Notes on Love

This post examines love as a virtue, as part of a sequence of posts about virtues. I mostly explore what other people have learned about love, rather than sharing my own research or opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, and my research has been scattershot. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will help people who want to know more about love and how to practice it skillfully.

What is this thing called love?

“Love” suffers from more than its share of terminological difficulty. People use the word to refer to all sorts of things—including sensations, emotions, dispositions, commitments, actions, judgments, predicaments, opinions, principles, personified or deified forces, and people. The love that people experience when they fall-in-love is very different from the Christian “love your enemies” sort of love or the love that parents have for their children or the love that a devotee has for God or the love that a gourmand has for pancetta or the love that a patriot has for her country or the love that misery has for company.

And I don’t think there is a primary meaning of love, with a bunch of secondary meanings hooked to it metaphorically. As a quick sanity-check, I did an informal poll of Facebook friends in which I asked, without further context, how they would sum up “love”. About half of the serious responses described love as a feeling. Another 25% described it as a sort of disposition (e.g. “the desire for the beloved to thrive,” “not thinking twice about sticking around during the tough times”). A few described it as a sort of activity (e.g. “helping”). Two examples did not attempt to describe what love is, but instead described its place in your life (“love completes you”, “it’s all you need”). Some answers were ambiguous (e.g. is “caring” a feeling or an action?). This reinforced my impression that “love” does not have an obvious central definition with other secondary meanings, but that it is a scrambled mishmash of a lot of things.[1]

While love is not well-defined it is nonetheless a very popular topic of inquiry in just about every literary variety. It is nigh impossible to do even a cursory literature survey of the topic. As a result, mine has been eccentric and there’s a good chance I would have come up with some very different conclusions if I had begun my unraveling by pulling some other of the many threads I had to choose from.

I would be tempted to chuck love off the list and discuss more well-defined virtues instead, except that in the Western tradition in the Christian era, “love” tends to show up on lists of virtues often, and sometimes tops the list. So, though wise men say only fools rush in, I can’t help flailing in love for you.

Virtues of love

Of the many uses of the word “love,” several might plausibly describe virtues (that is, habits characteristic of human flourishing), including:

  1. the indiscriminate attitude of love Jesus talked about in phrases like “love your enemy” and “love your neighbor” and “love one another”

  2. the more discriminating and particular sort of love you might have for a close friend

  3. romantic “falling in love”-style love, and romantic partner-bond love (maybe “courtly love” fits in here too, but I’m going to ignore it for now)

  4. love of God

  5. self-love

  6. love for life, love of one’s calling, amor fati, and things of that nature

  7. love of one’s country

  8. love of beauty, love of nature

  9. the nurturing love that a parent shows for a child and the reciprocal love of the child for the parent, and the more horizontal love between peer family members (e.g. siblings, adult children and parents, maybe pets?)

The last four of these I will save for possible future write-ups about enthusiasm/​zest, patriotism, aesthetic appreciation, parenting/​family-making, and filial piety. Love of God I touched on in my Notes on Piety. Self-love strikes me as a metaphorical use of the term, but I covered some of its aspects in my Notes on Dignity; I might also take on “self esteem”/​“pride” at some point. That leaves the first three, which I will try to briefly examine in this post.

Christian love: agape

“Why love among the virtues is not known
Is, that love is them all contract in one.”
―John Donne[2]

Jesus made “love”[3] central to the ethics that he taught. For example:

[A Pharisee asked] “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” ―Matthew 22:36–40

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.… If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.… But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” ―Luke 6:27–35

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” ―John 13:34–35

What did the Christians mean by this agape-style love? Luckily for us, Paul gives a very quotable definition:

“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” ―1 Corinthians 13:4–7

However, from this, it seems that “love” isn’t a virtue, but an amalgam of more than a dozen. I see at least good temper, kindness, muditā, modesty, humility, courtesy, respect for others, forbearance, benevolence, justice, rationality, piety, hope, and endurance in those verses. You can find even more virtues to add to that list in certain other passages.

A tempting interpretation is that “love” is a shorthand way of referring to the package of Christian social virtues. For example, perhaps it would make sense to say something like “you could use a little more modesty in your love, brother.”

Another possibility is that love is a master-virtue that unlocks these many others: St. Jerome, for example, called love “the mother of all the virtues.”[4] Paul suggested that “love” is a distinct thing—something fundamental that forms a foundation for other virtues,[5] or maybe an essential ingredient that makes the other virtues really virtuous:

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” ―1 Corinthians 13:1–3

One way to look at this is that love aims the other virtues correctly.[6] For example, an intrepid jewelry thief might exhibit plenty of “courage,” but if the goal of her courageous act is not coherent with love, she is only practicing a sort of misfire of the real virtue. In this interpretation, Christian love isn’t the introduction of a new virtue, but a redefinition of what virtue is.[7] In the old Aristotelian sense, a habit is a virtue if it tends to exhibit the worldly human flourishing of the person who practices it. In the new Christian sense, a habit is a virtue if it harmonizes with love (of God, primarily, and of one-another, secondarily).

