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Arnold Berleant, The One and Many Faces of Love


I. Introduction

Over the past year or so I’ve been using these occasions as opportunities to clarify in my own mind, and I hope in yours, ideas that have preoccupied me for much of my conscious life, as well as in my professional work as a teacher and writer of philosophy.  I’ve talked about perfection, about tolerance, and about mythical beliefs in ways that have led to what may sometimes be unexpected conclusions.  Since I’ve always been a bit of an iconoclast, this is no surprise.  However, my object has always been not to surprise or shock but to better understand important ideas that influence how we live and act.  As Spinoza pointed out, there is true freedom in understanding things clearly, even if we can’t alter them.  I hope that the effect of my observations has been liberating to you as it has to me.

I say all this by way of introducing my subject for this morning.  It is entitled, “The One and Many Faces of Love.’’  I want to take what is a very complicated subject and try to make it simple.  And then I want to make it complicated again.

Love is a major preoccupation both in our consumer culture and because of it, since the desire for love drives many engines.   But it is also a subject about which everyone in modern society has thought a great deal for other reasons, as well.  I speak of love with some trepidation, for it is a matter in which we all are experts, for, to be sure, no one is more of an expert in our personal experience than we, ourselves.  We all have our stories to tell, advice to give, and understanding to share.

Recognizing all this, I’d like to share with you some reflections on the subject.  Perhaps these will resemble your own ideas, and they may possibly clarify thoughts we’ve all had.  So, this very expertness that each of us has can be put to good use here, for I would ask you to measure what I have to say against your own experience and consider whether these common and not so common thoughts are in any way illuminating and hence liberating.

It would be well to introduce a word of caution, however.  While love may have universal interest, our understanding of love has a history.  This subject has not always been a major preoccupation for people, and it is understood differently in different cultures.  Furthermore, how people experience and express love varies from ritualized affirmation to uncontrollable passion.  So, it would be well to have a certain humility as we proceed and to recognize that we cannot speak for all times and places but only for ourselves.

Let me begin by reminding you of something we have just said together in the chalice lighting:   “Love is the doctrine of this church.’’   We recite this often, but I wonder what we mean when we say it.  What is it for love to be a doctrine?  And what does identifying such a doctrine with Unitarian-Universalism signify?  Doing good?  Recognizing the bonds of community?  Or is this statement merely a ritualized observance, like many ritualized beliefs we profess with all good intentions but which, despite its pious language, may merely be empty formalism with little real human content.

II. Faces of love

A. Kinds of love

I shall return to these questions a little later.  But let me begin by considering some of the faces of love.  We know, of course, that love itself can mean many different things and take many different forms.  What may first come to mind is romantic love, which we commonly associate with physical development into sexual maturity.  It involves the discovery of sensory experience and of the intensity of sensation.  To call romantic love “infatuation’’ downplays it.  For many people it’s an early experience of a self-surpassing relationship, an experience of utter devotion that takes us wholly out of our selves. As Yeats expressed it in one of his “Aedth’’ poems,

[  “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.’’

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet;

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.[1]

Romantic love is also an early experience of beauty, of the sacredness of the beautiful object.  And it humanizes us by opening us to others and making us vulnerable.

The intensity of romantic love, however, has a dark side.  In literature, and sometimes in life, it is associated with pain and death: Abelard and Heloise, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, and in a film now playing at the Grand in Ellsworth, “Solomon and Gaenor.’’  These literary, mythical, and historical examples illustrate the compelling force of romantic love that refuses to accept any obstacle.

Related to romantic love but narrower is erotic love, which the Greeks called eros, in which our bodily senses become inflamed and overpowering.  This experience of passion is probably more biologically based than any other form of love and, in the intensity of its demands, tends to dismiss social forms and constraints.  We’re familiar enough with this, if not from personal experience, then from the movies and literature.

Another form of love that many of us experience is parental love, the love of a parent for her or his child.  This is different, of course, for women than it is for men, and it is deeply affected by the social roles through which a culture guides the relationship between parent and child.  But whatever these differences may be, and they are many, what persists through all is care expressed in the act of nurturing.  The care of a parent for the well-being of the child may continue through a lifetime.

In the love of the child for his or her parent lies the reciprocal form of parental love, what is known as filial love.  Unlike the love for one’s child, which at least starts fresh and new, filial love carries with it a history, and that history makes the love for a parent more complex and difficult.  For many of us it is a major issue.  The powerful bond of filial love changes over time, from subordination, perhaps through companionship, to protective care, much as parental love, itself, began.

