On Love

In our Thursday evening meditation group at The Bodhi Garden we looked at the chapter on Meditation on Love from Kathleen McDonald’s How to Meditate. Each chapter in this book has been a revelation to us: McDonald’s simple and clear prose has a depth that can be easily missed. Here is the first paragraph that we looked at in the Thursday group.

Love, also called “loving-kindness,” is wanting others to be happy. It is a natural quality of mind, but until we develop it through meditation and other practices it remains limited, reserved for a few select individuals—usually those we are attached to. Genuine love is universal in scope, extending to everyone, without exception.

Buddhists have for the most part have given up on the word ‘love’ and an inspection of the entry on love Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy shows us why. Even sticking to the philosophical definitions of love we can see extreme confusion, without going anywhere near the ideas of love held by the benighted and unphilosophical.

Joking apart, I would expect that serious religious thinkers are much more likely to advance coherent ideas of love, academic philosophy tending to reflect confusion in dealing with such ethical concepts partly because of the tendency to approach the topic scientifically, as something to be objectively studied in the world. But the world is generally populated with confused people (of which I very much include myself) so the understanding will reflect that confusion. A religious thinker will avoid this tar pit, explaining love according to their tradition. The test that they have got it right is to adopt their definitions in life and see whether the world starts to become a less confusing place or not. Of course this can’t be done for just one idea such as love; but the whole package that best suits must be chosen, and with that you will get an understanding of love, justice, and so on.

One of the early acts of Pope Benedict XVI was to issue an encyclical on Love, DEUS CARITAS EST, which starts and finishes as follows:

1. “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16). These words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny. In the same verse, Saint John also offers a kind of summary of the Christian life: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us”.


42. The lives of the saints are not limited to their earthly biographies but also include their being and working in God after death. In the saints one thing becomes clear: those who draw near to God do not withdraw from men, but rather become truly close to them. In no one do we see this more clearly than in Mary. The words addressed by the crucified Lord to his disciple—to John and through him to all disciples of Jesus: “Behold, your mother!” (Jn 19:27)—are fulfilled anew in every generation. Mary has truly become the Mother of all believers. Men and women of every time and place have recourse to her motherly kindness and her virginal purity and grace, in all their needs and aspirations, their joys and sorrows, their moments of loneliness and their common endeavours. They constantly experience the gift of her goodness and the unfailing love which she pours out from the depths of her heart. The testimonials of gratitude, offered to her from every continent and culture, are a recognition of that pure love which is not self- seeking but simply benevolent. At the same time, the devotion of the faithful shows an infallible intuition of how such love is possible: it becomes so as a result of the most intimate union with God, through which the soul is totally pervaded by him—a condition which enables those who have drunk from the fountain of God’s love to become in their turn a fountain from which “flow rivers of living water” (Jn 7:38). Mary, Virgin and Mother, shows us what love is and whence it draws its origin and its constantly renewed power. To her we entrust the Church and her mission in the service of love:

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
you have given the world its true light,
Jesus, your Son – the Son of God.
You abandoned yourself completely
to God’s call
and thus became a wellspring
of the goodness which flows forth from him.
Show us Jesus. Lead us to him.
Teach us to know and love him,
so that we too can become
capable of true love
and be fountains of living water
in the midst of a thirsting world.

(The red highlighting is mine.) The encyclical starts with divine love and progresses to the saints, embodying perfect examples for us to follow, finishing with the Mary, the Christian embodiment of maternity; and note that pure love is understood to be simple benevolence, free from self-seeking.

Comparing this with Kathleen McDonald above introductory paragraph we see that love is defined as the desire for its object to achieve happiness, that in its pure form it extends to everyone without bias (like the sun shines equally on everyone it is said), and it is free from attachment.

Contamination of love by attachment corresponds to the self-seeking contamination in Pope Benedict’s final paragraph, a love free of attachment being free of self-seeking and vice versa. Once a desire to not become separated from the object starts working its way into our love then that love starts to become about making oneself happy under the guise of making someone else happy, and this is extremely confusing as one thing is masquerading as its opposite.

There is also the problem of what one becomes attached to, it very rarely (i.e., never) being the object as it is and as it evolves. The only way to achieve such an unconditional love is to make it, well, er, unconditional, which means wishing for the unconditional happiness of the object of our love unencumbered by concepts of the object. Maternal love is the best general approximation we have to this idea where mothers take care of their offspring without any prospect of worldly reward, and we can see this throughout the animal kingdom. But to the advocates of the religion of modern industrial life this is of course just a manifestation of universal selfishness, and the modern industrial perception of motherhood seems to be less pure. Does this reflect, or is it related to in any way our modern love confusion?

Of course, many of these issues were identified in Sense and Sensibility. Shortly after Marianne receives a cruel reply to her letters from Willoughby we get the following exchange with Marianne.

“Elinor, I have been cruelly used; but not by Willoughby.”

“Dearest Marianne, who but himself? By whom can he have been instigated?”