Iris Murdoch came to a similar conclusion from another (not explicitly Christian) direction. In her metaphor, rather than the virtues being built on a foundation of love, they build towards love at their apex:

If we reflect upon the nature of the virtues we are constantly led to consider their relation to each other… For instance, if we reflect upon courage and ask why we think it to be a virtue, what kind of courage is the highest, what distinguishes courage from rashness, ferocity, self-assertion, and so on, we are bound, in our explanation, to use the names of other virtues. The best kind of courage (that which would make a man act unselfishly in a concentration camp) is steadfast, calm, temperate, intelligent, loving… This may not in fact be exactly the right description, but it is the right sort of description.[8]

The way the virtues reflect and refer to each other suggests to Murdoch an underlying unity, which she identifies with love, which she further describes as “the direction of attention… outward, away from self… towards the great surprising variety of the world.”[9]

Modern writers who attempt to explain agape, both from within the Christian tradition and from outside of it, continue to propose diverse, imprecise, and sometimes incompatible definitions of what it entails.[10] I think I will simply recognize this rather than try to add to the pile with a definition of my own, but there are some common themes that I’ll consider in a broad-brush way.

Often agape has connotations of altruism and selflessness. It may be a self-serving virtue, but only incidentally, not intentionally.[11] You practice agape for them (or for Him), not for yourself.

Christian agape is indiscriminate. You are to love one another, love your neighbor, love your enemy… nobody seems to be left out. The Christian is supposed to disconnect love from evaluation and from relation: Love ’em all and let God sort ’em out.

This sort of love is not a two-way-street the way other varieties are. Romantic love or friendship love is paradigmatically a love shared between two people, where each person in the relationship participates lovingly. Christian agape, on the other hand, seems to come entirely from the Christian (or from God with the Christian as a conduit), and radiates onto the recipient without the recipient’s active participation. This is how you can love your enemies even as they fail to love you.

Agape is gratuitous: The recipient of agape does not earn it or deserve it. That can make being on the receiving end of agape ambiguous. C.S. Lewis wrote:

We want to be loved for our cleverness, beauty, generosity, fairness, usefulness. The first hint that anyone is offering us the highest love of all is a terrible shock. This is so well recognised that spiteful people will pretend to be loving us with Charity precisely because they know that it will wound us. To say to one who expects a renewal of Affection, Friendship, or Eros, “I forgive you as a Christian” is merely a way of continuing the quarrel. Those who say it are of course lying. But the thing would not be falsely said in order to wound unless, if it were true, it would be wounding.[12]

This is kind of paradoxical. On the one hand we may long to be loved unconditionally, so that we would be secure in the love no matter who we become or what we do. But we really long to be loved conditionally on the condition that we’re marvelous, so as to confirm our marvelousness. We don’t really want to be loved “anyway,” in spite of ourselves.

The gratuitousness of agape suggests one way it can be evidence of a flourishing life. Erich Fromm:

For the productive character, giving… is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.[13]

It is not clear to me what agape entails. What is different about someone with it from someone without it? There seems to be no consensus about this, and sometimes Christians have what might charitably be described as counterintuitive notions: The Roman Catholic chaplain who blessed the mission that culminated in the atomic bombings of Japan, or the Russian Orthodox patriarchs who chose a patron saint of nuclear weapons, apparently believed Christians ought to love their enemies into smithereens by the thousands, for example.[14] It does not seem to be helpful to define agape as “that thing Christians do to their neighbors and enemies” in the same way that you might describe the Hajj as “that thing Muslims do when they go to Mecca.” If someone says they are full of Christian love for me, I cannot help but wish they could be more specific.

One possible explanation is that agape is a god-like love—the sort of love God gives to His creatures—and that is why it can seem strange and unnatural to us, and why even Christians have a hard time approaching it. When Jesus instructed his disciples to practice agape, this was perhaps an extension of his “Thy will be done” teaching: our agape towards each other (our neighbors and our enemies) is ideally God’s agape expressed through us, unfiltered by our sinful mortal discriminations and limitations. In this interpretation, by channeling God’s love to his creatures in an unimpeded way, we can more closely approach God.[15]

Although precisely what agape entails is difficult to pin down, it seems to suggest goodwill, kindness, and that sort of thing: the benevolent basket of goods Paul aphorized. That Christians are to behave in such a way towards everyone, even their enemies, gives Christianity a utopian appeal. It invites you to imagine yourself filled to overflowing with such attractive qualities, unable to hate anyone because of all the love getting in the way, and working side-by-side with other such delightful people to spread this gospel. It invites you to imagine a world in which you are surrounded by your loved ones all the time, because you love everyone.

I remember as a Jesus-curious boy at YMCA camp singing “they will know we are Christians by our love” and thinking that sounded delightful. It is an audacious doctrine, and (at least in a generous imagination) has appealingly revolutionary, world-changing implications. In my subsequent experience with Christians, however, it has proven difficult for me to discriminate them from others by their love. I have met Christians who both demonstrate extraordinary goodwill, benevolence, kindness, and such and who say they are inspired by their faith to do so; it’s just that this is more the exception than the rule, in my experience, and they don’t seem to turn up any more typically than their non-Christian counterparts who find some other motivation for being that way. That is just my unsystematic observation. However I think if Christianity were indeed a reliable way of provoking agape of the sort Christ describes, I probably would have noticed by now.

But Christ didn’t say his path was an easy one that most anyone could find their way to.[16] That most Christians fail to practice agape in the way he taught may just indicate that it’s hard to do. It still might be worth the attempt. But it’s daunting to note that even people who believe their eternal felicity depends on it apparently find it impractical.

