the same time, to love the other. In this intersubjectively reflective relation, the antinomy of egoism vs. altruism disappears.