Why do we Love? vs. Why Should we Love?

The answer is determined by our initial question

When our conversations comes around to love, sometimes it’s “Why do we?” and sometimes it’s “Why should we?” In the course of ordinary life, and in the distorted mirror of the tabloid press, the first question wins the popularity prize hands down. “Why did she run away from home to hitch up with the leader of the motorcycle gang?” For love! Yet we occasionally hear another, smaller voice, making similar but distinct inquiries. “Why should we feed the poor and care for the widow and the orphan?” For love! Love may not answer all questions, but it certainly poses as an answer to a surprising range of situations. Unless we can learn to make some distinctions, we are liable to wind up in a maze of contradictory life-decisions based on an attractive but undefined word.

Shaul of Tarsus (a.k.a., the Apostle Paul) famously noted that without love, our moral pretensions are little more than “clanging cymbals.” Yet it seems to me that the bare word “love” devoid of understanding, is more dangerous than any clanging cymbal, rather love itself is a clanging, and often changing, symbol. Plausibly, the word “love” is the most consequential, and dangerous, instance of what linguists call the gap between sign and signified. In a sense everyone recognizes the chameleon like quality of the “l-word” which makes it such a fruitful source double meaning in art and media. Yet beyond the word-play is a serious question of philosophical anthropology. After all, human beings generally seem to have love-on-the brain in one or another sense. Hence, should the human race be characterized as a species of loving animals, in a style similar to Aristotle’s classification of humanity as the species of rational animals? That’s a very attractive, very humanistic, line of thought. Moreover, by “humanism” I don’t mean a threadbare secular humanism, but a humanism which arises from the noblest sentiments of the Christian tradition. I’m sorry, but that line of thought comes to a dead end. That’s a “spoiler” in more senses than one, since I would like to follow up by giving the claims of the love-party (and I mean a philosophical school, not an orgy) the serious consideration which they deserve. What are human beings that we should love them?

Form or Essence?

It seems to me that this was the very rock on which Western civilization floundered. At some point in history, let’s conjecture that it was around the time of the First World War, it was decided, at least in the Western world, that there was no such thing as human nature. True, there were bipedal organisms walking around talking and acting, but they were plastic in nature, or in our modern cybernetic terminology, we would say that they were “reprogramible”…instead of a human nature, there was a human “x”. Now, how does that comport with our notions about loving our fellow beings? Previously I pointed out that there are two primary notions about love. 1) the formal (or duty) theory, “You shall love your fellow x as yourself!”, and 2) the personalist (or humanist) notion “You will naturally love x because x is intrinsically lovable.” I don’t know about you, but I find both of those statements very unsatisfying. How are you supposed to have any sort of attitude (least of all love!) towards something who’s nature you are unaware of? How do you love an “x” in the algebraic sense?

One of the last major hold-outs for the idea that there was such a thing as “human nature” was Max Scheler. I have been drawing attention to Scheler as a touchstone for understanding the decline of modern thought. I don’t claim to be a Scheler scholar, and still less a “Schelerian” even if such a school has survived down to the present. On the contrary, I consider his philosophy to have been a failure, but a very instructive one. Scheler’s system was the proverbial canary in the mine shaft, the death of which was a harbinger of the darkening of Western thought. Though Scheler, the man, died too young, he had already outlived his mature thought. In retrospect, this seems tragic, but it didn’t seem so to Scheler at the time. Rather, he spent his last years busying himself with a different system, a kind of forerunner to what would soon be marketed as “existence-philosophy” or existentialism. Although it was too early to say as much, by the late 20s of the last century Scheler was already transitioning from essentialism to existentialism.

During his classic, essentialist, period Scheler was a leading advocate for “love potion #2” as described above. He strongly opposed “love potion #1” particularly in the form given it by Immanuel Kant, that one has a duty to care for one’s fellow humans as if one loved them, even if one were not emotionally on-board with the sentiment we normally call love towards them. As a phenomenologist, Scheler felt that shared values could overcome the separation between individual minds, and that the lovability of certain types of people who embodied positive values would naturally evoke a love response. Moreover he posited a hierarchy of values, embodied by persons who’s appreciation would enable their loving admirers to climb a ladder of ethics, and ultimately lead to their sanctification. It is hard to imagine a more satisfactory way of resolving the problems of life. Time-slipping seventy years into the future Huey Lewis and the News would sing.

