Mythological Love

Our whole lives, we are surrounded by people who claim to love us. Our parents perpetually claim to be motivated by what is best for us. Our teachers eternally proclaim that their sole motivation is to help us learn. Our priests voice concern for our eternal souls, and extended family members endlessly announce their devotion to the clan.

When people claim to love us, it is not unreasonable to expect that they know us. If you tell me that you love Thailand, but it turns out that you have never been there, and know very little about it, then it is hard for me to believe that you really love it. If I say that I love opera, but I never listen to opera – well, you get the general idea!

If I say that I love you, but I know little about your real thoughts and feelings, and have no idea what your true values are – or perhaps even what your favourite books, authors or movies are – then it should logically be very hard for you to believe me.

This is certainly the case in my family. My mother, brother and father made extravagant claims about their love for me. However, when I finally sat down and asked each of them to recount a few facts about me – some of my preferences and values – I got a perfect tripod of “thousand yard stares.”

So, I thought, if people who know almost nothing about me claim to love me, then either they are lying, or I do not understand love at all.

I will not go into details about my theories of love here, other than to say that, in my view, love is our involuntary response to virtue, just as well-being is our involuntary response to a healthy lifestyle. (Our affection for our babies is more attachment than mature love, since it is shared throughout the animal kingdom.)

Virtue is a complicated subject, but I am sure we can agree that virtue must involve some basics that are commonly understood, such as courage, integrity, benevolence, empathy, wisdom and so on.

If this is the case, it cannot be possible to love people that we know very little about. If love requires virtue, then we cannot love perfect strangers, because we know nothing about their virtues. Love depends both on another person’s virtue, and our knowledge of it – and it grows in proportion to that virtue and knowledge, if we are virtuous ourselves.

Throughout my childhood, whenever I expressed a personal thought, desire, wish, preference or feeling, I was generally met with eye rolling, incomprehension, avoidance or, all too often, outright scorn. These various “rejection tactics” were completely co-joined with expressions of love and devotion. When I started getting into philosophy – through the works of Ayn Rand originally – my growing love of wisdom was dismissed out of hand as some sort of psychological dysfunction.

Since my family knew precious little about my virtues – and what they did know they disliked – then we could not all be virtuous. If they were virtuous, and disliked my values, then my values could not be virtuous. If I was virtuous, and they disliked my values, then they could not be virtuous.

And so I set about trying to create an “ethical map” of my family.

It was the most frightening thing I have ever done. The amount of emotional resistance that I felt towards the idea of trying to rationally and morally understand my family was staggering – it literally felt as if I were sprinting directly off a cliff.

Why was it so terrifying?

Well, because I knew that they were lying. I knew that they were lying about loving me, and I knew that, by claiming to be confused about whether they loved me, I was lying as well – and to myself, which is the worst of all falsehoods.
Love: The Word versus the Deed

Saying the word “success” is far easier than actually achieving success. Mouthing the word “love” is far easier than actually loving someone for the right reasons – and being loved for the right reasons.

If we do not have any standards for being loved, then laziness and indifference will inevitably result. If I have a job where I work from home, and no one ever checks up on me, and I never have to produce anything, and I get paid no matter what, and I cannot get fired, how long will it be before my work ethic decays? Days? Weeks? Certainly not months.

One of the most important questions to ask in any examination of the truth is “compared to what?” For instance, if I say I love you, implicit in that statement is a preference for you over others. In other words, compared to others, I prefer you. We prefer honesty compared to falsehood, satiation to hunger, warmth to cold and so on.

It is not logically valid to equate the word “love” with “family.” The word “family” is a mere description of a biological commonality – it makes no more sense to equate “love” with “family” than it does to equate “love” with “mammal.” Thus the word “love” must mean a preference compared to – what?

It is impossible to have any standards for love if we do not have any standards for truth. Since being honest is better than lying, and courage is better than cowardice, and truth is better than falsehood, we cannot have honesty and courage unless we are standing for something that is true. Thus when we say that we “love” someone, what we really mean is that his actions are consistent, compared to a rational standard of virtue. In the same way, when I say that somebody is “healthy,” what I really mean is that his organs are functioning consistently, relative to a rational standard of well-being.

Thus love is not a subjective preference, or a biological commonality, but our involuntary response to virtuous actions on the part of another.

