A fundamental puzzle in the philosophy of love concerns the question, how does love begin? Here’s what I mean. It seems that love demands two desires, the desire to put the beloved’s needs ahead of my own (self-sacrifice), as well as the desire that the beloved love me in return or at least acknowledge my love in the appropriate way (reciprocity). I submit that the two requirements of self-sacrifice and reciprocity are fundamental to all kinds of loving relationships, whether romantic relationships, friendships, or familial relationships. But is it possible to express both desires at the same time? If not, then it seems that we can never begin to love because we will be stuck in an impossible situation where we must desire that another love us in return, while at the same time denying that desire by sacrificing our own needs for the beloved’s, giving without expecting return. Philosophers and theologians have typically offered three different solutions to the puzzle, although I submit that none of them are satisfying.
One way to solve the problem of how love begins is simply to deny that love truly requires self-sacrifice. On this view love is a sophisticated form of self-love. This approach solves the puzzle by claiming that love does not require an absolute sacrifice of oneself and one’s projects for another. Love just doesn’t demand that I put another’s needs absolutely ahead of my own. The contemporary moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt defends this position in The Reasons of Love.
Another solution to the conundrum is to deny that reciprocity is a legitimate part of love. The Swedish-Lutheran bishop Anders Nygren argues for this position in Agape and Eros. According to Nygren, true love should only be identified with self-sacrificial agape and any love that looks for reciprocity is hopelessly confused and selfish. So, he solves the puzzle of love only by denying that love should involve the desire to be loved in return.
C.S. Lewis represents a third possible solution to the puzzle of love. In The Four Loves, Lewis recognizes both self-sacrificial love, what he calls gift-love, and love that desires reciprocity, which he terms need-love. However, as is indicated in the distinct terms that he gives to them, Lewis believes gift-love and need-love are two different kinds of love that spring from two fundamentally different impulses. Lewis recognizes that both loves are a good and necessary part of every relationship, but he insists that they are two different emotion-virtues. Thus, he solves the puzzle of how love begins by dividing love into self-sacrificial love and need-love that desires reciprocity. But might there be another alternative to these three positions, one that maintains the dual demand of self-sacrifice and the desire for reciprocity, yet one that maintains the unity of love?
I would like to suggest that a compelling alternative solution to the puzzle can be found in Jean-Luc Marion’s recent work The Erotic Phenomenon. (It can also be found in Augustine and in the Augustinian tradition generally, but that’s a topic for another day.) Marion’s solution to the puzzle rests on his distinction between expecting reciprocity and hoping for reciprocity. To expect to be loved in return means that I demand it. If I expect to be loved in return, then I can never begin to love because I have not met the requirement of self-sacrifice. I only decide to “love” when I have absolute certainty that my love will be reciprocated, so there is no risk. On the other hand, Marion argues that hope for reciprocity is something entirely different. When I hope for love I am not demanding it; I don’t have total assurance that my love will be returned. I take the risk to love, sacrificing myself for the sake of the beloved, while maintaining the hope that the beloved will return my love. I still desire reciprocity, but I do not demand it. Thus, the puzzle of love has been solved because the demands of self-sacrifice and reciprocity have both been met. I submit that Marion’s solution is a preferable alternative to the three solutions offered above because it acknowledges the necessary place of both reciprocity and self-sacrifice, as well us giving us a unified account of love.