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In his brilliant and moving speech at the 2009 Intelligence Squared debate on whether or not the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world, Stephen Fry described himself as "someone who is filled with love; whose only purpose in life is to achieve love". So far, so good, if one wishes to define a purpose for oneself – and Stephen Fry quite correctly, I believe, referred to a purpose “in” life, not a purpose “of” life; the very idea of life existing for a reason other than “just because” is, I think, absurd and indefensible. Be that as it may, if one’s purpose is the achievement of love – and I think there are many for whom it is, at least in part, myself included – then what can we say love itself actually is?

Since I mentioned it, the Catholic Church has plenty of its own ideas about what love is and what it means to demonstrate love. “Greater love hath no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends,” so the scripture goes (or words to that effect, depending upon which version you happen to read). Real love, to be worthy of the name, must be self-giving, self-denying, self-sacrificing…self-destructive, one might say. This notion of selfless, sacrificial love infects even our modern secular thinking to some extent. Love isn’t the real deal unless it hurts - if you’re not suffering for love, you’re doing it wrong.

Here’s the thing, though – we all want to be loved (if you’ll pardon the gross generalisation) but how many of us actually want people to suffer for us? I certainly have no wish for anyone to hurt or destroy themselves on my account. Consider, for a moment, the effect of knowing that another person had undergone a terrible, painful death in order to spare you a similar fate. Especially if it was someone you loved in return, not only do you now have to deal with their loss but also the dreadful burden of responsibility that comes from knowing they suffered and died horribly for you. Here you have the essence of Catholic guilt – Jesus is supposed to have done exactly that for each and every one of us; only the horror is mitigated by the fact that crucifixion is something far removed from the everyday experience of most of us these days; and anyway, Jesus came back to life after a few days, so it’s all okay, really. Just imagine if it really happened. That is not a gift of love I would ever wish to receive. I have argued with Catholics who claim that only their faith instils the kind of noble, selfless love required to give up your own life for someone else’s. They are welcome to it; I don’t believe this is a kind of love worth wanting.

At what might be considered the opposite extreme is the claim that love is just a chemical reaction in the brain. In terms of what we actually experience, the sensations, thought processes and motivation to action to which we give the name of love, it’s quite true that what we are talking about is a matter of chemistry and physics. But what people seem to intend when they call love just a chemical reaction is to dismiss it as insignificant, as if it’s just like the effect of a drug that will sooner or later wear off. Sometimes this is done with the intention of riling someone up or counteracting excessively romantic notions of what it means to feel love for another. However, I have more often encountered this form of dismissal from those who are trying to point out that if I actually think love is the product of material interactions, then I am the one dismissing it as insignificant – because unless love is some great and mysterious supernatural phenomenon with cosmic significance, then it doesn’t really matter. Why a philosophically naturalist approach to love should be considered as devaluing it and stripping it of all meaning in our lives is just one facet of the much larger question of why so many people seem to think that all conscious experience must be beyond the purview of science – otherwise it’s just not special, don’t you know? It should be quite clear by now what my own views are on that subject.

The Ancient Greek philosophers identified four particular types of love – agape, eros, philia and storge, which roughly translate to spiritual, physical, mental and natural, or innate, love respectively. Agape is often touted as the Christian ideal of love – again that selfless, sacrificial love that Christ is supposed to have had for all humanity and which Christians are called upon to emulate. Eros of course refers to romantic or erotic love, whilst philia is the bond of shared interests; storge, finally, is the kind of natural affection felt towards members of one’s family, tribe, etc – those to whom we have an innate attachment. Of all of these, it seems that agape is the one that might constitute a purpose in life, simply because it’s the one that doesn’t come easily or readily – one must strive for it. Yet I’ve already rejected the idea of anything that might be called spiritual love, both because I am a philosophical naturalist who entertains no notion of souls or higher powers; and also because I believe it is neither entirely possible nor even desirable to pursue love in such a way that it involves the destruction or sublimation of the self.

So what does it mean for me, given my naturalistic and non-self-effacing approach to understanding love, to say that the achievement of love is part of my purpose in life? For a hedonist, the answer to that is deceptively simple – love is one of the greatest pleasures available to conscious beings and pleasure is the highest good that can be pursued in life. I am sufficiently self-interested to want to be loved for myself and because I give pleasure to those who love me – not because they feel obliged by some higher calling to subvert their inclination and behave as if they love me, through an effort of will. I want to love and be loved because I am a social animal shaped by millions of years of evolution to desire love and acceptance. The particular pleasures of love – the heady experience of being in love, the sudden surge of joy at meeting an old friend, the satisfaction of sharing hobbies and intellectual pursuits, the comfort and security of curling up with a long-term lover – whilst transitory in the grand scheme of things, are nonetheless worth wanting for their own sake; as is the tranquillity afforded by the knowledge that there are those who accept us and value our company just because we are who we are.

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October 2013

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