Saturday, January 26, 2019

Love and Sex

Well, that title got your attention didn't it?

What is love, you may ask?

You will not be surprised to learn that TOF has an answer. Surely, you would love to know what it is.
The Bible tells us to love our neighbours,
and also to love our enemies;
probably because generally they are the same people.
-- Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Even our enemies? Oy! This alone ought to tell us that love comes in different flavors, for we were never commanded to plant a big wet one on Saddam Hussein's lips, nor to give Hitler a little tongue action.

Nowadays, talk of love in English is muddled by the debasement of the term "love." They say "The Greeks have a word for it," but when it came to love, they had three-and-a-half words for it. According to Wikipedia, that font of all wisdom, these were:
  1. Agápe (ἀγάπη) meaning "love in the sense of charity; the love of God for man and of man for God." It is also used in ancient texts to denote feelings for one's children and the feelings for a spouse.
  2. Philia (φιλία) meaning "affectionate regard, friendship," usually between equals. It expresses loyalty to friends, family, and community. It is also used for desire or enjoyment of an activity, as well as between lovers.
  3. Éros (ἔρως) meaning sexual passion. [However, Plato did not regard physical attraction as a necessary part of érōs, hence "platonic love."] With contemplation, Plato says, érōs becomes an appreciation of the beauty within that person, or even appreciation of beauty itself.  
  • A fourth term -- storge (στοργή) -- meaning a natural empathy, was used only rarely in ancient texts. This referred to the feelings of parents for offspring, for the love for one's country or a favorite sports team, or for mere acceptance or putting up with situations. You do not actually love the Eagles or the Mets -- not agape, philia, or (especially, we hope) not eros -- but you can feel storge for them. Sometimes, you just put up with them. 
But in English, we are stuck with multi-tasking the word "love." That's a lot of straw for a single camel.

One of the benefits of having a word for something is that one can talk about it without talking around it.  For example, the ancient Greeks had no word for 'velocity' and so could not easily discuss the physics of local motion.  Not that they were unaware that things changed location at varying rates, but they simply called it 'motion.'

Thing is, the ancients (and early medievals) were interested in motion as such, more so than in its magnitude, so they wondered how a thing might move at all rather than in how one would describe that motion arithmetically, and their vocabulary reflected this.  We Moderns are just as hobbled when we try to talk about love, since the distillation of modern English boils everything down pretty much to plumbing. The fine distinctions of agape, philos, eros, and the like are not for the blunt Modern ear, which just wants to know if she is available and if so, how soon.  
A man may love many things and anything.  He may love a woman, or a comrade.  He may love his work or the place where he lives.  He may love a good drink or a good journey.  He might get lost – on the journey, or in the drink, or especially in the woman – but what is love without loss?  
-- The January Dancer
The beloved in repose
SUPPOSE YOU LOVE A GOOD STEAK, let's say one that is medium rare and juicy, cut from a fine filet and seared to perfection. Whose mouth does not water? Whose taste buds do not yearn for its savor?¹ You want to celebrate something with a friend so you take her to a fine steakhouse.

The beloved in celebration
Let us suppose further that you love your dinner companion, who may also be rare and juicy. Here, even the most stolid TOFian Reader may catch the glimmer of a Truth: viz., that one does not love one's dinner companion in quite the same manner as one loves one's dinner. Though lips and tongue may be enthusiastically engaged in either case, they are not used in quite the same manner.²

The distinction is this:
  • You love your dinner because of the enjoyment you will get from it.
  • You love your companion for her own sake.³
1. whose mouth does not water? Well, okay, vegans and suchlike. But this is a hypothetical: cf. "suppose." If you lack the empathy to entertain the example, substitute whichever toothsome foodstuff as pleases you for the warmed up muscle tissue of a castrated bovine. TOF himself is passing fond of corn on the cob, which are the sexual organs of a sterile mutant grass.
2. dinner guest vs. dinner. Cannibals excepted.
3. her. Or his. Work with me here.
The former is what Aquinas called "love of concupiscence" [amor concupiscentiae] and the latter, what he called "love of friendship" [amor amicitiae]⁴. Summa Theologiae I-II.26.4

This is clear enough in the case of the steak. You do not love the steak for the sake of the steak. The steak gets nothing out of the relationship save to achieve its final cause; viz., to be digested. This is not so much the good of the dinner as it is for the good of the diner.

The case of the dinner companion is more complex. We enjoy our companion's company, for whatever reason. Perhaps he is a fine story-teller and we enjoy his jokes and stories. But friend-love means we love him for his own sake, not simply because he entertains us and keeps us laughing. Or because he is useful: perhaps we cultivate his friendship in the hope of getting his business. But love is not all about us. It's all about him. Or her.

"Friendship" in our Late Modern Age is a pale shell of its former self. It was once a passionate, robust thing that implied a deep commitment. It was often accompanied by tokens exchanged between the friends, and betrayal of a friendship was a serious matter indeed, often leading to clan feuds or wars. The word in English that comes closest to approximating this meaning today is "buddies," as in "fishing buddies" or "foxhole buddies." Nineteenth century photographs often show men holding hands with their special friends, or with their arms across each other's shoulders; but the Late Modern secular obsession with pelvic issues insists on interpreting such gestures in a prurient manner and we seldom see them any more.⁵ Yet it was often the case among foxhole buddies that one would throw his own body on a grenade to save the others, and it is a truism that "greater love than this hath no man."