“By all the world, rather than by his own heart. I could rather believe every creature of my acquaintance leagued together to ruin me in his opinion, than believe his nature capable of such cruelty. This woman of whom he writes—whoever she be—or any one, in short, but your own dear self, mama, and Edward, may have been so barbarous to bely me. Beyond you three, is there a creature in the world whom I would not rather suspect of evil than Willoughby, whose heart I know so well?” (29.54)

As I argue in the rough draft of my book, In Search of Sense and Sensibility, the book is written up to this point with a view to inviting the reader to share Marianne’s perspective, hardly a technique of sentimental fiction being spared. The reader that accepts this invitation will share Marianne’s shock and be highly sympathetic to her sentiments. But if we prevent our natural sympathy for Marianne from distorting our judgment we see that her philosophy is remarkably similar to that exposed by the infamous scene in the second chapter where John and Fanny Dashwood talk themselves out of fulfilling the dying wishes of John’s father and taking care of his half-sisters with his substantial inherited wealth.

Marianne proves herself to have an equally narrow circle of people worthy of her love and respect, and the lengths of self-delusion that she will go to maintain that idea of Willoughby that she has fallen in love with are extreme. Of course it is entirely understandable that she should behave in this way, and Elinor’s gentle handling is entirely appropriate. However, as Elinor herself says,

“No, Marianne, never. My doctrine has never aimed at the subjection of the understanding. All I have ever attempted to influence has been the behaviour. You must not confound my meaning. I am guilty, I confess, of having often wished you to treat our acquaintance in general with greater attention; but when have I advised you to adopt their sentiments or to conform to their judgment in serious matters?” (17.39)

While we can extend our sympathy to Marianne that doesn’t mean that we have to share her philosophy or be blinded to its effects. In fact Elinor’s doctrine makes the crucial separation, suggesting that we treat everyone with attention (i.e., wish and work for their happiness) even when we don’t approve of their philosophy or actions. Stuart Tave sees much in common between Austen’s philosophy and that of one the great romantic poets.

There is, further, a sense of duty understood and deeply felt by those who see the integrity and peace of their own lives as essentially bound to the lives of others and see the lives of all in a more than merely social order. […]

The heart that goes life’s common way in cheerful godliness laying its duties on herself is, in its domestic form, a heroine we can all recognize. It is even true that Jane Austen’s heroines dwell apart as they maintain their societies, as Elinor Dashwood was stronger alone, her firmness unshaken, to others her appearance of cheerfulness invariable as possible (SS 141). They keep their secret and they serve. Elinor remains calm and cheerful, containing the lonely pain, supported by the feeling that she is doing her duty; she owes that to her family and her friends, even to her enemy (262-4). When Marianne learns to take strength from her sister’s example, it becomes explicit that this kind of cheerfulness and duty and attention even to the practice of the civilities, the lesser duties in life, has a religious seriousness, that its peace of mind in daily life looks to God (341-2, 345-7).

Stuart M. Tave, Jane Austen and One of her Contemporaries, pp. 68-9

The last paragraph of Sense and Sensibility underlines the importance of avoiding a narrow conception of love, the objective of conjugal love being to establish and extend families, so it is perhaps not so surprising to see its success measured in terms of wider familial harmony (and that this should be no mean achievement).

Between Barton and Delaford, there was that constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate;—and among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands. (50.21)

It is curious that this conclusion would seem to have given rise to so much discomfort (e.g., Brownstein in the Cambridge Companion, pp. 48-9). It is almost as if some modern institution or other were being questioned or something.

2 responses to “On Love

  1. The test that they have got it right is to adopt their definitions in life and see whether the world starts to become a less confusing place or not.

    Confusion expands in direct proportion to one’s apprehension of the world. Or to misquote a famous aphorism: “If you can maintain your head while all about you are losing theirs, then you really don’t know what’s going on.”

    I know I’ve been pestering you with themes from the Black Swan, but this gets to the nub of it. Taleb’s book seems on first blush to be a work of economics, but it really is a philosophical effort. Taleb thinks of himself as a philosopher. “Understanding”, in the Western Platonic tradition is in truth a form of misunderstanding. We fit narratives to experiences and memories of experiences to better comprehend them. A narrative is a way to organize information. Unfortunately we generally get the relationships and the causality between events wrong, and ignore masses of information in the process.

    I can’t much comment on your love essay other to say that your quote from the Pope is another example of why I’m no longer a Catholic. To me love is something felt. It cannot be Platonized and reified. It is not a thing or a force in itself. It cannot be separated from selfness. It can’t be isolated and refined. You can’t get more of it by meditating on it.

    I liken Platonic exercises like this to the fable of the goose that lays golden eggs. You can’t separate gold from goose, and you can’t separate love from the self. Where humans are concerned, there is no selfless anything.

  2. Robert you are very welcome to pester me about anything you like here (provided it adheres to my talk policy, which your comments certainly do).

    I will get round to reading Black Swan. And I want to think about your comment before replying to it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s