The Role of Impersonal Love in Everyday Life

מקומה של האהבה שמושאיה אינם בני-אדם ייחודיים (אהבת החכמה, אהבת אלוהים, אהבת הטבע, אהבת האנושות, ועוד) בחיי היום-יום.

מאת פרופ' לידיה אמיר. 14-12-2006
The Role of Impersonal Love in Everyday Life

The Role of Impersonal Love in Everyday Life

Lydia Amir

In Philosophy in Society, Henning Herrestad, Anders Holt and Helge Svare (eds.), Oslo, Unipub, 2002, pp. 217-242.


                                                  ‘The wise men of every age have warned us most

                                                   emphatically against this way of life [passionate

                                                   sexual love]; but in spite of this it has not lost its

                                                   attraction for a great number of people.'

                                                               (Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, p.49).

                                                   ‘Perhaps one could stretch the comprehensiveness that

                                                    constitutes wisdom to include not only intellect but

                                                    also feeling. It is by no means uncommon to find men

                                                    whose knowledge is wide but whose feelings are

                                                    narrow. Such men lack what I am calling wisdom.'

                                                    Bertrand Russell (Portraits from Memory, p.174).


Bertrand Russell repeatedly wrote that philosophy should teach not only impersonal thought, but impersonal feeling. This paper addresses the issue of ‘impersonal feeling' by exploring the variety and viability of impersonal loves, advocated by some Eastern and Western philosophies and religions. Impersonal love will be understood here as any love, with the exception of the love of things, whose object is not a specific human being. So defined, it will include a discussion of the love of humanity as an abstract love, because this love can sometimes avoid the specificity of a particular human object. The reader who thinks that the adjective ‘indiscriminate' fits better this kind of love, might find that this paper is both about impersonal love and indiscriminate love.

The philosophies surveyed include those of Plato, the Stoics, Spinoza, Rousseau, Hume, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Nietzsche, Bergson, Kierkegaard, Emerson, Popper, Weil, Lewis, and Russell, in the West; Buddhism, Confucianism and Mohism in the East; psychology is represented by Freud, science by evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists, and religion by Christianity, Zarathustra's Mazdeism and Suffism.

The purpose of this survey is to propose to the philosophical practitioner a critical assessment of the variety of impersonal loves found in the philosophical tradition. These can be used as supplements or as alternatives for sexual love, when and if counsellees are interested in probing their yearning for love. Supplements or alternatives are needed in order to deal with the malaise of our epoch concerning sexual love and its fulfillment in marriage and divorce, its promise of eternal bliss and its too frequent reality of suffering and disappointment.

As the malaise that characterizes our love lives finds naturally its way to the philosophical consulting room, the question arises: what can philosophers do to ease it? Undoubtedly, they can help clarify which love matters most and is most justifiable in a particular circumstance. They can also reveal the logical and empirical implications within alternatives that are actually feasible. Yet, after ‘mapping out the conceptual terrain' (Singer, 1994, p.176), can they teach ‘impersonal feeling'? If yes, should they teach it?

I will contend that philosophers have an edge on this most important ingredient of the good life, and therefore, that impersonal feeling should be, and can be, taught to those who want to learn it.


I would like to begin this paper by a short survey of the Western views on love, a diagnosis of the problem addressed in this paper, followed by a typology of love which will differentiate between love of persons, and impersonal and indiscriminate loves.


1. A short survey of the Western views on love: Reason versus Passion

Throughout Western Philosophy we constantly encounter a distinction between two faculties of human nature, one of which goes by the name of ‘reason' and the other designated as ‘passion'. Love was usually assigned to the second of these categories.

But in Plato there had already occurred an attempt to harmonize love and reason. Though he describes Eros as a kind of emotional yearning, Plato's entire analysis tries to prove that love consists in a striving for metaphysical goodness that only rationality can discern. True love was thus a blending of the two faculties - emotion acceptable to reason, or even reason that has become emotional itself. The Platonic ladder of love shows struggling humanity how to transcend merely passionate love by substituting an enthusiastic quest for values that our intellect discloses. This higher disposition was supremely rational, and yet it too was love - a love of abstract forms culminating in the Good.

When Plato's Christian followers eventually articulated similar ideas about the ordo salutis (ladder of salvation) that could bring us closer to God, they emphasized the extent to which the emotional element remains intact throughout. As in the words of the Bible, God was to be loved with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength. Like Plato, the Christians insisted that spiritual love can prove itself wholly justifiable to any rational scrutiny. Properly understood, passion and reason could not be antithetical: in one who knows and appreciates ultimate reality, both faculties coalesce.

From the very outset, however, this belief in harmonization was repudiated by another way of thinking. Partly in Aristotle's thinking and surely by the time of the Stoics, there appears to be a conviction that passion and reason can never be reconciled with one another. According to Irving Singer, ‘Humanity has to chose between the values of emotion and cognition' (1995, p.126). The Stoics in particular, and even the Epicureans, who differed greatly from them in other issues, thought we must give up the experience of love if we hope to attain the good life. They extolled respect for rationality that runs counter to emotional exuberance.

In more recent centuries, traditional moralists have often rehearsed what by now has become the platitudinous contrast between love and reason. This was a common theme in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Romantic movement of the nineteenth century stood in opposition to all such distinctions. It found in emotion a kind of wisdom that the rationalists in philosophy had generally neglected, and it treated reason as inevitably subservient to more passionate aspects of human nature.

The Romantic outlook is beginning to recede from our immediate consciousness at the end of the twentieth century, but it must be kept in mind if we wish to understand Freud's views in Civilization and its Discontents. In this seminal work, he attacks the optimistic belief that reason and passion can be harmonized with one another, or amalgamated in any of the ways that idealists such as the Platonists or the Christians or the Romantics recommended.  Though people want love as well as civilization, thinking they are both agencies for the attainment of greater happiness, Freud emphasizes the unavoidable struggle between them that often causes pervasive misery.

            Today, some thinkers try to reconcile both agencies. Seeing passion as rational, they defend a ‘rational romanticism' and a view of life in which the passions give it its meaning (Solomon, 1993; 1999). Or they defend the rationality of emotions, contending that erotic love is the basis of all feeling, including altruism, and thereby, the basis of morality and of social life (Nussbaum, 2001). Some of them defend a new ideal, the love of persons, of which romantic love is the closest approximation, but which has to be developed and implemented (Singer, 1994).


2. Diagnosis of the problem

We are living in a period in which large numbers of people have renounced their faith in love. Most of the twentieth century has been an awakening from idealistic attitudes induced by nineteenth-century romanticism and predicated upon the belief that human beings can find infinite sexual harmony through romantic love alone. That idea incorporates much that preceded it in the philosophy of love. Like religious dogma is the West, it treats love as an expression of divinity that appears in ordinary existence when life is fully realized and most consummatory.  Like courtly love in the Middle Ages, it locates this all-resolving affect in the passionate oneness that a man and a woman can achieve through intimacy with one another. (1)

This ideal has been discredited in the view of many in the contemporary world, who might well have accepted it 150 years ago. Realist thinkers in science and philosophy have attacked romantic love throughout the twentieth century. (2) Affluence in the industrial countries has led millions to believe that the good things in life can be attained through pleasures and activities that do not require the risk or personal involvement that love demands. By the middle of the nineteenth century, romanticism had himself split into optimistic and pessimistic interpretations. The latter, typified by the philosophy of Schopenhauer, maintained that even the most benign romantic love was not conducive to a happy or truly meaningful life.

In this view, which was elaborated by subsequent theorists, love is considered an enslavement to natural processes, notably those required for the preservation of the species, that snares individuals by deluding them with hopes about everlasting happiness and ever-increasing meaning. By now that sophisticated, but possibly cynical, conception has been disseminated. It has convinced large numbers of people that romantic love is undesirable. Many assume that love must generally be deceptive. The elderly had often said that in the past. Nowadays the young seem to agree. Previous generations may have dreamt of a life of love and interpersonal harmony; ours frequently thinks that enlightened men and women must want to escape this needless pathology. Despite romance novels and sentimental movies that are still very popular, (3) ‘the search for love is in danger of being replaced by the avoidance of it', warns us Irving Singer (1994, p.15).

Even if Irving Singer's diagnosis is too extreme, our age is characterized by a malaise in relation to sexual love. It is common knowledge that a very high rate of divorce threatens our marriages. We expect a lot from the sexual passion we call love, but usually end up disappointed when the romance goes away. Yet we keep getting married, thinking that we are going to be the ones that will beat the system. If we fail, we change our partner and try again. We end up our love life as we began it, confused, afraid and as disappointed as we were hopeful.

The malaise that characterizes our love lives finds naturally its way to the philosophical consulting room. According to my consulting experience, most people experience the end of a relationship or the death of love in a relationship as a failure. They blame themselves, or their partners, or both. However, when they recover from the mourning, they search for a new partner, hoping that this time the relationship won't fail them or that they won't fail the relationship. This hope is usually unfounded, because no real understanding has been reached, no real work done, nothing that would ensure that the ‘failure' won't repeat itself.

