Listening to an old U2 album recently, and reading some old Greek philosophers (I really am a nerd, along w/ being a Curmudgeon), set me to pondering: What is love? Through the thousands of times I’ve professed my love of something or someone through the decades, it occurred to me that I’ve never really known what it is.

So I started at the place that prompted my ruminations and tried to discover the meaning of love through the vehicle of pop music. In U2’s Rattle and Hum album (is it okay to still call collections of songs, regardless the media upon which they are stored “albums”?) seven of the seventeen songs–all of the ones that mention love–have love as their central theme. (Seven is a number carrying all sorts of baggage with it–I wonder, any significance?)

There’s Desire, written by Bono, that talks of love as desire–in this case apparently, for making money or gaining success–“For love of money, money….Desire….” So I guess love is desire for wealth and power.

Then in Hawkmoon, Bono uses love to describe his feelings for, presumably, a woman (Hawkmoon), although he only mentions her by name (if that is in fact a woman’s name) once throughout a song that describes ideas and things that are only complete in complementary pairs (e.g., french fries and ketchup, protons and electrons, though these aren’t any of his examples). After he lists each group of things that need each other (“like a desert needs rain, like a town needs a name”) he practically begs, but in a reasonable way because he’s just illustrated the rationality of his argument, that “I need your love.” So I guess love is the bond that complementary pairs have for the completeness provided by the other.

Next comes the anomaly of Pride (In the name of Love), a song, among other things, about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Bono wrote this one, too, and in it he continually asks (gutturally screams actually) “what more in the name of love”, seeming to imply the evil he describes has been perpetuated in the name of love. This makes no sense to me. Was King assassinated in the name of love? Which seems to be Bono’s take, or was King’s life and passion lived for love? It makes a difference. Or, perhaps it doesn’t. Maybe love is at once living a life devoted to goodness and the destruction of the same. Bono doesn’t seem (the screaming) to be happy at what has been done in the name of love, so I’d have to assume he’s actually thinking that King’s assassination was done in the name of love. What love or whose love is not clear. So, perhaps love is wishing to destroy the lives of people devoted to goodness. He alludes to Christ in the song (“one man betrayed with a kiss”), setting King on a pretty high pedestal through the implied comparison. But this is sorta getting murky.

Then there’s Love Rescue Me where love, apparently of the type the Judea-Christian God has for humanity, rescues Bono from himself, providing the redemption he needs to move past his failures and continue loving himself. This love makes far more sense than Pride’s. This seems to be the love that we all carry within ourselves for ourselves, which nearly all religions have identified (if only implicitly) as the most important kind if the individual, and therefore the group, are to survive. So, love is the visceral desire within us all to do whatever is necessary to survive.

Next up is When Love Comes to Town, which seems to describe again a religious love, but this time even more as a vehicle for redemption, and more closely alluding to the Christian ethic. In fact, “Christ” could be substituted for “love” without unduly altering the song’s meaning. Thus, following Bono’s logic, it appears that love is Christ and Christ is love. But in 1 John, Chapter 1, Verse 5 of the Bible, it states that “God is light”. If God is light and Christ is love and God is Christ then love is light. I seem to be getting more confused.

In God Part II (an interesting title), Bono professes to believe in love. He lists things he doesn’t believe in: excess, forced entry, cocaine, etc., but then shows where he participates in all those things, and claims that anyway he does believe in love. This seems to be the middle way of love. He doesn’t believe in the devil, but acknowledges the necessity of the devil’s lies to understanding the truth. This is maybe Aristotle’s golden mean; Buddha’s middle way between asceticism and indulgence that leads one to enlightenment. Believing in love is apparently manifest by faith and by the rejection of extremism. Love is hardly just an emotion. It is a philosophical way of life.

It appears pop-culture as represented by U2’s lead singer and song-writer, Bono–an undeniable treasure of our age–didn’t help do anything but muddy up the picture for me. So, I turned to ancient philosophers.

