Unthinkable: How much loving are you ethically obliged to do?
Why U2 got it right with ‘Love is Blindness’ and the Beatles got it wrong with ‘All You Need Is Love’
A Valentine’s Day display in a Tokyo shop. Photograph: Yuya Shino/Reuters
Love is a word much bandied about, and not just on St Valentine’s Day. But what is love, and can it be explained without resorting to cliche or sentimentality?
For this knotty problem Unthinkable has sought the assistance of William Lyons, professor emeritus of philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, whose work includes Emotion (Cambridge, 1980) and Socrates and His Clouds (Oberon Modern Plays, 2013), a “theatre of thought” play that premiered in London last summer. By correspondence, he provides today’s rather unsentimental idea:
There is no moral compulsion to love.
What do the ancient philosophers tell us about love?
William Lyons: “Plato, one of the founding fathers of philosophy in the West, was in general very suspicious of the emotions. Plato put forward a dualist or
quasi-dualist account of human nature which depicted a human being as a soul inhabiting a body.
“The body was the soul’s local runabout during the lifetime of the human person. Somewhat surprisingly, Plato located the emotions wholly in the ethereal soul and not even partly in the body, as one might expect. Thus, for Plato, the battle between reason and emotion, as to who would be master and who slave, was constantly being fought out in the immaterial arena of the human soul (in Greek, psyche ).
“Like Mao Zedong many centuries later, and like him with political overtones, Plato believed that certain sorts of music and drama were very dangerous and corrupting because they aroused the emotions, which could then all too easily overcome our reason and make us act irrationally. Arousing passionate love (eros) was always high on the list of possible offences.
“Aristotle took a very different view of the emotions. He was not a dualist. For him there was no ghostly soul lurking inside the body. There was only nonliving and living matter.
“Psychology, the study of psyche , was the study of the higher functions of the human animal, in particular of the cognitive (knowing and believing) and appetitive (wanting, desiring and willing) and affective (emotional) functions. Emotions for Aristotle were a much more rational enterprise. They were explained by Aristotle as a combination of the first two of these higher functions (cognitive and appetitive), plus the reactions to them in our lower, purely sensual life.
“Thus anger, Aristotle explained, is a commotion in our innards (the bodily bit) plus a desire for revenge (the appetitive bit) caused by registering some insult real or imagined (the cognitive bit). Likewise love is a commotion that generates a desire to cherish the object of love caused by seeing that person as (let’s for the moment leave it as) lovable.”
Should love be a guiding principle in life?
“For a certain generation, the Beatles song All You Need Is Love carried the message that, if embraced, love would heal all the ills of the world. Of course being in love (an emotion) does bring two people together. But, in a sense, that also reveals its limitations.
“Lovers are notoriously locked together in mutual attraction and unmindful of others. The two lovers walking arm in arm along the footpath are the ones most likely to force you into the gutter in your attempt to make your way along the same footpath in the opposite direction.