The love of friendship

“Friendship is unnecessary… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” ―C.S. Lewis[12]

Before Jesus made agape such a big deal, there was philia, the love between close friends.[17]

Aristotle, whose Nicomachean Ethics is otherwise remarkably self-focused, devotes two books of that work to friendship, and describes the best variety of friendship in explicitly other-focused terms. In his telling, true friendship exists when two people each wish for each other’s good, and are both aware of this mutual relationship of goodwill.[18]

Unlike Christian agape, philia is discriminate: you only practice it towards a few people, and only towards those with whom you have developed an appropriate relationship. You can no more love everybody (in this way) than you can make every flavor of ice cream your favorite.[19]

Aristotle considered true friendship to include a regard for one another that is like the regard for oneself that a virtuous person has. A virtuous person has integrity, and wishes what is actually good for himself, for his own sake. In this way, he is like a friend to himself, for a friend will be in harmony with a friend, and will wish for that friend what is actually good for the friend’s sake.[20] People deficient in virtues, on the other hand, are in conflict even with themselves (their appetites conflict with their reason, and so forth), and so they don’t have a good foundation on which to build good friendships.[21]

Practicing the other virtues makes friendship easier to establish in other ways, too. For example, if you are trustworthy, another person can more confidently put trust in you, which is a prerequisite for this sort of friendship.[22] This indeed is one of the reasons to practice the virtues: because this helps you to become the sort of person who can have true friendships, and having such friendships is vital to human thriving.[23]

Another reason friendship harmonizes with the other virtues well is that the virtues are the ingredients of a good life. If friendship is (in part) wishing for the good for your friend, this will mean (in part) wishing that your friend may practice the virtues. If you do not have a good grasp of the virtues, you may wish “the good” for your friend but be mistaken about what that is, and so may harm your friend accidentally. Take for instance a “friend” who enables the other’s addiction (I love my friend, so I’ll make sure to buy enough meth for both of us).[24]

On the other hand, C.S. Lewis thought genuine friendship was just as possible between vicious people as between virtuous people, and that this makes it potentially dangerous. “It makes good men better and bad men worse,” he thought, because similar people cluster in friendship and reinforce each others’ characteristics.[12] It might even be the case that people with a lot of vices are especially eager to form friendships with others because they find other people’s characters a welcome distraction from their own.[21]

That said, I’ve noticed that even among vicious people who form friendships together, they may be attracted to each other’s virtues as much as or more than their vices. For example, among cruel friends whose friendship is partially based on indulging their cruelty together, it is still not necessarily the cruelest who will be most esteemed, but the one whose cruelty is boldest or wittiest.

While true friends in Aristotle’s sense wish for each other’s good, vice-friends in Lewis’s sense may want the opposite, since wallowing in vices together is part of how those friendships work. If you trade in your drunkenness, sloth, and cynicism for sobriety, industriousness, and hope, the vice-friends you’ve been slacking off with may feel abandoned and judged, and may try to prevent your improvement (unless they are bright enough to be inspired by your example). This is another way friendship can work against your interests if you don’t have a good foundation of other virtues or if you choose your friends poorly.

Aristotle drew a distinction between “philesis” (translated as “love” below), a perhaps fleeting feeling, and “philia” (“friendship”), a durable and characteristic disposition marked by habitual action:

[I]t seems that while love is a feeling, friendship is a habit or trained faculty. For inanimate things can equally well be the object of love, but the love of friends for one another implies purpose, and purpose proceeds from a habit or trained faculty. And in wishing well for their sakes to those they love, they are swayed not by feeling, but by habit. Again, in loving a friend they love what is good for themselves; for he who gains a good man for his friend gains something that is good for himself. Each then, loves what is good for himself, and what he gives in good wishes and pleasure is equal to what he gets; for love and equality, which are joined in the popular saying φιλότης ἰσότης [“in amity, equality”], are found in the highest degree in the friendship of good men.[25]

This highlights another advantage of friendship among the virtuous: that vicious people tend to pursue their perceived self-interest in a zero-sum way that has deleterious effects on those around them (including their “friends”) whereas virtuous people tend to pursue their perceived self-interest in ways that also advantage those around them (such as their friends).

True friendship, said Aristotle, is a two-way street, but is characterized by loving rather than by being-loved.[26] This differentiates it from something like honor, where it seems better to receive than to give, or from flattery, which is a sort of false friendship that some people like to receive. I suppose the two-way-street aspect of it also distinguishes it from the sort of regard people may have for heroes and celebrities, in which they might admire (even love?) such a person, but that person might not know they exist.

There are some practical advantages to having a friend: they’re someone you can count on in a pinch, for example; you can bounce ideas off of them; and they can give you the help you need even when it’s not the help you want. But commentators on the love of friendship are more likely to describe it not as something of practical value, but as an end in itself—as in the C.S. Lewis quote at the top of this section. You have friends because having friends is one of life’s delights, and you love your friends because that is how friendship works.

Erotic love

“Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come.” ―Matt Groening

Popular culture mentions of “love” are dominated by the romantic, erotic variety.[27] Falling in love and being in love is an important part of life for many people; stories and songs about this sort of love are ubiquitous.

In popular Hollywood-style myth people will risk everything and will go on arduous quests in pursuit of “true love” of this sort. Part of what makes these myths work is that it is seen as plausible that “true love” is worth just about any sacrifice. A back-up device is to suggest that the feeling of falling-in-love is so utterly compelling in the delights it promises or the desire it provokes that other values must submit to it so long as it lasts.

Be that as it may, I’m not sure how to fit this sort of love into the scheme of virtues. Is the pursuit of love a habit that characterizes a thriving person? Or is it more of a remarkable event or a particularly overwhelming emotion or an enthusiasm? It is such a big deal (and can have such big consequences) that it seems likely there are better or worse ways to go about it, and maybe there are learnable skills involved. But you could argue that love itself isn’t the virtue, but that a lover deploys other virtues more-or-less well in the course of their erotic quest.

