History: “Love” is one of the oldest words in the English language, dating back to the eighth century. Its meaning was derived from the ancient Greek philosophers, who went to great pains to examine each of the term’s dimensions. Interestingly, not a single one of the Greek types of love correlates with the commonly held modern view that emphasizes love as a feeling. For example, the Greek word eros, which is now associated with sensual desire and longing, was actually thought to involve an active contemplation of the beauty within a person, as well as an appreciation of beauty itself. The other types of Greek love—agape, philia, and storge—have even less of a “feeling” component, instead emphasizing reciprocal actions of caring, protection, and enjoyment. In the Middle Ages, the concept of “romantic” love took root, and while courtly poetry often expressed love as an irresistible urge that defied everything from the boundaries of social class to the bonds of marriage, it also saw true love as a lofty and transcendent thing. With the rise of Darwinism and Freudian psychoanalysis in the 19th and 20th centuries, however, the understanding of love was debased in two ways: the former saw it as merely a function of biological survival, and the latter dismissed it as an illusion of the mind.
Etymology: The word “love” comes from the Old Frisian term luve, which meant “affection and friendliness toward another person.” As time went on, its definition became increasingly ambiguous, as it was used to refer to an ever-widening range of phenomena. Beginning in 1225, for instance, “love” came to likewise mean “a beloved person.” The phrase “in love” dates back to 1580 and marks the first time that the word described an emotion rather than an action. In 1919, the term “love life,” meaning “one’s collective amorous activities,” was coined, and in 1950, the phrase “make love,” which had previously meant “to pay amorous attention to,” changed into a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Thus, by the middle of the twentieth century, “love” had devolved from a precise and virtuous act of devotion into a nebulous concept that could be applied to any number of behaviors, sentiments, and things. Occasionally, a philosopher, such as Thomas Jay Oord, has tried to salvage its original definition—Oord says that to love is to “act intentionally, in sympathetic response to others, to promote overall well-being”—but it is too late to call back the word from its indiscriminate application throughout English-speaking society.
Effect: Today we profess love for everything, whether it be our pets, our favorite foods, or our cars, and we do so at the slightest provocation. This haphazard ascription of love to any sort of warm feeling, however trivial, has, in many cases, made love itself disposable. We are as quick to stop loving as we are to love; and science is ready to back us up in this regard, teaching us not only that love is no longer an action, but that it is completely out of our control—a neurological drive that cannot be resisted and that alters its focus on a biological whim. Alas, many of us these days are either in love or out of love but never actively loving—never contemplating or caring or committing—and the cumulative result is a culture largely captive to its transitory passions. •
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