Love & Personal Relationships

(revised!) 3500 words. Followed by

"The Two Sides of Love" from 1986

See also "Caritas Deus non est" in html under the neighboring section "Christianity" or the PDF-link further below: this essay attacks a Papal encyclical on the nature of love

> PDF, large font for easy reading on mobile devices or raad html below

It will not be disputed that our sense of identity, of who we are, is, in part at least, constituted by the relationships we have with other individuals, and that our potential for happiness is a function of how those relationships fare. One aspect moreover that is crucial for people in their relationships, that is indeed the measure for the importance of other matters, is the way they actually feel towards each other, including their perception of the attitude the other has towards them.

In other words, to flourish, a personal relationship must be a community of affection.

Now there are two key concepts implied here: those of a degree of reciprocity and of a degree of love.

How much reciprocity, and, first, what exactly is involved in love?

Affection, Caring and Attachment

A first thought might be to equate love only with a variety of feeling. In some colloquial contexts, the words are indeed used almost interchangeably: to have feelings for someone is to harbour love, at least of a kind.

One problem with classifying love as a feeling is that feeling can be so very unreliable, while love, to count as love, requires a considerable persistence over time.

Further reflection soon shows that love is never a single, solitary feeling, but that a whole pattern of emotions is involved. Love may show itself, for example, in anxiety about someone or in missing them, as well as in the sentiment of affection. Nor are these feelings (or any feelings) uninterruptedly present in the consciousness.[i]

More telling, though, than these somewhat introspective observations, is our objective assessment of the situation where someone else attests to feeling love. Sometimes we may take their word for it, but usually we will also have close regard to the way they act.

Might love be equated then solely with a pattern of action? No, because this supposition would make affection superfluous to the existence of love. Caring action on its own is not enough for us to say there is love, though it may often be an excellent indicator. Someone may for instance care, i.e. perform the actions of care, out of a sense of duty. Think of a nurse, or else of a dutiful husband who no longer feels anything for his wife.

In summary, love can be said neither to be simply a pattern of feeling, nor a pattern of action. A working metaphor is to see it as an undercurrent which sometimes manifests itself in feelings of various kinds, especially the sentiment of affection, and sometimes in actions.[ii]

For our next step, let me introduce a notion of what I shall call bonding, although the alternative terms “attachment” and “focus” would not be far off the mark; (there are subtle differences, which will become apparent by substituting in the following one or both of these words for “bond”).

Let us say that bonding is the way in which an individual's sense of self involves the thought of a person or persons to whom he or she relates. Now it is arguably the case that our sense of self is always associated with perceptions of others, and in their absence, with thoughts of others (including often thoughts of their perception of ourselves). This means that even the hermit will engage in some kind of imagined dialogue with others, although these may be only remembered or else composite or fictional persons. Bonding goes beyond this minimal orientation on others through the fixity of the persons in mind. That is, we do not quickly or easily stop thinking periodically about the particular persons we are attached to, if only because we think of ourselves via those persons. They will change with time, but the change is necessarily gradual. The process of bonding, i.e. the process through which someone acquires this status for us, may also be assumed to be gradual.

Note that this concept of bonding does not yet involve mutuality or reciprocity. It is not necessarily the case that we play a similar role or a similarly important role for the persons we bond to.

The existence of a relationship, and therefore the existence of a bond, does not necessarily mean that there is love exactly. Conversely, the existence of individual love does not necessarily mean that there is a relationship, although there must be a bond in at least one direction; (think of cases of estrangement). This is because a relationship is necessarily mutual; it is observable and involves exchanges of various kinds and does not exist “only in the mind” whereas a bond might well exist “only in the mind” (though it must have a great deal more fixity than a figment of the imagination, a bond involving recurrent thought of the other individual concerned).

We said at the outset that, in order to flourish, a personal relationship must be a community of affection; and that this implied a degree of love, which we have just explored, and a degree of reciprocity. How much reciprocity?

Claims, Commitments and Presumptions

One of the things someone might say within a close relationship is, “You are the most important person in my life, and I want to be the most important person in yours, too.”

Philosophically and ethically, this statement presents a number of issues. At first sight, it may seem to be a declaration of love, but note that it could equally well, in principle, be said within a relationship of enmity. On closer examination, the statement, assuming it is sincere, emerges as neither a sufficient condition for there to be love, nor a necessary condition, for you can surely love more than one other person.

