How Do You Define Love? How Do You Know What Love Is? (Or What Does Reading Have to Do with Love?)

How Do You Define Love?

How we define love—as a feeling or as an action, as something that we feel and that is triggered by another or others, or as something we do and a way of life and a way of living in the world—is, whether we realize it or not, one of the most pivotal decisions we have to make in life and most fundamental ways we have of orienting ourselves in life—as givers or receivers, as proactive or reactive, as principle-driven or feeling-centered, as conscientious or emotional.

The vast majority of people operate under the assumption that love is a feeling, that love is something you feel, that it isn’t a virtue or a way of life (a systematic way of approaching life and living day in and day out in the world).

And they have done all of this without much thought.

What is Love?

This is a significant question. One of the most significant questions in life. One that most people do not put much time or thought into. The common default answer is that love is some sort of incredible euphoric feeling or overwhelming sense of attraction. That’s the answer that we find in TV, movies, music, most books and blogs. Love is this rapturous feeling—butterflies in the stomach at times, omnipotent ecstasy at other times. And so off we go in search of someone who makes us feel this way—someone who brings this feeling out in us, someone who triggers this in us, someone who makes us feel more alive, giddy, complete, together, ecstatic, horny, beautiful, sexy, someone we’re uncontrollably drawn to.

That’s love as it is portrayed in most movies and TV shows, sung about in most pop songs and musicals, and waxed poetic in most poetry.

Sometimes the portrayal of love is a bit better: Love is this feeling or sense of attraction—this motivating force—that compels us want to be a better man or woman, get our act together, become a better human being. Love opens us up, heals us, calms us, soothes us, corrects the hurt done to us in childhood via parental neglect or non-love.

But very very rarely is love described in terms of an ideal, a principle, a virtue, a character orientation, a discipline, a vocation or calling, something to be taken up and learned in a way similar to what one would do if one wanted to become a world class golfer or tennis player or photographer or musician/songwriter—something that’s 10% natural talent and 90% work and dedication and study and practice practice practice.

What is love? What do most people mean by that word / concept / ideal?

Take stock of those around you and you will see them wandering about lost through life, like sleep-walkers in the midst of their good or evil fortune, without the slightest suspicion of what is happening to them. You will hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which would seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyze those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual is trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.

The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic “ideas” and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. As this is the simple truth—that to live is to feel oneself lost—he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life.

These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is lost without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.

— Jose Ortega,The Revolt of the Masses,” pp. 156-7.

Take a look at those you see around you and those you see and read about in the public eye, and even look at yourself, and it becomes clear fairly quickly that, in general, most people are running on some fairly sketchy (not to mention oftentimes naïve and pollyannaish) programming, *especially* when it comes to “love.”

The vast majority of we human beings, in general, tend to think emotionally, and in platitudes, clichés, and soundbites, and if we’re slightly more advanced, perhaps a few quotes and excerpts.

And this is no different when it comes to love.

But love especially likely cannot be dummied down to a few cliches or platitudes, or even quotes and excerpts.

Yet this is just how most people enter into adulthood and proceed through life and go about their relationships—at this emotional and platitudinal level of thinking. And they, which is to say we, think that that is thinking—thinking in soundbites, quotes, platitude, slogans, clichés, thinking in terms of what we’ve read in a few recent bestsellers, or heard sung on the radio or our mp3 player.  And, moreover, we (blithely, arrogantly, perhaps innocently and naïvely—after all why attribute as vice what can be attributed to ignorance) live as though this simplistic level of thinking won’t get us into trouble—that there won’t be some fairly hefty undesirable consequences for thinking only at this level.

We naïvely (or arrogantly) think that through this level of thinking we can know something of the world—something relevant and meaningful about life and existence—, and that we can know something relevant and real and meaningful about ourselves—that we will have some basic idea about who we really are and what we’re about. And we think (assume) that this very basic level of thinking and mental processing will allow us to know something real and meaningful about another person and about how to properly love and cherish another human being.

But it won’t.

And so then when a life crisis hits, or marriage and relationship problems begin getting out of control, we, again, very naïvely or arrogantly, think that via our rather low level of platitudinal thinking and mental processing we will somehow be able to extricate ourselves from our problems—problems that we have likely had a major part in creating and behaving our way into in no small part through our platitudinal thinking.

And that’s just the way we are.

And it’s part of the failing of our education system and even our parents and teachers. Most of us were never taught to approach life cerebrally, in a very examined (including self-examined) and probing and searching and discerning way. We want to play checkers (if even that) with life, not chess or bridge. We want answers, not more questions; we want less thinking, not more; we want comfort not uncertainty and confusion. We want half-baked easy solutions—platitudes, clichés, soundbites. Stuff like “Love wins.” A phrase like that used in that way is a very good show of human arrogance and naïveté. If love actually wins it will be because people actually pain themselves to truly get serious about learning what love actually is. They will read widely about Love, investigate the subject, treat it like chess and a vocation, and not like a coloring book.