Though philosophy might be irrelevant for anyone who happens to be in love, its importance appears as soon as there is trouble in paradise and even more so, when a love affair is over, or simply when the affair is not over, but love is. Allow me to explain this point by relying on the analysis of love of a great psychologist, Theodore Reik.

Reik viewed love as arising out of dissatisfaction with oneself and one's lot in life. ‘People seek out love and especially passion' explains R.J. Sternberg in summarizing Reik's view on love ‘when life is disappointing and when they need someone else to fill the void within'. Moreover, ‘Some people seek salvation in love, much as other people do in religion, hoping to find in another the perfection they cannot find in themselves. At first, they may well think that salvation is at hand. Early in a relationship, their partner may indeed seem to be just what they are looking for, and their being in love is tantamount to being saved - from the world and from themselves. But eventually disillusionment is almost certain to set in. They discover two facts. First, the other person has flaws: they cannot maintain the illusion of perfection is the face of ever more evidence that the partner is not, in fact, perfect. Second, no other human can save them, not even the love of their life.'

What are the options then? According to the same source, ‘perhaps one can save oneself, but one cannot expect or even ask this of another. People have either to adjust to a new kind of love or else forever live with the disappointment of knowing that they cannot find salvation through love of another. Of course, some people take a third course: they try to find someone else to save them and once again reenter the cycle of high hopes followed by disappointment.' (4; my italics)

            It is this ‘new kind of love', to which people have to adjust that I want to explore in this paper. Is it really a new kind of love, developed only recently, as I. Singer will contend (1994), or is it a kind of love new to our counselles, but known to ‘the wise men of every age' (Freud, 1961, p.49), as exemplified in a long philosophical tradition?

3. Types of Love

Irving Singer differentiates between sexual love; love of self; parental love of child; filial love of a parent; peer love; group or social love; religious love. (Singer, 1994, p. 44) In the same book, he proposes a different division between the love of persons, the love of things and the love of ideals. (1994, p. 35)  Other thinkers propose a different list. (5) In thinking about the different types of love, we must always realize not only that they are frequently compatible with one another but also that they evolve and readily succeed one another.  

Sexual love is not uniquely indicative of love in general. In the development of each person there are other kinds that will have preceded it - love received from one's parents, as well as filial love and friendship among peers. In the history of ideas, concepts of religious love existed long before humanity began to idealize the possibilities between or within the different genders. For us at the end of the twentieth century, however, sexual love is the phenomenon that dominates our thinking about love. In the last two hundred years this kind of love has frequently be deemed the only relationship that can truly reveal the nature of love. For many people it serves as the justification for interpersonal intimacy and as the prerequisite for a lasting family, a good society, and an adequate participation in nature. Various philosophers have argued that religious love is a projection of extension or indirect expression of sexual love, and some have claimed that all other love is reducible to it. In the modern world, romantic love was often thought to be the basis of married love as well as the love for whatever children issued forth. Under these circumstances sexual love would be compatible with the love of one's friends, one's nation, humanity at large, and even the cosmos as a whole.

This compatibility allows us to be optimistic regarding the crisis of sexual love of our epoch. Two main options appear to me as possible solutions to this crisis. One is the new ideal of the love of persons. The other is the older ideal of impersonal loves, cherished traditionally by most philosophers. Let's briefly introduce each ideal.

a. Love of persons

In various philosophical traditions the love of persons has been dismissed as either unattainable or undesirable. Fundamental in Plato's thinking about love is the belief that the lover of wisdom, the philosopher, will transcend the love of persons as he also rises above any love of things. This conviction dominates much of Western philosophy, rationalist as well as empiricist. It is illustrated by Spinoza's claim that only a love for being as a whole can free us from our bondage to the ordinary world.

Irving Singer proposes to teach us the ideal of love for persons. But as he says himself, this is an ideal: ‘The love of persons is an advanced capacity that may not be realized in everyone ...In loving another person ...men and women create an affective bond that is required by neither their material nor their social existence. Even if it is a universal potentiality, as I believe, the love of persons is more haphazard than either the love of things or the love of ideals. It is frequently absent from life in the family. In the world at large, wholesome and satisfying relationships may often amount to little more than partnerships or companionable federations among people who merely keep their usefulness for one another in some harmonious balance. The love of persons may only be a relatively recent, and far from predominant, development of the human spirit. For most of us in Westernized culture, the ideal of love is more closely associated with the love of persons than with the love of things or the love of ideals. In the West, the concepts of courtly love, married love, and most of what we think of as romantic love have usually been oriented toward the love of persons. Both realist and idealist traditions have extolled it as an achievement that brings out the best in human nature.' (Singer, 1994, pp. 35-6) As I see it, this is the way psychologists address the problem, either in personal consultations or in the proliferation of self-help books. The new ‘ideology' is to ‘learn' to love. I. Singer has something more thorough in mind, I think.  His creed is a new philosophic ideal, developed and implemented by philosophers. As very few people can fulfill ideals, some skepticism as to the feasibility of this new one doesn't seem to me misplaced.

b. Impersonal and Indiscriminate Loves

Since we have to take into account the feasibility of this new ideal, we could look elsewhere for different ways to address the problem of sexual love. The problem created by sexual love as passion, has been traditionally addressed by many philosophers. Most of them thought that one should not see sexual love as conducive to happiness, that one should emphasize friendship (6) and that we should develop a more comprehensive kind of love. In what we could deem a whimsical way, considering Freud's knowledge of human irrationality, he says: ‘the wise men of every age have warned us most emphatically against this way of life [passionate sexual love]; but in spite of this it has not lost its attraction for a great number of people.' (Freud, 1961, p.49) As I. Singer adds: ‘like the ‘wise men' to whom he refers - the classical moralists and traditional rationalists - Freud turns against love because he distrusts its tendency to ignore the laws of reason. Few writers in the history of mankind have studied human passion more exhaustively than Freud, and none with greater insight into the sufferings to which it often leads. Nor is he lacking in sympathy, even compassion... But at every moment in his writing, he stands back from the affects that he analyses and says, like Hamlet, ‘Give me that man/That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him/In my heart's core...'(Act III, scene 2).' (Singer, 1987, pp.156-7) 

The examples set by this paper are those men and women that are not passion's slaves. For the convenience of the philosophical practitioner, it summarizes the rich tradition of impersonal loves in philosophy and of indiscriminate love in philosophy and religion. An ‘impersonal love' is any love, with the exception of love of things, that is not directed towards a specific human being. An indiscriminate love is love bestowed impartially on human beings. There is a connection between the two kinds of love. Some say that indiscriminate love loves nobody, being thus a special case of impersonal love. Even if this interpretation is false, both kinds of love soften the impact of the pathos of sexual love as passion. Presented as supplements or alternatives to romantic love, they put the blessings and the hardships of specific human beings' love into proportion. While impersonal love is the domain of philosophy, indiscriminate love is both a philosophical and a religious ideal. As a philosophical ideal, it can be the basis of morality. But this line of thought is not the prime object of this paper, as I do not try to solve here the problem of immoral conduct. As a religious ideal, indiscriminate love pertains both the Western and Eastern religions. But as the prime interest of this paper is in philosophy, those ideals will be only briefly surveyed. Even the account of impersonal love will not be exhaustive, for its aim is to probe the variety of existing possibilities.

Friendship being a personal love, I did not count in this survey those philosophers, like Aristotle and the Epicureans, who advocated friendship instead of passion. Also I did not emphasize that, both for Plato and Spinoza, a partner with whom one walks the path towards perfecting oneself is possible and even desirable. It maybe important to stress, for those who like company, the option of changing the passion into friendship and, therefore, that impersonal love is not the only remedy against the passions. For those who still want to marry, Lucretius' cynical but practical advice is that the best remedy for passion is ...marriage. (7)

The paper is divided in two parts. The first part describes the ideal of the love of humanity, as it has had many interpretations both in philosophy and in Western and Eastern religions. The second part describes all the other impersonal loves addressed in this paper. 

The Love of Humanity

•A.                 Western Views


1. Stoicism's Philanthropy

The idea of love for humanity, and consequently each man and woman within it, takes an importance only among the Stoics and the Jews or Christians of the first century A.D. If one thinks that a single God created everything, and that each human being is fashioned in his spiritual likeness, one may very well conclude that people are all essentially the same. As children of God and members of the same biological species, they constitute a large family of resemblance. At least in principle, one could therefore feel toward them the type of love that ideal siblings might experience.

The life of reason recommended by the Stoics is sometimes characterized as a life from which all passions and emotions have been extirpated - the life of Stoic apathy. This is an exaggeration, for the Stoics approve of certain emotions. Joy or well-reasoned elation is appropriate, being based on reason, and so are well-reasoned appetite and avoidance. And the love of parents to their children is approved, being based on the natural togetherness or belonging (oikeiosis) constituting the relationship between them. The love of mankind is also considered rational  - and indeed the foundation for the ideal Stoic society. Not only is the Stoic sage a social creature, he is a member of the human race, and, as Cicero reports, ‘the mere fact of their common humanity requires that one man should feel another man akin to him.' (8) This sense of the brotherhood of humankind is the outgrowth of the togetherness and belongingness, the same oikeiosis mentioned above; just as children naturally belong to their parents, all human beings belong to one another.