It may nevertheless very well be an expression of love, but as an expression it is incomplete, or else the expression of an incomplete love.

Imagine a moment how the world would be if this were the only form that love could take.[iii] Only in a world that was miraculously ordered would each and every person have such a love. It would, necessarily, be a world full of couples (though not necessarily sexually intimate couples; the sexual component is a separate matter). In a world not miraculously ordered, it might conceivably be possible for everyone to belong to such a couple, but it would not be possible for that relationship to be always either freely chosen or one of a meeting of minds.

There are two components to our phrase. First there is a statement about how the speaker feels towards (or relates to) the person being addressed. (Or is it a vow?) Then there is the expression of a wish, though it may sound more like a demand, a demand that seems to follow from the initial declaration. But it does not follow. A child may be the most important person in her father's life, but, if he is a good father, he will not wish to be the most important person in her life.

This counter-example is of a relationship which by its nature is asymmetrical, and radically so. Perhaps we must focus instead on basically symmetrical relationships, between adults who are equals. Is the demand (for supreme importance in the life of the other) now justified on the grounds that the other is for me, the speaker, the most important individual in my life?

It is, surely, as a demand, presumptuous.

Part of the problem comes from the superlatives involved. Note how the situation is transformed as these are qualified or withdrawn: “You are the most important (or: a most important) person in my life, and I want to be important for you, too.” Or, going further, “You count for me, and I want to count for you, too.”

The request which before was presumptuous now seems modest, so much so that it would seem heartless to reject it out of hand. The wish (or plea) comes closer to being a declaration of love to the extent that it has moderated and renounced the stronger claim for exclusive possession. Indeed, the nature of love is such, surely, that it does not pose, properly, any conditions. A declaration of love is not a contractual undertaking to the effect “I will love this other person if (and only if) she loves me”. That would be an offer of commitment, which is not to be scorned, may indeed in various practical ways be more attractive, but is different. (The declaration of love includes a statement of commitment, and so is more than an offer of commitment. It says, “You can call on me. I will make time and effort and attentiveness available for you.”)

The commitment implied in a declaration of love may of course be exploited. The person loving must have faith that the other will not exploit their feelings, at least not in certain ways, and they can be mistaken in this conviction, as they can be mistaken in their perception of the other in a more general sense. The person who loves becomes vulnerable, necessarily.

Let us return for a moment to the totalitarian tone of the original utterance. The exclusive implication (“most important”) opens up the way for a near-total vulnerability. Where love is more diffuse, the variety of commitments may itself provide fuel for conflict (including or especially ethical conflict), but the other commitments can also provide a check and a balance.

There is a topical question about how diffuse or how focussed love should ideally be. Our real range of personal choice in this respect is doubtless somewhat limited. We cannot readily command our feelings (or the commitment in our hearts). And even where the psychological capacity for a more focussed — or alternatively a more diffuse love — is present, social pressures can be restrictive. Others must go along with our choice, and they will often fail to do so, especially if it means going against prevailing norms, for example in the area of sexual intimacy.

This said, and notwithstanding how little room we may, psychologically or socially speaking, have as individuals to focus or spread our love, there is choice at another level. Thus you might choose to put your young child in a play-group all day or alternatively sacrifice career and prosperity to spend much more time with her. The evidence seems to show that, accordingly, the child will relate to others in a more diffuse or a more focussed way. (Whether the total capacity for love will be different is another matter, and one fraught with conceptual and normative difficulties.)

There is embedded in the original declaration (“and I want to be the most important person in your life, too”) a desire for total reciprocity. I have suggested that, as a claim, this is presumptuous, which means that it is not legitimate. The argument for this was that love (and we have assumed the declaration to be one of love) does not properly set conditions. Now this is true, but it does not mean that love does not have conditions. Assuming love is a certain pattern equally of feeling and action, it needs for its realisation the presence of its object, i.e. in order to perform the actions of love. Even in the case of separation, love may express itself in the efforts made to overcome that absence, i.e. to create presence. As a feeling (and as a readiness to act accordingly) love may long persist, but it is of course then a frustrated, an unhappy love. So the proper statement of the situation is that love does not set conditions in the sense of adopting a bargaining position — of, say, threatening withdrawal if the other fails to respond in kind. Such withdrawal would be unthinkable, i.e. conceptually inappropriate, always assuming the attitude involved is indeed one of love (though it would be conceptually appropriate in the case of commitment, which in some — especially Christian — quarters is often confused with love.) (The situation is surely similar to — albeit much more serious than — that involved in liking; to stop liking someone just because they fail to like you back is not only childish, but inappropriate.) But although love does not set conditions, it does have need of circumstances in which that it can flourish;[iv] (the exact constellation of those circumstances is another matter).