If you were to habitually, characteristically, fall in love you’d be something of a laughable Casanova, so that can’t be quite right. Indeed infatuation is associated with fatuousness and a variety of vices. You could imagine an anti-Paul composing an aphorism about this sort of love:

“Love is impatient, love is cruel. It is jealous and boastful. It slanders competitors and thinks only of itself. It is quick to fury and remembers every slight. It will stop at nothing and will clutch at straws. It always doubts, always pleads for reassurance, always despairs…”

Eros seems to be a demanding variety of love, both in the sense that it presents itself as an imperative demand to the lover, and in the sense that the person tapped by it cannot be satisfied by loving but demands to be loved in return. If you love in this way and are not loved back, you may pine or plead. Such love is more focused on desire (I want you, I need you) than is friendship or agape. It sometimes is described as a “hunger” in a way that other forms of love are not.

Cupid is notoriously volatile and unreliable. “ ‘I will be ever true’ are almost the first words he utters,”[12] but he requires novelty, surprise, uncertainty, ambiguity, to fuel the flames of passion. As those things diminish, eros loses the fuel it needs to burn. To the extent that we demand that our romantic love affairs keep us perpetually twitterpated, we doom them to be short and to end in disappointment.

But maybe the falling-in-love part is not where the virtue lies anyway; maybe it’s the more relationship-building being-in-love or staying-in-love instead. Erich Fromm contrasted the passive “passion” of falling in love from the active “action” of loving.[28] When you are under the influence of a passion, it’s driving the car; when you take the wheel, you can take action, and it is then that you can exercise virtue.

There is a lot of advice out there about how to sustain and develop love once it gets past the twitterpation stage and into relationship-building. It’s difficult for me to tell which of this advice is reliable. Most of it is presented confidently, but without much information about how that confidence was earned. I don’t think I can come up with anything better, so I’ll just link to LessWrong’s own Relationship Advice Repository.

Erotic love as a template for better loves

I was struck by how a number of authors suggested that erotic love is a kind of hint or training meant to prepare us for more mature and important varieties of love.

Socrates, for example, suggested that when someone falls in love with some attractive person, they are really attracted to Beauty itself, but are being confusedly entranced by a frail worldly exemplar of it. But such a person can “use the beauties of the earth as steps along which he mounts upwards for the sake of that other beauty” and eventually satisfy his desire correctly by fixing it on absolute Beauty, rather than on its disappointing mortal understudies.[29]

Erich Fromm thought that “the basis for our need to love” in general “lies in the experience of separateness and the resulting need to overcome the anxiety of separateness by the experience of union.”[28] Our erotic quests for union with some specific person, then, are stand-ins for a larger quest for reunion with the cosmos. If you get stuck at the erotic love stage, you will merely go from being an anxious separate individual to being one part of an anxious separate couple. You have to continue past erotic love to a deeper unity in order to really scratch the itch that drove you to fall in love.

C.S. Lewis thought eros was a sort of metaphor for agape: that its intensity and unanswerable insistence gives Christians an idea of how they ought to stoke the fires of their love for God, for their neighbor, and so forth:

[Eros’s] total commitment is a paradigm or example, built into our natures, of the love we ought to exercise towards God and Man.… It is as if Christ said to us through Eros, “Thus—just like this—with this prodigality—not counting the cost—you are to love me and the least of my brethren.”…

Spontaneously and without effort we have fulfilled the law (towards one person) by loving our neighbour as ourselves. It is an image, a foretaste, of what we must become to all if Love Himself rules in us without a rival. It is even (well used) a preparation for that.[12]

If these authors are on to something, then maybe one of the ways the virtue of love operates vis-a-vis erotic love is to not take erotic love too seriously, not get hung up on it, but be willing to leave it behind as though it were a lower stage of your rocket ship.

Erotic love as union

Descriptions of this sort of love often depict it as ideally culminating in a union. Informal phrases like “you complete me,” or “my other half” imply this, as does the legal institution of marriage, which unites a couple into a legal corporate entity that for example owns property jointly, files a single tax return, cannot be compelled to testify against itself (i.e. each-other), and so forth. Sexual intercourse can seem designed to imply this joining of two-into-one (so much so that even our mechanical connectors and fasteners have genitalia).

Romantic love may begin in a flurry of irresponsibility, but if it lasts long enough it seems to buzz around an attractor formed of things like duty, commitment, and loyalty.

One way of looking at this is that when two people come together into the chrysalis of marriage, what emerges is a third person: a different kind of human creature, composed of the original two but greater than the sum of its parts. There is an echo of conception, pregnancy, childbirth in this, which is probably not coincidental given the strong historical connection between marriage and childrearing. Creating the third person of a marriage can be seen as the first step in establishing the institution of a family.

If romantic love begins with infatuation and desire, and then ripens into something that includes a philia-like love of the other for-their-sake, what then happens at the point of union? One interpretation is that the antithesis of desire for-my-sake and love for-their-sake synthesizes into a love for-our-sake. The lovers reorient their focus from each-other to us-both or to what-we-have-together. Their rational self interest from that point forward becomes a joint pursuit of the interest of this third-party composed of both.

Erich Fromm was concerned that this could reintroduce narcissism to the lovers who had to set narcissism aside in order to love. Once this new relationship with the beloved forms, it can become what he called “egotism à deux” in which the lovers care deeply for their shared union, but tune out everyone else.[30] This can then reintroduce the original problem of the anxiety of separateness, though now instead of feeling that I am separate, cut off, standing outside, it’s we who are.

