I’d like to tell you about an interesting incident that took place a few years ago in one of my English classes. We were talking about one of Shakespeare’s sonnets–I can’t remember precisely which one–and we got off into a conversation about the meaning of love. I’m not a big fan of these kind of open-ended discussions because they often lead nowhere and this one was no exception; just as the bell rang one of the students declared, “The fact is, that no one knows what love is.” What a way to end the class–with a declaration that the word “love” is completely relative and that everyone simply decides for him or herself what it means. Most of the class, judging by the discussion, seemed to agree with this conclusion.
This conclusion may be troubling, but is it actually true? I spent a great deal of time pondering the question that evening. It bothered me. I couldn’t simply prove that love is this or that thing by showing empirical evidence or statistical probability. This was one of those stubborn questions that touches to the very heart of our humanity which is completely resistant to the scientific method.
I thought about it that night and had something of an epiphany which I shared the next day. I said something like this:
“Yesterday we talked about love and by the end of the class some of you had come to the conclusion that no one knows what love is, that it is a completely arbitrary concept that no one can agree on. Yet history shows that this simply isn’t true. Because if there is one thing that all cultures seem to agree on, it is that love is a powerful, passionate, binding force that unites two people. It is both emotional and intellectual. It feels good but it also improves clarity of thought. It gives purpose to our labors and presence to consciousness. All the poetry, all the novels, all the folk tales, all the legends from around the world confirm this. Ancient Greek poets and contemporary pop stars have little in common, but they seem to say the same things about love.”
This, I think, is the power of history. If we stand alone in the present and have only our own thoughts to guide us, we will be at the mercy of our own whims and impulses. But if we situate ourselves within the grand narrative that comprises the human experience, we can draw on the vast storehouses of knowledge and wisdom found in art, literature, poetry, and philosophy.
It is not a definitive, demonstrable answer. But it is enough.