The conclusion these considerations provide is that, although the claim or demand “I want to be the most important person in your life” is indeed presumptuous, the desire to be an important person in the life of the other remains of course entirely legitimate. The desire for a degree of reciprocity is indeed, since love has acute need of circumstances in which it can flourish, necessary.

What is it exactly that is to be reciprocated? The argument so far has spoken generally of love. It sounds then as if there has to be a degree of reciprocation, but that it is not legitimate to expect or demand that this be in equal measure, i.e. that the extent or intensity of the love be equal in both directions. Now there are circumstances in which it makes reasonable sense to speak in such terms, where a rough comparative measure of the intensity of love is possible. But talk of love and of its role in relationships usually requires more subtle concepts. When we ask precisely what is reciprocated, we become aware of the asymmetry in relationships. (It is pertinent that the word relationship conjures up most readily the image of a close companionship between members of the opposite sex. Quite apart from the aspect of sexual attraction and intimacies, this image is of a relationship between importantly different persons, such that close symmetry is difficult or impossible.)

To get a hold on the dynamics of love and relationships, we have other concepts, those of compatibility and complementarity.

Compatibility may exist in the somewhat negative sense that serious conflict does not arise. We usually go a step further, especially when reflecting on a close relationship, and ask for complementarity, which implies that the one person supplies what the other lacks.[v]

The notion of complementarity, i.e. the ideal balance of give and take, is open to two interpretations. It may be that at one moment one thing is given, from Anne to Bert, and at the next another thing is given, this time from Bert to Anne. Another, more subtle scenario is that what from Anne's point of view is being given to her is from Bert's point of view being given to him. Anne wants to tell a story, and Bert wants to listen (to a story). (It may also occur that Bert wants to be told a story by Anne, and that Anne wants to tell a story to Bert, which is different and much more complex. The depth, the resonance, the aura of meaningfulness, that exchange can take on surely has to do with the recursive possibilities of such situations.)

Complementarity rarely comes of its own and even in propitious circumstances has to be worked at. There is here the idea of attending to a relationship, tending the relationship, seeing that the relationship as such thrives.

This conception seems to involve an essential shift away from concentration on the person loved; the specialness of the other may now appear to be a matter of secondary importance, and the pursuit of the relationship — or of a relationship — moves to centre-stage. It is possibly the relationship itself that is appreciated, rather than the person who is related to. A moment's reflection on the social and hence psychological importance of “relationships” in determining the sense of social worth and social identity, i.e. of relationships which typically take the “most important person” form, shows how easily a preoccupation with the relationship itself may degenerate. A way out of the difficulty is to insist that tending to the relationship necessarily involves attending to the person (as a person, and in their specialness), or to say that both are equally important. These reflections are not as abstruse as they may seem. If you attend to a relationship alone, you may fall into scheming, and become preoccupied with, for example, how the other perceives you (as the other pole in the relationship) rather than, say, communicating how you really are or feel towards the other. Quickly, cosmetics come to the fore. You come to “manage” the relationship, even manage it well, rather than live it.

A focus is needed, which is neither just the benevolence of the person loving, nor the relationship within which that person stands, although both of these must be implicated, since without them it is not clear who is doing the loving where. (Love must not be reduced to well-wishing; least of all general well-wishing.)

One such focus would be the happiness of the person loved. Love might then be the will for the happiness of the person loved; such that the person loving wishes not only the happiness of the person they love, but also themselves to be a source of this happiness.

This would mean that there is a presumption at the heart of love. The person who loves assumes and insists that they themselves are capable of so contributing to the other's happiness. This presumption betrays a fundamental faith in oneself, a faith which we will generally want to say is a good and necessary thing.[vi]

Note now how the presumption can turn tyrannical when the subject concerned endeavours to be not one source, but the sole source of the happiness of the other.