Friendship, which the Greeks called philia, also has its place in this account.  Although friendship assumes many forms, at least one of them involves the generosity of selfless concern, the willingness to sacrifice that characterizes love in its other manifestations.  Aristotle, whose Nicomachean Ethics remains one of the most insightful works in philosophy, says nothing about love, as such.  But in his discussion of the different kinds of friendship, he describes perfect friendship as a characteristic attitude rather than an emotion.  It is the attitude of wishing good for one’s friend for the friend’s sake alone.  And because such a friendship involves reciprocity, in loving one’s friend one loves one’s own good.  There is thus a merging of good, where the friend’s good and one’s own good are interdependent and indistinguishable.[2]

Do these forms of love have anything in common besides their name?  While romantic love, erotic love, love of and for a parent, and friendship differ from one another, do they share any characteristics?  It’s too simple to say that love is an emotion that may take different forms, although feelings of warmth, benevolence, and generosity do fill these relationships.  To explain an experience as simply an emotion is merely to use a convenient label for any experience we don’t understand.  Surely the feelings we have in erotic love are vastly different from those we have as parents or as children of our own parents.  So, too, do the emotions of romantic love differ from the passions of desire or the warmth of a close friendship.  To call love an emotion is hardly helpful, since there’s hardly an experience we have that does not have an emotional tone.  What, then, if not this, brings these loves together?

I want to suggest what is, perhaps, an unexpected answer to this question.  For there is, I think, a fundamental and profound characteristic they all share.  This is not a feeling but a relationship; more precisely, it is an experience of relationship.  And that experience is one in which the boundaries by which we define ourselves, the limits of our so-called “selves,’’ dissolve or fall away.  We become bigger, greater than the sum of any two people.

We acknowledge this when we speak of love as a union, but I suspect that this is only an approximate way of describing this dissolution of our separate, discrete selves.  Such a description is inadequate because we don’t become a larger self, a larger unity, but rather relinquish our boundaries altogether.  In each of these experiences of love our sense of ourselves expands to enclose the other.  The boundaries that contain and limit our separate selves dissolve as we join ourselves with the other – whether child, parent, friend, or lover.  And it is because of that expanded self that we feel generous, benevolent, warm, and giving.  Love is what one writer calls “expansion experiences.’’[3]   It is actually, I think, a rare experience in a culture that rests on an ideology of individualism.  Perhaps this is why love has given way in our time to titillation, self-gratification, excitement, and consumption.

B. Similar experiences

Love is not the only occasion for abandoning the shell that encloses and guards us.  Other experiences can evoke a surpassing of self.  Religious experience is one of them, and so is the experience of beauty in art and nature.  Yet many of the ways in which we speak of love, ways that are not actual human relationships, tend to be abstract.  Sometimes they refer to principles or institutions.  Here I would place love of God, Christian love, brotherly love, and divine love.  Love of country or patriotism is another.  Love of nature is similar, as is love of mankind (or in better parlance, of humankind).[4]  This list grows longer and more complicated as we begin to include such things as love for a work of art, literature, or music.  These experiences of religion, art, and nation may participate in the experience of human love, for this often has overtones of worship, beauty, and identification with community.

Do these, different from one another, bear any resemblance to the particular human loves of which I have been speaking?  I think they share an expansion of oneself, even a transcending of self.  We demonstrate this in the willing self-sacrifice that love of country enjoins, in the mystical union with God or nature that is a fulfillment of religious experience, through human sympathy or, better yet, empathy, for the sufferings of others that leads to acts of generosity and even self-sacrifice, to the aesthetic engagement with a work of art that takes us out of ourselves and into the world that art creates, and even in divine love, which conveys infinite acceptance no matter what the circumstances.

What distinguishes the love of which I have been speaking, however — and this is a crucial point — is that it involves relations with other persons.  It is a human relationship, a relationship between or among people.  Yet at the same time we can recognize love’s resemblance to religion and art when we associate it with sanctity, with blessedness, and with the stillness and glory of beauty.

[ There is still another and more complex love to mention, love for an animal.  To the extent that we attribute the spiritual qualities of life and consciousness to another living being, we can, I think, justifiably engage with animals in the relationship we call love.  At the same time its model and its meaning come from its human counterpart.]

III.  Implications

This account of love has some perhaps surprising implications and complications.  There is not time today to do much more than mention some of them, but even this may help to understand love’s meaning better.

Love, as a transcending of the boundaries of the self, may be joined with other feelings that are not particularly pleasant.  Love is, for example, compatible with irritation and even dislike.  Moreover, love is not usually total or exclusive, except perhaps in romantic or erotic love.  And it is capable of degrees and of change over time, although love inevitably leaves its mark on us.

The fact that there are different kinds of love also carries the interesting consequence that multiple loves are possible, i.e., loving in many different ways simultaneously and sequentially, and with the same person or different persons.  There is nothing in the nature of love to exclude multiple loves of the same kind, for example of several children, of several friends, even of several lovers.  This last has been called “polyamory,’’ which, curiously enough, I first came across in a recent issue of UU World!

