St Thomas, asking “whether likeness is a cause of love”, says this:

From the fact that two are similar, as it were having one form, they are in a certain sense one in that form, as for example two men are in the species of humanity or two white men are one in whiteness. And thus the love of one tends towards the other, insofar as he is one with himself, and he wills good to him, as he does to himself . . . . But everyone loves himself more than another, for everyone is one in substance with himself, but only one in the likeness of some form with the other. (Summa Theologiae 1a 2ae 27, 3)

Speaking about the order that exists in charity, he says something similar:

God is loved as the principle of that good {sc. beatitude} upon which charity’s love is founded; a man loves himself by charity insofar as he is a partaker of that Good; while the neighbour is loved by him insofar as he has fellowship with this neighbour in that good. Now fellowship {consociatio} is the reason for love insofar as it involves a union ordered to God. Therefore, since unity is more than union, therefore the fact that a man himself shares in the divine good is a greater reason for loving than the fact that another is associated with him in this sharing. Thus a man is bound by charity to love himself more than his neighbour (Summa Theologiae 2a 2ae 25, 5).

Dietrich von Hildebrand, speaking generally about love, says this:

What characterizes love’s special transcendence, that is its responsiveness to value, is its capacity for interest in another person because of what is most beautiful and precious in him. But this is overlooked and it is thought that to attain any real understanding of love’s nature one should turn to a source of unmistaken at-oneness –  the inevitable ‘interest’ a person has in himself. . .

The impossibility of deriving love for another from ‘self-love’ or at-oneness with self becomes even clearer when love is compared to the solidarity with a person which is little more than an extension of the at-oneness one has with himself. Such at-oneness in relation to another does, of course, exist. A typical example is found in the behaviour of a man who is extremely sensitive when someone takes advantage of or humiliates his wife, despite the fact that he has no real love for her and perhaps abuses her himself. Because he looks on her as part of himself, the fact that she is his wife puts her in the realm of his own at-oneness with himself. He experiences an attack on her as if it were directed at him – not because he loves her but because he considers her an extension of his own ego. The same thing is involved where an employer abuses or takes advantage of his servant but, having no affection for him whatever, still takes it as an offence against his own person if someone else should behave insultingly toward the servant.

Every attempt to make an analysis of love by beginning with self-love, every thought that something as univocal {perhaps a better English translation would be ‘distinctive’} as one person’s love for another can be explained in the ambiguous terms of self-love, closes the door to any real understanding of love (‘Man and Woman’, 34-35).

There is an interesting prima facie contradiction here between these two deep minds. St Thomas tells us that self-love, not only has a priority over love for others (a sign of which, as he says, is that it is never lawful to commit a sin in order to free one’s neighbour from sin), but is also the model on which love for the neighbour is taken; that which makes love for neighbour intelligible. I spontaneously will good for myself; natural good, by virtue of nature, and supernatural good, if I am in a state of grace. But insofar as my neighbour is another “I” – that is, insofar as I perceive him to be naturally or supernaturally similar to me – I therefore to that extent also will good for him too. Thus, love of self is taken as something more fundamental and obvious, and it is used to explain love of neighbour, though without reducing the neighbour to a means by which I acquire good for myself.

Von Hildebrand, though he doesn’t mention St Thomas or anyone else, is unhappy with this approach. This is not only because he fears that it makes love of another into veiled egoism, but also because he thinks that it fails to capture what is distinctive about love for another, which he characterises as “interest in another person because of what is most beautiful and precious in him” (elsewhere he writes that love is distinct from affective attitudes such as esteem, admiration and veneration in that it is a response to the other person taken as a whole, rather than to certain values or qualities within him.) Presumably he would argue that what we call self-love is, by contrast, not an interest I have in myself because of what I perceive to be beautiful or precious within myself, but a simple instinct which men have in common with beasts. In any case, he would deny that self-love makes love of others intelligible, for I do not perceive myself to be more beautiful or valuable than all other people. For the same reason, he would deny that I love myself more than others; or perhaps it would be truer to say that he would think the expression wrongly formulated, since he appears to regard love for others and love for oneself as not being love in the same sense of the word (this is what he means by calling love for others “univocal”.)

Is there any way to reconcile these two approaches? St Thomas’s reasoning seems obviously correct: since appetite just is the inclination to what is perceived as good, every being with rational appetite wills good to himself, that is, loves himself, and this is more fundamental and ineradicable than love for the other, since our conjunction with any given other (apart from God) is contingent not necessary. Likewise, he gives an intelligible account of how love for the other arises, and of how it is truly willing the good for the other and not just for oneself in disguise. Yet von Hildebrand seems correct in saying that love for another has features that differentiate it from self-love, even well-ordered self love, in such a way that it is wrong to consider love for another as simply a more or less diluted form of love for oneself. Self-love is not based on a perception of one’s own beauty, whether of spirit or countenance (fortunately, perhaps.) Even the love that one has for oneself by means of charity is not based primarily on a perception of the value of one’s own soul, for then there would be no reason why this love would take priority over the charity that one must have toward others. Self-love is actualized not mainly in contemplating oneself, but in contemplating the desired object (of course it can be actualized in contemplating one’s own real or imagined beauty of body or spirit, but this is not what is most typical of it, and moreover it is not safe for a rational creature so to act extra patriam.)

Here we have an important difference: love of another person is actual in contemplating that person, whereas love of oneself is normally not actual in contemplating oneself, but in contemplating some other person or other thing. Von Hildebrand therefore seems right to say that ‘love of oneself’ is not the best starting point from which to understand ‘love of another’, in the sense that the experience of loving oneself is not sufficient to understand the experience of loving another, as by contrast the experience of tying one’s shoelaces is sufficient to understand the experience of tying someone else’s. But St Thomas is right to say that ‘love of oneself’ is the best starting point from which to understand ‘love of another’, in the sense that the possibility of the latter can be apprehended by means of an understanding of the former. I suppose it is the difference between phenomenology and philosophy.

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