Love in the Western, i.e., Christian, tradition was defined simply as "to will the good of the other precisely as other." That is, for his or her own sake, not for our own. It is not defined as an emotion, let alone as a feeling, but as an act of will. And yet surely when we behold our beloved, we experience both emotions and feelings⁶, even if the beloved is not named Shirley. How do we explain this paradox?
4. concupiscentiae... amicitiae. Note the genitive case endings -ae. This is not love of a thing called concupiscence or friendship, but love generated by concupiscence or friendship. "Genitive" = "born of"
5. seldom sees such gestures. At least in this country. TOF saw it frequently in Chennai, TN, India. Two likely lads walking along with their nigh arms over each other's shoulders and with their outer arms holding hands across their bodies. The pose held no meaning other than friendship, we were assured.
6. emotions... feelings. These are not the same thing.

"What do you want to know about love?  ... Well, there are chemicals in the brain that regulate pleasure..." 
-- Jerry Oltion,
"What Science Means to Me"

As an aside, there are those who claim that all such things are nothing more than the motions of atoms in a void, and they try to explain love by reference to brain chemistry and other such foo-foo.⁷ But TOF's reader can spot the palmed ace. Jerry Oltion in his comment above is not writing about love at all, but about pleasure, a feeling of one's self, and this is not the same thing. To the pleasure-minded hedonist, other people are never quite real. They are only instruments to be used to enhance one's own pleasures. As Aquinas says:
When friendship is based on usefulness or pleasure, a man does indeed wish his friend some good: and in this respect the character of friendship is preserved.  But since he refers this good further to his own pleasure or use, the result is that friendship of the useful or pleasant, in so far as it is connected with love of concupiscence, loses the character to true friendship. -- Summa Theologiae I-II.26.4
If one cannot be loved, it is at least no small thing to be useful. Yet, tools are useful and who wants to be a tool? This is why love is an act of the will and not an emotion or feeling. The feelings of pleasure that we experience are a result of the love, not the love itself.

Pleasure can also lead to love in that the Pavlovian conditioning that associates the pleasure of being in the Other Person's company can lead one to love that Other Person as well. Hence, the pleasurable sex act is called "making" love. The consequence of taking pleasure is love.

So, it works all ways. You can experience pleasure as a result of loving the Other; you can fall in love as a consequence of taking pleasure; or you can love without any physical act of pleasure (which is called Platonic). In our Late Modern world, we have learned that you can even take pleasure without love entering the picture at all.
7. Brain chemistry. Or they seem to explain. By their own account, materialists are merely compelled by the forces of physics to say such things.
“It’s not love unless it is unwilling. 
Otherwise, why speak of ‘falling’?” 
-- Méarana Harper, in The January Dancer

One of the great myths of the Late Modern Age is that love is something that happens to you when you are not looking; as if "to love" were a Latin deponent verb: active in sense but passive in form. Hence, "I am in love" rather than "I love." From this stems many of our particular ills.¹

Now, there is a grain of truth to this. The image of Cupid loosing his arrows at the unwitting (or, in India, Kama the Bodiless) is a very ancient one, so it's not just we Moderns who make fools of ourselves. Culture produced the arranged marriage precisely because it could not trust hormone-crazed lust-puppies to make rational decisions in this area. But the grain of truth is also the stone in the shoe. The problem is not that we have a good time with out beloved. It's whether having a good time is our purpose.²

TOF had a HS classmate who was in an arranged marriage. She showed up at the senior dance with an older man (No, not that old.) and told us they had been promised when still children. "But do you love him?" her horrified classmates asked. "I will learn to love him," she answered. This answer was incomprehensible to those raised in the Cupid's Arrow school of modern Hollywood love. We did not understand that love is not a passion but an action; viz., an act of will. And yet, a few years ago her cousin's husband told TOF that she was still happily married to this same man, so go figure.³ Maybe the divorce rate is so high these days because mating choices are generally being made by hormone-crazed lust-puppies.

If people confuse love with the feelings or sensations, then when those feelings or sensations diminish from repetition, they are apt to suppose "love" has died. But a new shoe is apt to pinch and one feels it constantly on one's feet. Once it is "broken in," we no longer notice the shoe; but this in no way means that the shoe has died.
1. "in love" vs. "love." And the confusion is spreading. Notice how often you hear "I am supportive of..." instead of "I support..." Is it only verbs of commitment that suffer from this oddly passive construction?
2. for a good time. One sometimes sees on the walls of public lavatories the inscription "For a good time, call Suzy." However, it seldom means that a good time for Suzy is intended.
3. arranged marriage. That's "arranged," not "imposed." The rule is "consent makes the marriage." Think of it as a Very Long Engagement, the advantage of which is the couple learns each other's foibles well before they become irrevocable.


Since this essay is already too long, TOF will refer Faithful Reader the the post by Eve Keneinan, "The Word 'Sex'" (Last Eden, 25 July, 2015) and mention that the gradual muddying of the term "sex" from noun to verb is largely responsible for the gradual decay of "love" into "my pleasure."


  1. Aristotle, Rhetoric Book II Part 4.
  2. Chastek, James (2008). "Families as the principle of harmony for the “dual ends” of sexuality". (Just Thomism, Aug. 5, 2008)
  3. Chastek, James (2016a). "Love as primarily willed or emotional" (Just Thomism, July 15, 2016)
  4. Chastek, James (2016b) "Friendship and incarnation" (Just Thomism, Oct 17, 2016)
  5. Feser, Edward (2016) "Bad Lovin'" (Edward Feser Blog, July 12, 2016)
  6. Feser, Edward (2017) "Mired in the roiling tarpits of lust" (Edward Feser Blog, Feb. 15 2017)
  7. Keneinan, Eve (2016). "The Word 'Sex'" (Last Eden, 25 July, 2015)
  8. Oltion, Jerry (2012) "What Science Means to Me" (Analog, Jan/Feb 2012)
  9. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, I-II, 26, 4.

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