Politics and the Power of Love

(The Art of the Possible, 26 Aug 2013)

Tobias Schaffner ·

There is a widely shared consensus in Western culture that the goods of love and friendship are highly personal goods; they belong to the intimate sphere of one’s private life. As goods reserved to the private realm, it seems natural that governments, legislators, and judges never appeal to them. Political rule can appeal to values such as freedom, justice, and peace, but not to love.

At first sight, there certainly seems something salutary about our (secular?, liberal?, modern?, post-modern?, western?) reluctance to appeal to the goods of love and friendship in public matters. Would the introduction of such values into political discourse not devalue them? After all, it seems a mark of good judgement to reserve love to those closest to us. Similarly, it is to be welcomed that state officials are excluded from our love relationships except when and where the relationship breaks down, as in cases of domestic violence. A state preoccupied with its citizens’ feelings of friendships has, moreover, the potential to degenerate into totalitarianism. We are all too familiar with societies in which the state controlled or still controls the people’s feelings towards the leader, chairman, general, or king.

In light of the risk of diluting our dearest values or of paternalistic or totalitarian supervision of our feelings, it seems only reasonable that the state’s jurisdiction is limited to people’s external acts, to the exclusion of their internal feelings, and that the public debate never draws on the values of love and friendship. There seems an interesting, albeit rarely noticed, parallel between the absence of love and the absence of religion from politics and public discourse. At least to the European mind, political debate without appeal to people’s faith seems a more stable guarantee for life in a peaceful society than with such appeal. Perhaps, then, it should be welcomed that neither arguments from religion nor arguments from love and friendship have succeeded in making a comeback in the political discourse—despite the fact that fraternité featured among the triad of the French Revolution of 1789, as Bram De Ridder observed in the last issue of this magazine.

At the same time there can be little doubt about the importance of love in a complete human life as well as about the incomparable energy that love instils in us. Given the power of love, it seems tempting to reflect on what became possible if we succeeded in drawing on love in our public actions without thereby devaluing this good or opening the doors to state supervision of our most intimate feelings or even to totalitarian ends. Is it possible to thus free love from its confinement in the private realm?

Love in Pre-Modern Politics

The values of love and friendship were not always banished from the public sphere in Europe. They became confined to the private realm when the state succeeded in subjecting the church under its unlimited rule. The subjection of the church under temporal rule led to a retreat of religion into people’s private home and fostered the disappearance of love and friendship from politics. This parallel disappearance of religion and love need not surprise us since love is the central ideal of the Christian religion (perhaps best captured in the Sermon on the Mount).

However, this claim that love is the central Christian ideal is problematic for two reasons. First, Christianity has no religious or cultural monopoly over love. Thus, if I mention here the parallel between the disappearance of love and Christianity from the public sphere, it is not to affirm Christianity’s exclusive rights over love: love and friendship are first and foremost human ideals, only then they are also Christian ideals. I am not writing as a Christian, but as someone who believes in human love. What I want to highlight by considering the parallel historical disappearance of love and religion is that love, like religion, has not always been absent from public life.

Secondly, to atheists and agnostics it will seem almost cynical to highlight the centrality of love for the Christian religion when some Christians, including many ministers, continue to incite intolerance vis-à-vis gay love, and when ever more cases of child abuse by clerics are revealed. Yet, those who voice such criticism in order to present Christianity as the enemy rather than the guardian of love are unfair vis-à-vis ‘true’ Christianity, for they judge not genuine Christianity, but a mere contortion. The denial of love through words and deeds by would-be Christians leaves love intact as the central value of Christianity (even when, as in campaigns against gay love, the campaigners appeal to ‘Christian morality’). The problem of defending an ideal against internal ‘traitors’ is of course not unique to religious groups: any serious liberal would defend liberalism against the criticism that George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq proves that liberal values such as freedom and the rule of law are merely a rhetorical guise for Western hegemonic attitudes.

In what follows I am interested in a possible recovery of human love, not of Christian love (or of Christian love only insofar as it is identical to human love). We should look first, however, into the disappearance of love and friendship from political discourse since the history of this disappearance may reveal possible ways of helping these goods to a comeback. Unlike the demise of religious arguments in Western politics over the past five hundred years, a demise well documented in our political histories, little attention has been paid to the demise of love and friendship in public discourse. Indeed, I suspect that most contemporary historians assume that these goods never played a role in politics.

