Contested Love (4) idealistic optimists versus pesky pessimists

Some questions about love.

What sort of characteristics or virtues are necessary for love to take root and grow? Do you see love as that which requires discipline and hard work? What does such work look like in practice?

Or is love natural, easy, automatic and instantly available to all? Add a bit of passion and voilà! Love is in the air!

Are you an optimist or a pessimist concerning love?

These are the sorts of questions raised by reading Simon May’s excellent Love: a History.

Today, optimism rules regarding love.  In the West love is:

  • like God, eternal, overcoming death, as that which lives on after us
  • gives meaning to ordinary life
  • sacred – it connects us to a higher realm
  • the source and measure of true happiness

May says this modern idea of love as the grounding of meaning has no grounding itself – it has become an object of faith.

As we saw last time, historically Christian love has had two dimensions: love as divine and love as humility.

To love in Christian theology is to be recipients of God’s love and grace. Grace is gift which leads to a deep sense of humility. May does not really develop this, but love is primarily a work of the Spirit. The believer is empowered to love. Love does not come easily or naturally. It takes the discipline to ‘walk in the Spirit’ and ‘keep in step with the Spirit’.

Modern love has become detached from classical Christian love – the two sides of love (love as divine and humility necessary to love) have become ‘unstuck’.

Now we have love as divine – but without the humility.

“Without an all-powerful God to hold them together and serve as a standing reminder of how severely hard love is, as well as fundamentally beyond our control, they have simply gone their own separate ways, producing extremes of optimism and pessimism about love, both of which have damaged it.” 93

The optimists are in the majority: we all want to believe in love don’t we? But this is a love that is easy, romantic, lovely, and that which brings happiness. This is the radically democratic, universally available love that is celebrated, sought after, idolised, worshipped and pursued.

But with little sense of the need for the humility / obedience / discipline and the sheer hard work and stubborn covenant commitment required for love to last.

This makes much modern love superficial and thin. Everybody has a right to love and can love instantly. (And cease to love just as quickly) ‘Love’ can be emptied out to mean virtually anything.

But those pesky pessimists are a significant minority, throwing all sorts of dark and complicated spanners in the bright sparkly world of optimistic love:

The pessimists are those who have set about deconstructing the fantasies of optimists. So to the deep cynicism and pessimism about love in prophets of doom concerning love: atheists like Nietzsche and psychoanalysts like Freud (of more anon).

 

Contested Love (3) love as the supreme virtue

9780300118308I’m skipping on in Simon May’s Love: A History to an important chapter on the evolution of love within Christianity.

A question: what is Christian love? How would you define it? What is distinctive about Christian love as compared say to love in our wider culture today?

I had quite a few quibbles with May in the this chapter. Not surprising I guess, he is venturing into detailed areas of Christian theology and painting with a broad brush. There are half-truths and generalisations, but the overall thesis is intriguing.

He argues that two major shifts in the history of love happen that are intimately linked to how love comes to be understood within Christianity.

  1. Love is elevated to become the supreme virtue. There is no better thing than to love and be loved. The idea of love as eternal and supreme is everywhere in the West.
  1. Love as divine: in love we are united to the divine. And this experience of divinity is radically democratic – open to all ordinary people.

He traces this development, beginning with Jesus. (and this is one place that it is ‘Yes, but’)

Jesus is not linked to the two developments above. He is firmly located within OT categories of love as command and obedience. May says Jesus speaks little of love – I think this is overplayed with significant elements of love within the life and teaching of Jesus passed by.

May pits Jesus against John (love as divine) and Paul (love as supreme). Again, I am not convinced that there is such a wedge between Jesus, John and Paul when it comes to love.

[And there are links here back to our discussion of the New / Old Perspective on Paul – with love in the apostle’s teaching seen in some frameworks as part of Christianity’s love / grace / freedom set over against the law / legalism / slavery of Judaism.]

May argues that the claims made for love by Paul are uniquely extravagant in the history of love – love fulfils the law. [But I would argue that love is deeply rooted within the law – Deuteronomy 6]. May sees a radical disjuncture of OT to NT (Paul) in terms of love. A sort of Old / New Perspective on Love.

