Who Wrote the Book of Love?

The answer: We did.

For centuries, philosophers have speculated about the notion of love, assuming its origin, nature and function. It's a complex topic, indeed, however it becomes much less mysterious once the fact can be admitted: Love is what you make it.

Let's analyze two popular philosophers and their romantic regimes.

On the topic of love, neither Baruch Spinoza or Ralph Waldo Emerson act as philosophers, rather a psychologist and a poet. This is problematic, because they attempt to characterize “love” without having first correctly identified its fundamental essence. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines love as “a strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.” Similarly, Google describes it as “an intense feeling of deep affection.” Words like “feeling” and “affection” suggest it is an emotional reaction when it is really a human-made regime. This distinction is vital, because it alters the discussion of “love” from something reactive to something active — something neither writer considers. Emerson emphasizes love as the highly romanticized Regime of Fate, while Spinoza supports a purely utilitarian Regime of the Will. However, the origins, function and nature of love are at best based on the Regime of the Covenant.

Photo courtesy of Aiony Haust

Photo courtesy of Aiony Haust

Emerson offers a sensible analysis of the origins of love, however, he’s more a poet than a philosopher because he assumes love is a Regime of Fate. In his first series of essays, “Love,” he writes, “Nature, uncontainable, flowing, forelooking, in the first sentiment of kindness anticipates already a benevolence which shall lose all particular regards in its general light.” Here, he asserts that love is a product of nature, therefore it is irresistible. He suggests that love is an emotion, “like a certain divine rage and enthusiasm,” which “seizes on man at one period and works a revolution in his mind and body.” He seems to assume that, in sum, love is a sort of divine madness that descends from the heavens, i.e. he assumes a Regime of Fate. This regime is idealistic but also ironic in the present real world because many of those who believe love is a product of fate deny fate’s existence in any other form. However, love is not a preeminent, metaphysical force, but a regime that is created in order to satisfy, or even more so to organize, the human psyche.

This introduces the topic of love’s function. Emerson is correct in saying that love “unites him to his race, pledges him to the domestic and civic relations, carries him with new sympathy into nature, enhances the power of the senses, opens the imagination, adds to his character heroic and sacred attributes, establishes marriages and gives permanence to human society,” though it would be proper to add a “she” into his narrative.

Indeed, love is revolutionary — if it is real. However, marital statistics show that this sort of regime is rarely permanent or transformative at all. Perhaps that is because the Regime of Fate sounds convincing in a Tinseltown film – or in John Donne poem – when in reality, the allure of such an abstract, mysterious concept fades for the very reason that it is not concrete enough to devote one’s life to.

To understand the true nature of love, one must separate it from what Emerson describes — that is, mere attraction. He writes, “…we feel that what we love is not in your will, but above it. It is not you, but your radiance.” Emerson goes on to reference Plato’s Symposium on the discussion of beauty – how it transforms from something material into something divine – and adopts a similar theory with his ladder of love. However, “beauty” and “love” cannot be assessed as one in the same. Beauty is dependent on the attractions of a person based on his/her culture, values, etc. (One might argue that beauty is universal, but indeed even one person may consider a sunset beautiful one evening and disregard it the next.) On the other hand, love is less dependent on the characteristics of two people – their cultures, values, etc. – which change over the course of a lifetime. Instead, love in action is a steady, conscious commitment to that love itself — more on that to come.

In his essay, “Part Three: On the Origin and Nature of the Emotions,” Spinoza suggests this idea that love originates within the human conscious, however he appropriates it as a psychological reaction. He describes love as a product of biological design — an emotion, which he defines as one’s ability to affect and be affected. Therefore, he suggests that the human will, in one way or another, determines who and what one loves based on how those subjects affect him/her. He explains that the mind and the body are one in the same, and that the order of the actions and passions of our body are simultaneous in nature with the order of the actions and passions of our mind. Both the acts and passions of our mind and body are bound to the laws of nature, therefore humanity is incapable of acting against its will. In saying this, Spinoza assumes that love is a Regime of the Will.

