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Chapter 24: Christians: Human Children of God

Question A: What is human love?

1. Although “love” cannot mean precisely the same thing in God’s case as in ours, God has chosen to use the language of love to reveal himself to us. Since we know the meaning of this language primarily from the experience of human love, some analysis of human love is necessary to understand the love which God is and in which he calls us to share.1

2. The good of each thing is that which fulfills its possibilities in such a way that it becomes more and more what it can be (5‑A). But everything requires in itself a principle by which it is disposed toward its good. In creatures without cognition (for example, plants), the requirement is met by blind tendencies which under suitable conditions have their effect automatically. Creatures with cognition can to some extent anticipate what will be fulfilling and can act on this anticipation to bring about their own good.

3. Corresponding to cognition and based upon it, there must be a disposition which underlies tendencies both to suitable action and to rest when action has realized the good to which it is directed. Such a disposition is what love most basically is, and the capacity for such dispositions is the ability to love (see S.t., 1, q. 80, a. 1; 1–2, q. 6, a. 2; S.c.g., 3, 1, 2, 22).

In animals which have only sentient cognition, the ability to love is a basic aspect of emotional make up, which sometimes is called “sense appetite” or “the passions of the soul.” Human persons also have an emotional make up corresponding to sentient cognition. In addition, they have an ability to love corresponding to intellectual knowledge of good. This ability is the basic power of will, which sometimes is called “rational appetite” (see S.t., 1, q. 80, a. 2; 1–2, q. 6, aa. 1–2; q. 22, q. 3; 2–2, q. 24, a. 1).

4. Thus love is a basic disposition which adapts one to a known good (see S.t., 1–2, q. 26, aa. 1–2; q. 28, a. 5). In human persons there are two fundamentally different modes of love: (1) emotions in respect to sensible goods; and (2) rational concern or caring in respect to intelligible goods, such as the forms of human goodness (treated in 5‑D). Other emotions and volitions are based upon love or closely related to it, since their whole function is to enable creatures with cognition to fulfill themselves by action (see S.t., 1–2, q. 25, aa. 1–2, q. 28, a. 6).

Two other dispositions most closely related to love are desire and satisfaction. Often “love” and “desire” are used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Love of an anticipated good which is not yet realized arouses desire and leads to action. If the loved good is achieved by the action, desire is replaced by satisfaction—an emotion of pleasure at the sentient level or the joy of accomplishment at the intellectual level. Thus love is the constant, underlying disposition toward fulfillment whether anticipated or achieved (see S.t., 1–2, q. 25, a. 2; q. 26, a. 3; q. 27, a. 4).

Emotions are often thought of as sentiments or feelings which are consciously experienced, and indeed they often do give rise to sensations of which one is aware, especially if the emotion is unusual or particularly strong. Moreover, it is not implausible to think of desire and satisfaction as more or less directly experienced. However, what is essential to emotions is not that one has a feeling, but that one is disposed to behave in certain ways. Hence, it makes perfectly good sense to talk about subconscious and unconscious love, hatred, anger, and so forth, as Freud and others have done. Since the emotion of love is in play only when it arouses desire or issues in satisfaction, it is not a feeling one can isolate in experience. One knows what an animal loves by what it pursues and rests in; similarly, one knows one’s own emotional love and that of other persons by observing what arouses an urge and gives pleasure.

Just as emotional love is not primarily a conscious state, so volitional love is not primarily an experience. Neither is it a kind of knowledge or—in any ordinary sense of the English word—an action. Volitional love begins as a caring about or a basic interest in intelligible human goods. This caring or basic interest presupposes some understanding of these goods as goods—that is, as modes of human fulfillment. This love makes appealing various possible ways of intelligently acting to realize these goods. Sometimes one acts intelligently yet spontaneously, without deliberation, to realize a good understood and cared about volitionally (9‑B). In other cases, different possibilities come to mind and one must choose which course of action to take, which possible good to try to realize. In any case, volitional love is not one’s action—not something one does—but one’s disposition of caring about understood goods. This disposition both makes appealing possible ways of acting intelligently and makes satisfying actions which go well.

5. Abstract as it may seem to call love a disposition toward a fulfilling good, we do use the word this way: People “love” steak and they “love” truth. Even more often, we speak of loving people, ourselves and others. But the two things, loving something and loving somebody, are not separate; they are different aspects of the same thing.

Thus, to be disposed to a fulfilling good is to be disposed to the person fulfilled by that good. St. Thomas distinguishes between these two aspects of love, calling the disposition to that which is good “love of concupiscence” and the disposition to the person “love of friendship.” This terminology misleads if it is mistaken to mean two different kinds of love—for example, selfish love and love which is altruistic (see S.t., 1–2, q. 26, a. 4; 2–2, q. 23, a. 1).

6. Love is always in the first place a disposition to the fulfillment of the one loving; for love disposes to fulfillment through action, and every action is a fulfillment of the one who acts. This ought not to be rejected moralistically as an expression of selfishness; rather, it is a basic fact about created persons (see S.t., 2–2, q. 25, a. 4; S.c.g., 3, 153). Moreover, Jesus promises the richest personal fulfillment to those who accept and follow him—the Beatitudes are one example (Mt 5.3–12)—while the Church condemns the view that one should love God with no hope of reward and no fear of punishment (see DS 2351–57/1327–33). Thus love is a disposition to the loving person’s fulfillment, and the best love is a disposition to one’s perfect fulfillment.

7. Still, neither emotional nor volitional love is of itself limited to caring about the good only insofar as it is one’s own. Individuals are not made for fulfillment in isolation; they are made for some form of common life and for fulfillment there (see S.t., 1, q. 47, a. 1; q. 60, a. 5).

