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Two interpretations of love

Jesus holding a sheep

Max Scheler’s Ressentiment (1912), while dated and silly in some respects, is worth reading. Scheler is a semi-Nietzsche in his psychological and phenomenological insights, though also in his misguided contempt for the masses. But he thinks Nietzsche misunderstood true Christianity, as he implies, for example, in the following comparison between the ancient and Christian conceptions of love:

[With the Greek and Roman philosophers and poets,] logical form, law, justice—in short, the element of measure and equality in the distribution of goods and evils—are superior to love. Even though Plato, in the Symposium for example, establishes great differences in value between the various kinds of love, in Greek eyes the whole phenomenon of “love” belongs to the domain of the senses. It is a form of “desire,” of “need,” etc., which is foreign to the most perfect kind of being. This view is the natural corollary of the extremely questionable ancient division of human nature into “reason” and “sensuality,” into a part that is formative and one that is formed. In the sphere of Christian morality, on the other hand, love is explicitly placed above the rational domain—love “that makes more blessed than reason” (Augustine). This comes out quite clearly in the parable of the prodigal son. “Agape” and “caritas” are sharply and dualistically separated from “eros” and “amor,” whereas the Greeks and Romans…rather see a continuity between these types of love… The most important difference between the ancient and Christian views of love lies in the direction of its movement. All ancient philosophers, poets, and moralists agree that love is a striving, an aspiration of the “lower” toward the “higher,” the “unformed” toward the “formed,” “appearance” towards “essence,”…a “mean between fullness and privation,” as Plato says in the Symposium… [Expressions in metaphysics:] Already Plato says: “We would not love if we were Gods.” For the most perfect form of being cannot know “aspiration” or “need.” Here love is only a road to something else, a “methodos.” And according to Aristotle, in all things there is rooted an upward urge towards the deity, the Nous, the self-sufficient thinker who “moves” the world as “prime mover.”… The universe is a great chain of dynamic spiritual entities, of forms of being ranging from the “prima materia” up to man—a chain in which the lower strives for and is attracted by the higher, which never turns back but aspires upward in its turn. This process continues up to the deity, which itself does not love, but represents the eternally unmoving and unifying goal of all these aspirations of love…
[In the Christian conception] there takes place what might be called a reversal in the movement of love. The Christian view boldly denies the Greek axiom that love is an aspiration of the lower towards the higher. On the contrary, now the criterion of love is that the nobler stoops to the vulgar, the healthy to the sick…the good and saintly to the bad and common, the Messiah to the sinners and publicans. The Christian is not afraid, like the ancient, that he might lose something by doing so, that he might impair his own nobility. He acts in the peculiarly pious conviction that through this “condescension,” through this self-abasement and “self-renunciation,” he gains the highest good and becomes equal to God… God is no longer the eternal unmoving goal for the love of all things… Now the very essence of God is to love and serve. [Scheler says that “the later theological thesis according to which God has created the world ‘for his glorification’ is foreign to the spirit of the Gospel. It is an element of ancient philosophy which has entered Christian theology.”] An event that is monstrous for the man of antiquity, that is absolutely paradoxical according to his axioms, is supposed to have taken place in Galilee: God spontaneously “descended” to man, became a servant, and died the bad servant’s death on the cross! Now the precept of loving good and hating evil, loving one’s friend and hating one’s enemy, becomes meaningless. There is no longer any “highest good” independent of and beyond the act and movement of love! Love itself is the highest of all goods!… Indeed, the achievements of love are only symbols and proofs of its presence in the person… But there is another great innovation: in the Christian view, love is a non-sensuous act of the spirit (not a mere state of feeling, as for the moderns), but it is nevertheless not a striving and desiring, and even less a need. These acts consume themselves in the realization of the desired goal. Love, however, grows in its action… Whenever I see badness in another, I must feel partly guilty, for I must say to myself: “Would that man be bad if you had loved him enough?” In the Christian view, sensuous sympathy—together with its root in our most powerful impulse—is not the source, but the partial blockage of love. Therefore not only positive wrongdoing, but even the failure to love is “guilt.” Indeed, it is the guilt at the bottom of all guiltiness.
Thus the picture has shifted immensely. There is no longer a band of men and things that surpass each other in striving up to the deity. It is a band in which every member looks back toward those who are further removed from God and comes to resemble the deity by helping and serving them.

