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I have not the words to describe love, to cloth it in words is to kill it, to mummify it, and hope that somewhere in the heart of a reader, they have the strength and the magic required to resurrect it.

With the nature of what I do, I have become accustomed to not being able to easily explain some of my thoughts to anyone I know. But this inability to communicate my thoughts is because none of my friends share my passion for computer science and thus I find myself with a task akin to describing colour to someone who has only ever seen black and white. Love, however, is something which - I hope - everyone experiences, and yet I still find myself unable to convey it both accurately and concisely.

Love, a truly inadequate word

English is a wonderfully rich language. We borrowed the best parts of Greek, Latin, French, German and pretty much every other language ever spoken, chucked in a few extra words for good measure and called it our own.

“English certainly has the largest vocabulary … by a long, long, long way. Rather as China is to the rest of the world in population, English is in the population of its words.”

Stephen Fry

If there is one area that English fails us, it is love. There are several Greek words, all with very distinct meanings, for which the English equivalent is simply “Love”. This single word refers to such a diverse variety of emotions that it is impossibly difficult to consistently define and unlike other words with several distinct meanings it is often not possible to infer the exact intended meaning from the context.

“Unlike us, the ancients did not lump all the various emotions that we label “love” under the one word. They had several variations, including:

Philia which they saw as a deep but usually non-sexual intimacy between close friends and family members or as a deep bond forged by soldiers as they fought alongside each other in battle.

Ludus describes a more playful affection found in fooling around or flirting.

Pragma is the mature love that develops over a long period of time between long-term couples and involves actively practising goodwill, commitment, compromise and understanding.

Agape is a more generalised love, it’s not about exclusivity but about love for all of humanity.

Philautia is self love, which isn’t as selfish as it sounds. As Aristotle discovered and as any psychotherapist will tell you, in order to care for others you need to be able to care about yourself.

Last, and probably least even though it causes the most trouble, eros is about sexual passion and desire. Unless it morphs into philia and/or pragma, eros will burn itself out.”

Philippa Perry

The word “Love” is both over-used and mis-used. I am just as guilty of this as anyone, I have signed off texts with “love you” to people for whom my feelings could not accurately be described as love using any reasonable definition of the word. Over time this has had an effect comparable to that in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, since if I routinely append a statement of love to my messages then how is someone supposed to make the distinction when I actually mean it?

What is love?

I can only express my own opinions and experiences, it is entirely possible (probable in fact) that your own experiences do not perfectly mirror mine. I hope that there is sufficient correlation that the conclusions at which I have arrived do not seem too distant from your own.

“You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.”
Dr. Seuss

Subjective and Objective attractiveness

Physical attractiveness can be quantified both subjectively and objectively. A straight female would not find, for example, Kate Middleton subjectively attractive however they could appreciate her “objective beauty”. I use a female example intentionally as females tend to be much less cautious about expressing this appreciation of, or simply observation of, “objective beauty” publicly than males.

One area that people, understandably, take great care over is when talking about children, everyone can recognise the objective attractiveness of a child, it is simply how well their appearance correlates to a set of rules, however we are very careful of how we convey this. We use different words such as “cute” to make sure the distinction between subjective and objective observation is made clear.

Is Sexual Attraction Love?

“I will far rather see the race of man extinct than that we should become less than beasts by making the noblest of God’s creation, woman, the object of our lust.”

People like to classify sexual attraction as a binary value, you either are or you aren’t attracted to someone. I don’t believe that attraction can be defined as such for anyone and certainly not for myself. Whilst I can quite easily sort people into a rough order of how attractive I find them it is much harder, impossible in fact, to determine where the “cut off” for being attractive is.

“Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other?”
Herman Melville

But is physical attraction love? I don’t think so. Physical attraction is lust, and if love was dependent upon lust then it would diminish, just as material attraction does, as age takes its toll. You can be sexually attracted to someone you have just met, or indeed never met, but love can only be forged over time - and strengthens with it.

“Love grows. Lust wastes by Enjoyment, and the Reason is, that one springs from a Union of Souls, and the other from a Union of Sense.”
William Penn

“It is love rather than sexual lust or unbridled sexuality if, in addition to the need or want involved, there is also some impulse to give pleasure to the persons thus loved and not merely to use them for our own selfish pleasure.”
Mortimer Adler

True Love

For me, love is but an extension of friendship - something which is intrinsically reliant and built upon trust. I fall in love with what is on the inside of someone - personality, not the outside. So as to not waste inordinate amounts of time I identify myself as bisexual, however this is somewhat of a simplification and my sexuality can more accurately be described as heterosexual biromantic since the proportion of females that I find physically attractive is much greater than the proportion of males. There are people whom I love but do not lust.

“Love is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning and unquenchable.”


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Article written by Daniel Chatfield