What does it mean to really love someone? This is not an easy topic to talk about, and it is harder still to define exactly what love means. Having just finished a class on precisely this topic, I am left unsatisfied with the conclusion, or lack thereof, at which we arrived. Though various scholars have tried to shed some light on love, it still does not seem like we are able to have a firm, concrete grasp on the concept of love. However, it is worth trying to spell out some of what has been theorized about the topic.
In Plato’s dialogue, the Phaedrus, we get a picture of love as madness that takes hold of us and is beyond our reason. In the Symposium, we get a picture of love in which we love the forms, or the highest ideal of reality, but we must love another person in order to do so; that is, we have to love another person in order to reach the level of recognizing the forms and of being able to love the forms. In Diotima’s famous speech on love there is an ascent of love that we are to attempt to follow, beginning with appreciating the beauty of one body, then moving up to the beauty of bodes in general, then the beauty of the soul, then the beauty of customs, laws, and activities of society, then the beauty of particular types of knowledge, and finally beauty itself, which we can appreciate, or attain, once we have mastered an appreciation for the previous kinds of beauty.
Hegel believes in an optimistic, ideal kind of love in which two people become one and love together, not separately. Two people become one entity and whatever one person does for the other, that person is doing for oneself, and whatever one does for oneself, one is doing for the other. Achieving this kind of completely unified relationship is not easy though. The two people have to overcome shame of their most inward selves; that is, selfish preoccupations that one might have, the banality of everyday life that one endures, one’s potential ineptness, etc. One needs to be willing to share all of these fundamental qualities that make up who one is in order to approach the relationship with one’s whole being. These include qualities that one might not want to share, and would not otherwise share with someone whom one is not trying to form a complete, unified relationship with. While Hegel does not say this explicitly, one would have to assume that maintaining this kind of unified relationship is a constant struggle between the two people involved, and is not a state that simply exists once it is achieved. It seems as though the two people have to continually work to maintain the unity.
Roland Barthes gives us yet a different concept of love in A Lover’s Discourse, which brings to light the asymmetrical dynamic in a loving relationship in which there is no equal sense of commitment, investment, or love between two people. It seems as though there is always a power dynamic in relationships where there is one person who is more committed, invested or in love than the other, and this dynamic can shift back and forth between the two people throughout the relationship. It seems that it is very hard, if possible at all, to achieve an equal playing field, as it were, where both people are equally committed, invested, and in love. Barthes would probably consider hoping for this kind of equality in love a fantasy. In this kind of model, we are more concerned with the love we are giving than the love we are receiving, and it is more ego-centered than say, Hegel’s model.
In thinking about which of these models of love I identify with the most, I think I find Barthes account most accurate, in my experience at least. Hegel’s model is the most ideal of course, but it is hard to say if that model is truly achievable. In looking at certain relationships from an outside perspective, I think it is easy to say, “That couple has a completely unified relationship.” But without being inside their heads or hearts and knowing exactly how they feel, we cannot know if that is really the kind of love that they share. On the other hand, perhaps some people are in unified relationships like the one Hegel describes, and to that I say, “Kudos to them.” It is truly an achievement. Furthermore, perhaps there are some of us who have been in a unified relationship but did not recognized it when we were.
All this is to say that love is a very complicated notion that is so very difficult to grapple with, which makes loving relationships the challenge that they are. If they are not a challenge, then the people involved are missing the point.