Fall 2023 — HUMA 134

What Is Love?

Big Questions Fall 2023 course, What Is Love?

Sonia Ryang
T.T. and W.F. Chao Professor of Asian Studies

Ilana Gershon
Professor of Anthropology

Love is often thought of as universal, shared by all of humanity. A closer look reveals that the situation is far more complicated.

In the 7th-century book, the Man'yōshū (万葉集, literally “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”), a Japanese poet wrote about kohi, lamenting her loneliness; kohi is the origin of the modern Japanese word for romantic love, koi. The poet, however, was lamenting the loneliness of having to sleep alone, longing for the intimate company of her lover. In the minds of the ancient Japanese, what we call today romantic love included sexual intimacy. In medieval Europe, romantic love was almost never described as consummated, lovers were supposed to long for each other from afar, and marriage among elites was an arranged merger between families. It was only the lower classes, who had little to inherit, that could marry for love. Today, in the West, we assume that love is based on freedom — freedom to fall in love and marry anyone we choose. Is this the case? Is everyone free to marry anyone they choose in the United States, as long as it is based on love? If so, why are so many Americans marrying people from the same socioeconomic class background?

This course asks what love is, closely inquiring into the meaning and practices of love and heartbreak in diverse cultures across history. The course uses materials from both the humanities and the social sciences, introducing students to the multi- and inter-disciplinary approach. The goal of this course is to enable students to critically question our current understanding of love.