But the reality is is that most people are far too lazy and naïve / ignorant to even attempt to do this. When problems hit, many (most?) people—most of us—will turn to a few choice platitudes or soundbites or slogans—or look for a few new ones—that we likely will have little real comprehension of and of what they are really asking of us.

“The remedy for most marital stress is not in divorce. It is in repentance and forgiveness, in sincere expressions of charity and service. It is not in separation. It is in simple integrity that leads a man and a woman to square up their shoulders and meet their obligations. It is found in the Golden Rule, a time-honored principle that should first and foremost find expression in marriage.” ― Gordon B. Hinckley,Standing for Something: 10 Neglected Virtues That Will Heal Our Hearts and Homes,” pg. 155.


“Reformation of the world begins with reformation of self. We cannot hope to influence others in the direction of moral virtue unless we live lives of virtue. The example of our virtuous living will carry a greater influence than will all the preaching, postulating, and theorizing in which we might indulge. We cannot expect to lift others unless we are standing on higher ground.”― Gordon B. Hinckley,Standing for Something: 10 Neglected Virtues That Will Heal Our Hearts and Homes,” pg 45.

Easy to read, but incredibly hard to live up to, demanding so much of us.

So instead maybe we will read a popular best-selling advice book or two (the more popular the book and the more the majority sing its praises, the less likely it is to be of any real benefit and the more likely it is to reinforce our errant thinking patterns—or role model for us a few new ones—and thus create even more problems). We will seek out new techniques way before we will seek out a new understanding. We’d much rather try to manipulate the situation rather than see the truth of it and ourselves and have to make some substantive changes. So maybe we dabble with a bit of positive thinking or we explore something a little or a lot new age-y. Or maybe we even do something a bit more solid and seek out a therapist and get his or her slant on things—a slant which ultimately will only be as good as the best or worst of what he or she has read, been taught, and personally experienced and grown from. In other words, if your therapist or counselor isn’t wise, principled, well-differentiated, fairly saintly and Buddha- or Christ-like, then your marriage or relationship is screwed. It will be the blind misleading and taking advantage of the blind, and charging $120 or more an hour to do so.

We are what we think
All that we are arises with our thoughts
With our thoughts we make the world
Speak or act with an impure mind,
and trouble will follow you,
as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

We are what we think
All that we are arises with our thoughts
With our thoughts we make the world
Speak or act with a pure mind,
and happiness will follow you,
as unshakable as your shadow.

How can a troubled mind
understand the way?

Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much
as your own thoughts, unguarded
But once mastered,
no one can help you as much,
not even your father or your mother.

– Buddha

Think before you speak. Read before you think.” ― Fran Lebowitz

The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” – attributed to Mark Twain, but the actual source of the quote appears to be unknown

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” ― Oscar Wilde

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else.

And what a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous.

There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind. We owe it to the few writers of antiquity that people in the Middle Ages could slowly extricate themselves from the superstitions and ignorance that had darkened life for more than half a millennium.

Nothing is more needed to overcome the modernist’s snobbishness.”

Albert Einstein, inIdeas and Opinions,” pp. 65-66 or 70 (depending on the edition).

How well-formed of an idea about Love can we have if we haven’t read much on the subject, if we haven’t investigated it much, if we are running on the default of defining love as a “feeling,” if we haven’t contemplated the subject much, if we’re relying on the knowledge and definition of love to be found in just a few blogs or recent books?

We are what we think.

And: We are what we read.


How can two people at a platitudinal level of thinking who find each other, who enter into a relationship or who get married and start having children, not be destined for all sorts of troubles—largely self-chosen and preventable troubles had they been encouraged to read more widely, to think a bit more about what Love actually might be or is?


As Jim Rohn is fond of saying,

It isn’t what a book costs, but what a book will cost you if you don’t read it that matters. The book you don’t read won’t help you.”

What’s the cost to a person’s life and relationships for not reading widely about love, or for only reading a few modern books on the subject?

What’s the price to us and to those around us for failing to make the very reasonable investment?

What’s the cost to a person and his or her relationships and children for not reading more widely and for not reading what people—perhaps very wise and learned people—in other cultures and eras have to say on the subject of Love?

What’s the cost for or to us as a society as a whole for not reading what the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh and Mother Teresa and St. Paul and St. John and the Gospel writers and the Old Testament writers and the Buddha and Rumi and Hafiz and Kabir and Rilke and Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and Emerson and Aristotle and Plato/Socrates and Simone Weil and M. Scott Peck and Murray Bowen and David Schnarch and Erich Fromm and Krishnamurti and Martin Luther King Jr. and Thoreau and Martin Buber and C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton and the authors of the Bhagavad Gita and The Qur’an and so many others have had to say about Love? (and being able to openly and reasonably discuss this as well?)

