Love Part 1
One of the motivations to learn about love is the desire to circumnavigate the inherent perils and pains of getting close to people. From how to love the person you’re having sex with to getting on with people at work, we all get to wonder if we’ll ever get better at love.
One attempt to do this is to make love manageable by carving it up into simple parts. Neat-ifying love to explain our end-in-tears attempts to merge and transcend the hard graft of loving people who are not the same as us.
Greek philosophy gets enlisted because it offers nice neat categories. Love split into four parts – Eros, Agape, Philia and their dull cousin Storge. Plato’s preoccupation with striking a balance between the sexual passion of Eros and the caring love of Agape. The friendly love of Philia and the begrudging family loyalty of Storge underplayed in the endless philosophical dissection of the ingredients of what Irving Singer calls this troublesome ‘large-scale term’.
Plato saw love as a developmental process, advocating promiscuity to discover that the objects of sexual activity are in fact alike, liberating us to move swiftly on to loving a specific person and ultimately the ‘good’. Our loving journey to culminate in something like god, a truth or a cause worth dying for.
This looks pretty attractive when you place it next to an Sartre’s Existential version of love, where relationships are based on the desire to possess an ideal. The suffocating experience of the desire for a total merging combined with categorical longing for our total freedom. Love me love me not. Other people, ewwwwwwgghhhh.
The value of philosophical ideas about love depends on what we think the philosopher’s job might be. To solve The Problem of Love or just to try to understand aspects of it. An implicit fault line of philosophical and psychoanalytic traditions, that by understanding the world we find our place in it and relationships with the people that share it.
Another way to manage the anxiety of intimacy is to downgrade love to pure sexual desire, a chemical imbalance that happens when sufficient levels of oestrogen meet testosterone. A pinch of dopamine, oxytocin and seratonin to spice it up a bit and fuel the billion dollar business of chemical compatibility.
This position on love often enlists neurological research on our mental hardwiring and the seven instinctual systems we share. The ‘seeking’ system a familiar one to those of us who have been speed dating. The wanting that propels us out of the house to find our true loves, but ending in an existential itch that cannot be scratched. Tucked away in the central amygdala is the instinctual system of fear, an innate response to things that are unknown or not under our control, including those tall-dark-and-handsomes.
The field of neurology certainly gives us a framework for understanding some things about love – as well as a slap on the wrist for attempting to rise above our ape shaped beginnings. But even biological determinists recognise that what distinguishes us from chimps are our prefrontal lobes which can override this instinctual hardwiring. The part of the brain that can inhibit us, hold us back and help us to think about consequences and each other.
Socratic as it might be, this capacity to be conscious of the self and the other is not the stuff of matchme.com, rather the ordinary magic of love.
A love-lite that gives sexual desire primary place is often attributed to Freud who cooly observed the workings of the libido and sexuality in infant development. Although sex is indeed massive in psychoanalysis, this simple view slips over Freud’s major contribution to understanding human life through our attachments to the people around us. Object relations, exploring the role of early care givers in determining how we love propelling us far from the first date stuff of tell-me-about-your-childhood and right bang into the blood and guts of the Oedipus complex. Freud’s labours are not for the sexually faint-hearted, exploring the profound programming of sexual desire and a dynamic view of love as a way of relating shaped by early and unconscious experience.
The psychoanalyst Robert Money-Kyrle defined the basic facts of life saying that we’re all dependent on other people for survival, we are not the centre of the entire universe and can be excluded from things, and we all die. In a recession we shouldn’t need reminding of the fact that relationships with other people are important but there is something strangely difficult about admitting that we have to learn to love under imperfect conditions.