“one thing that is obviously happening is the creation of a new morality – based on so great an intensification of Old Testament morality that a genuine revolution in values has occurred.” 87.

What do you think? Is love within Paul a ‘new morality’ and ‘revolution’ compared to love in the OT?

Moving on, it is Augustine, May argues, where love becomes the greatest virtue and from which all actions and morality flow.  But what happens is how love not only answers questions of flourishing and ethics, but deeper questions of existence and meaning.

“love is to be the lodestar of our lives and, if blessed with the capacity to exercise it, we can aspire to imitate God. It was only a matter of time before the outrageous conclusion was drawn that through love we, ordinary men and women, can ourselves become divine.” 87

A bit of a villain in the historical exaltation and divinisation of love is Martin Luther who he quotes as saying “we are gods through love.” He acknowledges that Luther is well aware of potential heresy here – again I think this is overplayed.

But things get really interesting in how May perceptively links Christianity’s elevation of love as the supreme virtue WITH a deep awareness of the need for humility within Christian spirituality.

To fill in what I think he means here: if we are commanded to imitate the love of God, such love is only possible because of grace, the gift of forgiveness, the Spirit and God’s enabling.  Love is always first from God.

If Augustine is the theologian of love, he is also the theologian of grace: we are not self-sufficient. “The Grace of God makes a willing man out of an unwilling one.” 90

We find our fulfilment in God (Augustine’s restless heart).  May sees Augustine as very Platonic – the ladder of ascent to the divine. It is by grace that humans can ascend to caritas (divine love, selfless love, eternal love) rather than cupiditas – lower love, without reference to God.

It is this unique combination within Christianity of an ascent to divine love combined with a deep emphasis on humility, that is so powerful and enduring. Such love is hard – it requires obedience and persistence and discipline.

The implication I think is that he means love only comes slowly, it needs character, it is a virtue that is the fruit of moral integrity and dependence on God.

“This view of love expresses the reality that exaltation and abasement are related to each other in a profound dialectic – a dialectic incomparably revealed in the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. ‘Wanting to be gods’ is inseparable from wanting to go the way of the Cross. The crucifixion of the incarnate God is not a gruesome paradox, as Nietzsche was to characterise it, but rather speaks a deep truth: if you want to be ‘Gods and Saviours of the world’ you have to be (and not merely appear) humble.   (92)

How convincing do you find this?

What are the essential requirements for love to flourish?

 

Contested love (2) Aristotle

aristotle

We’re sketching ideas from Simon May’s Love: A History.

Another key Greek player in the history of love is Aristotle.

First, consider those whom you love – on what is your love based? Qualities in that person? Family blood and loyalty? Something indefinable? Attraction of opposites? Or attraction of like-mindeness? A decision of the ‘will to love’?

Apart from sex, is love for a friend different from love for a lover?

These are some questions raised by Aristotle’s view of love. For him the highest form of love is philia – friendship love.

Now, as a good Greek man, he means friendship with another man. A man obviously could not have a noble and equal friendship with a woman since she (along with a slave) could never be up the mark of equality with a man.

Philea is a more down to earth love than Plato’s ascent to the heavens.

Philea is most definitely not a sexual sort of love, since sex brings in all sorts of other lower motivations. It is unstable due to dependence on temporary qualities like pleasure or beauty. For Aristotle, sex is fairly irrelevant to a flourishing, virtuous life.

Aristotle also assumed that philea was conditional. It very much depends on who the other is. For example, love depends on:

1. the virtue of the friend – is he worthy of love? The two men need to be alike; to have similar virtues and interests. To both be concerned about excellence of character

2. the constant character of the friend. If he declines in virtue, love will die for you should drop an unvirtuous friend. Love can only love like.

It is through such love that we come to self-knowledge and fulfil our own potential. Philia helps us to love ourselves and know ourselves.

Love is a virtue that requires discipline and application. It is hard to know ourselves and we find it in love of another – like a mirror, the love of a friend helps us see ourselves. We should therefore choose friends wisely.

You can begin to see how the big A is pretty out of fashion these days.