Sometimes it is implied that this united-couple third-person is what each of us is meant to become. In this telling, our solitary selves are only half-people, incomplete until we find our other half: Bachelors and spinsters are like caterpillars who failed to become butterflies, or like Peter Pans unwilling to venture forth from immaturity. In the Symposium, Aristophanes told this in the form of a myth in which people were originally whole-doubles, but then were split in half by an angry Zeus.[29] (You might prefer the Hedwig and the Angry Inch musical version.) As a result we spend our lives trying to find our other halves, and cannot be satisfied until we do.

Critics of this way of looking at it point out the disadvantages of considering yourself to be half-a-person, hoping that someone else will complete you. For one thing, such an idea puts the focus of love on finding that person—who are they, where are they, how might I attract them? This can mislead people about how love works. Erich Fromm wrote that “People think that to love is simple, but that to find the right object to love—or to be loved by—is difficult.”[31] He compared this to someone who wants to paint a beautiful portrait, but neglects to practice painting, waiting instead to find the perfect model. In the course of this argument, he described love in a way that brings it back into the category of the virtues:

Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person: it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not towards one “object” of love.[32]

Fromm’s “Art of Loving”

And what does Fromm think this virtue (“orientation of character”) consists of? Like Paul, like John Donne, like Iris Murdoch, he looks closely and finds that love consists of other virtues. In his case, he identifies the main ones as care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. By “care” he means the active sense of taking care of (as opposed to the more passive caring-about). By “responsibility” he means something less like “duty” and more like “responsiveness”—feeling the other person is your concern. By “respect” he means that you love the other person for-their-sake, and that you do not try to dominate or possess them. And by “knowledge” he means in part a genuine and penetrating curiosity about the other person, in which you want to know them in the same spirit as the Oracle counseled “know thyself.”

Fromm calls this the “Art” of loving, and says that to master any art you need discipline, concentration, and patience.[33] So those might be thought of as additional prerequisite virtues.

He thinks “the main condition for the achievement of love is the overcoming of one’s narcissism” and that the “opposite pole to narcissism is objectivity.”[33] Narcissism interprets reality according to what-it-means-to-me; objectivity according to what-it-is. We’re all somewhere on the objective-to-narcissistic spectrum at any particular time; some of us tend more toward one end than the other. To become a loving person, we can’t spend too much of our time gazing lovingly at our face in the shallow end of that pool. “The facility to think objectively is reason; the emotional attitude behind reason is that of humility.”[33] So: “love being dependent on the relative absence of narcissism, it requires the development of humility, objectivity, and reason. One’s whole life must be devoted to this aim.”[33]

He further finds crucial something he calls “rational faith,” which he defines in a way that I interpret as being mostly optimism, hope, and trust with a soupçon of confidence, integrity, and industry. If that weren’t enough, he thinks courage is important, too.

Attachment theory

I noticed that the positive psychology book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification quickly pivoted from talking about the virtue of love to discussing the research about “attachment.”[34] I’ll give a thumbnail sketch of attachment theory here.[35]

Attachment theory says that different children develop different ways of relating to novel situations and to other people, and that these persist into adulthood and shape the way we form intimate (most typically, romantic) relationships. Most adults practice one of three forms of attachment:

  1. anxiously attached people put a lot of effort and attention into relationships, which are very important to them. They work had to read cues, but tend to interpret them in overly-insecure ways. They often exhibit jealousy.

  2. securely attached people are warm, loving, unconcerned about their relationships, trusting, and understanding. They tend to form long loving bonds that work fairly well.

  3. avoidant people value autonomy and worry about losing their freedom to relationships. They tend to try to keep people at arm’s length. They may explain this as being “free spirits” who “aren’t ready to commit” or who are waiting for the right person.

Attachment theorists and researchers are sometimes careful to say that these styles are merely different rather than some being normal and others abnormal, but the field as a whole is usually not too subtle about pathologizing the avoidant and anxious styles in favor of the securely attached style. People in securely-attached relationships apparently tend to have longer lifespans and better outlooks on life, so maybe there’s something to this.

I don’t want to go too deep into this rabbit hole. There has been a lot written about attachment theory; it seems to resonate with a lot of people’s experiences and with the experiences of couples’ therapists. Its simple categories facilitate research and make some facets of love theoretically amenable to scientific investigation. There’s also a lot of pop-sci-type writing about it that seems barely distinguishable from astrology. But if you see yourself mirrored in a description of the anxious or avoidant attachment style and you think this is interfering with your exercise of the virtue of love, attachment theorists may be able to explain how you got that way and how you can work with it.

The book Attached[36] was recommended to me as a good introduction to this theory and how to use it.

Is romantic love unconditional love?

As I mentioned in my discussion of agape, people can have mixed feelings about unconditional love. On the one hand, you may yearn to be loved unconditionally—just for being you—not for any impermanent accidents about you like your attributes and actions. You don’t want to have to continually earn love and be insecure about whether you remain worthy.

On the other hand, you would like confirmation that your attributes and actions are indeed lovable, that you are loved for the kind of person you are, not just out of habit. You don’t want to be loved with no regard to your specific character: as though you were an interchangeable part that could be frictionlessly swapped out for another. Furthermore, if your love for your partner includes a strong for-their-sake component, you probably wouldn’t want them to continue to love you if you were to become abusive, degrading, or otherwise morally repulsive.

[W]hile you seem to want it to be true that, were you to become a schmuck, your lover would continue to love you, …you also want it to be the case that your lover would never love a schmuck.[37]

When you love some person in particular, this in part means that you value them in particular. You single them out from the crowd as being special and of extra worth. There is some debate about how this works, fundamentally: Do you evaluate that person’s characteristics, find those valuable, and therefore find the person lovable and begin to love them? Or do you find the person lovable and begin to love them, and as a result their characteristics become valuable ones to you?