Nor is there anything in this account to exclude love’s changing.  New circumstances, altered feelings, new experiences, both positive and destructive, can profoundly affect the order of one’s life.  So, too, must we acknowledge that, when boundaries and other protective limits begin to develop, love may become limited and sometimes come to an end.  The loss of that rare condition of openness, trust, and intimacy with another is profound.  That is why unreciprocated love is so painful and why the end of love so slow and devastating.  It also helps explain why the bond with a former lover often does not entirely disappear. But it is well to remember that such multiplicity and change do not detract in the least from the power and importance of the relationship of love.  This remains one of the most ennobling of human experiences.  It awakens and nurtures values of concern for others:  care, help, and kindness.  Along with art and religion, love is one of the great humanizing forces in human life.

IV. Complications

Despite being an experience that, like beauty, is always positive, love is complicated and sometimes undermined by many factors.  Here again I can do no more than mention some of them.  Physical need in the face of the rushing hormones of adolescence and beyond is an obvious complication. So are psychological needs, such as dependency and the need for security, the desire for companionship, for domesticity, and for a family.   All these are goal-oriented.  They impose purposes on what is fundamentally a kind of experience valuable in itself, for its own sake.  Changes take place in every relationship and complicate our experiences of love.  I’ve already noted that the love for a parent can change into the love for a friend and later for a dependent.   As with other experiences in life, love is chameleon-like, constantly altering with changing people and changing circumstances.  It is no more eternal than any other human condition.

Then there are questionable loves:  What sorts of things are worthy of love?  Is an abstraction a fitting partner in a love relation?  Are love of country, love of nature, love of the land (in contrast with a specific piece of land or love of one’s home), love of truth, Christian love, brotherly love, love of humanity (in contrast with individual people), love of an institution, or love of a cause true occasions of love?  Some of these, like love of country, can lead to acts of hate, violence, and destruction.  Others are self-congratulatory but vapid, as in the remark someone once gave me:  “I love mankind but I hate people.’’

A further complication comes from relationships that are not love but often associated with it.  Among these are bonds of obligation, compulsion or obsession.   Then, not all forms of love are good:   Selfish love,[5] possessive love, and the love of a martyr that requires total self-sacrifice are all exploitative.   So is love that corrupts or destroys its object by taking advantage of or manipulating the openness and defenselessness of another person, as of a child by a parent or a lover by the beloved.  On a somewhat milder plane are conditions or experiences that lead us to erect protective barriers that obstruct, limit, or diminish love.  Among these are anger, the need to protect oneself against abuse, verbal as well as physical, and milder limitations that come from annoyance, boredom, or simple dislike.  Love is still possible under such conditions, but it is incomplete and restricted.  To balance these obstructions, let me mention things that may support love, positive things like loyalty, and others that come from weakness, like emotional or financial dependence.

V. Conclusion

As you can see, after becoming clearer and ***more simple,**** love has become complicated again. There is obviously a great deal that can be said on this most universal of subjects, and I have barely made a beginning here.  Still, it is necessary to bring this to some kind of conclusion.

Perhaps we can first agree, at the least, on the value of understanding this most important yet elusive of subjects.  Understanding may remove certain obstacles to our experience of love in the form of misconceptions, of false or destructive beliefs that erect barriers to experience and that may lead to repression or feelings of guilt.  By understanding love better, we may succeed in enlarging our capacities.

At the same time, we all have our limitations:  in experience, in differing capacities, and in different needs.  Like everything else in life, the occasions for love are not equally distributed.  Yet our capacities persist and so do opportunities, and with these lie multiple possibilities.  Our fulfillment as human beings comes, in part, from realizing at least some of them.

Let me return, finally, to what we said together in the chalice lighting:   “Love is the doctrine of this church.’’  I raised the question then of what is meant for love to be a religious doctrine or, for that matter, any other doctrine, and I am led to conclude that love as a doctrine is not love at all in any of the main senses I’ve discussed.  As an abstract principle, it lacks the human presence of actual individual people.  If this statement is merely a ritualized observance, like many beliefs we dutifully profess with every good intention, it may only be empty formalism with little real human content. But perhaps we may think of the doctrine of love as the recognition that we are not self-sufficient individuals but that our lives and our fates are bound up with those of others, with our immediate community and also with humankind everywhere.  To the extent that our sense of ourselves expands to enclose the human community, to that extent love is a doctrine that has substance, a body and a heart.  With better understanding, perhaps we can learn to be bodies with a heart and to recognize that other people are, too.

Arnold Berleant

Castine Unitarian Church

January 28, 2001

[1].  W. B. Yeats, “Aedth Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’’

[2]Nicomachean Ethics, 1157b, 28-36 (Bk.8, Ch.5).

[3].  Guy Sircello, Love and Beauty

[4].  Although as the novelist Anita Brookner once noted, this carries with it a certain danger:  “To love everyone is a noble enterprise.  Unfortunately it denies one a certain faculty of discrimination.’’

[5].  (Cf.  Fromm) vs. self-respect.  Selfish love is not love.  Selfish love is an oxymoron.