The Mystery of Love - Arthur Schopenhauer

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was born in Gdańsk, Poland in 1788. He was Nietzsche's greatest inspiration, but he's most famous for his essay "Metaphysics of Love." (Essays of Schopenhauer)

In it, he wrote this about men who fall in love: "First of all let them take into consideration that the creature whom they are idealizing to-day in madrigals and sonnets would have been ignored almost entirely by them if she had been born eighteen years previously. Every kind of love, however ethereal it may seem to be, springs entirely from the instinct of sex; indeed, it is absolutely this instinct, only in a more definite, specialized, and perhaps, strictly speaking, more individualized form."

According to Schopenhauer, sexual attraction can be explained by nature being concerned with keeping physical features within certain boundaries. If, for example, a man has a rather big nose, he might be attracted to a woman with a small nose, so that any offspring a possible relationship might yield, has the right nose to be called human.

This view explains how love at first sight works, and why a man or woman can be attracted to a person, that might not be pretty at all to someone else. Of course there is a category of people who are simply beautiful by any standard, but those are the lucky few.

Modern psychology

But if that's true, then why do we have the impression that many couples resemble each other so much? Probably because Schopenhauer, who wasn't known for being very passionate himself, was mainly looking at physical attraction, or the element of passion. In modern psychology, apart from passion being essential to a relationship, two other elements are distinguished as well, which are "proximity" and "similarity." When those three elements come together, psychologists say, a relationship is almost inevitable.

Studies have shown that even today, in the age of internet, people living, studying or working close to each other are far more likely to enter a relationship than people farther away from each other. This might seem somewhat obvious but it's one of the few aspects of love that science has been able to determine.

The third element, similarity, is about culture and having more or less the same ideas and views. People with totally different backgrounds are less likely to enter in a long-term relationship. When it comes to their professions, teachers for instance are far more likely to have a teacher as their partner than would be expected by pure chance.

The problem here, at least from a biological perspective, is the danger of inbreeding. Research has shown that nature somehow prevents brothers and sisters from falling in love with each other, even when they were not raised in the same family. But marriages between cousins are not uncommon. In some Arab countries today, between 40% and 50% of all marriages are consanguineous or between close family members.

At the same time, it's remarkable how people in a long-term relationship can increasingly resemble each other. Close relationships may even spark an entirely different way of thinking and acting, almost like a "shared mind." Partners develop their own language and insider-jokes that nobody understands, and they even start to look and sound alike.


In reptiles, parental care is almost absent. Many species within this group produce offspring that are self-sufficient and are left to fend for themselves, perhaps not even safe from their own mother.

If we look at the evolution of man as a mammal, we see that we're hard-wired to bond with each other. It is believed that natural selection favored the emergence of a reproductive strategy characterized by high maternal investment in a small number of offspring. Thus the capacity for love evolved hundreds of millions of years ago, helping the earliest known mammals survive in the shadows of the dinosaurs.

Long-term bonding between male and female is not that common among mammals though. In fact birds, even if they were descendants of the dinosaurs, are more known for this behaviour. Forming friendships with unrelated individuals is also unusual. But one kind of love, the bond between a mother and her infants, is shared by humans and all other mammals. Could this be the first kind of love, from which all others evolved?

In any case, it seems that there is an adaptive benefit to love. Once mammals evolved the ability to form relationships, this could also be used to form more sophisticated social groups like dolphin packs, monkey groups and human villages. The ability to work together rather than compete for scarce resources helped to survive and thrive.

Perhaps this is why today, the planet is dominated by animals with parental care. This applies not only to humans, but also to other mammals, birds and social insects such as bees, ants, termites and wasps.

Love is all

Human behavior is the result of the interaction between genes and their environment in the broadest sense, perhaps supplemented by a small amount of coincidence. Or boredom, as Schopenhauer might have called it. In order to explain our personal preferences, we would have to know literally everything about both our genetic makeup and our experiences during our lives, and even before that. This, of course, is impossible.

A more spiritual view of love as an all-pervading force, similar to concepts like the Tao or an almighty God, is presented by the character Dr. Amelia Brand in the 2014 movie Interstellar:

"Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful, it has to mean something… Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space."

Love is a mystery and it might be best to leave it at that and just be thankful. Or as Plato, the famous Greek philosopher of the fourth century BC, said it: "At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet."

(February 2016)