This is, however, a mistaken assumption. From the well-known philosopher-theologians Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) to the less well-known Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) and beyond, moral theologians treated even the prime political issue, the question of war, under the heading of love (caritas) rather than under the heading of mere justice. Drawing not only on the Bible and the Church fathers, but also on pagan sources such as Aristotle, they held that the demands of love required that the ruler needed not only a just cause such as self-defence, but that he also had to act with the right intention, including love for his subjects.

What made this, for our modern minds, surprising connection between justice and love possible was the moral theologians’ understanding that justice is a form of loving others. In the Aristotelian tradition, the love of true friends consists in willing good to the other: it is willing that the friend is well in every aspect of his or her being and to will this for his or her good. As a sub-form of love, justice consists in willing good to others under a limited aspect: willing to accord them their right. The ruler could only wage war against someone who did not accord him his right and only out of love of the innocent whom he sought to protect by war.

The importance which the Christian authors attributed to love in what has to be considered the paramount political question, the question of war, shows that this good played a central political role well into the 18th century. Indeed, in confession and conscience — which we can equate with the perspective of Christian ethics — rulers were required not just in the case of war, but in all their actions to pursue a moral end: the common good of the state consisting of peace, justice, and a minimum of prosperity for all. As a good shared like the love which friends share in common, the common good was inherently bound up with willing and doing good to others. The requirement of intending the good of others was only removed once the State subordinated the Church under its rule and declared that state action need only meet the requirements of state law: state law (ius civile and ius gentium) had never required pursuing a moral motive (i.e. intending doing good to others), but only doing what is just in one’s external actions (e.g. having a just cause of war).

State Law is our Horizon

At the end of the 18th and in the 19th century, the perspective of governments and politics changed dramatically. It was narrowed down from a holistic perspective that included religion, ethics, and of course state law to a perspective that recognised only the latter. As I just noted, state law had never required right intention; unlike moral theology and ethics it also stayed aloof of values such as love and friendship. All that was required was external acts in conformity with the will of the legislator.

This narrowing of perspective was consolidated in Europe with the codification of private law and criminal law and the introduction of written constitutions in the nineteenth century. The move from traditional customary rules to publicly recorded law has been aptly labelled ‘Positivism’, i.e. the laying down or positing of written law. We are still very much the heirs of this shift.

The availability of written laws has led to a further limitation of the horizon of reasonable arguments: it enables us to appeal in public debates to legal provisions instead of substantive reasons. If you don’t perform your contractual duties, I can simply refer to ‘article x’ or ‘section y’ of this or that law to support my claim that you owe me performance of the promised good and/or damages. This implies that we both accept the given law as binding. But why should the law be binding on us? The most likely answer nowadays is: because the law was enacted by (or not altered by) a parliament that you and I democratically elected. The whole burden for the justification of our claims is thus shifted from the concrete reasons that apply in the particular case to the justification of the overarching political institutions and above all to justifying democracy.

What has dropped out of the picture on this account are the substantive reasons that make it reasonable (in my example) to perform contractual duties; reasons such as the value of treating my contractual partner as an equal person who deserves what I promised, the value of truthfulness to one’s word, the value of contributing to a functioning market in which parties live up to their contractual duties, and the prosperity of one’s society that results from such just and truthful action.

Thus, first we lost public references to religion — with its need to live up to the demands of love — and then we lost the practice of publicly appealing to the substantive reasons for our individual actions. The availability of written laws has dispensed us from knowing the real reasons and values that justify the legal rules of conduct, or at least from endorsing those values and making them our own. This has made life convenient, but it has also tremendously impoverished our ability to summon those substantive reasons.

We have now reached a point where it has become all too rare to meet anyone who is able to state the substantive values that underpin our actions: people have started to conceive of themselves as doing what they do merely ‘because they feel like it’ and of seeing the value of their actions in having chosen them autonomously. As a consequence, people have come to feel naked in the face of the sheer will that backs our laws. They have gradually come to depict situations of conflict not as an invitation to reflect on morality, but as experiences of sheer force and, in times of economic decline, as class struggle.

