Saturday, January 22, 2005

Does love have no end?

Two examinations of love:
Love is patient and kind. Love envies no one, is never boastful, never conceited, never rude; love is never selfish, never quick to take offence. Love keeps no score of wrongs, takes no pleasure in the sins of others, but delights in the truth. There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, its endurance. I Corinthians 13: 4-7 (REB)
The words are so familiar they are one of the well worn stones in our cultural pockets, the common coinage that has all but lost its edge and its image, and so, its value. But take it at face value as a starting point (though not the definitive starting point, by any means); take it as a touchstone for our understanding of "love." How do our other understandings measure up to it, conflict with it, meet it halfway?

Is love empathy? I may wish to save a child or a kitten from harm. Is that love? Or just sensitivity, empathy, some measure of compassion for living things?

Does love compel me to act? It may, but in what direction?
Suppose, then, that there was a king who loved a maiden of lowly station in life. The king's heart was unstained by the wisdom (loudly enough proclaimed) unacquainted with the difficulties that the understanding uncovers in order to trap the heart and that give the poets enough to do and make their magic formulas necessary. His resolution was easy to carry out, for every politician feared his wrath and dared not even to hint at anything. Every foreign country trembled before his power and dared not to refrain from sending a congratulatory delegation to the wedding. And no cringing courtier, groveling before him, dared to hurt his feelings lesthis own head be crushed. So let the harp be tuned; let the poets' songs begin; let all be festive while erotic love celebrates its triumph, for erotic love is jubilant when it unites equal and equal and is triumphant when it makes equal in erotic love that which was unequal.

Then a concern awakened in the king's soul. Who but a king who thinks royally would dream of such a thing! He did not speak to anyone about his concern, for if he had done so, anyone of his courtiers would presumably have said, "Your Majesty, you are doing the girl a favor for which she can never in her lifetime thank you adequately." No doubt the courtier would arouse the king's wrath, so that the king would have him executed for high treason against his beloved, and thereby would cause the king another kind of sorrow. Alone he grappled with the sorrow in his heart: whether the girl would be made happy by this, whether she would acquire the bold confidence never to remember what the king only wished to forget-that he was the king and she had been a lowly maiden. For if this happened, if this recollection awakened and at times, like a favored rival, took her mind away from the king, lured it into the inclosing reserve of secret sorrow, or if at times it walked past her soul as death walks across the grave--what would be the gloriousness of erotic love then! Then she would indeed have been happier if she had remained in obscurity, loved by one in a position of equality, contented in the humble hut, but boldly confident in "her love and cheerful early and late. What a rich overabundance of sorrow stands here as if ripe, almost bending under the weight of its fertility, only awaiting the time of harvest when the thought of the king will thresh all the seeds of concern out of it. For even if the girl were satisfied to become nothing, that could not satisfy the king, simply because he loved her and because it would be far harder for him to be her benefactor than to lose her. And what if she could not even understand him-for if we are going to speak loosely about the human, we may well assume an intellectual difference that makes understanding impossible. What a depth of sorrow slumbers in this unhappy erotic love! Who dares to arouse it! (Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Unversity Press, 1985, pp. 26-28)
Does love, indeed, have its limits, and then it compels us to act? Can we reconcile love, which endures all things and has no limits, with our inability to bear to see another suffer, which compels us to act to relieve their suffering? In Kierkegaard's parable, love compels the king to act, but love also keeps the king from acting. Love, we say, is patient. But who among us would be patient in the face of a child playing in a busy street? Can I reconcile these two: that love ideally is patient and endures all things, but love compels me to leap into the traffic and rescue that child? Is it really love that motivates me? Or something else, something as simple as common decency, or humanity? Empathy may contain compassion, but is empathy contained in love? If it is, then love endures most things, and there are some things it cannot face, and at some point it gives up hope and yields to more short-term solutions.

Is love ever reconcilable with an exertion of power?

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