Is love real? CHARLOTTE HUNT'S cynical view on whether love can be reduced to chemicals or remain an abstract and biological occurrence in the everyday human.
What is Love? Baby Don’t Hurt Me
Take a moment to ask yourself a very simple question: is love real? If you answered, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, then wow, you seem to have your mind made up (and to those who said ‘no’, who hurt you? Hope you’re okay). Love is actually much more complex than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question and like many things, isn’t black or white. There are many forms of love – parental love; romantic love; and platonic love. These are just a few types that are given and received in many ways.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED, n.d.), ‘love’ relates to affection and attachment and is ‘[a] feeling or disposition of deep affection or fondness for someone’. It is true that we cannot deny that the concept of love exists, however, we can argue whether it is real or just a concept and nothing more. Is love a mystical spiritual energy, or is it just chemicals? Are we just animals following our primal needs and wants? And do we call said needs and wants ‘love’ only to appease the supposed civilised society we live in. It’s all very cynical, but the questions are valid. So, what is love?
Before there was love, there was marriage
If we reduce the idea of marriage to a couple who rely on each other (monogamous or not), we can argue that marriage has existed since the Stone Age. What we would accept today as a marriage, involving contracts and witnesses, has been around for over 4000 years. From what we know, marrying for love is a recent concept in respect to human history. According to Coontz (2005), ‘[t]he Greeks thought lovesickness was a type of insanity’, and in Ancient Greece, marriage was a trade; the aim was to marry a daughter into wealth and high status.
During the middle ages, feelings of love were believed to come after marriage and not before. Under the Catholic church, marriage was a blessing that resulted in love. The idea of love before marriage, much like in Ancient Greece, was perceived as insanity. Capellanus wrote The Art of Courtly Love in 1184 and claimed that ‘[l]ove can have no place between husband and wife.’ To marry was not for love, it was a form of alliances between families. Occasionally, within royalty and higher societies, marriages secured political alliances. If love did occur, it was often with an illicit lover. Marriage was practical and political, and it wasn’t until recent history that marrying for love was accepted. Coontz continued in an interview that ‘[t]oo much love was thought to be a real threat to the institution of marriage’. Pre-17th-18th century, love was considered trivial and insignificant.
Although love-marriages became normalised, it can be argued that it isn't normalised everywhere even now. However, it’s believed that love was first perceived as a positive and acceptable idea when marrying between the 17th and 19th centuries. It is assumed that the French and American Revolutions, as well as the growth of the Industrial Revolution, greatly normalised marrying for love. There was an increase in the number of those in the middle-class. Marriage slowly became less about politics, and more about love.
Is it real if you can’t see it?
In the 21st century, marriage is all about finding the ‘one’ (or close) and signing a bit of paper to make both of your lives easier under the law. Oh, and getting a little tipsy. But is the love we marry for, real? Schopenhauer was one of the greatest German philosophers of the 19th century and is infamous for being one of the largest pessimists on love to exist. He believed love was nothing more than an illusion, and when you really get down to it, that love was nothing more than the primal need to mate. To him, love is entirely instinctual and nothing more. It is often debated whether love in humans is biological, or just a social construct. Love is pushed onto us by society and the never-ending normalisation of what is deemed ‘right’. In the context of modern times, if love is so natural, why do we pick and choose which types of love are valid and which aren’t? Let’s not forget that same-sex marriage wasn’t legalised in England and Wales until 2013. Also, if love comes down to a biological need within humans, why is polygamy frowned upon when love is supposedly a by-product of being human and instead monogamy is the default? Doesn’t this mean that love is a social construct if society determines who and how many we can love? On the other side of the argument, psychologist David Buss believes that romantic love does exist, and evolved in humans to deter us from infidelity (Lamy, 2011).
Cupid’s arrow, love vaccines and... science?
According to Dr Helen Fisher and her team of scientists at Rutgers (Wu, 2017), there are three phenomena that explain love. These facets of love all have a number of hormones that when occurring together, supposedly create love. This suggests that no matter what side of the argument you’re on, love can be completely explained by chemistry. The categories are as follows:
Despite this breakdown of what love is, it can’t truly explain the complexities of love in each individual, and it has yet to be successfully recreated to produce some sort of love vaccine (what a shame). As well as this, a study by William Jankowiak and Edward Fischer observed 166 cultures and found that 147 of them had evidence of love (Slater, 2006). That’s a whopping 89%. At the end of the day, love is not a simple subject. Whilst it can be explained as chemicals and characteristics, everyone has their own definition of love and we could go as far as to say that love cannot be defined.
Written by Charlotte Hunt