Love and society

In the small neighborhood on the UP campus where I live, I often see a young boy in a wheelchair breeze past my house. His body appears shrunken and deformed, but his handsome face tells me he must be in his early teens. His eyes riveted to the sky and the trees above him, he seems to be tracking the rhythm of the nursery rhymes playing continuously from an audio player. Occasionally, he emits a screech of delight, as if in echo of a familiar refrain. The man marching behind him in big strides, pushing his wheelchair, fondly glances at his ward and nods as though to confirm his experience. I call that love.

When we say that we love or that we are in love with someone, we usually think of being in the steady grip of a strong inexplicable feeling. If love were solely an internal state, it would be impossible for a sociologist to observe it. But, if we began to think of love as a medium of communication—the way truth and money or power communicate meanings or choices—then we can study its unique qualities, and understand why humanity cannot do without it.

From early times, love has always been associated with human solidarity. Of course, some people might feel self-sufficient and believe they have no need for love. But, as the sociologist Niklas Luhmann argues: “While it may be entirely conceivable to lead a life individually without love and yet find self-affirmation in the world (for example, through one’s achievements or successes), it is not at all possible for love to be replaced as a mechanism of society as a whole.” Why so?

The answer does not lie alone in the prolonged socialization and dependence of the child, which requires the kind of unconditional caring that we expect of parents. A more complete account of the function of love in human societies must consider the manner in which love as communication facilitates the intersubjective formation of identities and world views—a lifelong process that starts in the family. It is no accident then that love is the medium of the family, just as money is the medium of the economy, power that of politics, and truth that of science.

These distinct media of communication are not interchangeable. Outside their specific spheres, they command little or no value. You can neither purchase nor coerce love. “Similarly,” as Luhmann cautions, “love may create for itself a world that is incapable of truth and indeed largely fictitious, and may no longer submit to the commands of the powerful, the heads of the household—just as art scorns the laws of nature and language.”

It is remarkable that, in the modern world, love’s main association is no longer with solidarity but with eroticism and passion, the intense feelings that two individuals have for one another. For that is not how the concept began. In Greek antiquity, the word used for love was “philos.” It was an adjective that was employed to designate a relationship of closeness or belonging to something—a household, a tribe, or a dynasty. Its reference was to society, to something larger than the individual. In this form, its first usages pertained to political love and love for one another through God.

Nowhere perhaps is love’s ancient association with human solidarity more eloquently expressed than in the famous biblical passage from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

The culture that is built around this form of love encourages individuals to feel comfortable in the presence of others on the sheer ground that they belong to the same community. “The erotic is not ruled out,” says Luhmann of love in early society, “but it is not essential for building this structure. Passionate individual affection occurs, of course, but if anything makes its presence felt as a disruptive force at societal level.” Indeed, the first expressions of passionate love in romantic novels toward the end of the Middle Ages found their context in illicit relationships, where marriage was not possible.

With the evolution of society, the previously excluded form of love—love as passion—became the norm in the modern period. As improbable as it might have seemed at the time, it became the defining characteristic of intimate relationships, and the only acceptable basis for modern marriage. Such love consciously freed itself from any moral or societal responsibilities. Any consideration outside the feelings that couples in love had for one another was deemed irrelevant. Modern marriage today bristles at the idea of having to fulfill any social function or to conform to any expectation imposed from outside—particularly those that have to do with economic needs, status, religion, or power. This development is consistent with the evolution of a functionally differentiated modern society.

But it has its dysfunctions. Nietzsche once complained that something as important to society as the family should not be made to depend on the vagaries of an emotion as ephemeral as passionate love. He was right: The outcome of this idealization of romantic love has been the ease with which today’s marriages are abandoned as soon as the passion subsides. But there’s no point in lamenting the course that societal evolution has taken. Love has to be continuously learned and mastered, especially in its communicative aspects, rather than taken for granted as a generous provision of nature.