In this doctrine we find one of the grandest intellectual innovations of Western history. Whereas previous philosophers, even Aristotle, had made a sharp distinction between Greeks and all other people, whom they termed Barbarians, the Stoics urge that this distinction is artificial. All human beings are brothers and sisters. The Stoics come to this belief because of their view that there is one rational law, one logos, for all the world and hence all of humanity: ‘They hold that the universe is governed by divine will: it is a city or state of which both men and gods are members, and each one of us is part of this universe; from which it is a natural consequence that we should prefer the common advantage to our own.' (9) Whereas previous Greeks had distinguished people on the basis of their polis or their language, the Stoics claim that all human beings are part of one city, citizens of one state - the cosmopolis. And the divine rational law pervading all things is the source of the laws of this cosmopolis. This means that we should have equal concerns for all; and that equal concern is incompatible with special attachments to kin. This is the reason of the relative detachment that a Stoic is required to show towards its family. This is closely linked to the reform of love as passion: as all passions should be extirpated, ‘rational love' for mankind should replace the passion of erotic love. (10)

2. Christianity's Love of One's Neighbor

In the West the fathers of the church defined their religion in terms of the Bible's two great commandments, the first enjoining a love a God and the second a love of ‘one's neighbor' - that is any other human being. But these sages also recognized that the love of humanity could create problems.

St. Augustine, himself a child of the old dispensation as well as the new, was particularly concerned about the dubious consequences that might result from distributing one's love without distraction. He saw how easily this could undermine the love we owe to our immediate family, and in general to those with whom we live moment by moment. He felt that a hierarchy had to be imposed among the recipients of our love, and he concluded that obligations to our own people should come first. Without denying the holiness in loving humans indiscriminately, regardless of propinquity or family ties, as Christ has done, St. Augustine argued that we exist in a moral universe that must extend outward from our intimate and daily relations with one another. No one could have contact with all other people, or even a significant number of them, and therefore our love for persons in the actual groups to which we belong requires our special attention. Through love for the human race is inherently commendable, it would have to be secondary or modulated in its effect. ‘All...men are to be loved equally; but since you cannot be of assistance to everyone, those especially are to be cared for who are most closely bound to you by place, time, or opportunity, as if by chance.' (Augustine, 1958, p. 126)

Christians - for instance, Luther - sometimes argue that by his nature man is unable to love: we can only be vehicles of God's love; others, such as Aquinas, insist that God bestowed the capacity for love on human nature as an act of grace. ‘In either event Christianity, which calls itself the religion of love, must face the anomaly of believing that its own practitioners, however devout, cannot love anything except in a secondary manner.' (Singer, 1994, 117) (11)


3. The Role of Charity in Some Modern Christian Theories of Love: C. S. Lewis, Kierkegaard and S. Weil

Charity, or love of one's neighbor, as a supernatural love, are advocated by Simone Weil (1949), C. S. Lewis (1985) and of course Kierkegaard (1962). The love of (the Christian) God would illuminate and therefore ameliorate, or ‘transmute' the natural element in our ‘natural loves' (namely, affection, friendship, eros or erotic love) (Lewis, 1985, p.125), or add a third party in the relationship, which is ‘a cooling factor' and ‘a soothing agent' (Kierkegaard, 1962, p. 313). (12)

Lewis thinks that ‘the natural loves are not self-sufficient. Something else, at first vaguely described as ‘decency and common sense', but later revealed as goodness, and finally as the whole Christian life in one particular relation, must come to help of the mere feeling if the feeling is to be kept sweet.' (1985, p. 107)

That ‘divine protection' (p. 82) may be the grace of God, but to invoke it calls for an inner work which Plato calls ‘purification of the soul' in the Phaedo and Kierkegaard ‘self-renunciation' in Works of Love (1962). Lewis expresses it clearly in connection to erotic love and marriage: ‘He (Eros), like a godparent, makes the vows; it is we who must keep them... We must do the works of Eros when Eros is not present... this program, modest as it sounds, will not be carried except by humility, charity and divine grace.' (pp. 105-6) ‘Natural loves can hope for eternity only insofar as they have allowed themselves to be taken into the eternity of Charity... The process will always involve a kind of death.' (p. 125) The death in question, as interpreted by Ilham Dilman, ‘is the death of the self or ego.' (Dilman, 1998, p.189)

By charity, Lewis means a supernatural gift-love, which is a share of God's gift-love towards others. This is a love that is ‘wholly disinterested' and is not put off by the repulsiveness, physical or moral, of those towards whom it is directed. Our natural loves, which are also God's gift to us, have a giving, caring aspect: they are in part ‘gift-loves'. Yet, while ‘Natural Gift-love is always directed to objects which the lover finds in some way intrinsically lovable ...Divine Gift-love in the man enables him to love what is not naturally lovable; lepers, criminals, morons, the sulky, the superior and the sneering.' (p. 117)

Ilham Dilham stresses a parallel to this in Simone Weil's notion of natural equilibrium and the way it distinguishes a ‘social' morality from one permeated by supernatural goodness. In times of stability and with social arrangements that ensure people more or less similar powers men respect each other, observe rules of justice, co-operate with each other and punish those who have transgressed such rules of law. But where the circumstances change in a person's or group's ‘favor' a new equilibrium is reached. The same person who previously respected others now starts taking advantage of them. ‘It takes a supernatural love, which establishes supernatural justice in the heart for a person to desist: to desist commanding wherever he has the power to do so.' (Dilman, 1998, p. 162)

Where we have such power we naturally are inclined to expand, to impose our will on others. ‘There is in the soul, she says, something like a phagocyte; it causes it to expand and fill in all the space which the circumstances allow it. It takes supernatural love to bear this void... All desire for reward, compensation, consolation, which mars so much of our moral life and actions... has as its root this natural tendency of the soul to expand, its inability to bear the void created in our souls by what comes out of us, by what we give, so we expect a return, or by the hurt and humiliation we receive, so that we desire to return it. This is the desire for equilibrium which belongs to the part of our soul which makes part of the nature we share of other human beings.' (Dilman, 1998, p. 162)

Equally, and in these terms, to love the lovable is easy, for the lovable attracts our love. The pleasure we find in doing so constitutes a return for what we give, of what goes out of us. The equilibrium remains, no void is created in our soul. But it is otherwise when it comes to loving the unlovable. ‘This is why charity which consists in doing so is supernatural; it goes again the grain of our nature, of our natural loves.'  (Dilman, 1998, pp. 162-3).

Finally, let's turn to Kierkegaard. There are passages in the early part of Works of Love where Kierkegaard speaks of erotic love and friendship in demeaning ways, as being corrupt in themselves. They are forms of ‘self-love' and ‘self-indulgence'. Whereas when Christian love is involved, one keeps loving one's wife and friend, but as one's neighbors (1962, pp. 73-4), that is, first and foremost, as human beings (p.142). When these are Christian relationships, a third part, God, is present: ‘The purely human conception of love can never go further than mutuality: that the lover is the beloved and the beloved is the lover. Christianity teaches that such a love has not yet found its proper object: God. The love-relationship is a triangular relationship of the lover, the beloved and love - but love is God. Therefore to love another person means to help him to love God and to be loved means to be helped.' (p. 124)

This is highly reminiscent of Plato's theory of love. Indeed, later in the book, Kierkegaard refers to Plato's idea of the good: ‘When there is no third in the relationship between man and man, every such relationship becomes unsound, either too ardent or embittered. The third, which thinkers would call the idea is the true, the good, or more accurately, the God-relationship; this third is a cooling factor in certain phases of a relationship and in others a soothing agent.' (p. 313) Again, he says that ‘according to the secular point of view many different kinds of love are discernible', whereas ‘Christianity ... recognizes only one kind of love, spiritual love.' (pp. 144-5) (13)

4. Bergson's and Hume's love of humanity

In the philosophy of Henri Bergson, one finds a very different approach to the love of humanity. Bergson distinguishes between ‘closed morality' and ‘open morality' in the hope that human beings will someday attain a universal society in which the latter supplants the former. As he defines the relevant terms, closed morality arises from instinctual bonds that impose a sense of obligation upon each individual, while open morality consists in sympathetic identification with the creative vitality in all people.

In the open society, which Bergson recognizes to be utopian, we love all members of our species with a love that is God himself. We do the right thing not because the voice of conscience tells us to, but rather through a spiritual impulse to bring the world closer to an absolute goodness. According to Bergson, that is what motivates the saints and the heroes who thereby transcend the limits of their own origins in a particular family, tribe, or country. Nature has provided us with instincts that enforce our allegiance to closed societies such as these. But the saints and heroes experience a love of humanity that Bergson deems superior. It represents a force in nature more ultimate than mechanisms of group survival or solidarity. Through this type of love, as Bergson describes it, the closed society is wholly displaced by the open society that truly shows forth our ultimate being. (Bergson, 1977)

Bergson thought that the love of humanity is fundamentally different from the love of one's family or even of one's country. Hume had made a partly similar assertion. He called attention to the fact that the feelings we have for people who are remote from us are much weaker than our sympathy for intimates. He nevertheless thought that humanitarian love is strong in many persons and that it bestows upon strangers or unknown individuals a sympathetic concern that resembles what we experience toward those who are closely related to us. Since sympathy itself is limited in its scope, Hume concluded that we render our sentiments more general through an act of rationality. Our judgements tell us that all humans are alike and so we treat them in a similar fashion, even though the sympathy we actually feel is addressed only toward people we encounter. (Hume, 1988) At this point Bergson disagrees. To explain how the love of humanity differs from other social loves, he invokes a separate mode of feeling, an intuitional faculty that goes far beyond the intellect.

