What Is This Thing We Call Love?

Charles Lindholm is a professor of anthropology at Boston University and author, most recently, of "The Islamic Middle East: An Historical Anthropology.

According to a Greek legend cited by Plato in “The Symposium,” human beings were originally starfish-like creatures, with four arms, four legs and two sets of sexual organs. Each human being was complete unto itself. Then, because of their pride and ambition, humans were split in half by the gods, which is why we now spend our lives searching for that other half, compulsively seeking unity in the arms of another.

That’s one way of looking at that most intimate quest we call falling in love--although not, probably, one you’ll find expressed in greeting-card sentiments as Valentine’s Day approaches.

What the Greeks meant by love and what we mean by it are far different things. The Greeks, and the Romans after them, saw passionate love as a kind of dangerous illness. It could tear respectable young people away from their families and draw them into disadvantageous affairs with inappropriate mates; it could make adults act like fools. Such passions had to be rigorously guarded against. And they certainly had no place in the relationship between husband and wife. As the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote: “Nothing is more depraved than to love one’s wife as if she were a mistress.”

For modern Americans, in contrast, romantic love is the highest attainment: We celebrate it in song, our poets and novelists chronicle its pains and pleasures, our movies present love stories that ordinary people attempt to emulate. Such passionate love leads naturally, we assume, to marriage and a family. It is what binds a man and woman together as a couple; it “makes the world go ‘round.” It is seen as an essential human need.

So how, then, did love come to mean something so different in our world than it did in ancient times? It’s all about social organization. Greek and Roman societies were largely based on patrilineal descent groups. Only through membership in a patrilineage could men make claims to property, or assert leadership; women, too, relied on their patrilineage for protection and honor. It was the essential glue of society, providing identity, safety and continuity. Through marriage, a lineage could be strengthened or weakened.


In this context matrimony was too important a matter to be decided by young people, particularly if they were in the throes of passion. Rather, marriage arrangements were negotiated by elders, with an eye to advancing the interests of the clan. A new wife entered her husband’s extended family as a stranger, under the thumb of her in-laws; her life was confined to the home, where she could gain status by bearing children. Meanwhile, her husband was likely to avoid the women’s quarters altogether, competing with other men for honor and renown in the public sphere. In such societies, men and women alike viewed marriage as a duty and a necessity; sexual passion between husband and wife would be an act of disloyalty to the larger extended family.

Passion, although removed from the marriage bed, did play a role in ancient societies. Sexual desire was simply directed elsewhere. For patrician men in Greece and Rome, the objects of desire were very often women (or sometimes men) of the slave and courtesan classes, whose business was providing pleasure. The channeling of sexuality away from marriage preserved the staid atmosphere of the family, but could have disastrous consequences when lust turned, as it sometimes did, into love. Men occasionally sacrificed honor and wealth for the sake of a prostitute’s favor, bringing disgrace and ruin upon themselves. Although they, too, occasionally got enmeshed in wanton and destructive affairs, women did not have the same opportunities for passionate pursuits, and so instead lavished their thwarted affections on their sons.

Like the Greeks and Romans, modern Americans also fear adulterous affairs, but not for the same reasons. In our society, descent is neither patrilineal nor matrilineal, but instead is traced through both male and female lines. As a result, we do not belong to solitary clans, and kinship ties, though affectionate (at least ideally), are very rarely central to our economic and political lives. Rather, each of us struggles to achieve his or her own potential in a fluid society of competitive individualists. We do not expect or want our families to contract marriages for us, but instead yearn to fall in love and to realize our own personal dreams.

In a traditional society, mates are chosen for practical reasons from a limited range of candidates whose virtues can be easily calibrated. But in our culture, where the range of potential mates is infinite and more or less equivalent, only the irrational compulsion of love can release us from the quandary of choice. Of course, this does not explain where that compulsion comes from in the first place--only that it serves a purpose.

Our current societal bent toward independence, social mobility, free choice and marriages that grow out of love has been linked to the rise of capitalism. It is certainly true that, as capitalism has triumphed throughout the world, love-based marriages have also become more prevalent. But it is also true that in England, the cradle of capitalism, marriages for love (along with social mobility and personal autonomy) preceded the rise of the capitalistic economy. And love-based marriages were also the norm in such small-scale hunting-and-gathering cultures as the Ife of Central Africa, the Kung bushmen of Botswana and the Ojibway of North America’s Great Lakes region.

These seeming anomalies are explicable in cultural terms. Like our own society, simple hunting and gathering societies prize individualism. They are highly mobile. People have little attachment to kin groups and must make their own way in a risky environment. As free agents, they are able to choose whom they wish to marry.

But here’s the big question: Why should that choice be surrounded by a cloud of romance? Why don’t men simply choose the best gatherer, the most fecund child-bearer? Why do women not automatically select the male most likely to bring down the prey?

These questions are at the core of a very old debate about the nature of romantic love. On one side are those who believe that all the fuss and bother, all the romance and adoration, are just a cover for something much more fundamental: sexual desire. Romantic love, they contend, is simply a mask that makes lust respectable. The other side insists that love exists as its own highest end. Lovers love not because they wish to gain sexual pleasure, but because love bestows the ultimate value on both lover and beloved. Romance, they believe, is something akin to worship.

Or perhaps Plato was right. What we are looking for in love is only symbolized by sex. It is really something far more powerful: completion.