Socrates, in Plato’s Symposium has some things to say about love. Socrates, though, was never much good at figuring out what things were. Instead he seemed quite proficient at figuring out what things weren’t.

Plato’s Symposium is where you’ll find Socrates’ thoughts on love. Plato was to Socrates what Luke, or Paul was to Christ. He is our primary source of Socrates’ wisdom and thoughts, cataloging conversations and ruminations of Socrates, sometime after his death. Socrates, like we believe to be true of Christ, never wrote anything down.

The Symposium begins with a gathering of Socrates and some of his close friends (Appollodorus, Aristodemus, Agathon, Phaedrus, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, et al.). They decide to go around the room and each offer their thoughts on love. Of course, Socrates goes last.

Many of the initial discussions and thoughts centered on describing love between a man and a boy (a post-pubescent male, probably about thirteen or fourteen). Ew! as my daughter might say. Apparently this sort of relationship was quite common in ancient Greece. Maybe this explains why the ancient Olympians always competed nude.

In any event, the discussion finally came around to Socrates. He drew his insights from a woman named Diotima. He said she said, among other things that, “In a word, Love is wanting to possess the good forever.” This came after a lengthy Socratic question and answer session where she turned the Socratic method on its founder.

But she said more:

A lover must desire immortality along with the good, if what we agreed earlier was right, that Love wants to possess the good forever. It follows from our argument that Love must desire immortality.

But how does a lover gain immortality?

For among the animals the principle is the same as with us, and mortal nature seeks so far as possible to live forever and be immortal. And this is possible in one way only: by reproduction, because it always leaves behind a new young one in place of the old. Even while each living thing is said to be alive and to be the same–as a person is said to be the same from childhood till he turns into an old man–even then he never consists of the same things, though he is called the same, but is always being renewed and in other respects passing away, in his hair and flesh and bones and blood and his entire body. And it’s not just in his body but in his soul, too, for none of his manners, customs, opinions, desires, pleasures, pains or fears ever remains the same, but some are coming to him while others are passing away….And in that way everything mortal is preserved, not, like the divine, by always being the same in every way, but because what is departing and aging leaves behind something new, something such as it had been. By this device, Socrates,”She said, “what is mortal shares in immortality, whether it has a body or anything else, while the immortal has another way. So don’t be surprised if everything naturally values its own offspring, because it is for the sake of immortality that everything shows this zeal, which is Love.

Thus love is the natural affection for one’s offspring. It is viscerally connected to the compulsion for immortality embodied in those two great purposes for life–survival and reproduction, which summed together yield immortality. Love is the word we give this animating desire to possess the good forever, which is really a desire for immortality, which is also a desire to survive and reproduce, or gain honor (as we’ll next see). Since the desire is omnipresent, love has many forms and faces, adapting to each situation as the needs of the immortality quest demand.

This Love for immortality explains much about human behavior:

Look, if you will, at how human beings seek honor. You’d be amazed at their irrationality, if you didn’t have in mind what I spoke about and if you hadn’t pondered the awful state of love they’re in, wanting to become famous and ‘to lay up glory immortal forever,’ and how they’re ready to brave any danger for the sake of this, much more than they are for their children; and they are prepared to spend money, suffer through all sorts of ordeals, and even die for the sake of glory….I believe that anyone will do anything for the sake of immortal virtue and the glorious fame that follows; and the better the people, the more they will do, for they are all in love with immortality.

Diotima clarified things for me. Love had to be something at the very essence of human experience, else it wouldn’t keep cropping up everywhere. It appears love describes the animating force behind all of life–a drive for immortality.

Alexander the Great spread the ideas of ancient Greece around the Mediterranean through his short-lived empire building. The ideas were so keenly powerful that much of the western world became Hellenized, i.e., heavily influenced in thought and culture by the Greeks, even after its conquest by Rome, and even to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and until today. In fact, much of the Enlightenment could be regarded as an attempt to throw off the shackles of Scholasticism (the Aristotle legacy) and think anew about the world.