That this is true at the emotional level is obvious by the disposition which leads animals to propagate and care for their young (see S.c.g., 3, 24). Among all human individuals, natural sympathy shapes many spontaneous acts directed toward the protection and satisfaction of others. This fact tends to be ignored because it is so obvious, and because one begins to notice emotions when conflicts arise.

The same thing is true at the volitional level. Understandable goods do not have anyone’s proper name attached to them. For example, one can notice and be interested in the possibility of rectifying injustice or protecting life whether or not the injustice is against oneself or the life threatened is one’s own. Very often, someone who finds great fulfillment in a certain good is especially anxious to share it with others. For example, those who live joyfully in Jesus are most eager to make him known to others.

In all these cases, what one does is fulfilling to the one who does it. But in none of these cases need this fact be the reason for acting. Animals care for their young without self-consciousness; they simply cannot be selfish in their motives. A pedestrian who spontaneously reaches out to stop another from stepping off a curb into the path of an oncoming car is acting in an equally unselfconscious way.

Those who dedicate themselves by generous commitment to work—often very difficult and thankless work—for human life or the spreading of the gospel no doubt realize that their own goodness and holiness are realized in their lives, and hope for ultimate fulfillment in heaven. Yet one need not make one’s commitments precisely for the sake of one’s own fulfillment; one sometimes makes choices out of sheer fascination with a possible good, and only subsequently realizes how acting for and sharing in the good is fulfilling. An example is a child’s interest in a field of study, in a hobby, or in collecting funds for a charitable cause, such as helping children in some faraway country. Even when one does make commitments with one’s own fulfillment in view, this purpose need not render one’s commitment to another’s good ungenerous or selfish. The real question is how one’s most fundamental commitments relate to and establish order among one’s own interests and the interests of others.

8. How does one love another person? The active, transitive verb tends to confuse. In loving another, one does not do something to the other, either outwardly or even invisibly (for example, by feelings or wishes). Rather, love of other persons is simply an aspect of love as a disposition to fulfillment. For one cannot love a good without loving someone for whom it is fulfilling. Thus, to the extent that the goods to which one is disposed by love are actualized in other persons, one loves other persons.

9. Emotional love of another is a compound of various degrees of sympathetic or natural love of the other’s own good and care about the other insofar as the other is identified with oneself. All of these affections are mingled and brought to focus upon the other. What is involved can be exemplified not only in emotional love of another person but also in emotional attachment to a pet animal.

10. Volitional love of another person adds to love, as a disposition, the beginning of action toward its fulfillment. One’s intelligent concern for or caring about the forms of human goodness is potentially a disposition toward integral human fulfillment. To begin to realize this potentiality, commitments are necessary. A commitment is a self-disposition through choice toward fulfillment with some particular person or group of persons. One committed to another is concerned for or cares about that person in particular. Considered as a particularization of the basic disposition toward the human goods, a commitment is a form of love; considered as an action, the same commitment is more fulfillment than love.

11. Persons who make a mutual commitment such as marriage are both united and distinguished in doing so. They are united by the common bond formed by their mutual choices. But like all other choices, commitments are self-determining, and so each partner’s distinct personhood is actualized in his or her choice. Such love disposes toward the simultaneous increase of unity and distinction. Only in the distinctive fulfillment of the man as husband and the woman as wife can they achieve common fulfillment as a couple. Indeed, each partner wills the fulfillment of the other as distinct, for each wills that the other make the self-determining commitment by which the bond is formed. Each also wills the distinct fulfillment the other enjoys in their shared life.

Both selfish and unselfish love bond persons together or unite them, but in different ways. Selfish love involves nonacceptance of the real mutuality of the relationship. One who loves selfishly would reduce the other to a possession, a mere function of one’s own fulfillment—a kind of appendage. Unselfish love between or among persons is marked by their focusing affection on one another with sympathy and fairness. The unity established is not by absorption but by a communality of interests and fulfillments (see S.t., 1–2, q. 28, aa. 1–4). The closer the unity between those loving unselfishly becomes, the more their own identities and fulfillments are realized and appreciated.2

Genuine community is formed by unselfish love which unites two or many persons. Those who share in community are one insofar as they love the same good; they are disposed together to a common fulfillment. The one which is the real community is also many insofar as it fulfills its members in their diverse and complementary possibilities. In true community, unity is not lessened by the ever-increasing uniqueness of the members, and their individuality is not compromised by the ever-growing solidarity of their common life. Both the uniqueness of each individual and the solidarity of all increase as the good loved in common is effectively desired, pursued, and enjoyed by each and all.

Individualism and collectivism are two opposed, destructive movements in societies. Individualism would destroy society by eliminating its unity, by breaking its members up into a collection of selfish individuals all trying to reduce one another to functions of themselves. Collectivism would destroy society by eliminating its members in an attempt to overcome selfishness by eliminating selves. People very often suppose that the only solution is a compromise between individualism and collectivism: libertarian anarchy up to a point, beyond which selves become slaves.

The explanation of unselfish love shows that such a compromise is not a real solution at all, and that the only sensible option is to embrace both the one and the many: a fellowship of persons whose distinct personalities will be fulfilled by their common life. The bond of such a society is its common love, its common disposition to cooperation for goods which fulfill all and are personally sought with unselfish love by each for others.

1. A helpful elementary treatment of the Thomistic analysis, followed here, of knowledge and love: James E. Royce, S.J., Man and His Nature: A Philosophical Psychology (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961). This book is adequate, no more complicated than necessary, and has helpful bibliography.

2. Gabriel Marcel has clarified the central aspects of interpersonal existence. Unfortunately, his work is diffuse. A good starting place: Homo Viator: Introduction to a Metaphysic of Hope, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1951), esp. 13–28.