I recall vividly one afternoon last summer when I had some free time. As I walked home, I pulled my phone out of my pocket, opened up Snapchat, and slid over to tap through my friends’ stories. I noticed underneath them some of the suggested features. In one, “Love Triumphs!” accompanied a picture of a same-sex couple, with a subtitle suggesting that all the world had tried to keep the pair apart. In another, an older woman and a probably twenty-something-year-old man smiled under a title about how “Love doesn’t care about age.” A third was about some pets being all adorable in a way the creator promised their audience would just love. My mind wandered away to popular songs like Carrie Underwood’s “Love Wins” and to old recipe books that made promises like “10 Easy Desserts You’ll Absolutely Love!” I remember physically pausing for a moment as my mind filled with questions. When did love become so omnipresent yet treated as one of our highest goods? What do we even mean when we talk about it?
It seemed to me that a couple of different phenomena could be at work. First, some things have just been reduced to focusing on love, very often the romantic or sexual kind, when love used to be just one of many elements. Once upon a time the word romance brought to mind a story of adventure, the struggle against an evil antagonist, danger, loyalty to one’s homeland, a quest, and, admittedly, a particularly noticeable woman in some parts of the tale. While fantasies and epics do still exist, now romance is the label for stories about the female teacher who returns to her hometown after five years just to fall in love with some sexy fireman, or other stories of that kind. Second, whenever someone wants to grab attention and elevate something in our culture, he can usually just use the word love to do so. (Just think about how we can view the same person slightly differently if described as “just” versus as “loving justice.”) There are two different ways that this elevation can succeed. On the one hand, we tend to value things that are worthy of love; on the other, we often regard as noble those people who can love other people or things that are unworthy. Especially with a less-discerning audience, attaching the label of “love” can accomplish the desired elevation either way, without ever having to explain what “love” actually means in that context. So now in some cases, we have love singled out in places it used to exist with further context or other elements; and, in other cases, we have it introduced to further an agenda.
Politics is one domain in which we see these phenomena at work. The idea that we should love our neighbor or our nation are old and intrinsic to political thought. I think of John Winthrop’s “A Modell of Christian Charity” as an example. But now it often seems that politics weaponizes a rhetoric of love as a rebranded moral imperative. First candidate and then President Trump was often called “hateful” by his opponents as if that were the worst possible label they could throw at him. Both sides of the abortion debate accuse each other of not loving someone well. Environmentalists accuse their targets of being devoid of love for the earth and its future inhabitants. Perhaps most obviously, our culture and some state laws tell us not to judge any pair so long as they claim to be “in love” and that we cannot question whether they should be able to enter into a legal marriage or adopt children.
In this way, love has become a moniker seemingly thrown around at will. Most of us probably think we know what it is, at least to some extent. We have experienced it and practiced showing it through care and self-sacrifice, through close friendships and romantic endeavors. But even if we’ve had those experiences, can we really identify what love is, or are we in danger of misrepresenting it? What is it really, and in what context does it exist?
Those of us who have been “in love” or have watched others (or have become hopeless romantics particularly engrossed in Jane Austen novels) may realize just how significant of an emotion, devotion, and dedication such love is. We probably also know romantic love, the one C. S. Lewis refers to as “Eros” in The Four Loves, as the most intense of its forms. It’s not surprising to me, then, when I see couples justified as unquestionable simply based on their “being in love” and how songs, books, and movies spend so much time on it. It becomes a huge focus, and its power can be for good or ill.
The focus is twofold: on the person the love is for and on the experience itself. Lewis explains the usefulness of the first, even to the Christian, like this: “[Eros’s] total commitment is a paradigm or example, built into our natures, of the love we ought to exercise towards God and Man. . . . It is as if Christ said to us through Eros, ‘This–just like this–with this prodigality–not counting the cost–you are to love me and the least of my brethren.” Of course, this orientation outside of oneself and the motivation to do great things is powerful and something our culture should want to respect and harness. But Lewis isn’t done.
He describes the strength of Eros, saying we must not “ignore or attempt to deny [its] god-like quality.” But he continues with a warning: “Eros, honoured without reservation and obeyed unconditionally, becomes a demon. And this is just how he claims to be honoured and obeyed. . . . Eros by his nature invites it. Of all loves he is, at his height, most god-like, therefore most prone to demand our worship.” The second focus, then, is dangerous if we don’t understand that love itself is not the highest good–that it cannot persist held up to a level where it would be by itself.
Thinking back on my childhood, I recognize examples of romantic love being held up as this almost divine goodness. I think my generation (and the one before it) had an experience of fairy tales lending itself to exactly this impression. Take, for example, the story of Sleeping Beauty. Early versions were dark and sometimes almost cautionary tales. The original Italian story is a saga of rape and marital infidelity; the Charles Perrault version has a prince whose mother is a child-devouring ogre; and even the Grimms’ version has several potential suitors dying on thorns while attempting to reach the sleeping princess in her tower. The one who does reach her just happens to kiss her right before she wakes up on her own. He does nothing magical.
I, in contrast, grew up on the 1959 Disney movie, in which a valiant young prince goes slaying dragons on behalf of the beautiful princess. His kiss saves her from a terrifyingly long nap. It reinforces to the little hopeless romantic girls the idea from Cinderella that “some day my prince will come.” Those little girls grow up dreaming about guys who would face metaphorical dragons for them. Sometimes it becomes what they want most in the world–a love that they know as the heroic thing from the fairy tales. In the case of Sleeping Beauty, Phillip’s love inspires him to bravery and likely self-sacrifice. It motivates him to action that almost seems, as Lewis had put it, “god-like.”
Perhaps the prototypical description of love comes from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. He gives us this familiar wisdom:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Paul is not just explaining why love is great, laudable, and one of the highest virtues. He’s also characterizing what it has to be. It is not the case that anyone who feels or practices love becomes all these things. Rather, any time we have all these things, we have love. We see what, in a way, has to come first. Patience. Kindness. Contentedness. Humility. Courtesy. Justice. Truth. Courage. Faith. Hope. Endurance.
Disney-fairy-tale Phillip embodies a number of these. He is kind to Aurora. He is hopeful and courageous. He likely is also many of the others. The love we admire in that story has many elements of an old romance left in it, because that love exists in its necessary context. It is these other virtues Phillip has that enable his love to exist and to triumph. He wouldn’t have love if he didn’t have them first. But I know that when I watched the movie as a child, I thought it was his love for Aurora that inspired him to all the rest of these virtues.
None of this invalidates the primary importance of love that Paul points out earlier in 1 Corinthians 13 when he says that without love, even having all else, he would be nothing and could gain nothing. Love is necessary. Love transforms. In the divine context, where God is Love, He created the world ex nihilo and is actively working in it and in us transforming lives. In the human context, I think we start with something. We have these virtues or characteristics that Paul described. Love, then–whether love of God or a romantic interest or a friend or a cause–transforms what it starts with. But just like a factory doesn’t correctly turn out the product it’s designed for unless it has the proper raw materials to start with, love can’t be what it ought to be unless it starts with the right materials.
It is easy to see that love cannot exist in isolation. In the concrete, it requires a lover and something to be loved. But I think it’s also true in the abstract. Love as something we talk about and respect needs to be accompanied by a focus on the virtues outside itself. We don’t just know it by its fruits. We can know it by its context.
Victoria Kelly is a junior majoring in Political Economy and minoring in Spanish.