Post from September 13, 2020 (↻ May 27, 2021), filed under Everything Else.
Yet it’s striking how we talk about love, as if there was just one (type of) love. In English and German we do know about and sometimes make distinctions, but still, love just seems to be love, as love is often treated as one type of love—and because of that, probably more often than enough, we talk past each other, misunderstand each other, and fail to feel and show appreciation for each other.
(Would I have an example? The one that most readily comes to my mind is that I love some of my former partners—even though I don’t love them. That sounds nonsensical but actually makes perfect sense when you consider that there are different forms of love and that we are, and that’s the point, not at all nuanced but terribly imprecise when it comes to speaking about love.)
There’s a part in Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, then, in which one of the main characters, Mr. Propter, talks about love. And I quote this, removing the unimportant parts, because it demonstrates the dilemma in a way that only an author like Mr. Huxley can.
On the human level the word means—what? Practically everything from Mother to the Marquis de Sade.
We don’t even make the simple Greek distinction between erao and philo, eros and agape. With us, everything is just love, whether it’s self-sacrificing or possessive, whether it’s friendship or lust or homicidal lunacy. It’s all just love. Idiotic word! Even on the human level it’s hopelessly ambiguous. And when you begin using it in relation to experiences on the level of eternity—well, it’s simply disastrous. “The love of God.” “God’s love for us.” “The saint’s love for his fellows.” What does the word stand for in such phrases? And in what way is this related to what it stands for when it’s applied to a young mother suckling her baby? Or to Romeo climbing into Juliet’s bedroom? Or to Othello as he strangles Desdemona? Or to the research worker who loves his science? Or to the patriot who’s ready to die for his country—to die, and, in the meantime, to kill, steal, lie, swindle and torture for it? Is there really anything in common between what the word stands for in these contexts and what it stands for when one talks, let us say, of the Buddha’s love for all sentient beings? Obviously, the answer is: No, there isn’t. On the human level, the word stands for a great many different states of mind and ways of behaving.
Distinctions in fact ought to be represented by distinctions in language. If they’re not, you can’t expect to talk sense. In spite of which, we insist on using one word to connote entirely different things. “God is love,” we say. The word’s the same as the one we use when we talk about “being in love,” or “loving one’s children” or “being inspired by love of country.” Consequently we tend to think that the thing we’re talking about must be more or less the same. We imagine in a vague, reverential way, that God is composed of a kind of immensely magnified yearning. Creating God in our own image. It flatters our vanity, and of course we prefer vanity to understanding. Hence those confusions of language. If we wanted to understand the world, if we wanted to think about it realistically, we should say that we were in love, but that God was x-love. In this way people who had never had any first-hand experience on the level of eternity would at least be given a chance of knowing intellectually that what happens on that level is not the same as what happens on the strictly human level. They’d know, because they’d seen it in print, that there was some kind of difference between love and x-love. Consequently, they’d have less excuse than people have today for imagining that God was like themselves, only a bit more so on the side of respectability and a bit less so, of course, on the other side.
Distinctions in fact ought to be represented by distinctions in language. I love it.
I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead—currently manager for Developer Experience at LivePerson—and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
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