The Metaphysics of Love

At a philosophy lecture series address, Philosophy professor Dr. Ryan Christenson spoke on Valentine’s Day about the metaphysics of love.

PROVO, Utah (February 14, 2019) —Valentine’s Day, the day of the year when love is especially in the air. Maybe you’ve wondered if you have any possible love connections, or if there are any more chocolates leftover from grocery store sales. Perhaps you should be considering the bigger question posed by the band Haddaway: “what is love?”

Dr. Ryan Christenson, an associate professor in the Philosophy Department, spoke on three main kinds of love from a philosophical standpoint: agape, eros, and philia. All of these words can be translated as “love.” In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, philia is translated with a closer meaning to friendship. In the Old Testament verse, “For god so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son,” the verb form of agape is used to express love in higher way.

Perhaps these three words are only distinctions of love. Athanasius, an early church father, wrote a letter using the word agape throughout it until one instance where he professes, “my Eros has been crucified.” As Dr. Christensen noticed, “[this] use of words is as if to say his love has been transformed. That Eros is this worldly love that must be killed and transformed as this divine agape.”

So what are the distinctions between these different kinds of love?

Exclusive-Inclusive Distinction

The first distinction Christenson made was the exclusive-inclusive distinction. Pagan love is a preference for one person in contrast to all others. Christian love expects one to love the whole human race and not to make exceptions. The love of few versus the love of all.

Motivated-Spontaneous Distinction

Love can be a pleasure joined to an object’s existence; because it exists, you love it. In this case there is nothing that person has done to deserve that love, and so it is a spontaneous love; this is also referred to as agape. The motivated distinction is when you only love what is good. When you love something, there is some property of that thing that you find wonderful and worthy to love. It is motivated from some property, such as beauty; this is eros. From a Christian perspective, one worry is that too many of us maintain an eros type of love. We see that God is good, so we love God. But as Dr. Christensen mentioned, “that’s not how God loves us. God doesn’t say ‘because that guy’s a pretty neat guy, I’m going to love him.’ God loves us despite the fact that we don’t deserve it. God doesn’t love you because you’re worthwhile, but you’re worthwhile because God loves you.”

Affective-Volitional Distinction

Kant, a renowned philosopher, said that there is the well-liking love and the well-wishing love. The first is the pleasure in showing approval of another’s perfections, and the second is the wish to promote the happiness of others. The well-wishing love is wishing someone well, but also wishing that they might be worthy of it.

So what is love?

Agape Theory

“We love, because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19). This theory is that the primary kind of love is agape, which is God’s love. Because God loves us, it makes it possible for us to love. Christenson gave three examples that exemplify the different kinds of love God has.

  1. God loves us the way a mother loves her small child. He wanted to teach us that way so he gave us children.
  2. God loves us like a spouse, he created marriage to teach us about this aspect of marriage. (Isaiah 61:10)
  3. God loves us in such a way that he created friendship, so when we love our friend we know some small part of his love.

When God made the world he wanted to teach his people about love, so he effused the world with love of various kinds. In so doing, spousal love is necessary because it’s a little piece of what God’s love is like. In this theory, God made us with certain milestones in our life to teach us just a particle of how he feels. It’s as if God is saying, “I’m going to create parents and children so they can understand my love.”

 Eros theory

“Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death…” (Song of Sol. 8:6) A seal was a mark of identity that you could place on envelopes to show who you were. In the eros theory, all love really wants is union and to be sealed, to become a part of the other identity. Love is a union. Professor Christensen ended with the caveat that while he doesn’t judge between these two theories as to which is better, he does notice that the doctrine in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints leaves more room for eros than other denominations, in the sense that the Church performs sealings.

Overall, Valentine’s Day isn’t exclusive to couples. Love can be celebrated and appreciated in all of its forms. There is the love you can have for your friends, country, family, and God. Most importantly, cheer up, because you are loved.

Jessica Mellor (B.A. English ’19)