Modern love is obsessed with sex as an essential requirement: for Aristotle it was pretty irrelevant to flourishing love

Modern ideas of love assume that love is unconditional; for Aristotle it is very much conditional

Modern love is often undisciplined and spontaneous – you can ‘fall in’ (and out of) love in an instant: for Aristotle it takes the discipline of a lifetime to learn and practice love.

Modern love assumes we know ourselves and ‘forget’ ourselves for the other; for Aristotle love is the key to self-knowledge

Modern love can be rooted in many things – beauty, personality, physical attraction, common interests etc: for Aristotle it is dependent on virtue in both parties

Modern love at least desires or dreams of ‘eternal togetherness’: Aristotle is more pragmatic, love can come and go dependent on virtue.

Modern love says we love ourselves first in order to love others: Aristotle says it is in philea that we find ourselves

What do you think we moderns have to learn from Aristotle when it comes to love?

Contested love (1) Diotima’s Ladder

9780300118308Simon May’s superb book Love: A History unpacks changing understandings of love through the centuries. It’s a tour de force; a scintillating journey with an expert and entertaining guide who introduces the reader to a fascinating list of characters, all of whom have a lot of (conflicting) things to say about love.

A few posts follow on key highlights of that journey.

The first stop on our journey is Diotima’s Ladder in Plato’s Symposium.

First, some questions: if asked, what would you say is the key to happiness? Would your answer include love? How do you think of love? Is it the supreme goal of life? Is it the true sign of spirituality and virtue? Is it that which makes you whole?

If you are answering yes to some of these then you are at least in part agreement with Plato.

Here’s a very clever little video (1.32) that captures Plato’s’ important idea of love as an ascent towards virtue: from physical lust to abstract morality; from this world to a higher plane; flesh to spirit.

The Symposium is the first extended philosophy of love in the Western world and has had immeasureable influence in the history of love.

This is Greek morality  – the ideal youth is male; sexual lust is not in mind here, it is beauty that is idealised and women were inferior, so male beauty is that which arouses ‘bottom rung of the ladder’ love.

What parallels do you see in the concept of love as a ladder with Christian theology? And / or with how our culture thinks about love today?

 

Loving Donald Trump: a theory

Whatever your political persuasion or opinion on the American Presidential election, there are few voices even trying to argue that Donald Trump is a good, morally upright and virtuous person.

Even one D. J. Trump did (briefly and defiantly and only when confronted by the audio-tape of his bragging about using his fame to take advantage of women) admit that he has made mistakes and is not perfect.

Yet, it’s pretty clear that a very many Americans love Donald Trump. I use the word ‘love’ deliberately. I’m not talking just about political reasons to vote for him. Yes, for a lot of people, it was his policies and promises that won the day. But from mass rallies all over the country it’s clear that a very sizeable portion of the electorate are passionately committed to Trump at an emotional level that goes far beyond pragmatic self-interest.

(It’s not my main point here, but it might even be said that one reason Hillary did not win was that even her own supporters did not love her in the same way as Trump’s supporters loved him. They respected her, but she did not inspire the same intensity of devotion)

9780300118308Simon May has a very interesting take on this phenomenon of love for people who are most definitely not good. People who actively have no interest in appearing to be good and yet who are loved. May mentions captives’ love for their kidnappers or a child’s continuing love for a parent who has obviously harmed them by some form of abuse.

Or what about whole populations’ love for megalomanical leaders who killed millions?: huge swathes of the German people’s love for Adolf Hitler. Many Russian people’s love for Stalin (even after his death). I’m not equating Trump with Hitler or Stalin, the point is that love is not necessarily inspired by virtue.

We are tempted not to call such devotion ‘love’ because we are shaped by the very Greek idea that love, if it is to be true love, is inspired by beauty and virtue. But such mass love for bad people cannot so easily be dismissed.

If love is not necessarily inspired by virtue, what then can it be inspired by?

(this question does not deny that love can be inspired by virtue and goodness; it does suggest that love cannot be so simply explained).

May’s theory is that love is inspired by what he call’s ‘ontological rootedness’. Now that’s quite a label. What he means is that we love that which gives us a sense of ultimate meaning and security in the world. Love is deeply connected to power because it is the powerful who have the capacity to deliver on such deep hopes.

Here’s May’s explanation … and I will resist the strong temptation to pick out bits that I think are stunningly prophetic regarding the 2016 USA Presidential Election!