Honestly, how can love possibly be expected to win or have any real meaning or power among so much paltry and monotonous modernist snobbishness?

Whatever Love is, I’m fairly certain that it’s more than just sporadic acts of charity and random acts of kindness (as important and as loving and beneficial as these may be). The truth about Love—the truth about something as potentially life-altering and profound as love—can only possibly be arrived at after the “slaughter of a thousand platitudes” (Ortega y Gasset, “The Revolt of the Masses,” pg. 157). When it comes to love, a phrase like “love wins” runs the risk of being about as hollow and as empty and unexamined as it gets. Nowadays, given the onslaught of (likely) very bad misinformation on what Love is that is propagated by most movies, music, TV shows, books, and blogs—and perhaps even therapists and counselors—a person simply cannot arrive at an educated and a well-formed point of view on the subject of love without exposing his or her mind to what authors such as the ones listed above have had to say on the subject and wrestling with their words and insights and contentions. It’s just not possible.

It’s an act of colossal arrogance to try to go about loving others or claiming that love wins without actually having read and thought very widely on the subject. In other words, if love is to actually win, it will likely require a bit more than a conversation on a plane with a stranger who has different ideas politically than you. That conversation is honestly no big feat. Even the worst among us can keep it together and play nice for 2 hrs, all the more likely if we’re travelling with our impressionable child seated next to us.  Having a two hour chit-chat with someone of a different political leaning is really no big deal (but if it opens the other person’s heart and mind a bit, then good on ya). In the school of love, that’s kindergarten or first grade level stuff. To be commended for sure—good job, you get a gold star—but also quickly put into perspective: Now go and do so with someone truly difficult, go and do so with someone you consider to be (or treat like) an enemy, someone who has been critical of something you have said or done or written.

Otherwise, love isn’t really winning. It’s losing.

And badly.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

None of us can fully escape the blindness—unbeknownst to us now, because we are a part of it—that is characteristic of our age. But we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. . . . The only palliative is to keep the clean breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. . . .

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St Luke or St Paul or St Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Richard Hooker or Joseph Butler, but Nicolas Berdyaev or Jacques Maritain or Reinhold Niebuhr or Dorothy Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. . . . If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation that began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is being said. . . . The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (‘mere Christianity’ as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the, old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

– C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in “God in the Dock,” pp. 201-2.



About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
This entry was posted in "Love Wins", Albert Einstein, C.S. Lewis, Glennon Melton, Jim Rohn, Luke 6:32-35, Mature Love, Momastery, Real Love, Spiritual Growth, The Examined Life, Truth, Waking Up, What is Love? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to How Do You Define Love? How Do You Know What Love Is? (Or What Does Reading Have to Do with Love?)

  1. Thanks for your precious insights and thought-provoking writing, John! Kindly consider adding to your excellent list of books on love two of my favorites: ‘I and Thou’ by Martin Buber, and ‘The Double Flame’ by Octavio Paz. Appreciate your good work and generosity to all, Rubens

    • John says:

      Thank you, Rubens, for reading and commenting. And “I & Thou” is a fantastic and substantive book (and I enjoy Walter’s Kaufmann wise introduction and comments in the edition that I have). And I do like some of the poems of Octavio Paz that I have read as well (I have a couple of his books, but I don’t think I have the book you mentioned), especially this one–

      “Brotherhood” – Octavio Paz

      (Homage to Claudius Ptolemy)

      I am a man: little do I last
      and the night is enormous.
      But I look up:
      the stars write.
      Unknowing I understand:
      I too am written,
      and at this very moment
      someone spells me out.

      Thanks for reading and for commenting and the kind words and book suggestions, Rubens.

      Kindest regards,


  2. Pingback: How Do You Define Love? How Do You Know What Love Is? | What ... | Love Dissertation |

  3. janeadamsart says:

    Love is a task of the soul. I start off admitting I am not very good at it and would like to improve. I get massive romantic feelings with a new soul contact: they are the Cheerleaders. They pass, they come and go like the weather. A friend just rang and told me, “… the limitation what we can and can not do with certain things/persons – treat it with great care.”

    Very interesting post, John, thank you – and great quotations, especially the Ortega.

    • John says:

      Thank you, Jane, as always for reading, and thank you for commenting. I’m glad you found the quotes interesting and thought-provoking. Love is such a massive concept to attempt to grasp and to practice, simple but intricate and complex at the same time, especially because there’s so much within ourselves to sort through and deal with, and there can be so much about other people (certain other people) that can repel or trigger us or “push us away” (really, we are letting ourselves be pushed away; it’s all about us and our limits, and not the other person, in most of these situations).

      Thank you, again, Jane, for reading and for commenting. 🙂

      Warmest regards,


  4. Pingback: What Is Love? (Is Love Fundamentally a Feeling?) | What Is Real True Love?

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