In place of the promotion of happiness, which is a somewhat grandiose term, perhaps inappropriate for characterising all but the most ambitious relationships of love, we might speak equally of the furtherance of the well-being or the flourishing of the other. Or else simply of the good for them.

The latter formulation provides at once an explanation of the sense in which love may be said to be a force for good and the way in which it may nevertheless come into conflict with morality. The good for one person, who is loved, may well clash with that of another, who is not loved. Moreover, there may be error as to what is good for another, or else an error in the perceived complementarity. You could genuinely be mistaken in believing that your company will benefit the other; equally she could be mistaken that her company would not be for your good, or yours for her good.

We might discover that the person we are attached to (and feel for, and care for) is different from how we perceived them. What happens to love in such a case, and what should happen to it? Is such a change in perception a justification for giving notice to the relationship? Must the attachment transfer to the new person, or be abandoned? Here there is, surely, a distinct role for an ethical stance, which insists on commitments being honoured up to a point, even if they have been made in error. An attachment or an affection may wane, and may not be forced, but neither can felt love (or its absence) be the sole guide in such circumstances. There is, at the least, a need for gentleness and well-intentioned support, if only for a time, and perhaps a long time. Love implies commitment, and some of the obligation generated by the commitment remains even when love has vanished.

Prior to love, then, there is a virtue in being critical and attentive in our perceptions of others. Though precisely these strengths, in excess, can be destructive of the generous impulse to love someone, which involves trusting them to be something like we believe and hope them to be. Indeed, we may only be able to come to know someone by first investing our feelings and generating an attachment. Note that this also involves a faith that the other will be responsive, even rising above themselves to meet our expectations. Consideration of what it is to know a person, and of the possibility of being mistaken in one's perceptions of another (quite apart from the possibilities of being rejected or oneself misperceived) reveals the very real precariousness involved in love, at least at the outset.

“At the outset” — relationships, and the love that informs them or else is lacking, have histories, as too do those who enter into relationships. This is not an incidental aspect, but essential. Attachments grow from a sequence of encounters and exchanges. This is why it is sometimes puzzling to an outsider that some couples are so attached to each other when objectively they seem so far apart. Whether what is involved is love exactly, and the extent to which the relationship is mutually beneficial, is a separate matter. Familiarity is not the same as love.

[i]. There is a parallel situation in epistemology, or rather, in the theory of perception. Our perceptions even of an everyday object are varied and discontinuous.
[ii]. Consider here also the double-edged nature of words like concern and caring. Concern is an emotional response, but the word implies that the subject feeling concern is anxious to act on their concern insofar as this is possible. Care straddles the divide between action and feeling even more ambiguously, denoting — according to context and intonation — sometimes action, sometimes feeling, and often both.
[iii]. This thought experiment is of course that proposed by Kant to provide a criterion of whether a category of action is compliant with the moral law.
[iv]. When an offer of love is rejected, the person loving is popularly consoled — or cajoled — with statements such as “If you really loved her, you would accept her decision and leave her alone.” But whatever independent force an injunction to accept the rejection may have, it is unconnected with love.
[v]. There is a philosophical tradition going back to Plato of interpreting love in terms of a lack or deficiency on the part of the person loving. But a more appealing view of love is to see it as expressing an abundance, as a need to give rather than to take. This is interestingly explored in the work of Georges Bataille, who takes his cue from Nietzsche.
[vi]. Such faith is one clear meaning that might be attributed to the otherwise obscure but popular notion of self-love or love of self. In psychological and theological writing, reference is often made to a “good” self-love, which is contrasted starkly with egoism. One writer who makes a serious attempt to elucidate the distinction is Denis de Rougemont, in his “Les mythes de l'amour”. But I remain unconvinced that the notion of self-love can be made genuinely fruitful for normative and philosophical discourse. In the final analysis, it always runs up against the imponderable nature of the self, and so ends by explaining neither love nor self nor anything else.
1995 Paul Charles Gregory





Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1986

The Two Sides of Love



The kind of love under consideration here is that between equal persons as it typically occurs within the context of a friendship. It is assumed that love opens the way to a sense of meaning or purpose for the individual, the difficulty addressed being that of how to pursue or recognise love. Is it primarily a form of action or of feeling? Can love be said to consist of giving? How does love relate to freedom and dependence? The consideration of these questions leads to the argument that love necessarily involves the creation of needs and therefore of vulnerability. The essay closes with a conception of how the conflict between love as action and love as feeling (“the two sides of love”) may be resolved.