The Hellenized Hebrews of Palestine during the Roman era had some thoughts on the matter of love. The Rabbinic sage Akiba (according to Abraham Cohen in Everyman’s Talmud) said that the command “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” was a fundamental principle of the Torah.

Many Christians might be surprised to find that this admonition first appears in Leviticus (Chapter 19, Verse 18) of the Old Testament. Most probably thought it was a New Testament idea. Not true. Jesus elevated the notion to make it the central tenet of his ethics and theology, which was a change from the Hebrews, who thought it simply part of a broader ethical framework. The admonition in Leviticus was listed among a dozen or more others, including being sandwiched between these two: “Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly, so you will not share in his guilt” Verse 17, and; “Keep my decrees. Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” Verse 19

Verse 17 requires a bit of thought, but has a certain complex beauty to it. It basically admits that open rebuke is best, when that is what you feel of your neighbor. To do otherwise makes you as guilty as he is for causing your hatred. It assumes that the feelings of hatred have a legitimate origin.

Of course, hate is love’s opposite. But I imagine that the admonition applies equally to love. In other words, you should not try to hide your feelings in either case. Doubtless, the Torah saw no need to admonish folks not to hide their love. It was assumed they wouldn’t. Yet, Jesus admonished his followers to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven.” (Matthew Chapter 5, Verse 16). If love is desiring good, as Socrates says, then Jesus is really saying to let evidence of your love show.

But did the Hebrew definition of “neighbor” include Gentiles? It’s not clear. According to Cohen, some of the Talmudic scholars thought it was universal, employing instead of “neighbors” the term beriyyoth, which means creatures. Rabbi Hillel’s exhortation was to “be a lover of your fellow-creatures.” But some felt “neighbors” meant only Jews. This would comport more closely to the Socratic idea–that love represented that animating zeal for immortality as achieved through reproduction. Since Jews were several tribes, all closely-related, it follows that treating each other neighborly would more likely result in the desired immortality. The genes they carried were more similar to each other than to those of any group of Gentiles. Loving their Jewish neighbor meant loving the good, eternally, just as Diotima explained.

Christianity not only modified the ranking of the admonition, it modified its focus. Loving a neighbor did not mean just loving a Jewish neighbor. It meant loving any neighbor as you love yourself, and according to Jesus it was the second most important commandment, behind loving God.

But something that rarely gets mentioned in discussions of these commandments is that they assume self-love. Certainly, loving oneself is natural, i.e., a part of our nature, like it is with all animals, if by love we mean loving what is good for ourselves, and if by good we mean that which enhances survivability and reproduceability, or immortality. The earth’s flora and fauna can only love (and do) that which is good for themselves. They have no choice in the matter–if we are to believe the tenets of natural selection. We humans alone can do that which impairs our prospects for immortality. But the Golden Rule, as Jesus’ commandment has come to be known, assumes that humans love themselves. This is problematic. Some people obviously don’t love themselves, else there would never be a suicide amongst healthy people of reproductive age. It’s not clear how one should treat their neighbor if they don’t love themselves. It seems finding a way to love oneself is implicit in the commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself.

Christianity ties the notion of immortality to belief in Christ and thereby the Judea-Christian God. Yet, immortality through the divine was not a Jewish belief. The Sadducees believed that the soul died with the body. The Pharisees disagreed. They believed in resurrection of the dead. Obviously resurrection of the dead is a different thing than immortality. Immortal people never die. Jesus, and later, Paul, taught that through belief in Jesus as God’s son, one could have eternal life. Love for God through Jesus is the path to immortality. Thus Diotima’s zeal for immortality, which is love for one’s offspring, became love for God.