If we truly understand this definition, then it is easy for us to see that a society that does not know truth cannot ever know love.

If nothing is true, virtue is impossible.

If virtue is impossible, then we are forced to pretend to be virtuous, through patriotism, clan loyalties, cultural pride, superstitious conformities and other such amoral counterfeits.

If virtue is impossible, then love is impossible, because actions cannot be compared to any objective standard of goodness. If love is impossible, we are forced to resort to sentimentality, or the shallow show and outward appearance of love.

Thus it can be seen that any set of principles that interferes with our ability to know and understand the truth hollows us out, undermining and destroying our capacity for love. False principles, illusions, fantasies and mythologies separate us from each other, from virtue, from love, from the true connections that we can achieve only through reality.

In fantasy, there is only isolation and pretence. Mythology is, fundamentally, loneliness and emptiness.

Imagination versus Fantasy

At this point, I think it would be well worth highlighting the differences between imagination and fantasy, because many people, on hearing my criticisms of mythology, think that they are now not supposed to enjoy Star Wars.

Imagination is a creative faculty that is deeply rooted in reality. Fantasy, on the other hand, is a mere species of intangible wish fulfillment. It took Tolkien decades of study and writing to produce “The Lord of the Rings” – and each part of that novel was rationally consistent with the whole. That is an example of imagination. If I laze about daydreaming that one day I will make a fortune by writing a better novel than “The Lord of the Rings” – but never actually set pen to paper – that is an example of fantasy. Imagination produced the theory of relativity, not fantasizing about someday winning a Nobel Prize.

Daydreams that are never converted into action are the ultimate procrastination. Imagining a wonderful future that you never have to act to achieve prevents you from achieving a wonderful future.

In the same way, imagining that you know the truth when you do not prevents you from ever learning the truth. Nothing is more dangerous than the illusion of knowledge. If you are going the wrong way, but do not doubt your direction, you will never turn around.

As Socrates noted more than 2,000 years ago, doubt is the midwife of curiosity, and curiosity breeds wisdom.

Fantasy is the opposite of doubt. Mythology provides instant answers when people do not even know what the questions are. In the Middle Ages, when someone asked “Where did the world come from?” he was told: “God made it.” This effectively precluded the necessity of asking the more relevant question: “What is the world?”

Because religious people believed they knew where the world came from, there was little point asking what the world was. Because there was little point asking what the world was, they never learned where the world came from.

Fantasy is a circle of nothingness, forever eating its own tail.
Defining Love

If people fantasize that they know what is true, then they inevitably stop searching for the truth. If I am driving home, I stop driving when I get there. If people fantasize that they know what goodness is, they inevitably stop trying to understand goodness.

And, most importantly, if people fantasize that they already are good, they stop trying to become good. If you want a baby, and you believe that you are pregnant, you stop trying to get pregnant.

The question – which we already know the answer to – thus remains: why do people who claim to love us never tell us what love is?

If I am an accomplished mathematician, and my child comes to me and asks me about the times tables, it would be rude and churlish of me to dismiss his questions. If I go to my mother, who for 30 years has claimed to love me, and ask her what love is, why is it that she refuses to answer my question? Why does my brother roll his eyes and change the subject whenever I ask him what it is that he loves about me? Why does my father claim to love me, while continually rejecting everything that I hold precious?

Why does everyone around me perpetually use words that they refuse to define? Are they full of a knowledge that they cannot express? That is not a good reason for refusing to discuss the topics. A novelist who writes instinctually would not logically be hostile if asked about the source of his inspiration. He may not come up with a perfect answer, but there would be no reason to perpetually avoid the subject.


Unless, of course, he is a plagiarist.

What We Know

This is the knowledge that we have, but hate and fear.

We know that the people who claim to love us know precious little about us, and nothing at all about love.

We know that the people who claim to love us make this claim in order to create obligations within us.

We know that the people who claim to love us make this claim in order to control us.

And they know it too.

It is completely obvious that they know this, because they know exactly which topics to avoid. A counterfeiter will not mind if you ask him what the capital of Madagascar is. A counterfeiter will mind, however, if you ask him whether you can check the authenticity of his money. Why is this the one topic that he will try to avoid at all costs?

Because he knows that his currency is fake.