Love as Action

Is love first and foremost a pattern of feeling or of action? Our instinct says feeling, but not everything which feels or poses as love is love. What people claim about the way they feel must be checked against how they actually behave. Action which is informed by love must, it seems, be good and so recognisable as such, whereas when it comes to feelings alone people can deceive both themselves and others. The world of feeling seems too volatile and subjective to do proper justice to what is meant by love. What feels like love might be more possessiveness, or dependence, or familiarity, than the disinterested concern for another, or others, which bears the name of love.

We seek in love a sense of meaning, and this, at any rate, must be some sort of emotional well-being. But it is not clear that we can decide of ourselves what we will feel or even to feel. It is, it seems, no more possible to seek feeling alone than it is to seek pleasure alone. We can only pursue the things which—normally—bring us pleasure. And where feeling is sought directly the issue is likely to be sentimentality.

Thus if our concern is how we may come to feel love, the best approach seems to be to equate love with action of a certain sort, and leave the feeling to look after itself. In its logic, this strategy would resemble Pascal's counsel to those without faith that if they prayed long and hard enough belief would in due course come of its own accord.

That is, we must only act in a certain manner, and feelings of warmth will follow on; others will eventually respond to the love we show, and we ourselves will find our affection developing by grace of the decision we have taken to act lovingly.

Whether the feelings will indeed look after themselves can be doubted. And if they fail to develop as they should, in one crucial sense the exercise will have been in vain. Perhaps the answer here is a matter of faith. But the more manageable question is that of what the action of love might consist in.    

Love as Giving

One answer of appealing simplicity is that love consists of giving. For unequal relationships this may be an adequate definition. But what, in an equal and reciprocal relationship, does giving consist of? Here, surely, there is for the most part no proper distinction between giving and receiving; there is, in the background only, in practicalities, the easy commerce of give and take. The need to share, to communicate, and the balance of this mutual need, will vary. But the thought "now I am giving, and now I am taking" can only obtain a real foothold when the relationship lacks or has lost a flow of its own. Where there is love the one who is listening neither • takes from nor gives to the one who is speaking. We cannot say who gives, and who takes; or we must say that both simultaneously give and take.

This point can be put differently by talking of a need to give. Love will then consist in a need to give to the person who is loved. This person will be special because it is he or she who will be able to take what is given, who will know how to respond. Another person, with a different sensibility and other experiences, would not know what to do with, or how to appreciate, whatever it is that is given. (What is given might be an insight, a piece of news, a meal, a new friend, a task, a piece of advice, a sleigh-ride, a confidence, etc.)

The specialness of the person loved corresponds to the specialness of the person who loves. That is, the 'giving' which takes place is also an expression of the sensibility and qualities of the person who 'gives'. We have to do with a form of self-expression, and self-expression is a personal need. It is this aspect which here deprives the simple picture of giving of its intended significance, for giving generally means going without for the sake of another or others; but here there is no renunciation.

Of course, none of this is to dispute that under the aegis of love self-sacrifice, which means real giving, can and does occur. But our concern here is with normal circumstances; and the rule of the common way of love, of friendship between equal and mature persons, is a flow which bypasses giving and taking.

I can envisage three objections to this account. One is that the mutual and implicit generosity which rules within the relationship might conceal selfishness towards, or, more weakly, exclusion of those outside. I have tried to forestall this reservation by mentioning that, among the things which are given, might be a new friend. There is nevertheless a problem, the quite general difficulty that, whenever one end is pursued, it may be to the detriment of other ends. (Although it might too be to their indirect good.) The criticism still misses the mark here because the aim of the above account is to show that one traditional characterisation of love, namely giving, fails in a paradigmatic case to obtain a foothold. This means that, even if the equation of love with the action of giving is correct for some situations, it is unhelpful in others. It might, of course, be claimed that friendship such as I have sketched it is not governed by love. I am unsure how that argument might look, but it brings me to a second possible objection, namely, that no pursuit of self-expression can be called giving or love because it means obedience to the (vanity of the) self rather than to the (moral or transcendental) demands of a given situation.

Again I have tried to anticipate this criticism by postulating a situation where, happily, no conflict between • the demands for moral response and self-expression arises. It is one thing to maintain that morality should have precedence over the value of self-expression; it is quite another to condemn the pursuit of self-expression as such. The issue turns on the value which is accorded to, or withheld from, individuality.

