Rhetoric | What is Love?

What is Love?
© 2014 Vernon Miles Kerr

What is love? The child’s answer: “The opposite of hate.” Our simplistic opinions of the universe, as children—even though seeming too pat—often contain more than a grain of truth. Maybe this is because much of the subtlety and nuance that shapes our adult opinion about any given subject is often based upon questionable social, political and religious baggage, garnered along the way to our present.

I recall as a nine-year-old living in Greater Los Angeles, agonizing about the very real threat of nuclear war with Russia. During those days, Americans were constantly bombarded with newspaper and television images and descriptions of ever-more powerful nuclear weapons. Sometimes, our local media would show the Los Angeles area with a circle imposed, using L.A. City Hall as the center, indicating which part of Greater Southern California would be instantly vaporized, given the mega-tonnage of the latest Soviet atomic or hydrogen bomb. One such depiction, featuring a hydrogen bomb having a sixty-mile radius pretty well did the whole job: from Ventura in the North to San Juan Capistrano in the South and from Santa Monica Beach Eastward to San Bernardino. We lived within that circle, by the way.

In my child’s mind I was puzzled and dismayed over this situation. Knowing that our country had the power to render the same annihilation to Moscow, it was complete cognitive dissonance to me, why President Eisenhower didn’t just go over and shake the Russian Premier’s hand and tell him that we had nothing against their country and why couldn’t we just be friends. The suggestion might not be as naïve as it sounds: if it hadn’t been for the surreptitious machinations of what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex,” he probably could have had that handshake.

The child’s view of “Love” and “Hate” being at opposite ends of a finite spectrum also has a grain of truth, although the degree of truth will vary, depending upon the agreed definition of those two seemingly opposite concepts.

While the English-speaking world today uses the word ‘love” as a homonym which can mean many different things, depending upon the semantic and social context in which it is used, the Greeks did us one-better by having three words to describe the over-all concept of love: Eros, Philos and Agape. The simple English rendition of those three, respectively, would be romantic love, brotherly love and unselfish, outwardly oriented love for humanity. Those three Greek concepts can each have many definitions as well, based—again—on semantic and social context, making for even more subtle variation in the overall concept of Love.

So when a wife of many years tells her husband “You don’t love me anymore,” she is probably thinking of love in terms of Eros, that romantic love that drew them together so long ago. She might also say “The romance has gone out of our marriage,” but there again, “romance” is a word packed with a mind-boggling weight of semantic, social, religious and literary baggage. Even for a Greek wife to say “You don’t have ‘Eros’ for me anymore,” still warrants a lot of definition before the husband will fess-up to the charge.

Coming back to the English-speaking world: saying “the romance is gone” may be a lot closer to the truth than “you don’t love me anymore,” but even that more accurate term, “romance” is still packed with semantic dynamite. Is she thinking of the romance described in a sonnet of Shakespeare, or the romance as sung by Robert Browning to his Elizabeth, or the romance as defined by our century-old, rich American and European library of film, or the romance defined in the Great American Songbook, treasured by both North Americans and Europeans as well? How close is each of these literary sources to real human experience and how much is it merely putting forth the wishful dreaming of young women for a perfect match under a prefect heaven?

The movie and music personalities who create and act in these works should be the most “bought-in” to this concept of romance, however their seeming lack of ability to experience more than the most fleeting success in their romantic relationships hints at the inappropriateness of these depictions of romance to real human male-female relationships—or on the other hand, perhaps it underscores the fleeting nature of those very real, steamy, and—at the time—sincere feelings of affection, attraction and sublime insanity that are there at the inception of all human mating situations.
An examination of accounts of most celebrities’ serial rounds of marriage and divorce for the past 100 years, actually proves how subscribed they are to the romantic dreams that they portray on the screen and stage. Rather than settle down with one mate and explore what comes after the fleeting first-blush of Eros, they trade in the current spouse for a new model so that they can keep that feeling of first love going for their entire life’s script.

The rest of us, whether because of economic, family or religious pressures—or simply personal conviction, keep plugging away trying to keep our relationships going and whether enjoying it, enduring it or suffering through it, the bottom line is that we get a chance to experience and cultivate some of those many subtle layers of romantic meaning with one other human being. The old man and woman sitting by the fire, she knitting and he reading his paper don’t say much. She might tell him something one of the grandchildren said that day and he might just answer “Uh-huh,” but there is an unsaid communication going on there. Let either one face a health crisis and the real and graphic manifestation of love springs forth. The concern, worry and empathy is evident in the face of the loved one. The protective instincts kick in, driven by all of the accumulated Eros, Philos and Agape of a lifetime spent together.