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Principles of True Love

Throughout the ages, the quest of the great philosophers in both the East and the West has been for universal principles that can guide us into authentic existence.

Socrates believed that our happiness and well-being depend on the quality of our inner life. He believed that to do wrong is to damage one's inner self; so to do wrong is worse than to be wronged.



Virtue begins with the knowledge of the good. Socrates challenged people to search for answers deep within themselves, and he focused on definitions that illumine the universal quality of a subject. This led to the development of the concept of a universal, meaning a general quality that may be present in many individual existing beings.


Lao Tzu is best known for his ideas about the Tao, or the virtuous way and the creative principle that orders the universe. To follow the Tao means to live in a simple and honest manner, being true to oneself. Lao Tzu taught people not only to respond with goodness when others treat them well but also to respond with goodness when others cause them harm.


Upon examining the moral principles that underlie every successful and enduring institution, from the family to all the organizations of society, Stephen R. Covey remarked,

The laws governing human behavior are not invented: they are the laws of the universe that pertain to human relationships. These principles are woven into the fabric of every civilized society.[i]

We have mastered many natural forces, but we have not yet mastered the power of love. The mystery of love fascinates us, and the aura of romantic love has an almost magical appeal. Can we study the laws of love as accurately as we study the laws of nature? No. Because human beings have free will, we escape the determinism of nature. We are unpredictable. Yet, unpredictable does not mean unintelligible. The expression of love can be studied.


Love seeks joy through manifesting truth, beauty, and goodness. Therefore, to study the workings of love is the task of ethics. Confucius emphasized Jen (benevolence) and outlined the proper relationships between parent and child, elder brother and younger brother, husband and wife, teacher and disciple, ruler, and governed. Confucius saw the essence of ethics as a duty. From an objective point of view, duty means the impersonal application of rules. But seen subjectively, the duty should be infused with heart.


Heart seeks to perfect itself through the principles of love. Confucius believed that Jen should permeate the social fabric. In other words, moral law and ethical principles shape the social law and political law. The Confucian sages understood that social relationships should be cultivated according to the laws and principles inherent in the nature of things. The Great Learning declares,


The ancients wishing to cultivate their persons first rectified their minds. Wishing to rectify their minds, they sought to be sincere in their thought. Wishing to be sincere in their thought, they achieved perfect knowledge. Such achievement of perfect knowledge lay in the investigation of things.[ii]

Full happiness comes through the satisfaction of both physical and spiritual desires. These desires find their harmony through a higher principle, which is true love. True love specifies the moral and ethical dimensions of love.


Since love is so important for establishing our value, when it becomes corrupted or self-centered, it distorts our natural inclination to embody virtue. The bad habits that are rooted in selfish and immature love develop into vices. The way to realize true love is not random, but it is shaped by our habits and guided by universal principles.


Love is the emotional attraction, through which subject and object partners unite and feel joy. The attraction of love is neutral and can take various directions. True love is the proper direction, cultivated through family ethics. Love that is not true takes the wrong or unethical direction. True love seeks complete, lasting, and all-encompassing joy. When the heart strives for such joy, its efforts are manifested as true love.


It is not always easy to distinguish between true love and love that is not true. Unethical love can be highly charming. What is the bottom line of true love? The Golden Rule expresses it: “Treat others as one would want to be treated.” This starts in the family and extends gradually to the nation and the world.


True love is other-centered, serving, and sacrificial. Love that is not true takes an unethical direction. It:

  • is self-centered and manipulative; it seeks its own benefit at the sacrifice of other people.

  • often expresses a vain heart that seeks the attention of others.

  • devalues others and neglects its own values.

  • ignores positions and tends to equalize everything.

  • tends to be possessive and forceful while ignoring commitment.

  • does not endure.

  • tends to be corrupting and corruptible. It confuses joy and pleasure, spiritual values, and material values while ignoring family ethics.

As we all seek true love, we know more or less what it is. But the power of love that is not true may interfere and blind us. To maintain the direction of true love, we should apply the following guidelines:

  • True Love is heart-motivated. Heart is the subjective origin of love. Being deeper than intellect, emotion, and will, heart motivates the loving subject to think, feel, and act for the happiness of the beloved object.

  • True Love is value-oriented. To love others is to promote their well-being, truth, beauty, and goodness. The way to seek values in others is to realize them in our lives. Therefore, an exemplary life induces a virtuous circle.

  • True Love is regulated. Being reciprocal, love creates high and low-pressure areas between the heart of the subject partner and the values of the object partner; true love always seeks balance and fairness, and it checks that the right quantity and quality of love flows between partners. Parents want their children to excel while remembering that each child is unique.

  • True Love is responsible. True love is committed even to the unlovable. Should obstacles arise on the way to joy, true love does not retreat but works to clear the way. Parents feel responsible to love difficult children. True love steadfastly keeps the door open for reciprocity but does not force the other one to step in.

  • True Love is lasting and unwavering. True love is not diminished by circumstances.

  • True Love is pure. Considerations of money, power, and fame cannot alter its direction.

  • Guided by family ethics, it seeks completeness and perfection and is not content with mediocre or partial results.

Our desire is to go in the direction of true love, but in order to get to our destination, we need to map out the principles that lead to true and lasting love.

[i] Covey, Stephen R., Principle-centered Leadership, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991, p. 118. [ii] The Great Learning (Ta Zue), 1.4.

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