Miscellany: on love

To be in truth and to be in love:

I wonder if we can learn something about how we should think of love from how we think of truth, and, conversely, how we should think of truth by how we think of love.

To begin with the first thing: we understand that the truth is not something that can ever be grasped in a ultimate and terminal way. This is obvious because there is always more to learn, and the world doesn’t wait for us while we are doing the learning so even if we could know everything, by the time we would have finished learning it, the world would have replenished itself with new content, and so on forever. But despite that we can never exhaust the well of all truth, we don’t allow this to fill us with despair at the prospect of attaining any truth. On the contrary, a recognition of how much there is to know can kindle our initiative to get started. By the same token, any inkling of perfect selfless love does not need to be weighed against all of our imperfections. Instead, we can see it as an entry point into participation in greater and greater degrees of it in the same way that learning one thing encourages us, rather than deters us from learning more.

In respect to the second thing: we all understand that love can be conceived as an abstract noun or principle, but we also know from the phrase “in love” that it can indicate a state or condition or configuration of the soul as well. Moreover, we understand that it is precisely by way of the second thing that we establish an encounter with the first. We also recognize that truth can be conceived as an abstract noun or principle. From here, can we imagine what it would mean to be in (the) truth by analogy with what we know of how it is to be in love?

On transaction in economy and in love:

Some people have preferred to see love in terms of transaction. Ordinarily, we use “transaction” in the sense of quid pro quo, which is, “this for that.” The image it evokes is one in which two parties enter into a mutual exchange for the sake of personal benefit to themselves. In other words, the transaction follows from a sort of pay-off calculation.

But while transaction in economy is undertaken for the pay-off, the transaction in love is undertaken for “pay-out”—for the sake not of receiving a benefit, but of conferring it. And moreover, the commerce transpires not in matter but in spirit. In other words, the transaction in love is almost the inverse of the transaction in economy: “blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the Earth.” If the first transaction were a glove, you would have to imagine turning it inside out in order to form a conception of the second.  

Ideal love as a vision of perfection:

The sensory object per se is not the proper object of our love. Instead, the proper object of love is the soul or the ideal or the essence that expresses itself through that sensory object. If it were really the sensory object, we would be sad every time that our beloved cut her fingernails and we should be just as content with a physical replica of her as with her true being. Obviously, this is incoherent. A reflection on “the perfect circle” can perhaps serve to illustrate what is at stake with this question. It will be immediately evident that the circle as such can never be perceived by physical senses. This is not the least because every material instance of the circle will be an approximation to this paradigm and hence, by definition, not identical to it, and moreover, because every actual circle will, in principle, be composed of non-circle elements, like chalk or glass or graphite. And yet, we can see the perfect circle in “the mind’s eye,” or with “the eye of the heart.” 

In the same way, we can perceive a corresponding perfection in others with this same inner sense. This could be thought of as their archetype or ideal, or their image in the mind of God. Whatever we call it, it is this perfection that is the proper object of our love. 

On whether the scope of love is inversely proportional to its intensity:

There is a definite logical coherence to the notion that increasing the scope of love correspondingly diminishes its intensity through a process of dilution. This notion also seems to correspond with some elements of experience. For instance, it makes sense to say that if a person must distribute his love amongst two persons rather than one, that the proportion of love that they each receive will be half of that of the single person. Similarly, I imagine that everyone has had the experience of feeling “strained,” or “strentched thin” by conflicting loyalties and this would, again, seem to indicate that plurality does not enrich love but rather dilutes it. One cup of water might save a man in the desert from dying of thirst, but if it were divided amongst a hundred men, it would save none of them.

This being said, I have come to see love as a principle that transcends ordinary logical categories. In the most fundamental sense, we tend to think of “one” and “many” as a disjunction. In other words, something cannot simultaneously be one and many. And yet, love is precisely the power that brings elements into union without dissolving their distinct identities. This can be experienced, I believe, in bonds between persons, and once it is recognized in its singular intensity in these conditions, it can be recognized in the light the sun sheds on the earth, and the coherence of atoms. It can even be recognized in the syntax of a sentence: what is the power that makes noise into speech? It will be countered that this dilutes love, and I understand the logic of this objection. And yet, everywhere it seems to be transcended. My maternal grandmother did not profess to be a philosopher, and yet in her own way, she was wiser than anyone. My mother related to me the way that she consoled my mother’s concern that, when my brother came along, she would be forced to ration her love to both of her sons. Love multiplies,” my grandmother said, “it does not divide.” Rudolf Steiner often has recourse to the image of a glass that fills the more that is drunk from it. That image is very different from water in a desert. 

