“I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is,” said Tom Hanks in his Oscar-winning role in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump.

But what is love? And how would smart men and women answer the question?

We posed that age-old question to various UVA faculty members and asked them to respond in just a few sentences. Here’s what they had to say.

Photo by Dan Addison/UVA University Communications

Stephen Railton

Professor of English

I thought how nice it would be if I could ask my parents, “What is love?” I thought about asking my wife. I thought about asking my children, and their children. I thought about asking my students. I thought about asking the great works of literature I teach. And then I realized that all of these were the answer.


Photo by Dan Addison/UVA University Communications

Larry J. Sabato

Politics Professor and Director, UVA Center for Politics

In any field, at its simplest, love is strong affection. In politics, it is strong affection for a political party, individual candidates, specific causes or power itself. Love—along with hate, hope and fear—is one of a quartet of emotions that best explain politics. You can’t understand politics without a grasp of all four; I have been around politics too long to claim that ‘love is all you need.’ But the power of love is underestimated on the campaign trail and in the halls of power—and maybe everywhere else.


Photo by Dan Addison/UVA University Communications

Lisa Russ Spaar

Professor of English and Creative Writing

As St. Augustine once famously said of Time, I think I know what Love is until someone asks me to define it. Certainly love (not duty or projection or idealization), whether sacred or secular, is one of life’s most profound mysteries. Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning poet, wonders “How perilous is it to choose / not to love the life we’re shown?” Certainly what we are given to love may be in part beyond our control, but how we handle that experience touches the essence of who we are. When we are in love, when we love, the world seems to open up to us the full breadth of our capacity to know and be known. It is perhaps life’s most daring and fulfilling adventure, humanity’s profoundest conflation of volition and grace.


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Paul Mahoney

Dean of the Law School

Love is a combination of altruism and selfishness. It is altruistic because it places the highest value on the loved one’s happiness. It is selfish because it is not indifferent to how that happiness is obtained and enjoyed; it aspires to be both participant and cause.


Photo by Stacey Evans

Kenneth G. Elzinga

Professor of Economics

In my introductory economics class at UVA, I define love as “when two people have interdependent utility functions.” When I personalize that to my wife, Terry, I tell her “whichever way the wind may blow, she will always be on my production possibilities curve.” For truth more profound than economic theory can offer, I defer to the words of Jesus: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).”


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Rosalyn W. Berne

Professor of Science, Technology & Society

Sometimes hearing the word “love” makes me cringe. It’s the overuse in common parlance that I find most grating, such as in the statements “I just love that car!” or, “I love cold pizza.” The word has come to be ascribed to nearly everything and therefore now means nearly nothing. Sometimes its use is associated with a socially prescribed set of expectations of behavior regarding certain relationships, attributed to qualities of goodness and virtue, in which case its perceived absence could bring rise to guilt. (One is expected to love one’s children; not to would simply be wrong.) Saying, “I love you a lot,” or “I love you more than I love her” suggests a quantitative aspect; those who have the capacity for greater love are seen as more admirable than those whose capacity is limited. In both written and oral traditions, love has been a subject of broad consideration, perhaps for the entire span of human existence. And yet we continue to pose the question, “What is love?” It could be that the meaning of the word “love” is located in the search for its meaning. Or, perhaps the meaning of love is ineffable.


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Brian O'Connor

Head Coach, UVA Baseball

Love is being part of a team … whether it be marriage, family, friends or baseball. Being part of a team requires trust, respect, good communication and faith in one another. To me, that is love.


Peter Onuf

Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History, Emeritus

Love is a word we associate with our sentimental selves and psychological well-being. Thinking with my all-absorbing subject, Jefferson, and the Scottish philosophers he so admired, I would be inclined instead to emphasize our natural sociability. The seeds of “moral sense” are implanted in each of us, though they need to be cultivated, or (to drop the metaphor) made habitual, to become effective in the world. Morality is social: Love draws us out into the world, not back into our solipsistic selves.


Photo by Dan Addison/UVA University Communications

Dorrie K. Fontaine

Dean of the School of Nursing

Love is being fully present with others. Listening, paying attention, not judging, offering kindness and compassion is love. [It’s] sometimes hard to do. Chris Lowney, in his book Heroic Leadership, believes in love-driven leadership, meaning we should love the ones we serve. As a nurse, teacher and dean, I try to take this advice to heart. Patients, students and all should benefit from our caring, which is love.


Photo by Dan Addison/UVA University Communications

Stephen Macko

Professor of Geochemistry

Love is far more than the quantifiable chemical changes in our bodies. For me, it was the feeling I had on being with my spouse during the arrival of our first child.


Robert E. Emery

Professor of Psychology

Emotionally and biologically, there are different kinds of love: love for a parent, for a child; love for family, for friends; romantic love, sexual love; love for a partner, love for the parent of your children. Enduring romantic love ideally contains all of these elements, each waxing and waning, but all serving to sustain an intimate relationship.


Peter Ochs

Professor of Religious Studies

I think first of the Biblical and Jewish that the most common word for everyday “knowledge” (yidiah) is also the word for sexual love between Adam and Eve. To know a thing or to know someone is in this sense a matter of an intimate, two-way relationship.


Photo by Luca DiCecco

James Coan

Professor of Psychology

Love is a subjective feeling that blends a genuine understanding of another’s hopes, dreams, fears and preferences with a feeling of being similarly understood, an honest interest in that person’s well-being, a desire to be in that person’s company and the inclusion of that person into your sense of self. When we are very lucky and all of these feelings are reciprocated, we perceive the world to be a safer, richer and more enjoyable place to inhabit.


John Portmann

Professor of Religious Studies

From the moment I learned of kidney transplantation, medical technology transformed my understanding of love. I understood that I was setting the bar rather high, but from then on, “true love” required a willingness to give a kidney (assuming a genetic match). For this and other reasons, modern love strikes me as more difficult than earlier love.


Vanessa Ochs

Professor of Religious Studies

People say love is an overwhelming feeling, an ephemeral one, and then they add (particularly at wedding ceremonies or at big-number anniversary parties) that in the context of a committed relationship, and over the course of years of shared joys, blessings, challenges, disappointments and sorrows, love grows into something oh so much deeper. As for me, I’ll stick to love as the floaty feeling that makes you crazy with happiness and so impatient with yearning that you are ready to forgo food, water and even air, if necessary.