Pedro Nunes - What is Love?
Delivered 20 July 2005

What is love?

Is it merely a word? Is it a feeling? Is it an action? Is it the singing of the bird, the arrow of the angel, is it a train coming at you, full speed? What the Fuck is love?

Lets start by clarifying the term, that is, in what conditions we do generally use the word.

In English, the term love is used in very different contexts. For instance, I love my chair, I love chocolate, I love my dog, I love my friends, I love my son, I love my wife, I love reading, my love, give my love to, yes love, being in love, and so on.

This is not the case in many languages. In Portuguese, for example, it is not semantically correct to say, I love chocolate, but merely, I like chocolate, or I adore chocolate. In Portuguese one cannot say I love my boss, unless one is actually sleeping (or wanting to sleep) with the boss. The word love in Portuguese is reserved for expressions meaning romantic love or strong love for close family members.

But lets return to the English language. If the word Love is used in so many varied senses, it is because those senses have something in common.

But in what manner is loving a chair, similar to loving chocolate, or loving ones wife?

I had a look at the Longman Dictionnary of Contemporary English, 1981 edition, and these are the main definitions for Love:

  1. a strong feeling of fondness for another person, esp. between members of a family or between people of opposite sex: a mothers love for her child. The young pair are in love with each other.
  2. warm interest and enjoyment and attraction
  3. to feel love, desire, or strong friendship
  4. take pleasure in

In this Dictionary the term love is associated with a feeling. Love is about feeling something (fondness, desire, interest, etc.) for something (a chair, a chocolate, a dog, a person). The common denominator for the use of the term is the fondness, interest, desire for someone or something. So if I say I love Lucy I am talking about a feeling but the nature of that feeling is not precise.

Lets concentrate in romantic love. According to the Longman dictionary definition, which I believe to be consistent with the way English speaking people use the word, love is not at all about an action. Love is about a feeling, something happening in the inner realm of a person.

Therefore, according to this view, if I say to a friend I love on of my employees, I am only meaning that I do have a certain feeling for her, not that I act towards her in a certain way, in a loving way. In that case I might add: I love her but I dont dare to tell her because I am afraid to be accused of harassing her. To take my case to the extreme, I might add, Because I do not want her to know that I love her, I actually treat her very badly. So, in this case, I might actually be hurting someone while claiming to love her. Though this is an acceptable way of using the word love in English, I believe that this is a somewhat deceiving perspective on the nature of love.

This raises the question about the consistency of our acts and our feelings. Is it possible to love someone and hurt that person? At the precise moment we are hurting her do we love her?

Lets have a look at the way we say I love you in the romantic sense.

First of all it is possible to say it in order to celebrate a feeling in the present. This would be the case for instance of two love birds in a plane about to crash, saying to each other I love you.

But usually when we say I love you to someone there are many things implied, other than the celebration of the feeling of love.

Indeed, saying I love you to someone is often, more than a declaration of present or past feelings, it is a promises about future actions and future feelings. The loved person is entitled to think that, in the future, the lover intends to act in a loving manner, like taking her to the restaurant and paying the bill. More importantly than the restaurant, the loved person is perhaps entitled to have a legitimate expectancy for some kind of exclusive admiration from the lover, that would lead to exquisite moments and acts of tenderness and caring.

But cant I love you merely mean : I have this love feeling inside me for you, I do not expect any reaction from your part, you do not need to do anything, or to say anything, that is just the way it is now, and thats the only reason why I am saying it.

One could argue that this can be indeed the case, for example, for people that called they loved ones, from their crashing planes, to leave messages in answering machines to say that they loved them.

In this case, I believe, that one would only leave such a message because one wants to make a last impact, to influence for the last time the loved one. In that case, the sense of such a call is really, I want you to know I love you, because I want you to think of me in a loving way after Im gone. I want you to love me

In that manner, saying I love you, whether youre about to die or not, is an individual promise but also an invitation. It is an invitation for the other person to say, or think, I love you in return and thus for the other person to commit herself equally to a future relationship with well established rules.

Lets now think about saying to someone, for the first time, I love you.

If the loved person does answer I love you too than your promise of love might indeed translate into future acts.

Sometimes there is no answer, or just an evasive answer, and that might let you wandering if that person, while not loving you now, might love you in the future. You might decide to keep on trying to seduce her, and the future of your love will remain, for a time, uncertain.

But, the worst case is when the other person says fuck off, you are ridiculous! What will happen? What will you do with your love then? If youre smart enough you get rid of it on the spot by thinking that that woman did not deserve your love at all.

So in these three cases, your feeling of love will develop in three different ways, because the promise of love, of future action embodied in all three situations will not evolve in the same manner.

When someone asks you: Do you love me? The question is: do you have loving feelings for me that will lead to loving actions towards me?

So, though the definition in the dictionaries are mainly about feelings and do not link these with actions, I believe that people do, in reality, link the feeling and the action.

People do look at actions to judge the existence of love feelings. Most people would agree that love is relevant only if it is translated into acts, and of course when love ends, that means that people just not believe anymore that the other person in going to perform loving acts, they do not believe in the promise of love anymore.

I would argue that we should distance ourselves even more from the dictionary definition of love and think about it in a totally pragmatic way. I suggest that we should stop using the word to qualify feelings, but use it only to qualify actions. So you shouldnt say I love you to someone as a promise but you should only say I want to love you, meaning I want to act in a loving way towards you.

What is important is you actions, so if you dont perform loving actions, for whatever reason, that means you do not love, or that you do not know how to love.

The feeling is totally irrelevant for the other person as long as it doesnt translate in actions. Because the link between the feeling and the future actions is uncertain, we should forget altogether about the feelings, and just look at the actions. We should adopt a skeptic view of love. So whenever someone says I love you, I would advise you to think We'll see if you do pal, well see if you do. Likewise, whenever you think I love her you should really think I hope I can love her meaning I hope I can act towards her in a loving way, well see if I can.

I reckon most of you would agree this to be a healthy way to think about love.