Brilliant analysis. One sees how society would logically progress from the ancient to the Christian interpretation of love as the social structures of Greek and Roman slavery, elitism, imperialism, un-democratic government, and misogyny partly disintegrated in the centuries after Jesus. The ideology of the “masters,” which tries to justify a lack of regard for the poor and enslaved and valorizes the leisure activities of elite men (philosophy, science, athletic contests, the art of conversation, and politics), succumbs to the ideology of the lower classes, namely compassion for the suffering, charity, communalism, and empowerment of the poor. The ancient institutional and social sanctions against helping the poor, or against ideologies that justify doing so, erode as the economic and social basis for these sanctions collapses in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries A.D. With the elite losing its former power and security, its reactionary elements are less able to prevent the spread of Christianity and other anti-elitist ideologies, especially as they provide a possible basis for preserving social and political cohesion. So the old world and its pagan philosophies die, while the new rise first interstitially and then by political will (with the help of Constantine and others).

Admittedly, as the new religion is institutionalized and allied with established power-structures it loses much of its early revolutionary spirit, ultimately becoming just another elaborate ideological defense of authority, hierarchy, and inequality. But the radicalism of its original content always holds out the possibility of popular movements to return to the spirit of the Gospels. (No wonder Church authorities for a long time forbade the uninitiated to read the Bible! Independent thought is dangerous to authority, especially when the thought in question has access to so revolutionary a message as that of Jesus.) It’s no surprise that such movements have burst forth repeatedly, most recently with the Social Gospel, the American Civil Rights Movement, and liberation theology in Latin America.

Considered on their merits, there is value to both the ancient and the Christian notions of love. The latter’s value is obvious: it is little but the epitome of morality. Morality is grounded in respect, compassion, and empathy for others, things taken to their logical conclusion in a St. Francis-like type of love. Profound love of the dignity and holiness of life demands that one devote oneself to care of the poor and despised, not the rich and respected, because it is in the situation of the former that dignity is most insulted. By acting in a St. Francis-like way, one is best embodying and furthering the dignity and holiness of life. (Cf. Albert Schweitzer’s autobiography Out of my Life and Thought (1933): “As a being in an active relation to the world, [man] comes into a spiritual relation with it by not living for himself alone, but feeling himself one with all life that comes within his reach. He will feel all that life’s experiences as his own, he will give it all the help that he possibly can, and will feel all the saving and promotion of life that he has been able to effect as the deepest happiness that can ever fall to his lot.” Schweitzer thought his philosophy of Reverence for Life was the essential kernel of Christianity.)[1]

On the other hand, the ancient notion of love has value too, both descriptively and prescriptively. One idealizes one’s beloved and tries to make oneself worthy of him or her. One should always try to raise oneself up to one’s idols and ideals; indeed, the Christian conception of love is precisely a way of doing so. Love can and should go in “both directions,” from the lower to the higher and from the higher to the lower. One should love and pursue beauty, truth, and goodness, or exemplars like Mozart, Shakespeare, Einstein, Kant, and Schweitzer, while simultaneously loving and raising pupils, children (ironically also an ideal), the poor and despised. Such is to realize one’s full humanity, the very goal that the Greeks set themselves.

[1] Strictly speaking, life itself doesn’t have value, since that idea is meaningless. Life is just a natural phenomenon like any other, not “good in itself” (because what would that even mean?). But we can and should adopt the attitude that it is good in itself, since that is to affirm oneself and others, to be moral, to achieve the highest potentialities of the human personality, and to will happiness.


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