Lovers themselves often appear confused about this. They may describe qualities of their beloved that to a less-bewitched observer seem utterly ordinary, but with stars in their eyes: “The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea…”[38] Do they see something we can’t see because we haven’t looked closely enough? Or do they see something that isn’t really there, but that they are projecting from their hearts?

There may some feedback between love as appraisal of value and love as bestowal of value. You may come to love someone and then confirmation bias leads you to selectively sift for evidence that verifies they’re wonderful. This evidence in turn enhances the love you feel for them and how exceptional they seem. And that then makes additional evidence of their marvelousness seem immediately credible.

Sometimes in popular stories of romance, the key to love is that person Α somehow gets a glimpse at something deep in the core of person Β and discovers there some intensely lovable hidden quality beyond what is superficially obvious. In such a case, Α is astute or observant or maybe trustworthy enough to be granted access to this hidden quality. And this excuses why Α can value Β so exceptionally and in a way that seems to defy consensus. If we assume this theme of folklore represents real wisdom about this variety of love, then having the ability to discern non-obvious founts of value in other people may be important in practicing it.

It’s easy to adore someone if you can only see them through rose-colored lenses and heart-shaped pupils. It may be that “true love” doesn’t come on the scene until you stop that nonsense. Anaïs Nin wrote: “Where the myth fails, human love begins. Then we love a human being, not our dream, a human being with flaws.”[39] But she also thought that the lover’s myth can be their vision of the best potential of the beloved, part of the gift that the lover brings, and it can be as much the beloved’s responsibility to accept this gift and live up to this vision as it is for the lover to stop hallucinating and come back down to earth.[40] The lover can see the prince in the frog, even if the frog doesn’t.

Love and vulnerability

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”―C.S. Lewis[12]

Love, romantic love in particular, is associated with vulnerability. This is in at least three ways:

  1. the process of building love requires some vulnerability in order to foster intimacy (for example, you share information about yourself that it is risky to allow someone else to know, or you fall asleep with your head in their lap)

  2. when you love someone, you rejigger your identity and priorities to accommodate this new extraordinary value in your life; but your beloved like all mortal things is impermanent and changing, and so may be painfully wrested from you

  3. you become affected by what befalls your beloved, so you can be hurt by what hurts them as much as by what hurts you directly; your surface area of vulnerability increases by that much

This suggests that the virtues of courage and moderation may be important. Courage so that you can feel the fear and love anyway. Moderation so that you stop short of an “I can’t live without you” sort of utterly-dependent love.

Searching for a common denominator

So far I’ve seen a lot of indications that the varieties of “love” are composites of other things, including packages of virtues, but also including things like feelings and values. But I wonder if there is something extra in the glue that holds all of that together that belongs more exclusively to love itself. Maybe there’s some X-factor such that you might say agape is X+devotion+altruism, philia is X+camaraderie+loyalty, eros is X+desire+intimacy, parental love is X+nurturance+care, or something along those lines.

Here are some possible characteristics of this X-factor:

  1. Things that you love tend to rank highly as priorities relative to other similar things that you do not love.

  2. Love is intensely-felt and extraordinary (even in the case of Christian agape, I think Christians aren’t meant to make love mundane when they make it unexceptional).

  3. Love is often a non-egocentric valuation of something. You don’t love something because of what it brings to you, or in the sense that you would like to possess it or turn it to your own uses, but you value it for what it is. (Though you may also love someone or something appreciatively and gratefully, and may strongly value what a loved one brings to your life, so this is not cut-and-dried.)[41]

  4. And yet it it does not pretend to be an objective valuation of something. Instead, what you love is loved in particular by you and you do not expect others to share this evaluation as a matter of course. Whether you love someone has a lot to do with accidents of relation, proximity, history, luck. Reason has a weaker role (maybe it can point out people who might be worthy of our love, or soberly determine when our love is misplaced).

  5. Love can develop (or evaporate) accidentally and as an afterthought, rather than deliberately. You are more likely to “come to love” or to “realize you love” somebody than you are to “decide to love” them.

  6. Love is distinguished by strong emotion. You can imagine being dispassionately kind, loyal, friendly, respectful, and so forth, but being dispassionately loving seems like a contradiction. This emotion is a positive one—you feel something like a warm joy for the things you love (not merely, for instance, strong jealousy, or strong anxiety for their safety).

  7. Love for something extends in time. It typically doesn’t come-and-go or show up briefly and vanish. It may not last ’til the end of time, but it lasts a while and puts up a fight before it goes away. If you say “I love you” on day one, and you say “oh, that was yesterday” on day two, it probably wasn’t the real deal.

  8. Love can change you[42] and it forms part of your self image (you define yourself in part by what and who you love). It can entangle you with another person such that you change. If love fails or is disrupted, this can also mess up your identity; you may have to pick up the pieces and reconstruct your person on a new foundation.

  9. Love necessarily has two poles: the lover and the thing that is loved. Sometimes people will complain that they are full of love but have nobody to bestow their love upon, or some formula along those lines, but that sort of pining loneliness is not itself love, but more of a hunger for the opportunity to practice love.

  10. Love includes not just passive sentiments, but actions meant to promote what one loves.

I’m sure I’m leaving a lot out. And some of these things might not apply to all examples of love. But I think I’m at least in the ballpark. Now I want to try to imagine how to translate this X-factor into something like a virtue: a characteristic, habitual disposition. It might go something like this:

People with love idiosyncratically, subjectively value some people or things especially highly (in an intrinsic rather than instrumental way) and in a way that is accompanied by strong positive emotion. They are at least somewhat constant in this intense feeling, not merely momentarily enthusiastic. They recognize and respect the evidence of this love in themselves, even if they did not deliberately choose it, and even if they cannot plausibly defend it as an objective evaluation. They define themselves in part by what it is that they value in this extraordinary way. And they do things (or will do them as the occasion arises) to nurture, defend, and enrich that which they love.