And he also knows that if you find that out, he can no longer use it to rob you blind.


If I own a store, and take counterfeit money from a con man, but do not know that it is counterfeit, then I am obligated to hand over what he has “bought.”

In the same way, if I believe that I am loved – even when I am not loved – I am to a degree honour-bound to return that love. If my mother says that she loves me, and she is virtuous, then she must love me because I am virtuous. Since she is herself virtuous, then I “owe” her love as a matter of justice, just as I owe trust to someone who consistently behaves in a trustworthy manner.

Thus when somebody tries to convince you that they love you, they’re actually attempting to create an obligation in you. If I try to convince you that I am a trustworthy person, it is because I want all the benefits of being treated as if I were a trustworthy person. If I am in fact a trustworthy person, then I must understand the nature of trust – at least at some level – and thus I must know that it cannot be demanded, but must be earned. Since earning trust is harder than just demanding trust, I must know the real value of trust, otherwise I would not have taken the trouble to earn it through consistent behaviour – I would have just demanded it and skipped all the hard stuff!

If you demand trust, you are demanding the unearned, which indicates that you do not believe you can earn it. Thus anyone who demands trust is automatically untrustworthy.

Why do people demand trust?

To rob others.

If I want to borrow money from you, and I demand that you trust me, it’s because I am not trustworthy, and will be unlikely to pay you back.

In other words, I want to steal your money, and put you in my power.

It’s the same with love.

Love and Virtue

If I am virtuous, then virtuous people will regard me with at least respect, if not love. Corrupt or evil people may regard me with a certain respect, but they will certainly not love me.

Thus being virtuous and refusing to demand love from anyone is the best way to find other virtuous people. If you are virtuous and undemanding, then other virtuous people will naturally gravitate towards you. Virtue that does not impose itself on others is like a magnet for goodness, and repels corruption.

The practical result of true virtue is fundamental self-protection.

If my stockbroker consistently gets me 30% return on my investments, is there any amount of money that I will not give him, other than what I need to live? Of course not! Because I know I will always get back more than I give.

It’s the same with real love.

If I am virtuous, then I will inevitably feel positively inclined towards other virtuous people – and the more virtuous they are, the more I will love them. My energy, time and resources will be at their disposal, because I know that I will not be exploited, and that they will reciprocate my generosity.

If you and I have lent money to each other over the years, and have always paid each other back, then the next time you come to me for a loan, it would be unjust for me to tell you that I will not lend you anything because I do not think you will pay me back. Your continued and perpetual honesty towards me in financial matters has created an obligation in me towards you. This does not mean that I must lend you money whenever you ask for it, but I cannot justly claim as my reason for not lending you money a belief that you will not pay me back.

In the same way, if you have been my wife for 20 years, and I have never been unfaithful, if a woman calls and then hangs up, it would be unjust for you to immediately accuse me of infidelity.

A central tactic for creating artificial and unjust obligations in others is to demand their positive opinion, without being willing to earn it. The most effective way to do this is to offer a positive opinion, which has not been earned – to claim to love others.

If, over the past 20 years, I have rarely paid back any money I have borrowed from you, it is perfectly reasonable to refuse me an additional loan. I may then get angry, and call you unfair, and demand that you treat me as if I were trustworthy, but it would scarcely be virtuous for you to comply with my wishes. Indeed, it would be dishonest and unjust for you to ignore my untrustworthiness, because you would be acting as if there was no difference between someone who pays back loans, and someone who does not.

When we act in a virtuous manner towards others, we are creating a reservoir of goodwill that we can draw upon, just as when we put our savings into a bank. A man can act imperfectly and still be loved, just as a man can eat an occasional candy bar and still be healthy, but there is a general requirement for consistency in any discipline. I could probably hit a home run in a major-league ballpark once every thousand pitches, but that would scarcely make me a professional baseball player!

If I act in a trustworthy manner, I do not have to ask you to trust me – and in fact, I would be very unwise to do so. Either you will trust me voluntarily, which means that you respect honourable and consistent behaviour, and justly respond to those who do good, or you will not trust me voluntarily, which means that you do not respond in a just manner to trustworthy behaviour, and thus cannot be trusted yourself.

If, on the other hand, I come up to you and demand that you trust me, I am engaged in a complex calculation of counterfeiting and plunder.