Hume's description may explain the behavior of most people when they contribute to causes that benefit mankind. The philanthropist writing out of a check for his favorite charity need not feel much at all. But love of humanity expresses itself in other ways as well. Though we may not wish to accept the mystical implications of Bergsonian intuitionism, we can agree that people do have sentiments of love that enable them to identify with distant and unrelated individuals. But this might require more than just the recognition that we belong to the same species. For one thing it involves what Shelley, in his essay on benevolence, describes as a unique employment of interpersonal imagination. (Shelley, 1954) We thereby put ourselves in the other position, and thus vicariously undergo what he or she experiences. We resonate with emotions - fear, longing, whatever - that results from our identification with this other person, whom we may never meet or even see.

This development out of, but also beyond, family love is suggested by phrases such as ‘the brotherhood of man'. Its imaginative and emotional charge was embodied in the concept of fraternite' that meant so much to millions in the Romantic period, and has remained as an ideal of modern humanism. Fraternite` is primarily a matter of feeling, rather than extrapolation through the intellect. But it is a feeling that presupposes our sense of life in the family. It is not a separate entity, as Bergson claims. To the extent that we can have an open society we do not discard but merely redeploy the energies that bring the closed society into being. Family love expands beyond its own domain and this transforms the nature of affective experience. But it is through, and not despite, their prior feelings that people acquire whatever humanitarian sentiments they may have. Reason is insufficient for this task, and nature affords us no other means of accomplishing it. (Singer, 1995, pp. 106-7).    

5. Schopenhauer's Universal Compassion

Sympathy and compassion are dispositions that can be religious as well as social. This kind of love derives its religious import from the fact that someone cares enough about others to treat them as joint manifestations of life while also recognizing that they are different realities. Every love of persons does something similar, but only in sympathy and compassion does one focus on the fellowship of living together in a largely hostile world and suffering in the way that animate creatures do. One does not have to agree with Schopenhauer when he claimed that suffering results from merely being alive, wanting what we need but do not have and never feeling completely satisfied with what we get. (Schopenhauer, 1969; 1965) Still he might be right in thinking that sympathy and compassion or Mankelieb can be directed toward whatever suffering does occur, and that these responses unite us most effectively with all the rest of life. According to Schopenhauer, no loving response could be more religious or more truly metaphysical than this. However, he scarcely tells us how we may attain the sympathy and compassion he so greatly admires.

Schopenhauer can be a good bridge between Western and Eastern views on compassion, since he considered his philosophy as a systematic account of what Western and Eastern mystics intuited. And as ‘...the civilization or spiritualization of the soul and of its capacity for love is not confined to Christianity' (Dilman, 1998, p. 197), I suggest to look at non-Western views of impersonal love.

B. Non-Western views


1. Buddhism's Loving Kindness

Sympathy for another human being is not enough. It can be shallow, both morally and emotionally. It scarcely specify the nature of our bond, and it does not indicate that we will do anything to help the other person. We feel that the world is alike for us, but otherwise our sympathetic response may be wholly vague and indeterminate. It can easily turn into sentimentality. The kind of love that compassion fosters makes our identification more consecutive in our behavior. (14) The imagination then presents the other not only as a human being who resembles us (if it is a human being) but also as one whose suffering we are prepared to alleviate or take upon ourselves even if we could avoid it.

Among the world religions, this employment of the imagination is best understood by Buddhism. It seeks to awaken compassion, or loving kindness. The Buddha may be revered as a divinity, but he originates as Gautama who progressively earns the reward of Nirvana but then refuses to accept it. His perfection consists in attaining infinite compassion. That is why he refuses to enter into paradise unless all the rest of suffering life is also admitted: ‘As a mother watches over her child, willing to risk her own life to protect her only child, so with boundless heart should one cherish all living beings, suffusing the whole world with unobstructed loving kindness.' (Monroe, 1995, 143)

This gesture of universal love constitutes the supreme holiness of the Buddha, but it is also available to other men and women. They themselves, without Christ and without grace, learn how to work out their salvation through the diligence of a comparable love. (Cooper, 1996)


2. Confucianism's Benevolence and Mohism's Universal Love

In a radical departure from the past in China, Confucius formulated an entirely new ideal, the superior man, one who is wise, humane, and courageous, who is motivated by righteousness instead of profit, and who ‘studies the way [Tao] and loves man.' He never explained how it is possible for one to become a superior man. He seemed to imply that ‘by nature men are alike but through practice they have become far apart.' Mencius, one of his major followers supplied the explanation of how we can know that man can be good. From the fact that all children know how to love their parents and that a man seing a child about to fall in a well will instinctively try to save him, Mencius concluded that man's nature is originally good, possessing the ‘Four Beginnings.' - humanity (jen), rightousness (i), peopriety (li) and wisdom - and the innate knowledge of the good and the innate ability to do good.

A common problem that confronted all the thinkers of the classical age was how to bring order out of chaos. By Mo Tzu's diagnosis, the chaotic was brought about by selfishness and partiality.  And the cure? ‘Partiality should be replaced by universality.'  ‘Universal (or undifferentiated) love (chien ai)' is the key-stone of Mo Tzu's teaching. Mo Tzu was dissatisfied with Confucianism for its gradation in benevolence, or ‘partial love (pieh ai)' and he exhorted everyone to regard the welfare of others as he regarded his own. Mo Tzu wanted people to love other people's parents as they love their own, whereas the Confucianists, especially Mencius, insisted that although one should show love for all, one should show special affection to his own parents. Otherwise there will be no difference between other people's parents and one's own, and family relationship would collapse. He was convinced that the practice of universal love would bring peace to the world and happiness to man, and he took pain to demonstrate that the principle of universal love was grounded simultaneously in its practicability on earth and its divine sanction for Heaven.

Universal love for Mo Tzu was at once the way of man and the way of God. He advocated Love without distinctions, or universal love as superior to graded love. In contrast to most Chinese philosophers, Mo Tzu spoke of heaven with feeling and conviction; his conception of it was similar to the Western conception of God. The will of Heaven was to be obeyed by man and was to be the standard of human thought and action. Heaven loved all men, and it was the will Heaven that men should love one another. (Mo Tzu, 1963; Pei, 1934)

We should also mention the Iranien school, before leaving the east. There is no human community, no unity of civilization that is inspired any more of Zarathustra's Mazdeism; and never there has been one that was inspired by the Sufis' mysticism. Yet both proposed concepts of man and of love that are homologue to the Christian concepts. (de Rougement, 1996, pp. 228-232) ‘Many Sufis - at least until they fell foul of Islamic Orthodoxy - liked to stress the affinity between their doctrines and those of Christian anchorites, or even Buddhists', affirms D.E. Cooper (1996, p.186; Cf. Monroe, 1995, pp. 226-228). In Judaism, the Zohar, the central text of the Jewish mystical tradition known as the Kabbalah, contains similar ideas to those expressed above. (Epstein, 1959)


C. Criticism

Many criticized the Christian ideal of indiscriminate love, among them Sigmund Freud and Karl Popper. Karl Popper's critique of the Christian view is worth mentioning, I believe, for the political implications he sees in it. Sigmund Freud's, for its popularity.