It don’t take money

It don’t take fame

Don’t need no credit care to ride that train

Its the power, that’s the power of Love!

So what went wrong? At one moment it seemed as if Scheler’s system of value-ethics would supplant that of Thomas Aquinas as the foremost philosophy of the Christian world. Then suddenly Scheler becomes an atheist, giving philosophical pointers to Martin Heidigger, who in turn gives pointers to Jean Paul Sartre (a Nazi and a Communist respectively).

Saints or Heros?

At the risk of oversimplifying the complexities of his thought, it seems to me that Max Scheler was a victim of wishful thinking. True, he acknowledged that on the lower register of values, love-attraction would be based on thinking which was indistinguishable from utilitarianism (Scheler opposed utilitarianism), i.e., “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” However at the high end he posited two embodied values, the saint and the hero, which would evoke love in its purest form. My feeling is that the value of the hero got in the way of the value of the saint, even though it is nominally secondary in Scheler’s classical system. Scheler wants to say that the heroic is the penultimate stepping stone on the upward path to sanctification. Once we have learned a whole hearted love of Achilles we are on the brink of understanding and loving Christ.

Now in fairness, I doubt that Scheler ever used the transition from Achilles to Christ as an illustration of his hierarchy of values. Rather, I am bringing it up to point out a fundamental weakness in Scheler’s ethics, since it should be obvious that the values in question are not complimentary but contradictory. It is a far cry from the self-deification of Achilles to the kenosis of the Messiah, although to conflate them would presumably remove some of the rough edges from Christianity and serve the interest of the Western project by integrating Hellenism and Hebraism. Indeed, the idea of a progressive (note that word!) hierarchy of values, is essential to the theory of human nature which Scheler espoused, at least in his early thought. In this system, only does the human species have a nature, but that nature is essentially good.

Alas, we cannot freeze history at the flourishing of “classic Scheler” even if we wanted to. As a matter of fact, the Non-Formal Ethics of Values was being released in installments just as the Great War was decimating the populations of Europe. After that debacle, there was less appetite for heroes and heroism. Philosophically, the concept of a human nature began to evoke discomfort, and ultimately skepticism. At the time, it seemed more realistic to view humanity as a collection of finite individuals, anxious about their mortality and insignificance in the cosmos. Hence, until the rise of something even worse (post-Modernism), the fall back philosophy for generic intellectuals became a vague “existentialism.” Human beings survived, but anthropology (in a philosophical sense) was abandoned.

Far from advocating a “return to Scheler” perhaps we should examine whether the optimist/essential vs. pessimist/existential opposition exhausts all possibilities. What about the pessimist/essential doctrine found in the Biblical narrative of sin and the fall? And that brings us back to love. If, empirically, human beings are best characterized by their viciousness rather than their virtues, then the worst mistake we could make would be to love them “for who they are”! We are left with a seemingly dismal alternative, either not to love at all (since to love human beings is to love evil) or to love because we are commanded to love. Since the latter alternative is preferable by far, it would seem that Kant has won the argument and Scheler has lost.

Yes, we must love, and that whether or not our emotions feel like loving or not. What a paradox! No wonder that most people find Kant to be a dry and formidable thinker. But the situation may not be as bleak as all that. Max Scheler, for all of his faults, was closer to being a man of religious feeling than Kant ever was. If we were able to find even one man who was intrinsically lovable, then perhaps we can salvage something of Scheler’s personalism. Indeed, there are many who believe that just such a man existed, a Jewish rabbi who walked on this Earth some two thousand years ago. And if on his account, we love all the rest…what harm is there in that?


Mark Sunwall, who taught at universities abroad, blogs regularly at Pico Ultraorientalis.
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