This universalized love and immortality. Anyone could have it, no matter to which tribe one belonged. This helped the move along the modern age of industrial and technological innovation, from the Enlightenment until today, tremendously. It broke the bonds of family that tied one to the past. Immortality came from God, not from genes. Leaving the family farm and going to work in the factory was okay because you could still get to heaven (i.e., you could still be immortal). This allowed the state to gain in importance as the family withered. It was Love that was not expressly antithetical to the zeal for survival and reproduction, but was implicitly so. Who needs to honor thy father and mother, if honoring God gets you to the same place? Who needs to see a brood of young-uns’ to maturity if you are already immortal? Jesus said he didn’t come to overturn the law, but just to clarify it. Christianity after industrialization and the growth of the modern social-welfare state has overturned it.

St. Augustine (AD 354-430), perhaps the greatest of ancient Christian philosophers, talked around love in trying to explain the difference between good and evil people.

All wicked people, just like good people, desire to live without fear. The difference is that the good, in desiring this, turn their love away from things that cannot be possessed without the fear of losing them. The wicked, on the other hand, try to get rid of anything that prevents them from enjoying such things securely. Thus they lead a wicked and criminal life, which would be better called death.

Augustine’s “love” or desire is itself neither good nor evil, but is only made so by what is the object of desire. Love for the eternal (things that cannot be possessed without the fear of losing them) is good, love for temporal things is wicked.

It seems that Augustine’s love would operate to negate much that underpins American capitalism. Without desire for temporal things there is no consumerism. Without consumerism, there is no ever-upward growth. Without growth, the whole thing crashes to the ground, sort of like what happened when a bunch of financiers on Wall Street started lending money to people who could never pay it back just because they convinced themselves that the demand, and therefore price, of the collateral (houses) securing said lending had only a one-way trajectory.

The financiers, in trying to “get rid of anything that prevented them from enjoying such things securely”, got rid of the one thing that mattered the most–the truth about what they were doing. The source of their wickedness was loving the temporal instead of the eternal. Its manifest wickedness was realized in the lies they had to tell themselves and others to prevent the truth from allowing them to securely enjoy “such things” as huge salaries and bonuses.

My favorite Jewish heretic philosopher, Baruch de Spinoza, would have, I believe, agreed with Augustine on love, from Ethics:

This love toward God is the highest good that we can aim at according to the dictates of reason, and is available to all men, and we desire that all men should enjoy it. Therefore, it cannot be stained by the emotion of envy, nor again by the emotion of jealousy. On the contrary, it is the more fostered as we think more men to be enjoying it.

This seems to also be something of the Christian love, “agape” which the dictionary describes as “the love of God or Christ for mankind” and “the brotherly or spiritual love of one Christian for another” and “unselfish platonic love”.

But it’s really not, because Spinoza did not believe that God loved man, only that man should love God. Except in the sense that “we desire that all men should enjoy it” and “it is the more fostered as we think more men to be enjoying it”, agape and Spinoza’s love of God don’t equate.

Spinoza had more to say about love, describing it as “pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause.” Hatred is “pain accompanied by the idea of an external cause”.

There is nothing radical here. Spinoza just rationally explains what he sees, but his rationality is itself radical, or at least was so during the time in which it was conceived. What he described the love of God to look like was, however, quite radical, both then and now:

Therefore it is of the first importance in life to perfect the intellect, or reason, so far as we can, and the highest happiness or blessedness for mankind consists in this alone. For blessedness is nothing other than self-contentment that arises from the intuitive knowledge of God. Now to perfect the intellect is also nothing other than to understand God and the attributes and actions of God that follow from the necessity of his nature.

C.S.Lewis knew a bit about love. His Four Loves categorizes human love into four distinct realms: Affection, Friendship, Erotic Love, and Love of God (which he calls Agape, confusing me even more, since the definition of agape is not the love of God, but is rather God’s love for us).

