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Is love real?

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In honor of Valentine’s Day today, the holiday that celebrates love, we’re sharing an excerpt from Emotion: A Very Short Introduction by Dylan Evans. Evans presents us with the differing opinions on romantic love. Some believe it to be an invention, while others classify it as a universal emotion hardwired into the brain. As we open heart-shaped boxes of candy today, is it possible that the romantic love we feel is something we learned from the romantic stories we read and watched throughout our life?

With some emotions, it is relatively easy to see where they are located on the innateness spectrum. There is much evidence to suggest that fear and anger are very basic, while it is clear that ‘being a wild pig’ is very culture specific. With other emotions, however, things are not so clear. One emotion in particular that has divided opinion is romantic love. Some maintain that it is a universal emotion, hardwired into the brain just like fear and anger. Others disagree, arguing that romantic love is more like the state of ‘being a wild pig’. La Rochefoucauld famously declared that ‘some people would never have fallen in love if they had never heard of love’. Those who think romantic love is a culturally specific emotion go even further: they claim that nobody would fall in love if they had not previously heard romantic stories.

The most famous proponent of this view was the writer C. S. Lewis, who argued that romantic love was invented in Europe in the early twelfth century. It was around this time that ‘courtly love’ became the central theme of much European poetry. In many of the poems a nobleman would fall in love with a lady at the royal court. He would become her knight and devote himself to her service, though his passion for her would rarely be consummated. The love of Lancelot for King Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, is perhaps the best-known story to emerge from this literary genre.

If romantic love really were an invention of some medieval poets, nobody could have felt this emotion before the Middle Ages. C. S. Lewis was quite happy to accept this consequence of his provocative thesis, and proclaimed that ‘no one falls in love in Homer or Virgil’.

402px-DickseeRomeoandJuliet
By Frank Dicksee. 1884. Representing the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Public Doman via Wikimedia Commons.

This must surely be among the front-running candidates for the most ridiculous idea of the twentieth century. It seems hard to believe that a sensitive man like C. S. Lewis could fail to detect the unmistakable passion expressed in the Song of Songs, a book in the Old Testament:

What a wound thou hast made, my bride, my true love.
What a wound thou hast made in this heart of mine!
And all with one glance of an eye,
All with one ringlet straying on thy neck!

Yet this text pre-dates the medieval poetry of courtly love by over a thousand years. In fact, romantic love probably goes back much further than this, perhaps even to the dawn of humankind. A hundred thousand years ago, while our ancestors were still confined to the African plains, their physical activities were very different from ours, but their emotional lives were probably very similar. The first humans spent much of their time scouring the terrain for edible plants and making temporary shelters, activities now completely absent from all but a few human communities. But many evolutionary psychologists have argued that they also spent a lot of time getting infatuated with one another, making love, feeling jealous, and getting heartbroken, just as we do today.

Romantic love can also be found in cultures separated from our own by space as well as time, in the remote preliterate societies studied by anthropologists. Yet, if romantic love were a European invention, it could not be experienced by peoples who had had no contact with Europe. This simple consideration allowed two anthropologists to put the cultural theory of romantic love to the test. First, they needed a working definition of romantic love, so they identified the following core features of the idea: a powerful feeling of sexual attraction to a single person, feelings of anguish and longing when the loved one is absent, and intense joy when he or she is present. They also listed other elements, including elaborate courtship gestures such as giving gifts and showing one’s love in song and poetry. They then examined the anthropological literature and counted the number of cultures in which this collection of features was described. To their surprise, they found that it was described in 90 percent of the cultures on record. If anthropologists have actually observed and noted down incidents of romantic love in 90 percent of the societies they have studied, it is a fair bet that this emotion exists in the remaining 10 percent too.

In the light of all this evidence, it seems hard to believe that anyone could doubt the universality of romantic love. However, there is a small grain of truth in the view of romantic love as a European invention. Even basic emotions differ from culture to culture, though only to a small degree. To return to the musical analogy, the symphony sounds slightly different when played by different orchestras, even though the score is the same. In a similar way, romantic love is played out slightly differently in different cultures. In the West it is marked by special features not found elsewhere. These special features include the idea that romantic love must take you by surprise, the idea that it should be the basis for a lifelong commitment, and the idea that it is the supreme form of self-fulfillment. So, while romantic love is a universal theme, it is a theme that admits of some minor variations.

Dylan Evans is the author of several books including Emotion: A Very Short Introduction.

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Recent Comments

  1. Thrica

    Where exactly did you get this impression of Lewis? Googling what you’ve indicated as a quote – that “no one falls in love in Homer or Virgil” – only returns this piece and your book.

    Lewis wrote quite a lot about Eros in “The Four Loves”, and his own experience of it in “A Grief Observed” after his wife died. I suspect his contention was that -involuntary- romantic love is what was invented in the Middle Ages. You admit this much when you say “the idea that romantic love must take you by surprise” is a peculiarly Western feature.

    If this is the case, do you really stand so far apart, except in emphasis?

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