If this is to describe a virtue, this package of characteristic habits must also promote or be evidence of the human flourishing of the person who exhibits them. Love is such a commonly-valued (if often sketchily-defined) human trait, that it’s tempting just to cite popular acclaim: no further explanation necessary.

But I think we can do better than that: Consider just the part of love that involves intensely and emotionally valuing certain things (much of the rest seems to follow more-or-less naturally from this). If you live in a world in which there are such subjectively valuable things, you are enriched relative to a person who lives in a world in which such things are absent. Catchphrases of the depressed like “there’s nothing to live for” or “nothing really matters” are almost synonyms for “I can find nothing to love” in this sense.


The VIA Institute includes love as one of its “Character Strengths” (their preferred term for virtues). They describe it this way:

Love as a character strength, rather than as an emotion, refers to the degree to which you value close relationships with people, and contribute to that closeness in a warm and genuine way. …love as a character strength really refers to the way you approach your closest and warmest relationships. Love is reciprocal, referring to both loving others and the willingness to accept love from others.

They put a stress on “closeness” that is absent from the definition I came up with. This is at least in part because I was trying to accommodate Christian agape, in which you are supposed to be able to love even those you are not close to (even those you’d like to keep at a distance, like your enemies).

The love of friendship, of family, and of romance, however, usually implies intimacy: mutual vulnerability and disclosure, unusually profound understanding, regular contact or proximity, and things of that nature. If intimacy failed to make the common-denominator cut, it didn’t miss by much.

The Passionate Man

Simone de Beauvoir identified a subtle failure mode of love. To oversimplify, she believed that people necessarily must themselves create the ultimate values they live by, but that this power (and responsibility) frightens us and so we are perennially on the hunt for mythical objective values we can latch onto instead. One possible way to do this is to love someone or something and then to imagine that this subjective love has become fused into the love-object itself, giving it objective value. She calls the person who falls for this “the passionate man.”[43] The passionate man almost gets it right—he correctly sees himself as what creates values, but he incorrectly overshoots the mark: deifying those values and locking himself inside of them, excluding everyone else from a weird, private world of obsession.

The passionate man is unpleasantly monomaniacal and can be dangerous: “If the object of his passion concerns the world in general, this tyranny becomes fanaticism.” The passionate man is in the final analysis less in love with what he values than with his falsely-objectified valuation of it, and so this becomes another sort of narcissism after all.


When I began to research love I was vaguely aware of all of the terminological confusion and I was expecting to find that on close inspection love would either vanish into a vague applause-lit miasma or just decompose into a set of component sub-virtues.

I think now I have found something that belongs to love more particularly and that can fit (a little awkwardly) into the scheme of virtues. I think I understand why that crazy little thing called love is valuable to a flourishing life, for instance.

But I’m also more aware than before of just how much speculation about the nature of love there is out there and how difficult it is to find the gems in the pile. I don’t feel at all confident that I’ve done justice to the topic here.

  1. ^

    cf. H. Jones “What Is Love?” (1983); J.M. Leslie “I Want to Know What Love Is” (1984); C. Porter “What Is This Thing Called Love?” (1929)

  2. ^

    John Donne, To the Countess of Huntingdon

  3. ^

    There has been a lot of hair-splitting about the various Greek terms for love in the Bible. (The books of the New Testament were written in Koine Greek; Jesus himself spoke Galilean Aramaic.) You will typically hear it said that agape is the Christian love Jesus was discussing, philia is a more casual fondness, storge is the sort of love you have for your children or relations, and eros is the sort of love romantic lovers have for one another. While I am envious of this supposedly more-particular Greek terminology, this may be a bit oversimplified. Sometimes in Biblical Greek, agape seems to be used as a sort of emphatic fondness, much in the same way that we might say “I love χ” in English to mean “I really really like χ.” Also, the verb philéō had at that time taken on an additional meaning of “to kiss” (Judas philéō Jesus to betray him in Luke 22:47, for example) and so sometimes writers would substitute agapaō to avoid that when it would be ambiguous or perhaps cause snickering. But other times the writers who quoted Jesus could have chosen to use philia to mean something more like fondness or affection, or agape to mean something more serious, and they pointedly use the latter. These Jesus quotes all use agape, for example.

    To make the terminological difficulties just that much worse, Augustine insisted on Latinizing this variety of love as caritas which then became “charity” in English, though this has only a dim resemblance to how we usually use the word “charity” today. Because of this, depending on which Bible translation you prefer, the greatest Christian virtue may be either “love” or “charity”.

  4. ^

    Jerome, Epistles “To Theophilus Bishop of Alexandria” (399): “Cunctarum virtutum mater est caritas.

  5. ^
  6. ^

    See for example Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica (1485) Ⅱ.2 question #23, article #7: “Can any genuine virtue exist without charity?”

  7. ^

    See for example Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica (1485) Ⅱ.2 question #23, article #8: “Is charity the form of the virtues?”

  8. ^

    Iris Murdoch, “On ‘God’ and ‘Good’ ” (1969) in Existentialists and Mystics, pp. 337–362.