How well does this explain Trump’s election do you think?

There is no greater human need that to find such affirmation, nourishment an anchoring of one’s being, and we can secure it only through relationships to a world in which we are embedded. This is why when we think we have discovered someone – or indeed something, like a vocation or art or nature – with ontological power over us we lunge at it with such overwhelming desire. It is also why we can fall (and remain) in love not only with those who would use their power to affirm and enhance our lives, but also – even precisely – with those who regard us as enemies, or with people whose wealth inspires a sense (robust or not) of ontological rootedness, or with fraudsters who give us illusory confidence in ourselves, or with others who might destroy us, or with those whose love for us we permanently doubt. (37)

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

One of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history

9780300118308Another snapshot of Simon May’s exceptionally good book Love: A History

The Hebrew Bible develops three innovations of immense significance for how we think about love today.

The Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 states

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

1. The goal of love is divine

God is the one true God, the creator and source of all that exists. To love God with all that we are is to make the goal of love divine. There can be no higher purpose or calling.

2. Loving God means that we are to walk in his ways

He argues that the second innovation is that we are to love what God loves – and that includes our neighbour.

May could unpack this more. He doesn’t quote this but Deuteronomy 10:12-13 states

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

The text goes on to define the sort of imitation that Israel is to demonstrate:

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

As God loves the alien, providing for their needs, so Israel is to imitate Yahweh, in a sense ‘doing to others as God has already done to them’.

3. Love is a moral duty

The love of the alien, widow and the orphan above is not a sentimental feeling-based emotion – it is a moral duty to do good to those in need. Israel is commanded to love God and love others.

May comments that other pre-Christian systems of thought – Confucianism, Buddhism and Platonism made love a central value “but in none was it conceived as so overwhelming a command issued by the one God”.

May concludes with this – and it needs to be said again and again given the caricatures and confusions out there regarding the Old Testament and its main character ..

“The widespread belief that the Hebrew Bible is all about vengeance and ‘an eye for an eye’, while the Gospels supposedly invent love as an unconditional and universal value, must therefore count as one of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history.” (19-20)

The idolisation of love

What do you live for? What most in this world gives your life meaning and purpose and joy? I suspect many people would answer those questions with the word ‘love’.

angelo_bronzino

Angelo Bronzino: Venus, Cupide and The Time (Allegory of Lust) Cover Image of Love: A History

I’m beginning to read the philosopher Simon May’s Love: a History. Published in 2011, it has rave reviews. His prose is outstanding. Here’s a taster.

In the wasteland of Western idols, only love survives intact. (4)

Elsewhere he sums up exactly what he means by this. And what he says below is bang on – the worship of love itself; love the goal to deliver our hopes and dreams; love as that which lives on after death, giving meaning to life.

In my book – Love: A History – I attempt to trace how love came to be the new god. And not any old god – say, one of those self-seeking, lustful, capricious and frankly evil Greek gods – but rather the spitting image of the Christian God.  In other words, love – genuine love – has come to be seen as all-good, unconditioned, unchanging, selfless in showing concern for the wellbeing of loved ones, and our chief bulwark against suffering and loss.  Today love has arguably become the only truly universal religion in the West – including in the United States.

I can remember well the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana in 1997 – the national and public outpouring of grief and simultaneous divinisation of love as that which gave her sudden death eternal significance. But you could pick any big public funeral – perhaps you can think of some? ‘Love’ takes over: on its own it is everywhere invoked in the face of death as that in itself which gives hope and meaning.

And this zinger from May,

Whereas becoming even a fairly competent artist or gardener or editor or plumber or banker or singer is dearly purchased with long effort and then only by the few with sufficient talent, love is a democracy of salvation open to all.

May’s book has three (ambitious) aims:

1. To show how, in Western thought, love came to play God; to be understood as the virtue that gives ultimate meaningful and significance to life.

2. To trace historically how genuine love came to be seen as unconditional.

3. To develop and present an alternative theory of love that sees it

“as a harbinger of the sacred without pretending that it is an all powerful solution to the problem of finding meaning, security and happiness in life.” (13)

Looks promising and provocative. I’m not going to post through it but will check in now and then.