1. Karl Popper

Karl Popper views the love of humanity as neither possible nor desirable: ‘I admit', he says, ‘that the emotions of love and compassion may sometimes lead to a similar effort [of our imagination]. But I hold that it is humanly impossible for us to love, or to suffer with, a great number of people; nor does it appear to me very desirable that it should, since it would ultimately destroy either our ability to help or the intensity of these very emotions. ...A direct emotional attitude towards the abstract whole of mankind seems to me hardly possible. We can love mankind only in certain concrete individuals. But by the use of thought and imagination, we may become ready to help all who need our help.' (1962, p. 240). He explains the impossibility of loving mankind as a whole: ‘for we cannot feel the same emotions towards everybody. Emotionally, we all divide men into those who are near to us, and those who are far from us. The division of mankind into friend and foe is a most obvious emotional division; and this division is even recognized in the Christian commandment, ‘Love thy enemies!'... We cannot really love ‘in the abstract'; we can love only those whom we know.  Thus the appeal even to our best emotions, love and compassion, can only tend to divide mankind into different categories. And this will be more true if the appeal is made to lesser emotions and passions.'  (p. 235)

He sees a political danger in the rule of love, for ‘he who teaches that not reason but love should rule opens the way for those who rule by hate. (Socrates, I believe, saw something of this when he suggested that mistrust or hatred of argument is related to mistrust or hatred of man [misology is distrust in rational argument and misanthropy is hatred of men; Socrates suggested this relation in Plato's Phaedo 89d]). Those who do not see that connection at once, who believe in a direct rule of emotional love, should consider that love as such certainly does not promote impartiality. And it cannot do away with conflict either.' Yet, Popper adds that he is ‘quite prepared to admit that the Christian idea of love is not meant in a purely emotional way.' (p. 236)

He sums up his view, by saying that ‘no doubt, there would be heaven on earth if we could all love one another. But... the attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell... Thus we might say: help your enemies; assist those in distress, even if they hate you; but love only your friends.' (p. 237)

2. Freud's View on Impersonal Love

Freud recognizes that civilization itself develops by means of a love that is essential for its existence. This is the love that binds the members of a group who have common interests. It consists of sublimations that have turned into religious or humanitarian love - the love of God as well as attempts to love one's neighbor and even one's enemy. Freud considered such love to be aim-inhibited since he believes that all love, however remote from apparent sexuality, reduces to the drive for libidinal satisfaction. Though he is convinced that religious and humanitarian types of love are generally unrealistic, and therefore morally suspect, Freud explains their occurrence in terms of civilization's justifiable need to use them as instruments for the control of human aggressiveness. (Freud 1949a; 1949b; 1961)

Yet his critique is far-reaching. He criticizes the possibility and even the desirability of the Judeo-Christian's precepts about a universal love of mankind. In his opinion, they are unreasonable, irrational and they even violate the original nature of man. (Freud, 1961, pp. 56-59). (15)

It is time to see other options of impersonal loves, beginning with Plato, who greatly influenced Freud's views of love, and finishing with Bertrand Russell, who will redefine wisdom as exemplifying no less impersonal love than impersonal thought.

II. Other Impersonal Loves


1. Plato's Love of Wisdom

Apart from Freud, much later, no one gave eros or love such a prominent place as did Plato. Everything in nature is motivated by eros, but nothing can ‘really' gratify its love within the limits of nature itself. That is why the true Platonic lover must be a philosopher. In being the desire for the perpetual possession of the good, love strives for union with a metaphysical principle that does not exist (in nature or anywhere else) and shows itself only to philosophic intuition. In Platonism true love and true rationality coincide. As the basis of both knowledge and valuation, the Good is the only object worthy of being loved or capable of giving knowledge about reality. Consequently, no search for natural goods could possibly satisfy the definition of love. That requires a highly intellectual, purely rational, non-sensuous striving for transcendental insight, a love of wisdom which may have little or no relation to a love of life. Starting with a vision of everything being in love, Plato ends up with the incredible suggestion that only the (Platonic) philosopher really is. (16)

Plato explains how transcending the limitations inherent in a relationship with a person might fulfill our desire for the good and the beautiful. When we truly understand the limitations of all human beings in fulfilling our needs, we stop resenting the particular specimen with which we are living. We adapt our expectations from human beings to that which can be obtained within the human sphere. For this very reason we can remain faithful to our original desire, which Plato's analysis helped us clarify as aiming beyond what a particular individual can give us.

What we can learn from Plato is that we do not need to give up our longing for salvation through love. The desire called eros should be acknowledged and could even be fulfilled when supplied with the right object. We need not emphasize the contemplation of a metaphysical idea of the beautiful, the good and the true as the sole way to fulfillment. We may choose to stress the idea that the complete fulfillment of eros may pass, yet cannot be attained, through another human being. After all, Plato points to the transcendent nature of eros or love, a theme which Neo-Platonism (17), Christianity and Spinoza will develop.


2. Spinoza's Love of God or Nature

Spinoza contends that only a love for being as a whole can free us from our bondage to the ordinary world. Throughout his argument Spinoza assumes that ardent attachment to another person, particularly when it takes the form of sexual love, is either madness or ontological folly. For my love for x is a kind of bondage, born of my passivity. Since it is in my nature to flourish (to be joyful, that is, to succeed in maintaining my being (Ethics, III, Pr. 6)), I hate my bondage, and both hates and loves its cause. And hate is really bad for me, leading me to ‘live a miserable life indeed.' (Ethics, IV, Prop. 46, Schol.). Yet this hatred can be replaced by love.

In order to liberate ourselves, Spinoza insists, we must achieve a love for reality itself - a love he interprets as an intellectual appreciation of how everything is as it is. When our mind is able to apprehend things and its own essence under the form of eternity, that is, grasping the whole, it has knowledge of God (and of love, of the reasons of my love for x, of my bondage and of the source of my misery, among other things). And this knowledge brings a special kind of contentment, and a special kind of love - an elation or joy that is accompanied by the idea of oneself, and also of God, as its cause. As love is always joy (an awareness of greater flourishing) combined with the idea of an external cause of that transition (Ethics, III, Definition of the Emotions 6), this is indeed love.

This love is not contingent on any particular state of the body, or any external event. Therefore it need not come to a halt at any time (V, Prop. 34, Corollary; Prop. 37). Nor is it tarnished by ambivalence (V, Prop. 18, Corollary). And since it is the common property of all human beings, she will not envy anyone else this understanding, but will realize that the understanding is made the more complete the more other people enjoy it (V, Prop. 20; IV, Prop. 35). This means that, far from keeping my insight to myself, I will communicate it to others, expressing my love of God (or nature, that is, of reality) through actions that benefit all human beings. By explaining all that to x, I will overcome my ambivalent love for him with true love. And in my own being I will overcome my hatred of a universe that makes me suffer with love of the entire order of things.

This kind of love, which continues Plato's thoughts on the matter, is the only type Spinoza considers worth having. Certainly it is the love he deems most praiseworthy. (18)


3. Rousseau's Collective Love

No single book provides a preferential entry into Rousseau's thinking about love. La Nouvelle Heloise is, however, a suitable place to begin. It incorporates virtually every aspect of Rousseau's philosophy and many of his most important ideas. In this book, he tries to integrate the passionate life with a moral system that will make it amenable to the needs of society. For Rousseau, the principal issue was to find the kind of relationship between men and women that will satisfy both love and virtue. His solution is based upon the belief that neither passion nor even honorable marriage is an acceptable end in itself. Both must be purified, as the heroine Julie stresses in her final letter, which is to say that each must be experienced in a way that divests it of claims to an exclusive or highest ideality. In thinking of true or ultimate love as a transcending of both marriage and sexual love, and in general of all moral possibilities that people encounter in their natural relations to one another, Rousseau identifies himself with the Platonic element in the idealistic tradition. 

In condemning the importance of love in the modern theatre in the Letter to d'Alembert, Rousseau argues that even though each play ends with the triumph of virtue, this has less effect upon the audience than the exciting spectacle of the very passions virtue struggles against. He criticizes Racine's tragedies for having unwittingly glamorized the erotic illusions that Racine himself sought to combat. Rousseau was to suffer the same fate himself, romanticism from his own day to the present using him as the apostle of passion without realizing that he wished only to purify it in the name of higher ideals.

Rousseau recognizes that man's double being, partly natural and partly social, makes it essential for him to achieve interdependence with other people. Assuming that no one wants to be dependent, Rousseau states that our inability to dispense with the help of other people renders us ‘weak and wretched.' (Rousseau, 1974, p. 48) If we had sufficient strength, we would all live apart from one another, self-sufficient, independent, wholly free in our personal autonomy. This is similar to Plato's idea about the perfection of the gods, and Aristotle's about the blessed imperturbability of his prime mover. But Rousseau knows, with a painful sense of loss, that it is a state of being for which human nature can only yearn, without ever attaining. He has no doubt about its desirability, and therefore his efforts to combine individual freedom with the unavoidable interdependency that reality demands must always seem joyless, halfhearted, and despairing. Far from being the epitome of happiness, love for another person can only be a compromise between what we really want and what our empirical destiny requires.

Rousseau established himself as a critic of sexual love, in Emile he ultimately doubts the feasibility of the benign marital affections that Emile's tutor prescribed, and he considers aesthetic presentations in the theatre neither commendable nor cathartic. He himself affirms that the love of mankind is what he has constantly advocated: a civic love, a love of country, a love that merges with a sense of moral dedication to one's fellow man. He claims that a passion for goodness of this sort has motivated his aspirations throughout life. There burnt within him a humanitarian love whose purified passion he describes in the final pages of the Letter to d'Alembert. As a substitute for dramatic performances in the theater, he recommends festivals of the entire populace, grand celebrations in which people will join together in collective bursts of oneness and communal feelings. He describes there a childhood experience in which ‘the only pure joy is public joy' (1968, p. 135n). What Rousseau may have experienced in this moment of his past he also ascribes to the civic life of the Spartans and Romans. Throughout his writings they are cited as people who enjoyed a collective and communal love that civilization proceeded to destroy over a period of centuries in the West. In order to restore the simple life, in which this kind of love could again be possible, modern civilization would have to be thoroughly changed.

