Throughout the centuries, there have been various debates about what exactly love is. For fun, I googled“definition of love” to see what came up. Top result: “an intense feeling of deep affection”. This seems pretty basic. It seems to click in our minds.Centuries ago, however, St Thomas offered a different definition of love which has been passed down through generations. He wrote that love is primarily an act of the will, that to love is to “will the good of the other.”
This is the definition of love that I was familiar with growing up. And this is probably the definition that you, dear reader, are expecting me to defend today. However, after much reflection on the topic I no longer believe that we can define love as “willing the good of another.” (2) I have the utmost respect for the thought behind it, and I believe there is a deep truth that we can discover through it, but to define love as such is to reduce the full splendor and goodness of love. I reject this definition on the grounds that for love to be present, it must involve an aspect of being felt to it.
I think women are naturally able to grasp this much better than men can. Take for instance, a groom preparing for marriage such as myself. If I were take care of my bride-to-be perfectly; to always provide and do things which lead to her happiness and holiness, I would be fulfilling the aspect of “willing the good” pretty darn well. However, if you were to ask most women what they would prefer from their man, to know they will be taken care of in every way or to know they are loved, they would almost unanimously reply that they would choose the knowledge that they are loved.
The biggest problem with the definition, “to will the good for the other” is that it leaves no room for the being felt dimension of love. Another way of looking at it is to say that it is possible for one to will the good of another without yet arriving at love, which is what I have tried to show in the example above. But if it isn’t to “will the good”, what is love?
In The Abode of Love, Dr. Terruwe gives an extensive account of love. Among other things, she says that love is a “feeling of emotion.” (4) That is not to say that the person does not make use of the will in love. Hopefully this is the part where those of you who were scandalized by the thought of love no longer being “to will the good” will go “ahh”. There are times when love starts to grow cold because of our human weakness, and in those times the will plays a crucial role in helping us to stay faithful. Hildebrand writes of the intentio benevolentiae of love, the “intention of benevolence.”(5) For love to be true, there must be the motivation to strive for the happiness and well being of the beloved. If we are only concerned with ourselves or fulfilling our nature, we fail to grasp love and instead fall into a form of egoism. One can even say that love is not truly present in its fullness unless one is willing the good of the other. Though I think it is impossible to define love as, “willing the good of another”, I certainly do hold that this is a necessary part of love.
It should be noted here that when I say love must be felt, I am not simply referring to the passion of love. Rather, there is a sort of “tender affectivity”, to quote Dietrich von Hildebrand, which is at the core of man. (6) I once heard remarked that love is not a roaring flame, but a candle which must be protected and treasured. It does not burn up and simmer out but is a steady growth which lights the darkest of nights. This state of tender affectivity is a crucial element of authentic love.
With these things in mind, we see that finding a “definition” of love is something that is a lot harder to do then it appears. There are multiple types of knowledge that we can have as persons. To know the definition of a thing is not to know the thing itself. Love is a mystery. Love is a gift. Love is an affective outpouring of ourselves. Love wills the good of the other. All of these things are true of love, yet none of them can strictly be called the “definition” of it.
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- St. Thomas, Summa Theologicae I-II 26 4
- A.A.A. Terruwe, The Abode of Love p.25
- Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Nature of Love, Ch. 7
- Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Heart Ch. 3