In many metaphysical doctrines the individual self is regarded as illusory; by contrast, Western culture has come at times to view individuality as a supreme good.

In philosophical terms, the notion of the self as anything more than a necessary fiction (a vanishing point) must seem less than coherent. But here it is not strictly necessary to enter into the metaphysical debate. For our purposes it is enough to ask whether, without the individual self, which must in one form or another involve self-expression, there can properly be any talk of love at all.

The third objection is that any emotional dependence, even in the shape of a need to give to and help the other, is a mark of an insufficiently mature love. One way of avoiding this charge would be to maintain that the notion of a need to give is logically incoherent and that the expression was only introduced so as to highlight by means of a paradox the inadequacy of the equation of love with giving. I shall, however, stand by the word "need"; it seems to me that love does, inconveniently, have something to do with a felt need and dependence.

Love as Need

Love can be the will to give, it may be the desire to give, but can it be allowed to be a need? Yet are will and desire enough? Can will be sustained without desire, and is desire which stops short of being like a need powerful enough to amount to love?

Yet our every need seems to detract from our freedom, any dependence is a lessening of our sovereignty. If once love in the fullest sense of the word is allowed necessarily to involve a need, our two most cherished values, freedom and love, will be seen to conflict. (We already know, from our personal experience, that they conflict, but we conceal the structure of that conflict either by emphasizing that love restricts freedom on account of the responsibility it imposes, or else by blaming the incompleteness of our love, so unlike the love of the saints that we still need the objects of our love.)

Freedom, nevertheless, is only significant as the freedom to choose, and once a choice has been made, the preceding freedom is so to speak cancelled out. Freedom cannot be of itself an end because its sense lies in its renunciation. Whenever we choose we relinquish a freedom and affirm a value. Freedom is thus the preliminary to value rather than a value itself. Any value which is deeply rooted takes on the aspect of a need; commitment to a value means, at the limit, not feeling able, except maybe at the risk of surrendering one's selfhood, to relinquish that value. It is this very inability which makes of the value held a need. In this context freedom is a preliminary not only to value but to need itself.

Any value which is deeply rooted takes on the aspect of a need; commitment to a value means, at the limit, not feeling able, except maybe at the risk of surrendering one's selfhood, to relinquish that value. It is this very inability which makes of the value held a need. In this context freedom is a preliminary not only to value but to need itself. The sense, then, of freedom is not independence from need, but the capacity to choose our values and therefore, ultimately, our needs. (If you have chosen your needs, you can identify with them.)

Any need brings with it a vulnerability. In this light our freedom is the way we choose to be vulnerable. (Viewed from another angle it is our choice of sensibility.)

(We retain a kind of freedom in the sense that we might, with time, transform our values and ultimately our needs. But we are not masters of time. Values and needs cannot be altered at will to the convenience of circumstance.)

Personal love implies that a value is attached to a specific individual; the extent of personal love is reflected in the intensity of the value accorded to the other. Belief in a person resembles belief in a value, and belief in a value entails, when intense, feeling a need to pursue that value, entails not feeling capable of abandoning one's commitment. The object of love thus represents a value to which a personal commitment has been made. A confession of love, as opposed to liking, or mere well-wishing, implies a dependence; it entails the possibility of missing a person.

Persons who love desire and subjectively need to be able to act in accordance with their love; they therefore need in some measure the presence of the person loved. Thus it is that love implicitly makes of its object this one demand.

This is not to say that any dependence or attachment amounts to love. What is meant is that any love worthy of the name establishes an essential connection between the person who loves and the person loved. Such a connection can be weakened or destroyed in the same way and to the same extent that individuals change. But love, while it lasts, means thinking persistently in terms of the person loved, and such thinking involves the desire for communication with the object of love. There is some room for the cultivation or repression of such desire. But the loss, or the unavailability, of the person loved must necessarily cause a rupture in the person who loves, and the fact of this rupture cannot in itself be taken as evidence that there was dependence and not love. The person whose love is rejected or becomes impossible cannot, on perception of the rejection or loss, simply cease to be dependent. Dependence is as it were an undercurrent which only becomes properly visible in times of crisis. Without dependence, love, in the sense of a movement of consciousness which suspends our isolation, is inconceivable. Love necessarily involves making oneself vulnerable, and the vulnerability remains real as long as the love persists. (Love entails opening oneself up to the possibility of hurt.)