The goal of Rousseau's political philosophy thus becomes the reorganization of society in a way that purifies passionate love between individuals and curtails the search for sensuous pleasure - each of these being products of the unnatural circumstances that man has forced upon himself. They must be subordinated to, and partly replaced by, the nonlibidinal love of one's fellow human beings within a civic-minded community. Rousseau sometimes sounds as if this collective love could not occur beyond a small city-state such as Geneva, but at other times he seems to think it might extend throughout a nation. Ideally it would encompass mankind in general, though Rousseau doubts that anyone could succeed in loving humanity as a whole. When he talks about love of virtue or of the good, he may be taken as meaning an enthusiastic interest in the welfare of men and women considered as fellow human beings.

His emphasis upon communal oneness leads him to denigrate affective relationships that individuals establish in their particularized experience of another. Far from being interpersonal, Rousseau's concept of ideal love minimizes the importance of attachments between people in society in order to maximize the goodness of a totalistic (and rather nebulous) commitment to society itself.

His thinking involves a mystical devotion to nature but it often reveals distrust of the concrete and specific phenomena that go to make up the natural world, as we know it. What remains from this process of abstraction and purification is a residual enthusiasm plus a vague conception of humanitarian virtue and cosmic piety. He defends the institution of a ‘civil religion' that would be based on little more than a generalized feeling of oneness. In his final writings, he idealizes a sense of merging with being as a whole rather than any particular part of it; and though he asserts that God is unknowable, he affirms his existence as something one's heart intuits. In subordinating and even rejecting the material instances of ordinary passion, Rousseau leaves us with little more than a sentimental belief in the goodness of passion itself. In the Confessions he says: ‘My passions have made me live and my passions have killed me.' (1953, p. 37) His philosophy takes its revenge by advocating purified passion that results from discarding the erotic, personal, and merely temporal interests that passions usually involve. 

Rousseau, like Luther, did not believe that man was truly capable of interpersonal love in his present, unregenerate condition. What Rousseau's philosophy offers us is, however, an inferior substitute. It promotes enthusiastic affirmation and a passionate longing for oneness in ourselves and in the world, but it fails to help us undergo those daily experiences with other people, those minute and often petty interactions, through which love must show itself. In Rousseau's religion the saints are men and women who no longer deceive each other. They have attained an utter sincerity that Rousseau sought to express in all his writings. (19) But even if these ideal creatures of his imagination did succeed in this attempt, even if they were supremely transparent and totally honest with one another, would they be capable of accepting the humanity in themselves as just the persons that they are?  

4. Hegel's Spiritual Love

In the romantics as a whole, love is a metaphysical craving for unity, for oneness that eliminates all sense of separation between man and his environment, between one person and another, and within each individual. It is sometimes said that Hegel's philosophy stands as a synthesis of Kant and Romantics like Schlegel. Hegel himself thought in these terms. (20)

For Hegel, love is a model for all reality because reality, like love, is reciprocal, communal, and dialectical in its need to overcome separateness through an expanding process of seeking oneness. Love is the means by which an individual realizes his infinity as a person through submission to the infinity of a person of the opposite sex. Although Hegel discerns this spiritual significance in sexual and romantic love, he insits upon the need to go beyond it. He calls romantic love a ‘secular religion' that can justify itself only through the irrationality of subjective passion. He finds it tyrannical in its attempts to sacrifice all other interests to its own imperious demands. Because it ignores, even denies, the objective necessities of social and political life, it is incapable of satisfying the totality of human nature.

This insistence upon the limitations of love between the sexes gives credibility to the assertion by many commentators that the mature Hegel differed radically from those poets and philosophers of romanticism who influenced him in his youth. By the time he wrote the Phenomenology of Mind in his middle years, Hegel has already concluded that sexual passion could not provide the final self-awareness that it sought. In a way that is congruent with the remarks in his lectures on aesthetics, the Phenomenology of Mind deals with sexual love as a development in human consciousness which must be superseded by affective bonds that provide organic unities of a different sort.

But the family is just an element within society, and therefore it cannot be fully realized within itself. Spirit finds a higher totality in the bonds that unify the community at large: the nation, the states, the Volk. Throughout his diverse statements about political entities, there remains a pervasive search for conditions that create communal oneness and the love of one's society. In this respect, his approach is similar to Rousseau's. And like Rousseau, he thinks of each unity within the state as an affective link to religious love, in his case the love that manifests the highest and furthest reaches of the Absolute striving for a purely spiritual knowledge of itself.

This concept of religious love as the archetype and fountainhead for which all other loves must be sacrificed, transcended, and finally superseded was present in Hegel's thought from the start. It serves as a continuous theme not only in the long and tortuous trajectory of his philosophical developments, but also in Hegel's derivation out of his Protestant origins. His indebtedness to Luther seems particularly noteworthy, but the pursuit of this theme transcends the limits of this paper.

The differences between Hegel and Plato are enormous: in a sense they distinguish the modern world from the ancient and medieval. But throughout the differences, Hegel retains the Platonic belief in love as the force that drives all process and therefore all reality. He is following Plato when, unlike Schlegel and many of the other Romantics, he refuses to consider each type of love as an extension and culmination of sexual love, which he wishes to subjugate for the sake of a more spiritual oneness that will impose its own demands upon it. Both Hegel and Plato articulate a perspective rich in its complexity and subtle in its design but finally unacceptable to the humanist imagination. For in their own way, each of them creates idealizations that demean our sensory experience in order to glorify reason and spirituality. They both deny nature, seeking to move beyond it through dialectical philosophy. (21)


5. Nietzsche's Love of Fate

Nietzsche knows very well what he hates, as most ascetics do. But so much of his genius goes into the repudiation of the real world that his philosophy has room for little more than a hazy and largely cerebral attestation of the contrary desire to love everything and to say yea despite his very good reasons for saying nay.

This residual piety in Nietzsche, so foreign to his wit and wisdom in revealing the falseness of traditional morality, appears more vividly when he proclaims the love of all being, amor fati, which he offers as a metaphysical support for his longing for the superman. ‘My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it - all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary - but love it.' (Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, 1967, p. 258)

The love of cosmos which Nietzsche here demands is quite different from anything Spinoza or Hegel meant. For these thinkers, as for the Christian theologians who preceded them, universal love made sense because ‘what is necessary', that in the face of which one must avoid all ‘mendaciousness', revealed an organic totality or absolute spirituality with which human beings could feel a kinship, as in a lesser way they do with the people they love. Nietzsche has no such conception of the universe. For him it is the same field of meaningless force that Schopenhauer and any number of naturalists depicted. It has no purpose, it has no spiritual goal, it has no concern for any of the intellectual or aesthetic achievements that mattered to perceptive and refined persons like Nietzsche himself. But then, we may ask: ‘why should this horrid fatality be loved instead of hated as a monstrosity from which the imagination must systematically detach itself? And even if such total hatred lies beyond our capacity, should we not withdraw as much fidelity to the universe as is needed for the humanizing of nature whenever possible? In other words, how can amor fati be justified, assuming it is even feasible?' (Singer, 1987, vol. 3, p. 80)

The concept of amor fati cannot be salvaged by the notion of either will to power or eternal recurrence, though I cannot dwell on this in this limited context. (18) If Nietzsche's vision of cosmic love is confused, and greatly in need of clarifications, it nevertheless helps us to understand his thinking about the possibility of sexual love.

Indeed, he uses the concept of fate to characterize sexual love: ‘Love as fatum, as fatality, cynical, innocent, cruel - and precisely in this a piece of nature. That love which is war in its means, and at bottom the deadly hatred of the sexes!' (The Case Wagner, 1967, pp. 158-9) Such disharmony between the sexes arises from the fact that by its very nature love is ‘harsh, terrible, enigmatic, and immoral.' (The Gay Science, 1974, p. 309) Far from being altruistic, it is thoroughly egoist: ‘One comes to feel genuine amazement that this wild avarice and injustice of sexual love has been glorified and deified so much in all ages - indeed, that this love has furnished the concept of love as the opposite of egoism while it actually may be the most ingenuous expression of egoism.' (The Gay Science, 1974, p. 89) It is clear from these utterances and others that such love is in great need of reform.

And indeed, Nietzsche tells us that we must learn to love (The Gay Science, 1974, p. 262), but he does not tell us how to do it. He tells us that all love, particularly sexual love, is art (The Will to Power, 1968, pp. 426-7), but he delineates the principles of this artistic activity with little of the detail and consecutive elaboration that we find in Schlegel (1971), Shelley (1954), or Stendhal (1967). His positive affirmations are often too vague and insubstantial to solve the moral, the aesthetic, and above all the religious problems that he confronts. 