The Regime of the Will is self-interested in nature. According to Spinoza, “Each thing, in so far as it is in itself, endeavors to persevere in its being.” Further, what is “good” for someone is good for his/her perseverance, and what is “bad” for someone is bad for his/her perseverance. Therefore, Spinoza believes that one loves what that which increases his/her power to act. This could be expanded: One love that which causes his/her loved-ones pleasure because that also supports his/her personal pleasure. This theory becomes abstruse, because it is possible to misinterpret people, things and ideas and their effects. Spinoza admits this when he says, “From the mere fact that we have contemplated something with emotion of pleasure or pain, of which it is not the efficient cause, we are able to love or hate it,” thus introducing his notion of adequate and inadequate causes. A monist, Spinoza contradicts himself because he maintains that nature and will, will and love, and love and nature are one and orderly when in fact, their relation is not so simple, let alone so linear.

The issue of Spinoza’s Regime of the Will can be traced to its function — that is, to fulfill one’s personal needs. He fails to explain why this is ideal, especially because he lists the consequences of people so divided by the oppositions of love and hate. There is nothing unifying about the Regime of the Will. In fact, much of our social fragmentation grows out of its detached, utilitarian individualism. The dating market has become an actual market — one where people judge each other, looking for red flags. (Consider that many dating sites and apps allow users to filter through their desired characteristics before they even begin their search.) Ironically, somehow as people pragmatically “select” each other based on their will, marriage as an institution has entered a crisis. If the Regime of Fate is too haphazard and reckless, then the Regime of the Will requires too much calculation and gamesmanship.

Alas, the discussion of love as an action rather than a reaction arises. One must admit that these regimes are not uncontrollable emotional responses but manmade doctrines. Indeed, there are people who have mastered lifelong, gratifying, loving relationships characterized by a different origin, nature and function, but they do so out of a conscious decision, which one might call a Regime of Covenants.

A covenant is not a reaction, but a life-altering promise. It acknowledges the fact that some obscure power isn’t responsible for humanity’s attachments, neither does one choose his/her lover the way he/she chooses a toaster. In the Regime of Covenants, choosing the right one-time selection is less important than the constant surrender to serve the relationship. It is only possible if the relationship exists with a framework in which exit is not an option. The mutual understanding ensures that each person’s love is not going to diminish, because their vow is their love.

The Regime of Covenants is not to be confused with the marriage. One can love, i.e. commit to the betterment of a relationship, without the law’s permission. Neither is it strictly romantic love, as two friends can engage in a lifelong commitment to better their friendship. The Regime of the Covenant simply serves to unite people and societies. It operates with a “we” conscious, in which the good of the relationship itself comes first, then the needs of the partner, then the needs of the individual. It relies on the understanding that the other person will reciprocate and closes off the availability of choice. In this case, the way to survive crisis is to dive deeper into the relationship.

This covenant is not about itself — it serves a larger purpose. An obvious example would be raising children; however, the deeper benefit is transformation. Through this service, people become more forgiving and apologetic, less defensive and selfish, trusting and trustworthy. Things like dating apps and the accessibility of divorce make it difficult to attain this sort of love, because they infiltrate people and relationships with egoism and expectations. This conscious promise to love is love itself, therefore it is more transcendental than individualistic.

Spinoza’s understanding of love is purely utilitarian, while Emerson’s is highly romanticized. The Regime of Covenants is based on the fact that these formulas are a conspiracy to satisfy the human psyche. They develop an abstract, reactive emotion and call it love. By detaching oneself from the reality that love is, at bottom, a conscious commitment, he/she is self-strangulating. In fact, it is not the partner who is satisfying — it is the couple’s commitment. Only after this admittance can one begin to surrender to some sacred promise that offers any resemblance of lifelong fulfillment.