February 9, 2011 Volume 4 Issue 2
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Brian Glenney
At a young age many of us inherited the idea that love is a commitment, not a feeling. The idea may have been beneficial in our youth, sobering our vigor and shaping our sense of character. But when I hear all this talk about the negative prospects of marriage and consider my own, I find the idea to be at best a noble lie. I’m now inclined to think that love has little to do with commitment or choice or anything that requires a dutiful decision on our part and more to do with a feeling that sweeps us up with little warning or guidance.
A moment’s reflection will find this feeling in attendance when any object of love is nearby, another person, a physical object, a job, an idea. It’s a peculiar kind of feeling too. The writer-philosopher David Foster Wallace had it right, I think, to describe love as akin to the click of a well-made box. For it invokes a sense of a ‘fit’, a ‘completion’, a ‘settling in:’ a feeling similar to the calibration of a moving piece with already moving parts. When each piece comes together—or when, to use other ‘fitting’ analogies, the paradox is resolved, the equation is demonstrated, the chord is struck—we find ourselves in love.
Is this mere Epicurean rubbish, a doctrine of swine? Perhaps. (Why can’t pigs love?) But as I described above, love is not the same as scratching an itch. And it’s not as if by defining it as a feeling I mean to neglect all the distinctive courses of action love promotes.
For instance, I agree with St. Paul when he connected love to an increase in kindness and patience, to a hope and endurance in all things. Our annual celebration of the love of St. Valentine that led to his martyrdom is a nod to love’s loyalty, showing that when love lasts—when that moving piece still fits after all the other moving pieces have been changed or replaced—love takes on an e pluribus unum character that, given certain unique circumstances, has been described as a condition of “two bodies becoming one.”
My point is just that if this alone is what the feeling of love achieves then it is no more a commitment to staying together than my resolve to keeping my arm on my torso or my eyes in my head. I did have a friend who had problems keeping his glass eye in its socket, but no amount of commitment on his part fixed the problem. You get the idea.
You might say, however, that it does take a certain level of commitment to keep our ‘two in one’ bodies together—to stay in love. Feelings are fleeting: the box warps: its lid no longer clicks, other more stimulating paradoxes and equations intrigue, new chords resound and attract. So, the staying part of love can look as difficult and foreboding as a death march and the whole thing can sound fairly terrible.
Council can come from the philosopher Karl Popper, who advised philosophers (once known as ‘lovers of wisdom’), “to meet a problem, to see its beauty and fall in love with it; to get married to it, and to live with it happily, till death do ye part . . . unless,” he cautioned, “you should obtain a solution.” Popper’s point is that problems, like love, are the kind of thing one tackles with pleasure. The irony of Popper’s advice is that philosophical problems are unique in that they are never solved. If they could be, they would not be philosophical problems to begin with.
Love is similar to a philosophical problem. Real love (the kind we really want) can never be “solved.” It remains wild for all attempts to tame it. And while not a domesticated beast, it can be monitored and protected from poachers. It can be given its own game park to flourish and prosper. We call these reserves “marriage,” jungles where the wild things of love can play free.
So if love is a feeling, as I imagine it to be, the submissive bonds of vocation, marriage, and religion fall aside; the signed contracts, vows, and creeds become declarations of liberty and proclaim, “We do it because we love it!”
Brian Glenney is an assistant professor of philosophy at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He and his wife and their four young children live in Beverly Farms, MA.