It is a task of urgent need to regain an understanding of the moral values that underpin our institutions and our communal life; values such as love and friendship which are richer and more concrete than abstract goods such as freedom and equality. The task is an urgent one since appeal to love and friendship can only take hold of people’s hearts as long as there is social peace. In what follows I will try to contribute to a conscious recovery of the central place of love and friendship in our lives and to show how these goods can be brought to bear on our public lives without devaluing their status.

Restoring Love in Public Life

But what characterises love and friendship? The love of friendship consists in me willing someone else good for the sake of that other person. This is captured nicely by the Latin term benevolentia which literally means ‘well willing’. Friendship is expressed in our willing or wishing our friends what fulfils their lives: love, health, success, and so forth, in short happiness.

As good friends we do not leave it at mere willing or wishing. We seek to contribute to our friends’ happiness through acts that are directed at actualising their love by sharing time with them, giving them attention and tenderness. We try to contribute to their health by bringing them medication, visiting them in hospital, or voicing concern about the smoking habits. We try to contribute to their emotional well-being by sharing their sorrow (for example through acts and words of comfort) as well as their joy (for example by celebrating their wedding) and so forth. The concern we have for our friends’ well-being exceeds the respect we have for strangers. Thus acts of generosity (think only of birthday presents) are paradigmatic instances of friendship.

What characterises true friendship, moreover, is that I am not just concerned about my friend’s well-being for my friend’s sake, but my friend is also concerned about my well-being for my own sake. As a consequence, if I want to honour my friend’s concern for my well-being I need to take care of myself for the sake of my friend’s well-being. This leads our mutual concerns to merge into one shared concern, one common good: I cannot be fully happy unless my friend is fully happy and I am fully happy if my friend is fully happy.

If the three preceding paragraphs captured the essence of love and friendship we may well wonder how love could ever play a role in reinforcing the ties of citizenship. After all, it seems right to do less for a stranger, including a citizen we have never seen before, than for our friends.  So how can we avoid the kind of devaluation of love that I mentioned at the outset?

If we take the medieval model, there are at least two ways in which love can come to bear on our public actions. First, there is the possibility of turning our respect of other people’s rights to life, physical integrity, property, and so forth, from unintended side-effects of our private projects, to a conscious goal. Respecting other people and avoiding to cause them any harm makes only a microscopic contribution to their well-being. However little the contribution, it is not too small to be included as one of the intended goals of our actions. Far from expecting any praise for doing this little good to others the insignificance of the contribution is a humbling reminder of the limited resources we have to give what is most important in life: love. Of course, it does not matter for the purpose of state law that we respect others for the sake of their well-being; state law is for the most part only interested in external compliance with the law. Yet we should not allow state law to restrict our outlook on the world and the moral good to be realised in it.

Second, we can perform public acts out of love for our family and friends. The most widely applicable example is perhaps that of paying taxes. Our taxes are not just a contribution to a faceless revenue office, they are also a way of financing the infrastructure used by our family and friends, the police that makes their lives safer, the hospitals and elderly homes that take care of them when they are old, the schools and universities that help them to gain a good education, and so forth. If paying taxes is the most widely applicable example, the most paradigmatic example for a public act performed out of love of one’s friends and family is defensive war. The many millions of mostly young men who died in freeing Europe from Nazi occupation knew for what good they were fighting: they fought out of loving concern for their families behind the battle lines.

The possibility for bringing love to bear on our public acts is by no means exhausted in a different attitude to paying taxes and in defending our families in war. Love for our family and friends can infuse all actions that sustain the state and the community. Every little public contribution, from respecting the rights of strangers to being a reliable employee, helps to make the society in which our family and friends live a little more honest, just, and peaceful. Love can give even our small contributions a larger meaning; a meaning that gives us determination, firmness, and strength to furnish our contribution even at a personal cost. There is not much we can contribute to a just and peaceful society, too many things depend on the contribution of others, but the little we contribute can be performed as acts of love; acts to be complemented by other, more important acts of love in our direct relationship with our family and friends.

It seems time to overcome the narrow perspective of state law that has been reigning since the nineteenth century and that led us to confine love and friendship entirely to the private sphere. For too long, state law and the abstract value of freedom have defined for us the limits of our capacities. Governments do well not to appeal to love and to limit the purpose of state law to the conservation of peace, justice, and a minimum of prosperity for all. Yet, we as individuals and citizens should break free from the self-imposed limitations and become once more aware that every small public contribution to our society can be an act of love. The art of the possible is also the art of loving.