We find it hard to talk sensibly about love — primarily, I think, because the same word is used to refer to four different phenomena. I want to distinguish among them here. Our problems are certain contradictions and dilemmas that arise whenever we try to translate one type of love into another, or try to specify how some of these types should relate to each other.
Let’s suppose love is a single big circle. I’ll try to slice it into four segments, one by one.
LUST: This phenomenon — sexual desire and/or activity — is the easiest to distinguish from the other types of love. Although ideally we want sexual interactions to be affectionate, this hope is not always fulfilled. Sometimes it takes place between strangers or enemies. Indeed, probably sex should not be called “love” at all, though it is usually involved in other types of love.
LIMERENCE: Dorothy Tennov has wisely coined a new term, “limerence,” to refer to the kind of love that one “falls into.” Distinguishing it from other types of love will help avoid confusion. Limerence is an apparently entirely involuntary obsession. Some people never fall in love during their whole lives, but those who do so are usually glad that has happened to them. On the other hand, limerence can be excruciating — at least when it is unrequited.
ORDINARY, WORLDLY LOVE: This is an emotion that, like the aforementioned two types, has physiological correlates: Certain biochemicals are released in the body whenever it is experienced. It is a beautiful feeling, though not ecstatic, and it may be combined with other emotions to form complex, ambivalent emotional experiences. We all want to love and to be loved, but we are choosy about such relationships. We live in an emotional economy of scarcity, so our desire for loving encounters with specific others provides the currency for an infinitely wide variety of social interactions. The social exchange of worldly love, involving as it does mutual commitments of time, energy, and material resources, is a primary topic of sociological research.
TRANSCENDENT LOVE: As Max Weber (see photo) pointed out in his comparisons of the Axial Age religions, the great spiritual traditions all enjoined their adherents to love, not just a few specific individuals, but everyone — including equally all friends, strangers, and enemies. Not many individuals ever attain this universal love, which Weber called, according to Robert Bellah’s translation, “world-denying love.” (I prefer the term “transcendent love.”) Weber identifies the Buddha, Jesus, and Francis of Assisi as paramount virtuosi in the art of transcendent love. They “denied the world” in the sense that they regarded existence as mortal bodies within a physical world as only a part of reality — indeed, an unimportant part. Transcendence is a concern with realms beyond time, energy, and space. By encouraging transcendent love, these religious leaders relegated worldly love to a lesser status, along with the social bonds that affirm such everyday love. Thus they became homeless wanderers, abandoning their own families, jobs, and social bonds, and urging their followers also to renounce or transcend the world.
Though he did not label the four categories as I have, Weber did explore the contradictions between these types of love. For example, he insisted that marriage (based on worldly love) differs ineluctably from erotic love (limerence+lust), and that neither category can truly be subsumed into the other.
Weber’s main interest lay in exploring the inherent tensions between transcendent (world-denying) love and the everyday human relationships that involve ordinary, worldly love. As the Axial religions became institutionalized, compromises were attempted to enable the faithful to manage normal human affairs while approximating, as fully as possible, the elevated state of universal, transcendent love. These compromises were never truly satisfactory. For example, the new spiritual ideal of brotherliness (which required the devout to treat every human being as a kinsman) jeopardized the well-established social and financial obligations of actual kinship.
This conundrum deeply troubled Weber. My own proposed solution to it rests on recognizing as unbridgeable the distinction between the ordinary, worldly realm of affairs, where we are physical bodies, subject to the first law of thermodynamics – the conservation of energy – and the transcendent realm, where nothing is conserved. Any attempt to translate transcendent love into worldly love is reductive and can only lead to disappointment. Transcendent awareness itself is required if one is to smile at such metaphysical mistakes.