The Need to Love, the Need for Love

Persons in the sense of self-conscious beings are defined by their need to communicate with others, who, in turn, must be perceived as feeling. This need is in the most fundamental way essential, for in its absence we cannot properly speak of a conscious person. The forms which that communication might take are countless, but our concern here is roughly speaking with the spectrum of communication which is benevolent.

In point of fact, some communication is not sufficient: in the long term, people need to be with specific individuals, i.e. there must in the contact which takes place be considerable continuity through time. Discontinuities remain acceptable and possible; people die, go away or grow apart, and so there are breaks, fractures, whether foreseen or sudden. But since the continuity we demand is nevertheless very considerable, it is clear that these breaks must not be frequent.

This does not necessarily entail in every case great dependence on any specific individual or group of individuals, although the chronic failure of a whole sequence of persons to continue being present (available for communication) may well lead eventually to acute dependence on some one or few individuals. (No thread is indispensable except the last; threads can be renewed and replaced, but only with time.) This dependence will be felt as such to the extent that the capacity to love has survived.

The love that persons need to give must, then, be personal. Care for others who remain as it were faceless, anonymous, i.e. that caring which stems from our sentiment of common humanity, cannot generally of itself convey to the person caring the sense of meaning (belonging) we have need of.

Strictly speaking, I have not shown that a person as such needs to love. An involvement which might be quite unloving could be sufficient as far as maintaining oneself as a self-conscious being is concerned. Here I shall only venture the affirmation that a wholesome sense of meaning in life is only possible through love, and this must mean the love that we bear other individuals.

The question posed at the outset was that of the nature of love and in particular whether love is basically a pattern of action or of feeling. I claimed that what was important in the last resort for the individual was that he or she should harbour feelings of love, but that this could only be achieved—uncertainly—via the action of love, it being understood that a person might well, at least initially, act lovingly (caringly) without actually harbouring any proper sentiment of love. The next issue was what such action (the action of love) might consist in. The notion of love as giving was criticised and then essentially modified by introducing the paradoxical idea of someone needing to give. This led to a discussion of freedom and love, and of values and needs, and it was emphasised that love necessarily involves acquiring needs (i.e. a dependence on the person or persons loved). Finally, it was argued that, as beings conscious of themselves, we necessarily need to think of ourselves as in communication with others (even if this communication is only imaginary), and I affirmed that this involvement with others should be one of love. What remains unanswered — although it is perhaps legitimate to sidestep the question — is whether love is first and foremost a pattern of feeling or of action. It might of course be said that it is a disposition, issuing now in action, now in feeling, and this is certainly accurate as far as it goes (it provides an excellent example of what is meant by the word “ =”disposition) “.

But I wish to close with an analysis which, I think, leads us back to the reality of our emotional lives and the world of tangible needs. The question is: what hinges on the matter of the priority of action or of feeling? And the answer is surely that, whilst it is important for me that I should have feelings for others, and I cannot make up for any lack of feelings by acting towards others as if I felt such affection, it is not enough for others that I should harbour the sentiment of love, this sentiment must, if it is to countfor them as my love, manifest itself in action. Similarly, if I am to be persuaded of the love of others, this must show itself as an appreciation on their part of the person I am and the needs and values I have. If others attribute to me needs and values which I find foreign, or only incidental, then I must see their love as a fiction, not because I directly doubt their sincerity, but because their love is for a person who is not myself, i.e. it is for a fictional person.

The issue of the relation between love as a pattern of feeling and love as action now emerges as a strict matter of perspective. That is, neither the one nor the other has ontological priority.  


Caritas Deus Non Est

Reflections on the Insufficiency of Christian Love

One might suppose that Pope Benedict XVI's Encyclical on Christian Love (DEUS CARITAS EST) would be of interest only to those who believe, whether firmly or vaguely, in the God of Christianity. But it must in fact also be of interest to all those who believe in love, again whether firmly or vaguely. A critical examination of this well-formulated restatement of traditional beliefs and understandings can throw light on both the nature of love and the nature of religion, and help us guard against fatal misapprehensions.

This essay is available as html at the neighboring section "Christianity"
or else

> Download the whole essay as PDF.