In one of the places where he claims that what people call love is mainly just a lust for aggressive control, Nietzsche ends his discussion in a way that suggests this alternate view: ‘Here and there on earth we may encounter a kind of continuation of love in which this possessive craving of two people for each other gives way to a new desire and lust for possession - a shared higher thirst for an ideal above them. But who knows such love? Who has experienced it? Its name is friendship.' (The Gay Science, 1974, p. 89)

With this conception of love before him, Nietzsche can modify and refine his more caustic remarks. Having characterized love as egoism, he can now criticize thinkers who reduce it to nothing but egoism. Properly understood, love is an affirmation of oneself, which results from ‘a superabundance of personality' (The Will to Power, 1968, p.167). Love cannot be defined as self-surrender, but neither is it mere selfishness: ‘Only the most complete persons can love ... one must be firmly rooted in oneself.' (ibid.) As ‘all great love does not want love: it wants more.' (Thus Spoke Zarathustra , 1966, p. 293), that is, life in all its fullness, ‘great love' refuses to limit itself to sexual pleasures afforded by the beloved. In saying this, Nietzsche also defines love as sublimation.  

It is the wedding of passion with spirit, the spiritualization of sexuality through aesthetic imagination, which ultimately defines the nature of love in Nietzsche's philosophy. Latter-day Romantic that he is, despite his rejection of Romanticism, Nietzsche finds in this type of love a positive goal for which man may properly aspire. The superman turns out to be the superior lover.

6. Emerson's Impersonal and impartial Love

Emerson's essay on love combines Hegelian, Neoplatonic, and Christian elements in a way that reveals why each of these is so unsatisfactory from our contemporary perspective. Assuming in nature an ‘over-soul' of which we are but manifestations, Emerson defines true love as something that takes us beyond a love of persons. He sees interpersonal love as merely the ‘training for a love which knows not sex, nor person, nor partiality, but which seeks virtue and wisdom everywhere.' (Emerson, 1940, p. 220) Elsewhere he criticizes the mystic Sweddenborg for having proclaimed that in heaven men and women will find each other in spiritual marriages that compensate for the ‘false marriages on earth.' Since God is the proper bride or bridegroom for each soul, Emersonian heaven is ‘not the pairing of the two, but the communion of all souls. ...So far from there being anything divine in the low and proprietary sense of Do you love me? It is only when you leave and lose me by casting yourself on a sentiment that is higher than both of us, that I draw near and find myself at your side; and I am repelled if you fix your eye on me and demand love.' (Emerson, 1957, p. 142) (22)

In twentieth-century philosophers such as Peirce (Buchler, 1940), McTaggart (1927), and Bergson (1977) we can find a similar conception of cosmic love; and Santayana (1936; 1942; 1971; 1980) acknowledged his indebtedness to that much of Emerson which is Neoplatonic. (23) This approach, pervasive as it was at the beginning of our century, lost most of its appeal in later years. 

Anglo-Saxon philosophers have generally neglected questions about the nature of sexual love in our century. Most of them chose to relegate such matters to the psychologists. To see how psychology has affected the history of thinking about love, we must study the entire sweep of psychiatric theory from Freud to the present. Its details need to be examined within their historical context, arising from the Romantic and post-Romantic speculations of philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, evolving throughout Freud's lifetime, and contributing to contemporary schools of revisionist and existential psychoanalysis. Freud himself wished to create a unified doctrine that would be as rigorous as the sciences of physics or chemistry. His dream has never been realized, but it renews itself in the efforts of current psychobiologists while the content of psychoanalytic theory serves as a frequent point of departure for ethology, sociobiology, and other behavioral studies of human affect. (24)

One Anglo-Saxon philosopher, though, contributed much to the debate about the importance of love. I will like to conclude this paper with Bertrand Russell's views on impersonal feeling..

7. Bertrand Russell's Impersonal Feeling

Bertrand Russell testifies in the first lines of his autobiography that three passions have governed his life: ‘the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.' (1967, p. 9) He sounds like Schopenhauer when he says: ‘United with his fellow-men by the strongest of all ties, the tie of a common doom, the free man finds that a new vision is with him always, shedding over every daily task the light of love.' (1978, p. 56) He relates himself to Buddhism when he says: ‘Buddha is said to have asserted that he could not be happy so long as even one human being was suffering. This is carrying things to an extreme and, if taken literally, would be excessive, but it illustrates that universalizing of feeling of which I am speaking.' (1956, p.182). He relates himself to Spinoza, when he writes: ‘Spinoza, who was perhaps the best example of the way of feeling of which I am speaking, remained completely calm at all times, and in the last day of his life preserved the same friendly interest in others as he had shown in days of health.' (1956, pp. 183-4)

His seems to believe in the necessity of developing an impersonal feeling, that would be constitutive of wisdom: ‘Our age is in many respects one which has little wisdom, and which would therefore profit greatly by what philosophy has to teach. The value of philosophy is partly in relation to thought and partly in relation to feeling, though its effects in these two ways are closely interconnected. On the theoretical side it is a help in understanding the universe as a whole, in so far as this is possible. On the side of feeling it is a help toward a just appreciation of the ends of human life.' (1956, p. 178)

Closely parallel to the development of impersonal thought is the development of impersonal feeling, which is at least equally important and which ought equally to result from a philosophical outlook. Our desires, like our senses, are primarily self-centered. The egocentric character of our desires interferes with our ethics. In the one case, as in the other, what is to be aimed at is not a complete absence of the animal equipment that is necessary for life but the addition to it of something wider, more general, and less bound up with personal circumstances. We should not admire a parent who had no more affection for his own children than for those of others, but we should admire a man who from love of his own children is led to a general benevolence. We should not admire a man, if such a man there were, who was so indifferent to food as to become undernourished, but we should admire the man who from knowledge of his own need of food is led to a general sympathy with the hungry.  

What philosophy should do in matters of feelings is very closely analogous to what it should do in matters of thought. It should not subtract from the personal life but should add to it. Just as the philosopher's intellectual survey is wider than that of an uneducated man, so also the scope of his desires and interest should be wider. A man who has acquired a philosophical way of feeling, and not only of thinking, will note what things seem to him good and bad in his own experience, and will wish to secure the former and avoid the latter for others as well as for himself. (1956, pp. 181-2)

‘Comprehensiveness alone, however, is not enough to constitute wisdom. There must be, also, a certain awareness of the ends of human life... perhaps one could stretch the comprehensiveness that constitutes wisdom to include not only intellect but also feeling. It is by no means uncommon to find men whose knowledge is wide but whose feelings are narrow. Such men lack what I am calling wisdom.' (1956, p.174). For example, ‘the best way to overcome [the fear of death] is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.' (1956, p.52)

Maybe Russell's intention can be made clearer by referring to Mill: when he discusses ‘the ultimate sanction of the principle of utility,' he identifies it as the ‘powerful natural sentiment' of what he calls ‘the contagion of sympathy.' Sounding at times like Shelley (1954), he argues that a ‘firm foundation' for morality is to be found in ‘the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures.' He speaks of the feeling in many persons ‘that the interests of others are their own interests.' It is a ‘feeling of unity' with other people, that leads a man ‘to identify his feelings more and more with their good.' (Mill, 1961, pp. 358-9)

As ‘the good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge' (Russell, 1957, p. 56), I suggest to take Russell's not very specific advice as an incentive for creativity. Most of the philosophies presented here fulfill this definition of the good life. It might be our task to increase our knowledge of love in order to be better inspired, thereby inspiring others in pursuing their wisdom of love. (25)


All the philosophers and the religious leaders presented in this survey saw impersonal love as the pinnacle of what a human being can achieve, as the essence of wisdom and as the highest ethical value that gives meaning and purpose to life. (26)

            I think that the philosophical practitioner cannot do much about passionate love when it goes sour. Psychologists have their way with personal relations and passionate feelings. The edge of the philosopher is to be aware of these different kinds of love, and to point to the possibility of redirecting the very strong emotion of love partly, at least, to impersonal objects. In my opinion, the way in which these different loves (the personal and the impersonal) would relate to each other is a matter of personal discovery. The personal loves might be greatly enriched by an adequate impersonal love, maybe even supplemented by one, if necessary. Of one thing I am sure, though: the person that loves wisdom, or life, or others, or has an internal source of joy, will never be as hurt by personal love as the one who knows only of this love. Would she be as thrilled by it? Need she be? Maybe the answer is that she will be thrilled no less, but differently: loosing expectations, gaining a sense of proportion, she could really enjoy the gift of love without being too demanding. What loved one would not appreciate that?

‘Each man and woman must determine afresh which love matters most and is most justifiable in a particular circumstance. Philosophers can sometimes help in this endeavor. They can reveal the logical and empirical implications within alternatives that are actually feasible. This is what I call mapping out the conceptual terrain.' (Singer, 1994, p.176). Our task, as I see it, is not only to map the terrain of love and to bring it back to philosophy, but as lovers of wisdom, to develop wisdom in love.

Unless the young Fichte is right in saying that love is just a search without a goal, a yearning for the unknown (Singer, 1987, vol. 2, p. 397), the philosophical practitioner has much to contribute to the understanding of love and to its fulfillment in everyday life as a creative mixture of personal and impersonal elements.  


(1) For a characterization of the Romantic tradition, see I. Singer, The Nature of Love, vol.2: Courtly and Romantic, chapts. 12-13; T. Gould, Platonic Love, chapts. 1 and 9. D. de Rougemont, Love in the Western World (1983) and Les Mythes de l'Amour, (1996). For a new version of romanticism, ‘rational romanticism', see R. C. Solomon, 1993, chapter 2.

