Aporia: Love

by Jason Stotts

Aporia (Gr.) – a difficulty encountered in establishing the theoretical truth of a proposition, created by the presence of evidence both for and against it.

Here, I am going to just think through some of the problems related to love.  I’m not necessarily looking for answers here and you should be forewarned that engaging this essay may have the effect of the Socratic torpedo fish, that leaves one numb and reeling.  I take no responsibility for that.  I am here like Socrates:

As for me, if the torpedo fish makes itself numb while it numbs others, I am like it; but if not, not.  For it is not that being myself full of resources, I cause others to be at a loss; rather, I am completely at a loss myself and it is in this way that I cause others to be at a loss as well. (80c7-d1)


When writing about love, a problem arises: what kind of love are we talking about?  It is generally agreed that there is a wide range of love: love of friends, love of family, love of sexual partners, love of country, etc. The terms for most of these are not complicated: we have “familial love” for love of family, “friendly love” for love of friends, “romantic love” for love of sexual partners, “patriotism” for love of country.  But, and you likely noticed this, what is “romantic love”?  Who are these sexual partners?  Are they people we’re in relationships with?  Are they people we love?  If so, what kind of love is this?

The point I’m trying to make here is that we lack a good word for the kind of love we have for the people that we are in relationships with, the people we spend our lives with, the people we have sex with.  We might call it “romantic” love, but this ties it to the romantic tradition and the idea of denial of sex in order to elevate the spirit.  We could call it sexual love, but then people might think that if the sex were to end, the love would also dissipate.  We could call it relational love, but what kind of relationship?  Perhaps erotic love would be the best term, but even that has the somewhat unfortunate consequence of tying the love and sex together in a way that makes someone think that if the latter were to stop, say due to old age, then the former would also stop.  But, perhaps they should be tied together this tightly.  Indeed, we are potentially sexual until our very last day.

So, what are our better options?  We have “romantic love,” “erotic love,” and “sexual love.”

Romantic love has the advantage of being widely used and one could argue that most people don’t understand it’s origins anyway, so are likely not influenced by them.  However, there is a danger here in that a history of a word can influence its current usage.  Further, I am of the firm belief that one can’t really understand a word until one has some idea of its etymological origin and history of past use.  Given that, romantic love has some serious problems.

Erotic love has the advantage of being direct and not trying to obscure the real nature of the relationship.  It correctly references the passion that love brings and perhaps even the madness that love can give rise to, the tumultuousness of spirit that we feel when love is new.  On the other hand, love is not always tumultuous and mature love can even be downright mellow.  Further, if a person has good control over his emotions and doesn’t succumb to madness, he can still be said to be in love.  Perhaps, though, this is tying erotic too closely to eros and in its current meaning it can fulfill the role we want it to.  It does literally mean “sexual love” from Greek, but the attendant passion is part of this.

Sexual love has the advantage of being completely direct without being couched in any way.  It’s easily understandable and no one would confuse this kind of love with another.  The problem is that since it so directly points to sex, that one could, quite reasonably, think that without sex, the love would end.  This seems wrong, at least insofar as it can be said that an older couple that no longer has sex can still love each other.  But, perhaps this love is of a different kind.  If my wife was in a tragic accident and could no longer be sexual in any way, it’s a hypothetical, just go with it, it’s not as though my love for her would suddenly cease.  Might it be objected, though, that my love would have to change forms?  Would the love become the kind of love of character friends?  Would the shared history and sense of mutual identity prevent this shift?  Another complication is this: would I feel sexual love for any person with whom I had sex?  That is, would sex cause sexual love?  This simply seems wrong.  It’s clear that people can have sex without being in love or without developing deep feelings of attachment.  Whether they should is not germane.

The problem is that for so much of our history, sex has been entirely shameful and even though everyone knew that there was a particular kind of love that goes with sexual relationships, it couldn’t be named.  Consider in our current culture, we use the vague “I’m in a relationship.”  But what kind of relationship?!  It is purposely vague.  Or consider: “this is my boyfriend” or “this is my girlfriend.”  Really?  Are you just friends?  Consider that “fiancée” comes from the Latin affidare “to make an oath.”  The oath in this context is to be wed.  To be wed, of course, means to combine or unite.  But a relationship is also a union.  What defines a wedded couple from a “regular relationship” is that they have made a formal commitment.  What if there were a ceremony for a formal commitment of friendship?  Would they be wed?  Doesn’t the fact that spouses have sex make it different from a formal declaration of friendship?

In order to untie this mess of language around relationships, we need to recognize that sex makes a relationship different than it would be without it.  On the other hand, one can have sex with a friend.  Does this mean that they’re now “in a relationship”?  Weren’t they already before?

We need a term for “relationships,” the kind that involve sex and love and all of the things we pack into “relationships,” the things we might have with our “boyfriends” and “girlfriends”.  That term certainly cannot be “loving relationships,” as all of the relationships we’ve identified are types of love!  It cannot also just be “relationships,” since, similarly, all the relationships we’ve identified are instances of relationships.  Perhaps “love, sexual, relationships”?  But that is too cumbersome and who has ever heard of a kind term with commas in it?

Perhaps a new term is called for.  But what?  Could we perhaps draw on other languages?  It is only our own that suffers thus?  I have my doubts.  (I welcome comments on other languages and what words they use for this kind of relationship and what it means.)

Since I, like Socrates, am as numb on this as are you, my poor reader, I shall simply conclude that we need a good term here, but that one does not yet exist or has yet to be defined in such a way to serve the function we need it to without any objections.

Although, perhaps that is the answer!  Perhaps we need to simply take one of the terms we already have and redefine it, breathe new life into it with a new, firmer, identity and function.

Alternatively, maybe the term we need is just “love.”  Maybe sexual love, the love of “relationships,” is the primary sense of love and other kinds of love are lesser versions of it, related to the primary sense by sharing characteristics, much in the same way that friends of utility are related to character friends (you’ll need to know your Aristotle to get this one).  This would solve the problem and preserve the way we use love in our culture, although it would restrict its scope and application.

It seems like one of these alternatives is our only option.  It remains to be seen which will end up being the better option.

1 Response to “Aporia: Love”

  1. D. Bandler


    An excerpt:

    I am referring here to romantic love, in the serious meaning of that term—as distinguished from the superficial infatuations of those whose sense of life is devoid of any consistent values, i.e., of any lasting emotions other than fear. Love is a response to values. It is with a person’s sense of life that one falls in love—with that essential sum, that fundamental stand or way of facing existence, which is the essence of a personality. One falls in love with the embodiment of the values that formed a person’s character, which are reflected in his widest goals or smallest gestures, which create the style of his soul—the individual style of a unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable consciousness. It is one’s own sense of life that acts as the selector, and responds to what it recognizes as one’s own basic values in the person of another. It is not a matter of professed convictions (though these are not irrelevant); it is a matter of much more profound, conscious and subconscious harmony.

    Later on she says:

    When that power is called upon to verify and support an emotional appraisal, when love is a conscious integration of reason and emotion, of mind and values, then—and only then—it is the greatest reward of man’s life.

    I like Rand’s approach to the subject but I would add that by her definition I would guess that very few people every actually reach the state of romantic love.

    This is a fascinating topic. I hope you write on it more.