'Love Is Love' -- or is it?

Sign on Midlands Highway / ABC and Facebook 

On the slope of a hill along Tasmania’s Midland Highway is a sign made of whitewashed tyres advertising the Melton Mowbray Rodeo on November 4. Or rather, there was a sign. It now reads “LOVE IS LOVE”. In front of the reconfigured tyres, a dozen sheep are grazing in silent approval.  

The juxtaposition of the slogan and the sheep, whose IQ seldom rises into double digits symbolises the slogan’s vacuity. But, it must be admitted, “love is love” is popular. It draws on decades of confusion about what those four letters really mean. “Love makes the world go round,” sang the Everly Brothers in 1961. “Love is all you need,” according to the Beatles in 1967. And now it has become the catchcry of the “marriage equality” movement.

A bit of unpacking is in order. In English “love” covers a very broad semantic range. Does it signify the same thing in phrases like these?

  • “I love ice cream” (every kid)
  • “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)
  • “God Bless America, Land that I love”
  • “To find true love at this age, at this stage of life, is beyond words” (Hugh Hefner, aged 88)
  • “There's beggary in the love that can be reckoned” (Antony and Cleopatra, Act I, scene 1)
  • “And now abides faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13)  
  • “I love the smell of napalm in the morning ” (Lt Col Bill Kilgore, Apocalypse Now)

Obviously not. A cereal manufacturer in Massachusetts was recently rebuked by the US Food and Drug Administration for listing “love” as an ingredient:

“Your Nashoba Granola label lists ingredient ‘Love’ ... ‘Love’ is not a common or usual name of an ingredient, and is considered to be intervening material because it is not part of the common or usual name of the ingredient.”

“Silly”, responded the manufacturer. But the FDA has a point. Words have to mean something. If “love is love” includes both slurping ice cream cones and gay sex, it means nothing at all.

So what does love mean?

Poets and advertising copy writers do not have a monopoly on love. Ever since Plato, philosophers have struggled to define it. The Greeks had not one, but three, words for “love”: philia, agape and eros.

Philia is usually translated as “friendship”, although that is not quite accurate. It is a kind of dispassionate fondness and appreciation, which includes loyalty to family and community. Aristotle says that "things that cause friendship are: doing kindnesses; doing them unasked; and not proclaiming the fact when they are done" (Rhetoric, II. 4).

Agape was not a word used much by Plato and Aristotle, but it was the word that Christians used to describe the love of God, and by extension, the benevolent, self-sacrificing love that Christians should have for their neighbour. Its exemplar was the fatherly love of God in creating, nurturing and redeeming man.

Eros was at the heart of Plato’s analysis of love. The English cognate “erotic” merely denotes lust and the arousal of sexual desire. While Plato’s vision of eros began with this experience, it transcended it.

Benedict XVI penned a surprisingly positive account of Plato’s vision of eros in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. The Old Testament, he wrote, was not opposed to eros, but to its “warped and destructive” counterfeits, like temple prostitution. “Evidently,” wrote the Pope, “eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.

For Plato, eros was the exemplar of all love: in “love between man and woman, ... body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness. This would seem to be the very epitome of love; all other kinds of love immediately seem to fade in comparison.”

But eros is unplanned and unwilled, the divine madness that Shakespeare describes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which the love-charmed Titania, queen of the fairies, falls in passionately love with Bottom, a humble weaver with the head of an ass:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.

Despite this deranged and destructive aspect, for Plato, eros also pointed to transcendence. In physical desire, man fleetingly attains, he thought, an experience of unchanging Beauty beyond the deceptions of the material world. So the desire for sexual satisfaction, which is shared with animals, points beyond itself to the Infinite.   

But, as Benedict XVI points out, Plato recognised that individuals, wounded and imperfect as they are, can never attain this sublimation by themselves. In his dialogue The Symposium, he referred to one of the ancient Greek myths to explain why:

“man was originally spherical, because he was complete in himself and self-sufficient. But as a punishment for pride, he was split in two by Zeus, so that now he longs for his other half, striving with all his being to possess it and thus regain his integrity”.

This is remarkably similar to the Christian view of marriage as a “two in one flesh” union of man and woman.

So, back to the sign on the Tasmanian hillside: which of these dimensions of love is the “marriage equality” campaign promoting with the slogan “Love is Love”?

Only eroticism, it seems, with precious little of the “divine madness” of Plato's eros. Most of the images in its advertisements are of infatuated same-sex couples holding hands, kissing or embracing. This is the basest form of eros, mere infatuation and physical pleasure.

What about the sacrificial love of agape – the love of a mother for a sick child, the love of an elderly husband caring for a wife with Alzheimer’s, the love of Sonny Melton, who died on Sunday in Las Vegas shielding his wife from a deranged killer’s bullets?

What about the simple, straightforward philia amongst the players on a football team? The lump in the throat on seeing the flag raised? The year-after-year commitment of volunteer fire fighters?

Intended or unintended, “Love is Love” contains three dangers.

First, all types of love – philia, agape and eros – are reduced to the most debased form of eros – the satisfaction of sexual desire. This is just clapped-out Freudian psychology on steroids. If this confusion were to enter the education system, we can expect ghastly confusion. Children will be taught that lust has no limits and that there is nothing higher than sexual desire.

Second, the vacuous shibboleth of “love is love” is self-defeating. Under its banner we can fit the paedophile North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), or sadomasochistic bondage, or incest or whatever. Does “marriage equality” really accept these as legitimate forms of love? If not, why not?

Third, it is a homeopathic dilution of eros. It undervalues erotic pleasure. Instead of pointing men and women towards self-transcendence, it reduces them to mere instruments of physical satisfaction. 

Instead of hiding behind its inane slogan, doesn’t the “marriage equality” movement owe us an explanation of what kind of love it has in mind?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Slider photo: Sally Rugg, Human Rights Campaigner at Get Up and Helen Riley. Photo: Ross Swanborough / PerthNow


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