What is love? Definitions from great thinkers throughout time

Poets, philosophers, psychologists and more offer choice perspectives on the matter.

Poets, philosophers, psychologists and more offer choice perspectives on the matter

There's virtually no area of human art or study that isn't, at least sometimes, about love. In his own Metaphysics of Love (1851), philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote "We are accustomed to see poets principally occupied with describing the love of the sexes. This, as a rule, is the leading idea of every dramatic work, be it tragic or comic, romantic or classic, Indian or European. It in no less degree constitutes the greater part of both lyric and epic poetry." But it's not only the poets who are writing about love. So do the the philosophers, the scientists, the song-writers and astrologists. They've been doing it for centuries, and somehow haven't run out of things to say. This is because love is a complex thing that nobody quite agrees on and that looks different at different times in our lives. With the arrival of Valentine's Day, we've gathered some of the choicest perspectives on the meaning of love from different disciplines.

Novelists, poets, playwrights

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th' uncertain sickly appetite to please.
- William Shakespeare

Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Romantic love is an illusion. Most of us discover this truth at the end of a love affair or else when the sweet emotions of love lead us into marriage and then turn down their flames.
- Thomas Moore

Love is the word used to label the sexual excitement of the young, the habituation of the middle-aged, and the mutual dependence of the old.
- John Ciardi

There is love, of course. And then there's life, its enemy.
- Jean Anouilh

Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool. If you think it is natural you are blind.
- Toni Morrison

Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah
- Leonard Cohen


Love is a madness.
- Plato

That which men desire they are said to love, and to hate those things
for which they have aversion. So that desire and love are the same thing;
save that by desire, we signify the absence of the object; by love, most
commonly the presence of the same.
-Thomas Hobbes

It is not only unrequited love that leads frequently to a tragic end; for requited love more frequently leads to unhappiness than to happiness.

There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.
- Nietzsche

Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.
- Bertrand Russell

Falling in love automatically tends toward madness. Let to itself, it goes to utter extremes.
- José Ortega y Gasset

The word "love" is most often defined as a noun, yet...we would all love better if we used it as a verb.
- bell hooks

Provided it isn't conceived only as an exchange of mutual favours, or isn't calculated way in advance as a profitable investment, love really is a unique trust placed in chance. It takes us into key areas of the experience of what is difference and, essentially, leads to the idea that you can experience the world from the perspective of difference.
- Alain Badiou


Whoever loves becomes humble. Those who love have, so to speak, pawned a part of their narcissism.
- Sigmund Freud

What is love except another name for the use of positive reinforcement? Or vice versa.
- B.F. Skinner

The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.
- Carl Gustav Jung

The first step to take is to become aware that love is an art, just as living is an art; if we want to learn how to love we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering.
- Erich Fromm

Contained within the small circle of the wedding band are vastly contradictory ideals. We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability… and we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk.
- Esther Perel

Romantic love is not only a very strong addiction but a universal craving. Just about 100 percent of all humans experience romantic love at some point. That is not true of other addictions, such as gambling or substance abuse. Romantic love, at its best, is a wonderful addiction. At its worst it leads to depression, suicide and even murder.
- Helen Fisher


Love is a canvas furnished by nature and embroidered by imagination.
- Voltaire

When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one's self, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.
- Oscar Wilde

If you can stay in love for more than two years, you're on something.
- Fran Lebowitz

Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.
- Ambrose Bierce

Falling in love consists merely in uncorking the imagination and bottling the common-sense.
- Helen Rowland

Love can change a person the way a parent can change a baby — awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess.
- Lemony Snicket

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.