What is Love?

by June Seong '19


February is an opportune month to talk about an essential topic philosophers have toiled over for millennia: love. A Christian celebration of Saint Valentinus but more traditionally a celebration of romantic love, Valentines stands as a day that celebrates a momentous driving human force. From Plato’s recognition that love is a desire for something that reminds us of a perfect world that transcends human capabilities of imagination to Alain Badiou’s assertion that love must be a series of untainted experiences from the corruption of reality, the postulations over love have landed man’s greatest thinkers on paths that extend wide and far.

Though the conclusions, or attempts at reaching one, stretch extensively, all philosophizing about love started from asking the same simple question: What is love?

For starters, the term philosophy roots out of the Greek word philosophia, meaning philo- “loving” and sophia “wisdom.” Compositely, then, philosophy means the love of wisdom. The philosopher’s job, thus, is based on this essential human pursuit. When asked what he has to say about love, Jacques Derrida responded that love was how “philosophy started.”

Starting from the very beginnings of the philosophical explorations on love in Western culture, we land on Plato’s concept of eros. He spoke of eros as constituting an “intense desire.” In his Symposium, he stated that eros roots from our observation of a beauty that, in reality, is a reflection of the “true” beauty that only exists in the world of Ideal Forms. One experiences eros for another person when observing in them a quality that is admittedly imperfect but resembles a perfect quality that transcends the human condition.

When this notion is further observed, one realizes that it is simultaneously reassuring but controversial. Love, unlike a romantic’s idea, is not the complete and utter “desire” for another’s every quality; rather, it is a “desire” for a series of imperfect qualities that, though not summating to be the entirety of the individual being loved, are exactly what warrant the attraction.

Socratic eros sheds light on the need to realize the particular nature of human satisfaction. This nature is not only one that is wholeheartedly based on the realization of imperfection, but also a mirroring of a perfect world. This parallel warrants the acceptance and friendship that comes with love. If self-care is synonymous with self-love, a comparison that I will later further examine, then to love—to care for oneself—is to recognize the fundamental inability of humans to reach perfection and to revel in it. The “desire” for the self would thus arise from a recognition of the qualities that stand attractive to that individual.


Another exploration of love roots out of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in which he meditates on the idea of philia, a fondness, and appreciation for one other. Aristotle, unlike Socrates, admitted that there are different levels of love. However, he suggested that the best kind of love would be produced by the best of men. In reasoning for what a “good man” was, he set his first tenant in achieving philia: self-love. He argued that without the ego, love could not extend to the other.

Marrying these two ideas of love together it becomes evident that the Ancient Greek conception of love came out of the recognition of an imperfect self. With love, it becomes pivotal to recognize that not only is the self-imperfect, but also all that surrounds us. The imperfection does not warrant diminution or criticism, however. Rather, it reminds us of the Ideal Forms—a world of perfection that transcends our own existence. These thoughts prove to be wholly reassuring.

Alain Badiou, a 20th century French ontologist, determines love as an irreducible, axiomatic, and self-evident function. It demands no more worldly intrusion from the “primary event,” especially not an intellectual one. He believes that love is remaining true to the initial experience of the fall of love. Because often the first encounter of two lovers is “contingent” and thus “disconcerting,” this surprise alone can act as an inspiration of kindling the relationship between them.

Further diving into this idea of the “fall” of love, Slavoj Zizek diagnoses the modern fear of authentic love as symptomatic of a generation of escapists. In a BigThink podcast, Zizek gesticulates over how the millennial's fear of “contingent encounters” is a regression into pre-modern, pre-romantic practices of arranged marriages. Arranged marriages allowed for all the practicalities of love—child rearing, building family connections—without the fall—heartbreak, butterflies-in-stomach, death. Zizek states that this is sad to him; these “contingent encounters” have acted as the fundamental motifs of the art of the Romantics, think of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther or John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. The haphazard dating scene is obscene to him, resolutely, as it stands as the end of an era of great human progress and the start of an onslaught inconsequential encounters. Just as we demand “sugar without calories” in stevia, “beer without alcohol,” and “coffee without the caffeine,” we demand love without the fall.

Our exploration of love leaves us less resolute on what love is. Though there have been a slew of thinkers having thought about the nature of this topic, a consensus has barely been made in small enclaves of agreeable philosophers. Though this end seems unsatisfactory, it becomes evident through looking a step further into the nature of thought that conclusions about love are next to impossible to come to.