What is Love? Philosopher Simon May explains


I came across May’s book Love: A History, quite by chance in a charity book shop. I was Immediately intrigued by why a history was even necessary – surely there is nothing more universal and natural than love? The pages of May’s Book, laden with millennia of Western philosophy suggest otherwise. It is an ever-shifting phenomenon that has been understood very differently by each age. The musings of modern luminaries like Cardi B are only the latest iteration in a line that goes back to the Hebrew prophets in understanding love. Characterising the emotion (he says that he does not aim at a classical philosophical definition in the sense of necessary and sufficient conditions) and discerning the supreme object of love is the task that Simon May has set himself. He spoke to Profile about this undertaking. Besides this herculean labour, May teaches philosophy at King’s College London, and has published books about his family’s experience in the Holocaust, Nietzsche’s ethics and ‘The Power of Cute’. 

I began by asking May for his definition of love shorn of the frightening philosophical jargon that peppers the topic. For him, it is “our rapturous or joyful response to a promise of groundedness in the world… but specifically in a world that we supremely value. So, it involves some kind of understanding of, or striving towards, an ideal world. That ideal world could be, as it’s been in one prominent religious tradition, Christian. It could be a world beyond this one, or it could be a fictional world of some other kind. So, it’s not necessarily the world immediately around us”. Often in support of this idea, May will recall literary examples, like Odysseus’ homecoming to Ithaca or Abraham being called by God to Canaan. I challenged him on the merits of this approach over that of science, after all, we are often told that oxytocin, the so-called ‘love-hormone’ is responsible for much of the sensation of being in love. May replied that all the neuroscientific investigations we can pursue, their findings are of limited value useless unless one can discern “What is it that we’re actually studying, that prior question about what one counts as love is one that I think philosophy and its expressions in literature give us a privileged insight into them, because they ask those kinds of questions”. 

our rapturous or joyful response to a promise of groundedness in the world

Love, in a dominant view of it in the West today, is conceived to be unconditional, disinterested and perpetual, something that is accessible to everyone. For May, this idea “owes Christianity a tremendous amount. I would say it’s not even a uniformly Christian assumption – Christianity is a very complex religion and it’s had several views of love. I ascribed this sort of straightforward unqualified view that love is unconditional, for example to the secularization of Christianity, particularly to Protestantism as it developed in the 17th century… Leaders of the Protestant Reformation, such as Luther, claimed that humans can become gods through love, which is a very hubristic thing to say; but it is accompanied by a very powerful doctrine of modesty, which is that we are merely channels for divine love, in virtue of divine grace, divine love gets channelled through human beings, assuming, that we have the right faith and virtues. However, when you get rid of the theological framework of the idea that human beings cannot genuinely love except through divine grace you arrogate that conception of unconditional love to human love. Then you get what happens when late Protestant view of love is secularized”. 

Having never considered that my own feelings of love were indebted to the Reformation, I was intrigued by how May thought his ideas corresponded to real romances. For him, recognition that relationships are not unconditional can only be beneficial: “I think a generally truthful stance can only be conducive to the health of relationships”. For him his work will have an impact by encouraging partners to “be truthful about their motives and truthful to each other. But the therapeutic effect is not my primary motive. My primary motive is to figure out or try to figure out what love is”. Ultimately, what he analyses has less to do with the physical reality of love, than the philosophical framework that this occurs within. Infatuation and friendship are perfectly natural, but the idea “that your love for that person is not in any way conditional on that person comes from this divine picture”.  Perhaps the Reformation is more relevant to our dalliances after all.  

In deducing that love is no star to every wandering bark, and freely alters where alteration finds, I asked May whether he ever felt uncomfortable refuting something that is not just commonly held but is oft regarded as the animating force within their lives. “No. I don’t. It is the role of a philosopher to just say what they think and to follow through the implications of what they think. I mean, that’s what we need to do. So actually, to some degree I relish it”. Following on from this, I asked him how much the Beatle’s maxim ‘All you need is love’ stands up philosophical onslaught: “The interesting thing is how that view came into being, why it came into being. I think it is because love is the most fundamental way in which we become, as I say, grounded in the world”. 

It is the role of a philosopher to just say what they think and to follow through the implications of what they think

As a universal force capable of inspiring powerful acts of devotion and creativity, love arguably resembles nothing more than the Holy Spirit at work in the world. May “certainly think(s) that love has elements of a religion, I argue that in my first volume [of two on the philosophy of love]. I think love has elements of a religion, because our secular understanding of it in the West… is itself derived from a deeply religious sphere”. Whether a remnant of Christianity, a sickness to be expunged from your psyche in the case of the Stoics or simply a chemical concoction, love is something that we will all mediate on, agonise over and be driven to greater inspiration as humanity has for millennia. May’s contribution to answering the eternal question of ‘what is love’ can only heighten our consciousness of the human condition.    

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