 (2) For science on these matters, see for example, T. Lewis, F. Amini, and R.A. Lannon, A General Theory of love  (2001) and A. Lampert, The Evolution of Love (1997). For a philosophical criticism of Romantic love as ‘a love of love', see I. Babitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (1955), D. de Rougemont, Les Mythes de l'Amour (1996) and J. Ortega y Gasset, On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme (1957).

(3) V. Gornick, in The End of the Novel of Love (1999), argues that since love is not a panacea in life, it shouldn't be in literature either.

(4) R. J. Sternberg, Cupid's Arrow: the Course of Love through Time (1998), p. 126.  See also T. Reik, A Psychologist Looks at Love (1944).

(5) For other characterizations of types of love, see for example, M. Bergman (1987), R. C. Solomon (1988, 1990, 1991).

(6) For philosophers on friendship, see for example, M. Pakaluk (1991).

(7) Lucretius, De rerum natura (1947), end of Book IV and Book V. As the Epicureans' therapy of love stays within personal love, exchanging passion for friendship or marriage, it is not analyzed here. Epicurus' sentence: ‘by the eros for true philosophy every bad passion is undone' (Epicurea,1887, fragment 457) means that the cure for bad desires comes through a love of arguments that dispels illusion and leaves us with the truth. It does not mean that love of wisdom is to replace sexual love, in the manner in which it is done in Platonism. The strong emphasis on friendship in Epicurianism, and the communal approach to philosophy in Epicurus' Garden, where friendship and eros for wisdom were mixed, sets this school firmly within a personal view of love. See M. Nussbaum (1994, chapt. 5) and I. Singer (1984, vol. 1, chapt. 7).

(8) J. von Arnim, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, (SVF) III, 340; p.126.

(9) SVF, III, 333; p.125.

(10) For a detailed analysis of the Stoics' extirpation of the passions, See M. Nussbaum, 1994, chapt. 10.

(11) For Luther's view see the American Edition of Luther's Works (1955); for Thomas Aquinas' view see Summa Theologica (1945) and especially On Charity (De Caritate) (1960). For the theological debate between Catholicism and Protestantism about the nature of love see A. Nygren, Agape and Eros (1982). For further discussion of Nygren and concepts of Christian love in general, see G. Outka, Agape: An Ethical Analysis (1972). Unfortunately, the Catholic/Protestant theological debate is beyond the scope of this paper. As I try to focus on philosophic doctrines, I can only mention the Christian view(s) of indiscriminate love. Similarly, the following discussion of Buddhism will be on Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion.

(12) See I. Dilman' s interesting analysis of Kierkegaard's work in Dilman, 1998, chapts. 11-12.

(13) M. Bubber criticizes Heidegger's concept of care, and Kierkegaard's and Weil's (1948; 1949) views of the relationship between the love of God and the love of one's neighbor. For him, loving a person is identical to loving God. As God is a person and all I-Thou relationships, even with animals, are a person-to person relationship, Bubber has no place within a paper on impersonal love. He would say that such love doesn't exist, as all love for him has a person as its object. His ‘solution' for the problem at hand will be to personify every ‘it', and not to non-personalize our love or part of it. See M. Bubber's I and Thou (1958) and Between Man and Man (1967).

(14) Some clarification of the terms is needed. I. Singer differentiates between sympathy, compassion and empathy (1994, pp. 111-2), A. Ben-Ze'ev differentiates between mercy, pity and compassion (2000, p. 131) and M. Nussbaum between compassion, empathy and mercy (2001, pp. 364-368). Spinoza, Kant and Nietzsche all criticized pity. For Spinoza's view see Ethics, Part IV, prop. 50. For Kant's view see (Kant,1956, p. 123) and (Kant, 1996, p. 205). For Nietzsche on that matter, see J. Portmann (2000, pp.111-115). Other prominent writers who criticize pity are Plato, Seneca, Epictetus and Locke. See A.  Ben-Ze'ev (2000, chapt. 3). See also E. Callan (1988), D. Cartwright (1984) and M. Nussbaum (2001, chapts 6-8). She writes there: ‘The Stoic position on compassion and value is taken over with little change by Spinoza, and seriously influences the accounts in Descartes, Smith, and Kant. It is given an especially complex and vivid development in the thought of Nietzsche...' (2001, p. 358). Any further development of this matter will take us within the realm of ethics, which I try to avoid within this context.

(15) For S. Freud's views on the matter, so briefly summarized here, see Freud (1949a; 1949b and 1961). For Freud's criticism of the possibility and even the desirability of the Judeo-Christian's precepts about a universal love of mankind, see Freud (1961, pp. 56-59). For a criticism of Freud's views on religious love, see for example, I. Singer (1984, particularly pp. 23-38, 97-99, 101-4, 173, 182-83, 198-200, 208-31, 234-36, 263-64, 302-7). As for a criticism of his view of love, the sources are abundant: see, for example, E. Fromm (1979); T. Reik (1944) and I. Dilman (1998, chap. 6).

(16) On Plato's theory of love, see my ‘Passion as Rationality: Plato's Theory of Love' (2001). Plato's views on love are presented mainly in the Symposium and the Phaedrus, but also in the Republic, the Phaedo and the Laws. See also T. Gould, (1963), I. Singer (1984, chap. 1), G. Vlastos (1973, chap. 1), G. Santas (1988, chaps. 2 and 3) and M. Nussbaum (1986, chaps. 2 and 6). Plato's theory of love takes for granted homosexual love. For this aspect of the theory, see F. Gonzalez-Reigosa & H. Kaminsky (1989); E. O'Connor's introduction to On Homosexuality: Lysis, Phaedrus and Symposium, (1991); R. Tannahil, (1989) and G. Vlastos (1973, appendix 2 to chap. 1). For the sometimes ‘unplatonic' relationship with the ‘platonic' friend, see the Phaedrus.

(17) The Neoplatonic interpretation of love has not been developed within this paper, in spite of its being an impersonal love and in spite of its immense influence on Christianity and on Renaissance thinkers. It is a mystical ascent towards the one or the Alone, whose beauty is found everywhere in the world. The Neoplatonic mystic renounces the world of matter, with its sexual love, for a perfect merging of his spiritual self with the one, ‘the Alone with the Alone'. See Plotinus, The Enneads,  (1957).

(18) For Spinoza and Nietzsche on love, see my unpublished manuscript Philosophy as Redemption: Comparing Spinoza and Nietzsche. For Spinoza, see M. Nussbaum (2001, pp. 500-10) and A. O. Rorty (1991). For Nietzsche, see W. Kaufmann (1986), R. Shacht (1983) and O. Shutte (1984).

(19) On this, see J. Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La Transparence et l'Obstacle  (1971) and R. Grimsley, ‘Rousseau and the Problem of Happiness' (1972).

(20) G. W. F. Hegel, Early Theological Writings (1948). On what the translator calls Hegel's ‘Pantheism of Love', see his Introduction, pp. 11-12. See also H. S. Harris, Hegel's Development: Toward the Sunlight, 1770-1801(1972, pp. 305-9); and G. E. Mueller, Hegel: The Man, His Vision, and Work (1968, pp. 122-26).

(21) Paul Tillich's ontology of love develops Hegel's intimations, extending them in new directions and showing how this kind of ontology can answer basic questions in theology as well as philosophy. His ontology of love differs from earlier theology in his constant attempt to incorporate the ideas of non-Christian thinkers such as Spinoza and Nietzsche. He synthesizes Nietzsche's thinking with contemporary versions of radical Protestantism that are ultimately based on Hegel's philosophy. He denies that love can be understood as just as ethical or emotional phenomenon. Love is not merely ethical, he states, since it cannot be commanded. And neither will he treat it as  simply an emotion or psychological attitude. For love requires more than just a phenomenological explanation. He thinks that only his kind of ontology can provide an adequate analysis. See P. Tillich, The Courage to Be (1953) and Love, Power and Justice: Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications (1954).

(22) On Emerson's thinking about love, see E. I. Thurin, Emerson as Priest of Pan: A Study in the Metaphysics of Sex (1981), particularly pp. 95-113.

(23) For a discussion of George Santayana on charity and religious love in general, see I. Singer The Nature of Love: Plato to Luther (1984, pp. 334-35, 358-59, and passim) and G. Santayana (1954, pp. 366-70). For his views on love in general, see G. Santayana (1936; 1942; 1971;1980).

(24) For Darwinian approaches to social bonding, see K. Lorentz (1966), I. Eibl-Eibesfeld (1971), H. F. Harlow (1974) and J. Bowlby (1969). For the recent sociobiologist view on altruism, as being reducible to selfishness, see E.O. Wilson (1978) and R. Trivers (1985).

(25) On Russell's view of love, see P. G. Kuntz, Bertrand Russell (1986, p. 107f.).

(26) Feminist writers have not been mentioned here, for they write mainly about personal love, either as heterosexual love, or as maternal love. See for example S. Firestone (1970); E. Rapaport (1980), C. Safilios-Rothschild (1977); C. Whitback (1982); R. C. Salomon (1984) and T.-G. Atkinson (1974).



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