Love seeks to understand, but in a way that is different from the analytical or scientific connotations we might associate with that term. Analysis attempt to arrive at understanding through breaking something into its components parts, and thus everywhere we “murder to dissect,” to quote the poet Wordsworth, or “unweave the rainbow,” as Keats so memorably phrased it. We neglect the object of our inquiry and turn instead towards its parts, and likely again to parts of parts and so on. Science strives to bring everything under one or another natural law or fundamental principle and, again, in doing so, forces the beloved to submit to terms that are alien to it in its singular truth and essence. Love seeks to understand the truth of the other, but with care, and for its own sake. The beloved becomes its own locus of concern. Love also casts the scales from our eyes. This goes against the proverbial aphorisms that “love is madness,” or “love makes us blind.” Perhaps it is like St. Paul said: that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight,” and perhaps it is only in the light of love that truth and beauty are disclosed to us. Tagore must have understood this when he wrote “Beauty is truth’s smile when she beholds her own face in a perfect mirror.” Loveliness is the aura around love’s image in the soul. Like you also suggested, a certain depth of understanding is only possible through love. Until I love something—which is to love the truth of that thing—which is to love the truth as such—I will be liable to betray it by rejecting its true nature out of loyalty to my prejudices. All things being equal, everyone is inclined to maintain whatever tacit standpoint they already hold. Understanding is a kind of genuflection of the soul before what it loves and a sacrifice of everything that holds it apart from truth. Love goes out of itself just as understanding does.
Here is where I would encourage you to think a little bit further to unfold the bud of your insight into this subject. To add to your observation on the connection between love and understanding, I suggested a couple of other features of love. Perhaps the most manifest feature is the basic disposition it instills in us of willing the good of the beloved. Another feature of love is its power to enthuse a person with a willingness and inspiration to change. Like iron can be melted and refined in a forge and thereafter reconfigured into a new form, so love creates the conditions for an analogous transformation—and perhaps ultimately, transfiguration—of the soul. In this way love is a kind of purgative fire that banishes the coldness of apathy or acedia and makes us malleable in the hands of truth. In the spirit of Eryximachus from Plato’s Symposium, we could even extrapolate this power to a cosmic principle and say it is an unconscious form of love that quickens inert matter to life in the first place, and which kindles vegetal matter to sentience, and which fires sentience with thought. In any case, love has “many faces,” as it were. The specific one that I wished to encourage you to explore has to do with the relation you noted between understanding and thinking and love. Among the most fundamental features of love is, as I suggested in our meeting, that it embodies an impulse for union that does not abolish distinction. In this way it transcends formal logic, which does not admit of contradiction and thus could not countenance simultaneous identity and difference. The connection between this feature of love and what you observed is what I wished to draw your attention to. If you consider objects, they are just what they are: “identical to themselves.” But thinking, like love, is “ecstatic.” By this I mean that it is always going out of itself; always about something other than itself. I would encourage you to contemplate this power of “aboutness” that defines, and perhaps identifies, both thinking and love. You spoke of “barriers trembling and quaking” and I think it’s true that nothing, in principle, could present a boundary to either of these things—only a condition to be accounted for and transcended. I would have pictured something like how glass stops rain but not light, or, to pick up on the Platonic metaphor, love confers the soul with the power of flight:
With love’s light wings did I o’er-perch these walls;
For stony limits cannot hold love out…
This is somewhat tangential to Jesus’ teaching but do you think it is logically possible to love one’s enemies? The term enemy generally refers to “someone for whom I have no love.” By loving one’s enemies, one has transformed them into friends. We might actually cease to have enemies if it were possible to live up to Jesus’ injunction. Jesus had no enemies in the ordinary usage of that term. It is very revolutionary. Even Judas was not an enemy, but rather a sort of instrument of revelation “but that the works of God should be made manifest” (John 9:3). The only potential enemy who could ultimately remain so even after I had ceased to oppose myself to him would be the one who could corrupt my soul, but this would only be possible through my soul’s consent to being corrupted. Enemy is always a relational term and I am the standard of relation against which he is judged. It reminds me of the reading from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov.
You don’t have to love your enemy, but understand them. See where they are coming from, understand why they may have made the choices that they did, and learn from them.
My question for you is: why would I bother to understand someone for whom I had no love? And if I did love him, then he would no longer be my enemy. Maybe “love” is deeper than we at first believed, or more essential, and “enemy” is emptier, or more circumstantial.
On the application of the term “enemy” in the context of Jesus’ injunction to “love our enemies”: imagine a stone which could become hot or cold. Thus, the stone is the substance and “hot” and “cold” are qualities that are predicated of it. Notice that while the stone can change from hot to cold without ceasing to be what it is, cold cannot change to hot in this way. The question is, is “enemy” to be thought of as a substance or a predicate?
The crux of the problem: how can I know whether I am acting selfishly if my motives for action are unconscious to me? Ultimately, it would seem the only way to resolve this problem would be to render conscious my erstwhile unconscious motives for acting. Carl Jung has a very pithy injunction in the respect: “Until we make the unconscious conscious, it will rule our lives and we will call it fate.” Unfortunately, it is not so straightforward as merely flipping on a light-switch of sorts and beholding all of one’s unconscious motives. Instead, “a steep and rugged ascent,” as it were, is in order before we can hope to arrive at a source of illumination that is adequate to disclose these hidden motives for us. I am of course alluding to Plato’s image of the philosopher who strives to exit the cave by way of “a conversion and turning about of the soul from a day whose light is darkness to the veritable day—that ascension to reality of our parable which we will affirm to be true philosophy” (Republic 521c/Book 7). I think it will be clear that it is nearly impossible to exercise true reason so long as one’s conclusions are already foregone, having been decided beforehand by unconscious preference. Reasoning or rationality (logos), in this case, is corrupted and becomes motivated reasoning or rationalization (thumos or epithumeia). Perhaps the exercise of perfect reason is impossible but I think it can serve as a sort of ideal standard towards which we can strive, like a flower towards the sun or the philosopher towards the light at the mouth of Plato’s cave. What do you think of this?
I would like to pose one question to you in respect to your conclusion that it is unlikely we can ever be certain that our apparent acts of love are not motivated by tacit selfishness. You very cogently observed that the fact that we derive personal pleasure from an act of kindness towards someone we love underdetermines whether we should believe that the personal pleasure or the love for the other is our true motive. An interesting thought-experiment that might begin to resolve the question would be to consider whether we would still wish to act kindly towards the beloved if we knew our action would remain entirely anonymous. This would not entirely settle the question but it could address the element of pleasure that likely follows from being rewarded for one’s actions. In Book II of the Republic, Glaucon proposes an analogous situation in respect to justice to inquire whether acting unjustly might actually confer greater benefits. Ultimately, Socrates rejects the proposal on the basis that acting unjustly makes a person worse, and “what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” So a similar argument could be made in defense of love. But there is a more immediate problem with the conclusion that all deeds are secretly sown in selfishness. This is that the function of deriving pleasure from an act of kindness towards someone I love depends on me already loving that person. Conversely, if I bore no love for that person, no amount of kindness towards them would confer pleasure on me. Incidentally, the Philosophy of Science class is grappling with a somewhat isomorphic paradox: namely, it is impossible to build a theory from evidence because it is only in light of a pre-existing theory that it is possible to gather evidence in the first place. Without the theory, it would be impossible to distinguish evidence from mere irrelevant data or “noise.” I would be curious to hear your thoughts on this.
In respect the septem artes liberales: the image below is taken from a medieval manuscript from the 12th century. Can you discern the figures that are depicted in it?