The first thing I am trying to do is establish whether or not you know anything about trust. The second thing is to figure out your level of confidence and self-esteem. The third thing is figure out if you know anything about integrity.

An attacker will always try to find the weakest chink in your armour. If I demand trust from you, and you agree to provide it – without any prior evidence – then I know that you do not know anything about trust. Similarly, if you do not require that your trust be earned, then I know that you lack confidence and self-esteem. If you are willing to treat me as if I were trustworthy when I am not trustworthy, then it is clear to me you know very little about integrity.

This tells me all I need to know about your history. This tells me that you were never treated with respect as a child, and that you were never taught to judge people according to independent standards, and that every time you tried to stand up for yourself, your family attacked you.

In other words, I will know that you are easy prey.

I cannot create an obligation in you unless you accept that I have treated you justly in the past. As in all things, it is far easier to convince a weak person that you have treated him justly, than it is to actually treat people in a just and consistent manner. If I can convince you that I have treated you justly in the past, then you “owe” me trust and respect in the present.

“Love” as Predation

Imagine that we are brothers, and one day you awake from a coma to see me sitting by your bed. After some small talk, I tell you that you owe me $1,000, which you borrowed from me the day of your accident. I tell you that because I am a kind brother, and you are in the hospital, you do not have to pay me back the thousand dollars – I would just like you to remember it, so that the next time I need to borrow $1,000, you will lend it to me.

You might look in the pockets of the jeans you wore the day of your accident, and you might look around your apartment to see if there was $1,000 lying around, but there would be no real way to prove that I had not lent you the money. You would either have to call me a liar – an accusation for which you have no certain proof – or you would feel substantially more obligated to lend me money in the future.

If you call me a liar, I will get angry. If you accept the obligation without ever finding the $1,000, you will feel resentful. Either way, our relationship is harmed – and by telling you about the $1,000, I have voluntarily introduced a complication and a suspicion into our relationship, which is scarcely loving, just or benevolent.

This is the kind of brinksmanship and deception that goes on all the time in relationships – particularly in families.

When our parents tell us that they love us, they are in fact demanding that we provide for them. They are basically telling us that they have lent us $1,000 – even if we cannot remember it – and thus we owe them trust in the future, if not $1,000 in the present!

In other words, our parents spend an enormous amount of energy convincing us that they “love” us in order to create artificial obligations within us. In doing so, they take a terrible risk – and force us to make an even more terrible choice..


When somebody tells you that they love you, it is either a statement of genuine regard, based on mutual virtue, or it is an exploitive and unjust demand for your money, time, resources, or approval.

There is very little in between.

Either love is real, and a true joy, or love is false, and the most corrupt and cowardly form of theft that can be imagined.

If love is real, then it inflicts no unjust obligations. If love is real, then it is freely given without demands. If a good man gives you his love, and you do not reciprocate it, then he just realizes that he was mistaken, learns a little, and moves on. If a woman tells you that she loves you, and then resents any hesitation or lack of reciprocation you display, then she does not love you, but is using the word “love” as a kind of hook, to entrap you into doing what she wants, to your own detriment.

How can you possibly know whether the love that somebody expresses towards you is genuine or not?

It’s very, very simple.

When it is genuine, you feel it.

What happens, though, when a parent demands love from us?

Well, we must either submit to this demand, and pretend to respond in kind, or we must confront her on her manipulation – thus threatening the entire basis of the relationship.

Would someone who truly loves us ever put us in this terrible position?

Society and Religion

The principle of inflicting a good opinion in order to create an unjust obligation occurs at a social level, as well as at a personal level. Soldiers are supposed to have died “protecting us,” which creates an obligation for us to support the troops. The mere act of being born in a country creates a lifelong obligation to pay taxes at the point of a gun, in order to receive services that we never directly asked for. John F. Kennedy’s famous quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country,” is another way of saying, “One of us is going to get screwed in this interaction, and it ain’t gonna be me!”

The same thing occurs in the realm of religion, of course, as well. Jesus died for your sins, God loves you, you will be punished if you do not obey, Hell is the destination of unbelievers etc. etc. etc.

All of these emotional tricks are designed to create an obligation in you that would not exist in any reasonable universe.

“Sacrifice,” in other words, is merely demand in disguise.