February 14, 2003 -- Romantic love is the predominant theme in modern American culture. It's the number-one topic of popular music. Movies that aren’t love stories usually have an amorous subplot. Affairs saturate soap operas and Oprah-type TV focuses on relationships. Valentine's Day is devoted to love. And the activity that is most associated with and often mistaken for romantic love—sex—is an industry in itself, with magazines, videos, and websites devoted to every desire and proclivity.
One wonders why, with all this love in the air, we have crime, hate, and anger in our society? One also wonders why something as profoundly personal and private as romantic love should be such a public matter?
Essential activities of human life do not require intimate involvement with others. While good parents are important, ultimately we each create our own moral character. While good teachers are valuable, ultimately we each must acquire for ourselves the skills needed to make a living and do fulfilling work. Further, we can each pursue elevating or relaxing pastimes by ourselves: reading a book, watching a ballgame, etc.
But how much richer our lives are if we can see in the character and actions of another person those values and traits that we admire most. And how much richer our lives are if another person appreciates us for our highest virtues and best qualities. And how wonderful it is if we can share mutual interests and activities with another: going to movies, plays, museums, sporting events, or restaurants; getting together with friends; and, yes, having sex, not as an ephemeral physical act but as a joyous celebration of our life with someone we love. And how happy we are if we can build a life, a marriage, a family together with another person. How blessed and joyous and full our lives will be if we love another and are loved in return!
"Love" is a verb and "making love" means creating a world and a life with our beloved that only two can share. It is a private world founded on shared experiences, values, and emotions, and on a subtle and intimate understanding of one another. Those who share such a love might want to share the fact of their happiness with friends and family. But ultimately they’ll devote their energy and efforts to enhancing their own world, their own sanctuary. They won’t worry about seeking the approval of others. They won’t want to open every aspect of that world to others because that world is too precious to be opened to random eyes.
So why should such a private matter as romantic love be a matter of public concern? Much pop culture expresses and reflects a superficial version of romance that one would expect to appeal to sixteen-year-olds. But hey, we were all sixteen once! To the extent that individuals can retain throughout their lives the thrill and excitement that accompanies a new romance, these aspects of our culture reflect a healthy appreciation that happiness should be our goal in life.
Too often, though, popular culture delivers instant gratification at the expense of real romance, and too many adults, allowing vapid culture to lead them by the nose, stay at the adolescent level of superficial infatuation, thus forgoing the deep and rich satisfaction of a mature love. Such culture dulls the senses and the soul, making romance less likely and life more hopeless and empty.
Still, true romance in the private lives of individuals, which should be a private concern only, makes an important contribution to the public good. As Ayn Rand explained, lovers must "stand naked in spirit, as well as body" before one another. In romantic love at its best, lovers are mirrors for each other’s souls. We want our beloved to see the best within us, and we want our best to be reflected in the affection and adoration shown to us by our beloved. Rand also likened love to a "command to rise," to strive to be our best. The moral character of individuals and thus moral foundations of a free society are strengthened by true love.
So those without a love on Valentine’s Day should at least be glad about what it stands for, and those with a love should count their blessings, renew that love, and celebrate the happiness that they have earned!
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.