Allow me to take a different approach to this question. When we think of water, we think of a substance whose quantity can be measured. When we compare water to love, we then extrapolate the conceit of quantity to the latter and so we imagine that, just as we can measure quantities of water, we can also measure quantities of love. But does love really measure itself to this kind of quantification? What if love is compared not to water, but to light? Naturally, light sources vary in the intensity of their output, and conditions may conspire to cast some beings in the shade. But in principle, for one leaf to receive the sunlight does not diminish the ability of another to do the same. What if we compare love to truth? Does the fact that one heart can grasp the truth of something exclude another from the same? It seems, instead, that just the opposite is the case. Hence it can be said that truth compounds and does not divide. Can not the same thing be said of love? 

On love as a feeling:

Most people will equate love with the feeling of love. But is it right? Certainly we experience love as a feeling. But we may wonder what it is that is felt by us in this way. We also experience hardness as a feeling, but this doesn’t lead us to think that there is nothing “on the other side” of the feeling, as it were, that is causing this feeling. Similarly, can we be so sure there is not something “on the other side” of the feeling of love? 

Solovyov states:

Love is important not as one of our feelings, but as the transfer of all our interest in life from ourselves to another, as the shifting of the very center of our personal lives…Only on this basis can we retain and strengthen in consciousness that absoluteness for us of another person (and consequently also the absoluteness of our union with him) which is immediately and unaccountably revealed in the intense emotion of love, for this emotion of love comes and passes away, but the faith of love abides.

That gives a very different idea of love. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that it is not really important as a feeling and much more important as a sort of “posture” or “gesture” of the soul/psyche. This view dovetails very nicely with the classical conception of love as “willing the good of another.” Hence, love can enter our experience through our thinking, viz., as an ideal and a principle, which makes many into one without dissolving them and thereby holds the world together. It can also enter into our experience via willing: as something we do and which we sometimes feel—it enters our experience through feeling to, as was stated at the outset.

On selfishness and selflessness in love:

It has been asserted that selfless love is impossible and unrealistic since men are not angels and hence our love will always be corrupted by elements of selfishness. Moreover, to love another being brings us pleasure and people are axiomatically selfish. Hence, it must be assumed that the pleasure we gain is the primary motive. Leaving aside that the pleasure we receive from giving love is more coherently understood as an effect of love and not a motive for it, we can also address the objection from another side. Does any of the objections above really provide a convincing argument against the reality of selfless love? Consider the perfect circle: we understand that the value and being of the perfect circle lies precisely in the fact that it is nowhere entirely manifest. It is precisely this fact that allows every approximation of it to draw from its paradigm in a manner that is inexhaustible, like a well with no bottom. By the same token, need the fact that perfect selfless love is not something we can entirely attain takes away any of its value? We can understand the pure concept of circle, or “see” it with the mind’s eye or in the eye of the heart. And yet, at the same time, we know that no instance of this ideal can ever ultimately achieve it. Nevertheless, the ideal is absolutely necessary for the sake of ordering all circles to speak of. Otherwise, we would have no standard against which to measure their circularity. Can we think of love in the same way? 

It should be noted that the question of whether love is selfish or selfless is largely a function of how we choose to define those words. This does not mean that the answer is a matter of opinion or “mere semantics,” to invoke that vulgar phrase. Quite on the contrary, the observation above reveals (1) that the structures and paradigms of our experience are encoded in the language that we use and (2) that all of our beliefs and scientific conclusions are downstream of these fundamental structures and paradigms. For instance, if our concept of “self” is ecological, that will lead to very different conclusions in all branches of science than a concept of self that is atomic. The same goes for theories of love. The law of the physical world is non-mutual interpenetrability of objects while the law of the ideal or spiritual worlds is just the opposite. Just consider, for instance, how it is impossible to define any single word in isolation without having recourse to many more words. All language and the ideas that it embodies are interwoven and coextensive. In these terms, love must be classed among the objects of spirit and not of matter, since love does not have edges.

On egoism and beatitude:

It might be that the egoistic person does not really lack anything by way of the quality of love. Instead, the same power that emanates as boundless love for all humanity in the saints has been constricted or “curved inwards on itself.” In fact, Augustine of Hippo coined the phrase curvatus in se in the fourth century to describe the concrete effects of the so-called “Original Sin.” It can be imagined pictorially if one envisions the gesture of taking the fruit for oneself and then juxtaposes this to the gesture of Mary as it is depicted in the New Testament, which is the inverse of Eve’s. Whether Mary is understood to have received the word of God, or to have given unto the world a saviour, it can be seen that this is the opposite taking hence represents the rectification of curvatus in se. As Saint Paul writes in the First Epistle to the Church of Corinth:

15:22For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 15:23But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; then they that are Christ’s, at his coming.

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