Lewis was an undeniably brilliant philosopher and theologian, and immensely gifted writer, but here’s the thing–I don’t want to compartmentalize my understanding of love. I’m looking for the essence of what is meant by the concept represented by the word “love”. I must give Lewis his due, but I seek here the Grand Unified Theory of Love, much as physicists today still seek the Grand Unified Theory of Gravity. I want love without the four forces (weak, strong, electromagnetic and gravity) of the universe used to explain it. I want the string theory of love–the one that explains it all.

Saul of Tarsus, perhaps the greatest salesman the world has ever known, whose work was undeniably indispensable to the spread of Christianity, was, among his many talents, one of the greatest poets and philosophers of all time. And Paul had a bit to say about love (from 1st Corinthians, Chapter 13, verses 4-13):

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection, as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Paul begins by listing love’s attributes, e.g., patient, kind, etc. These mostly square nicely w/ Socrates’ immortal yearnings, except that Socrates might stumble over whether love was self-seeking, since self-seeking seems necessary to a desire for immortality, in the same manner that Richard Dawkins’ genes are “selfish” and not altruistic. Envy, boastfulness, pride, rudeness, anger, score-keeping are all unnecessary diversions to an immortal yearning. Protecting, trusting, hoping and persevering would seem attributes for one attempting to see their genes to the next generation. Socrates and Paul mostly agree. But the selfish/unselfish is a huge rift. Paul is teaching people that there is immortality through Christ. Diotima explained to Socrates that immortality comes through survival and reproduction. Even though the pathways vary, the desire for immortality is described by both as love.

Paul doesn’t speak of fear, like St. Augustine, who thought the manner with which fear is dealt determines whether a person is good or evil. Good people extinguish fear by striving to possess only those things that are not temporal. Thus good people love the eternal things in order to eliminate fear in their lives. But fear and hope are two sides to the same coin, and Paul says love always hopes. Without fear, what need is there of hope? Paul and St. Augustine do not agree in their assessment of love. Paul believes love offers an antidote to fear because it always hopes. St. Augustine’s good person wouldn’t need the antidote. He loves only the eternal, so has no fear, and needs no hope.

I think Spinoza would agree with St. Augustine. For him, hope and fear are but one of many emotions keeping us in bondage:

…there is no hope without fear and no fear without hope…

That there can be no hope without fear is very important. Fear explains how politicians can sell hope in a fuzzy, ambiguous, non-policy-specific, feel-good way, and still get elected. I don’t think Paul considered the implications of stating that love always hopes. If love always hopes, then there is always fear, and fear is exactly the pain which faith in Christ is intended to alleviate. I doubt Paul meant that either love ends where Christ begins (because fear ends there, too) or that love is more powerful than faith, serving as an antidote to fear that even belief in Christ can’t eliminate, but that is (perhaps) unwittingly implied.

The sentence that helps ties it all together is Paul’s observation that love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. Rejoicing with the truth–not superstitions or biased views of the truth, but the naked, rational truth–discovered objectively, through the application of reason, is the essence of Spinoza’s love of God, to restate:

Therefore it is of the first importance in life to perfect the intellect, or reason, so far as we can, and the highest happiness or blessedness for mankind consists in this alone.

This is rejoicing in truth of the highest order. And if love rejoiced enough in truth-seeking, then perhaps it wouldn’t need always hope. But it is profound that Paul here equates evil with the lack of truth. That is the essence of Spinoza’s philosophy. Truth is the anti-evil. Rejoice in it always.

My favorite passage, however, is at the end, describing not what love is, but what it can do for us:

Love never fails….Now we see but a poor reflection, as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

If seeing and clearly understanding the truth about ourselves, and the universe in which we live, and how it all fits together–then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known–is gained through the application of love, I think all–Bono, Socrates, Aristotle, Buddha, St. Augustine, especially Spinoza, and the rest, would agree–Love is indeed a very special thing. I just wish I could figure out what it is…