  9. ^

    Iris Murdoch, “On ‘God’ and ‘Good’ ” (1969) in Existentialists and Mystics, pp. 337–362. In “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts” (1967) she suggests that there is one more step past love in this unification, which leads you to a Platonic “Good.” Love “is the energy and passion of the soul in its search for Good, the force that joins us to Good and joins us to the world through Good.”

  10. ^

    Thomas Jay Oord’s Defining Love (2010) gives several examples of this and concludes that this “illustrates well Gene Outka’s observation that ‘the meaning ascribed in the literature to love, in general, and to agape, in particular, is often characterized by both variance and ambiguity.’ [Agape: An Ethical Analysis, 1972] Robert Adams notes the diverse understandings of agape that scholars offer, and he concludes that ‘agape is a blank canvas on which one can paint whatever ideal of Christian love one favors.’ [Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics, 1999] I suggest that this variance arises from the theological, ethical, anthropological, scientific, and metaphysical commitments of those who use agape to identify something distinctive when compared with other forms of love. These diverse understandings suggest that we should not think that agape has a uniform or obvious meaning.”

  11. ^

    Jesus highlighted the extremely altruistic nature of his agape in John 15:12–13: “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

  12. ^

    C.S. Lewis The Four Loves (1960)

  13. ^

    Erich Fromm The Art of Loving (1956), chapter Ⅰ

  14. ^

    Though the former, Lt. Col. Rev. George Zabelka, later had a change of heart.

  15. ^

    See, e.g. 1 John 4:7–21—“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.… This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.… God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.…”

  16. ^

    “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13–14)

  17. ^

    In this case, Latin is in our corner: amicitia/​friendship is more-closely related to amor/​love.

  18. ^

    Aristotle also recognizes lesser forms of friendship between people who simply enjoy each other’s company or who are cooperating to mutual advantage.

  19. ^
  20. ^

    See also Cicero, de Amicitia: “For everyone loves himself, not with a view of acquiring some profit himself from his self-love, but because he is dear to himself on his own account; and unless this same feeling were transferred to friendship, the real friend would never be found; for he is, as it were, another self.”

  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^

    Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Ⅷ.1

    See also Seneca, in one of his letters to Lucilius: “I want your friendship, and it cannot fall to my lot unless you proceed, as you have begun, with the task of developing yourself. For now, although you love me, you are not yet my friend.… A friend loves you, of course; but one who loves you is not in every case your friend. Friendship, accordingly, is always helpful, but love sometimes even does harm. Try to perfect yourself, if for no other reason, in order that you may learn how to love.”

    And Cicero, in de Amicitia: “I am inclined to think that, with the exception of wisdom, no better thing [than friendship] has been given to man by the immortal gods… [T]here are those who place the ‘chief good’ in virtue and that is really a noble view; but this very virtue is the parent and preserver of friendship and without virtue friendship cannot exist at all.”

  24. ^

    This is also how “selfishness” can be a virtue in the virtuous and a vice in the vicious: for example, a virtuous person may selfishly want even more temperance, courage, and honesty than they currently have; a vicious person may selfishly want even more self-indulgence, flattery, and sloth than they currently have.

  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^

    “Erotic” is now often used as a synonym or euphemism for “pornographic” or “sexy,” but I mean it in a broader sense. C.S. Lewis (The Four Loves, 1960) usefully differentiated Eros from Venus: Eros is the “in love” love; Venus is the “love you all night long” kind.

  28. ^

    Erich Fromm The Art of Loving (1956), chapter Ⅱ

  29. ^

    Plato, Symposium. Iris Murdoch, in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992) also made much of the idea that eros (when it works well) is the love for the Good that orients us and gives us the motivation to pursue the Good. What we colloquially call eros is just one kind of weird example of this, but one that shows how eros manifests as a sort of magnetic attraction.

  30. ^

    Erich Fromm The Art of Loving (1956), chapter Ⅲ

  31. ^

    Erich Fromm The Art of Loving (1956), chapter Ⅰ.

    I also like the way C.S. Lewis put this when he wrote about “…the odiousness of nearly all those treacly tunes and saccharine poems in which popular art expresses Affection. They are odious because of their falsity. They represent as a ready-made recipe for bliss (and even for goodness) what is in fact only an opportunity. There is no hint that we shall have to do anything: only let Affection pour over us like a warm shower-bath and all, it is implied, will be well.” ―The Four Loves (1960)

  32. ^

    Erich Fromm The Art of Loving (1956), chapter Ⅱ §3

  33. ^

    Erich Fromm The Art of Loving (1956), chapter Ⅳ

  34. ^

    Christopher Peterson & Martin E.P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues (2004), chapter 13

  35. ^

    Based on my notes from talks led by Dr. Erin Elfant at “The Order of the Oryx”, 22 February and 1 March, 2017

  36. ^

    Amar Levine & Rachel S.F. Heller, Attached (2010)

  37. ^

    N. Delaney, “Romantic Love and Loving Commitment: Articulating a Modern Ideal”, American Philosophical Quarterly 33 (1996): p. 347

  38. ^

    Ira Gershwin “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” (1937)

  39. ^

    The Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1944 November 1941

  40. ^

    The Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1966–1974 letter (p. 152)

  41. ^

    C.S. Lewis distinguished “need-love” (e.g. the love of of child for her caregiver, also erotic desire), “gift-love” (gratuitous, for-their-sake, e.g. the love of a parent for a child), and “appreciative love” (love of what we judge as good); these are not necessarily completely distinct, but can alternate or be combined in the same relationship. (The Four Loves, 1960)

  42. ^

    “the way a parent can change a baby—awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess.” ―Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid (2007)

  43. ^

    Simone de Beauvoir The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), chapter Ⅱ