At present, correctly understanding emotions is one of the most immensely difficult obstacles standing in the way of the rise of a “modern Enlightenment” and a rational intellectual culture throughout the Western world. This is not to say that emotions cannot be understood, but rather that current cultural leaders refuse to understand them. Whereas the Delphic prophet was representative of the mysticism which ran rampant in her time, the men who preach the incomprehensible nature of emotions – the so-called “self-help” therapists – are the witchdoctors of our own. Those who treat emotion both as an absolute from which to determine one’s course of action (e.g. “Let your heart be your guide.”) and as a phantom which is liable to change without cause wreak psychological havoc in those unlucky enough to be their patients, not to mention in the general public who take their word as psychological and philosophical canon. In her novel The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand addresses this mystic view of emotion when stating, “There’s so much nonsense about human inconstancy and the transience of all emotions. I’ve always thought that a feeling which changes never existed in the first place.”
Before specifically commenting on Rand’s point in the context of the title, a review of the nature of emotions is in order. Emotions are, contrary to the mystics’ assertions, neither causeless nor unintelligible, but instead “…are responses to stimuli/reflections as they affect man’s internal value system. Those things which affect his values positively will be followed by positive emotions – things which affect his values negatively will be followed by negative emotions. The intensity of each response is determined by the importance of said value to man (determined by its relation to his ultimate value, whether it be his life, as under a rational philosophy, or something else) coupled with the degree to which these values are affected.”1 Because emotions are merely responses to one’s values, not metaphysical primaries, they are not standards which one can employ to determine the rationality of those values. Further, the emotions themselves cannot be said to be inherently rational or irrational, as the rationality of an emotion is dependent on the rationality of the value to which it is related.
This principle applies to love just as it does to all other emotions. Ignoring the rationality or lack thereof in certain manifestations of “love”, love is a powerful response to coming in contact with the expression of one’s most sacred values in the form of another individual. Though other languages offer alternative words to describe an intense preference toward certain activities or things (e.g. a “love of reading”), English does not. As such, I will narrow our definition so that “love”, for the purposes of this essay, only applies to the feeling evoked in one person by the existence, action, and character of another. True love, meaning a non-contradictory love, is selfish love. Values do not exist intrinsically, meaning “in and of themselves”, but instead are valuable to someone or something. One cannot love while simultaneously rejecting one’s values – thus, altruistic love is an impossibility. (For a fuller discussion of the implications of this idea, see “I love you, because I love myself.”)
The focus here, however, is whether love can be called “true”, or even existent by Rand’s terms, if the feeling disappears over time. Moreover, why would this emotion which individuals claim to share with one another – be it love or some sort of counterfeit emotion – change over time in the first place?
In order to answer the first question adequately, the second must be answered. It should be self-apparent from various failed Hollywood relationships that individuals can possess some sort of romantic attraction toward one another which they are later unable to feel. Besides exhibiting an irrational form of “love”, there are three main reasons which could lead to such a “falling out”: 1. either one or both individuals do not meet the expectations of the other, 2. either one or both individuals change in some substantive manner over time, and 3. either one or both individuals change values overtime.
The first is easy enough to understand. Two individuals enter into a relationship upon prior knowledge about each other’s character. If, upon getting to know one another better, it turns out that the observed character of one partner is not displayed consistently throughout that person’s entire character, then it could turn out that the values of one individual are not satisfied by the other. Rather, one partner’s (or both’s) judgment of the other was incorrect and, as such, the emotions which were elicited from the falsely perceived values were derived from faulty premises. In this situation, the answer is clear-cut: if the first partner’s values were not met by the second, the first partner never truly loved the second. If the second had deceived the first in order to have a relationship, then that individual’s feelings are also something other than love – they knew the values of the first and were aware that they did not meet those values, but they tried to construct a false reality where otherwise would have been possible, making both unhappy in the process. As such, deception is most certainly not an act of love.
The second results from an inconsistency in the character of either or both partners. It is entirely possible for one’s character to change for the better, i.e. by eliminating the irrational portions of one’s life in favor of more rational behavior, but this does not necessarily change the values of the other partner in a correlative manner. Though the values of both individuals may remain constant (unlikely, as one’s actions are closely linked to one’s values), their partners may no longer fulfill those values, failing to produce the feeling of love as a consequence. In this case, the love one felt at the beginning of the relationship could very well have been true love, and the inconstancy in the character of one’s partner has no bearing on whether or not one’s own love was real or not. So long as one’s internal values remain constant, the love once shared by former partners was true and existed, though the partner one once loved no longer exists in the same manner – the “love” of one partner for another who changes frequently and frivolously notwithstanding, as inconsistency was a part of the latter’s character from the outset.
