Where is the love? (2): The Essence of Love According to Karol Wojtyla 2

Many acknowledge John Paul II’s communication skills, but how many take into account his profound philosophy regarding the person? He has certainly delved profoundly into what it means to be a person. His reflections are not mere mental constructs, but strongly based on experience, especially in his pastoral ministry with married couples.

His book Love and Responsibility is, in the words of William E. May, “a magnificent work, philosophical in nature, on the human person, human sexuality, love, and marriage.” May considers “it is such a great work that the thought set forth in it needs to be known by as many people as possible.” It is so important because he interprets human love, not as mere emotion, but in the light of the fact that the highest value of a person is to be a person.

In chapter 2 of his book titled The Person and Love, Wojtyla begins by analyzing the essential elements of love: love as attraction, love as desire, love as goodwill.

Love as attraction

Wojtyla’s main point regarding love as attraction is that “attraction is of the essence of love and in some sense is indeed love, although love is not merely attraction.” For him attraction goes very closely together with awareness of values. When there is attraction between two people it is because both find in the other values they consider as good for themselves. This awareness of values causes emotional-affective reactions which contribute to the development of an attraction, in which one person is perceived by another as a good.

In love as attraction there lies a danger that consists in letting the emotions be stronger than the truth about the person. Wojtyla states it as follows:

When emotional reactions are spent –- and they are naturally fleeting -– the subject, whose whole attitude was based on such reaction, and not on the truth about the other person, is left as it were in a void, bereft of that good which he or she appeared to have found. This emptiness and the feeling of disappointment which goes with it often produce an emotional reaction in the opposite direction: a purely emotional love often becomes an equally emotional hatred for the same person.

There is a tendency, due to emotions, “for the subject to divert the question ‘is it really so?’ from the object of attraction to himself or herself, to his or her emotions.” The emphasis is therefore placed on whether one’s feeling towards the other person are genuine rather than to see whether the other person really has the values that cause the attraction.

It is easy to stress the genuineness of feelings. This is certainly important, but it is subjective. As much importance has to be given to the truth about the person as is given to the truth of the sentiments. “These two truths, properly integrated, give to an attraction that perfection which is one of the elements of a genuinely good and genuinely ‘cultivated’ love.”

For attraction to move towards a deeper form of love it is necessary “to stress that the attraction must never be limited to partial values, to something which is inherent to the person but is not the person as a whole.” In other words, to love a person only because they are good looking, sensitive, enthusiastic, etc. is not enough. The more love takes into account the person as such, the truer it is.

Love as desire

Wojtyla goes a step further and analyzes love as desire. He stresses that “there is a profound difference between love as desire and desire itself, especially sensual desire.” The difference consists in the fact that “desire presupposes awareness of some lack, an unpleasant sensation which can be eliminated by means of a particular good.” The danger of reducing love as desire to mere desire is that the other person just “becomes a means for the satisfaction of desire”.

In love as desire,

Love is apprehended as a longing for the person, and not as mere sensual desire.” It is “simply the crystallization of the objective need of one being directed towards another being which is for it a good and an object of longing. In the mind of the subject love-as-desire is not felt as mere desire. It is felt as a longing for some good for its own sake: ‘I want you because you are a good for me’.

Since in love of desire the other is necessarily seen as a good for oneself, the full meaning of love cannot consist in it, since, even though “love as desire is not identical with the sensual desires as such it is that aspect of love in which attitudes close to the utilitarian can most easily find a home.” To avoid this risk in the love of desire, the longing has to be stronger than the sensual desire.

The proper attitude to take, in this form of love, is to work to “perfect this love” by seeing “to it that desire does not dominate, does not overwhelm all else that love comprises.

Love as goodwill

Finally, Wojtyla arrives to the deepest meaning of love:

Goodwill is quite free of self-interest, the traces of which are conspicuous in love as desire. Goodwill is the same as selflessness in love: not ‘I long for you as a good’ but ‘I long for your good’, ‘I long for that which is good for you’. The person of goodwill longs for this with no selfish ulterior motive, no personal consideration. Love as goodwill is therefore love in a more unconditional sense than love-desire. It is the purest from of love. Goodwill brings us as close to the ‘pure essence’ of love as it is possible to get. Such love does more than any other to perfect the person who experiences it, brings both the subject and the object of that love the greatest fulfillment.

Fr Jose LaBoy


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