Every year, people from around the world celebrate love on Valentine’s Day. But what is love, and why do we celebrate these traditions? Xinli Wang, professor of philosophy, and who teaches the Philosophy of Love class at Juniata College, gives his thoughts on love and Valentine’s Day:
Does true love exist?
The straightforward answer is no. There are three kinds of love: agape, or Christian love; eros, the romantic, sexual love; and philia, friendship. Usually we have our notions of true love because of Christianity and love of God. We believe in true love because we model our love for human beings based on God’s love for us. We have transformed this from Christian love to human love. Some people even believe there is this other soul you are looking for, and if you find her or find him, you fall in true love.
I don’t think there is such a thing as true love. That’s distortion, and it’s actually pretty bad for you to believe in that and wait for true love to come along. If someone doesn’t work out, you might decide that’s not true love and give up, and you set the bar too high. That’s not healthy. I don’t think it’s a really good idea to believe there’s true love out there.
But maybe it’s true love for each individual. I think sometimes it’s necessary to have the illusion of true love, but we have to know it’s an illusion. An illusion might psychologically help, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.
What causes love?
From an evolutionary point of view, love is a kind of attachment, pairing up to care for the young. Suppose the male has intercourse and walks away; the baby and the female might not survive. This would be bad, because we want to perpetuate our genes to the next generation. We need motivation to stay together as parents to take care of the young. What kind of motivation? Love. Attachment. Passion for each other, at least for the time being. Four years is enough time for a baby to become a toddler and be cared for by the mother alone. That’s why, in a marriage, the first four or five years, or even ten years, are the best time.
Of course, love foundationally comes from chemicals, but we are humans. We are not manipulated by chemicals. From our traditions, we built up this idea about love. We have all these poems, all these plays, all these celebrations about love. These shape us to think that love is more than psychological attachment. Love is caused by a combination. Love is a chemical reaction with a biological base, but it is also human creation. Most important, since we’re human beings, we have imagination. Love cannot survive without imagination.
What do traditions like Valentine’s Day say about our culture?
Valentine’s Day has deep religious roots. One of the most popular legends is of a priest in the Roman Empire under the rule of Emperor Claudius II. This legend says Emperor Claudius wanted to draft soldiers, but the young men didn’t want to join because they cared about their families and wives, so Claudius prohibited marriage unless they served in the army. But a priest named Valentine continued the marriage ceremonies, to celebrate love and defy the order of the Emperor. Of course, he was caught and thrown into jail and put to death. In the story, you can see agape, love for God, because he was a priest with devotion to God, and you can see the eros tradition, because he wanted to celebrate the love of young people. Also, there’s friendship in the story. When he was in jail, the jailor’s daughter came to see him, and they had this friendship, philia. That’s why, before his execution, he sent a card that said, “Love, from your Valentine.”
You can see where this rich tradition comes from, because the three most profound human emotions combine here. Everyone can get something from this cultural tradition. Christians celebrateagape love toward God. For philia, you prepare cards for your friends. And lovers celebrate their romantic affection, eros.
I come from China, and the Chinese celebrate the Western notion of romantic love and Valentine’s Day. In Chinese tradition, we have old celebrations and also the Western traditions. You can see this tradition is embedded in Western culture and also spread out among other cultures.
What is your opinion of Valentine’s Day?
It’s a good celebration, but remember everyone gets something for themselves from these kinds of celebrations. For example, some Christians might condemn others: “Oh you just go indulge yourselves in Valentine’s Day, but Valentine’s Day is supposed to be for agape love, love of God, not for your pitiful personal affections.” I think that’s wrong. With these rich cultural traditions, everybody has some kind of love. The three traditions, eros, philia, agape, are not supposed to be separated. We only started to separate the different loves after the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but they all should come together. I think it’s great that we continue that tradition.
~Laura Bitely ’14, Juniata Online Journalist