In the final case, the values of either partner undergo some sort of change – for better or worse – such that love no longer exists between the two. When man alters his values, he is effectively bringing them into accordance with a newly attained, slightly altered philosophy. The new philosophy could have been attained through any number of ways, hopefully through the proper employment of one’s rational faculty which would lead to a more rational philosophy. Should the new philosophy arise from some other source (unscrutinized life events, memorized and internalized precepts from a professor, mental default, etc.), then the possibility for positive change is severely diminished. In the case that one’s new values are the results of active processes of thought, the former love cannot be said to have existed, as the partner cannot provide rational reasons for possessing the old values over the current ones. In the case that one’s values change through some sort of spontaneous event, then the original love was still non-existent as one never truly held to the original values in the first place.
At this point, one may think that this presents a pretty dim view on the nature of love. After all, rational individuals should not pretend to possess feelings for another which they do not. Once they realize that the love they felt was a mischaracterization of either their own values or the values of another, or that their significant other no longer does or never did fulfill those values, the self-interested solution would be to end the relationship (cases in which behavioral changes or other smaller differences can be solved by counseling notwithstanding). However, none of these circumstances are necessities across all relationships – it is very possible for love to continue between two individuals, even after a relationship has ended.
If, for example, one partner comes into contact with another individual who more consistently reflects their values, then it would not be irrational for that partner to choose the new individual over the old partner (assuming, of course, that one’s judgment is sound enough to adequately and correctly detect such differences). At the same time, such a switch would not have to fundamentally alter the feelings of either previous partner. They could both still care very deeply for one another, but simply not pursue each other romantically. This becomes clear when examining the love story within the text of Atlas Shrugged, where the protagonist Dagny Taggart first enters a relationship with one industrialist, then a second, finally settling on the physicist-philosopher who most consistently represents and shares her values. The two previous men never relinquished their affection for Dagny – they did not need to – nor did they feel any resentment toward her eventual husband. They both saw that the physicist-philosopher could fulfill her values better than either of them could, and that asking her to stay with them against her own self-interests would make everyone involved necessarily unhappy. Instead, their romantic love became, as Leonard Peikoff has described it, as that which one feels for a beautiful statue – the statue is still immensely valuable, but unable to satisfy their emotional needs as men. All four individuals in the story maintained intense friendships at the conclusion of the novel.
But even this is not the only example in which relationships can end while both partners still love each other completely. Relationships can end for any number of rational reasons that do not necessarily affect the feelings of either partner – spatial separation, problems in the amount of time which both individuals can devote to a relationship, etc. Both individuals can still love one another as fervently as the day on which their relationship began, but maintaining the relationship may become altruistic under the listed circumstances. The love itself continues, as the love is selfish and self-sustaining, but the relationship is not, becomes sacrificial, and thus becomes a burden which may no longer be valuable to continue. While a man’s feelings for a woman may not at all be contingent on how often he sees her, maintaining a relationship very well could be, to either his partner or to himself. The very existence of his partner is all that is necessary for him to continue his love for her, but if other values cannot be met – the value of shared time, of spatial closeness, etc., should they be of high enough importance – then it becomes self-interested for both individuals to end the relationship, thus opening up the opportunity for another to satisfy those needs.
Does this mean that all relationships in which the two partners are unable to see each other frequently or are separated geographically are doomed to fail? Of course not! It is entirely possible for a self-interested man and woman to value the relationship they share, however difficult it may be to maintain, over ending it in favor of a more easily manageable relationship with someone different. Such decisions are left for the self-interested individuals to determine for themselves based off their own rational values and, despite current cultural aversion to long-distance relationships, they are more-than-feasible when it is in the rational self-interests of both partners to maintain that relationship. Whatever the case, the love shared by those two individuals remains unchanged, as it does in all cases of true, selfish love.
Love is a life-affirming emotion. It goes beyond mere psychological effects and even alters the body physiologically, producing any number of joyous sensations as a result of encountering an individual who, through nothing more than their existence and the nature of their character, mirrors all that which man finds most valuable in the world. The use of the word “love” in the past tense is never appropriate, save when the subject of one’s love no longer exists. As man is not infallible, he may falsely judge another, or even himself, and incorrectly ascribe the feeling of love to a situation in which it does not actually apply. But, if one’s values and partner are consistent and rational, love is wellspring of human rejuvenation, providing man with the emotional energy necessary to pursue his physical values. No, the Beatles song “All You Need Is Love” is not applicable to reality, but man does need love – not for some irrational understanding of the edict “love thy neighbor”, but for himself: for his own good, his own life, and his own happiness.