Love is often held up as the highest good and the solution to the world’s problems. The title of the Beatles’ song, “All you need is love,” written by John Lennon, is just one example. Many Christians would agree with this. There is a story about another John, the apostle John, which Jerome, the fourth century Bible translator, preserves in his commentary on the book of Galatians (6:10). He reports that in John’s extreme old age the apostle could barely speak, but he did repeat over and over again the words, “Little children, love one another.” When asked why he kept saying this, he replied “Because it is the Lord’s commandment and if it alone is kept, it is sufficient.” To say that love is enough is true.
However, one could argue that love is actually the cause of many of the world’s problems. As another popular song says, “Love is a battlefield.” From Plato’s Symposium to any number of country songs, love’s ability to cause suffering is clear. Love of one’s country has also resulted in physical battlefields. Is love then a good thing or a bad thing? The answer must be both. The confusion comes when we turn love into something flat and two-dimensional. Love is complex and we must understand what we mean by love before we lift it up as the answer or blame it for our hurts.
Medieval authors, drawing on writers from the classical era and late-antiquity, recognized the way that love could be a force for good and ill. Love is important in all of Dante’s works, but it is primarily in the last two books of the Commedia that he seeks to define it. Since love structures the topography of the Mount of Purgatory, a place where sins are purged on successive terraces, Dante begins his discussion of love there. He has his guide Virgil speak these words:
My son, there’s no Creator and no creature
who ever was without love natural
or mental; and you know that, he began.
The natural is always without error,
but mental love may choose an evil object
or err through too much or too little vigor.
As long as it’s directed toward the First Good
and tends toward secondary goods with measure,
it cannot be the cause of evil pleasure;
but when it twists toward evil, or attends
to good with more or less care than it should,
those whom He made have worked against their Maker.
From this you see that of necessity
love is the seed in you of every virtue
and of all acts deserving punishment.
Now, since love never turns aside its eyes
from the well-being of its subject, things
are surely free from hatred of themselves;
and since no being can be seen as self-
existing and divorced from the First Being,
each creature is cut off from hating Him.
Thus, if I have distinguished properly,
ill love must mean to wish one’s neighbor ill;
and this love’s born in three ways in your clay.
There’s he who, through abasement of another,
hopes for supremacy; he only longs
to see his neighbor’s excellence cast down.
Then there is one who, when he is outdone,
fears his own loss of fame, power, honor, favor;
his sadness loves misfortune for his neighbor.
And there is he who, over injury
received, resentful, for revenge grows greedy
and, angrily, seeks out another’s harm.
This threefold love is expiated here
below; now I would have you understand
the love that seeks the good distortedly.
Each apprehends confusedly a Good
in which the mind may rest, and longs for It;
and, thus, all strive to reach that Good; but if
the love that urges you to know It or
to reach that Good is lax, this terrace, after
a just repentance, punishes for that.
There is a different good, which does not make
men glad; it is not happiness, is not
true essence, fruit and root of every good.
The love that—profligately—yields to that
is wept on in three terraces above us;
Purgatorio Canto XVII, 91-132, Mandelbaum
At this point Virgil and Dante stand on the terrace of the slothful. Virgil explains that every human loves. Where we direct that love, then, makes all the difference. It is good “As long as it’s directed toward the First Good and tends toward secondary goods with measure.” In other words, as long humans place God as their first love and love other good things to the right degree, love goes well. It is when love fails to do this and “choose[s] an evil object or err[s] through too much or too little vigor” that love goes bad. Virgil lays out three ways that love “seeks the good distortedly,” which cause pride, envy, and wrath, respectively. These three sins are purged on the three terraces below them. On the terrace of the slothful, on which they currently stand, love that is lax or lacks vigor is purged by running. Sinful behavior is corrected by a counter-discipline. The three terraces above them purge excessive or profligate love of secondary good things: possessions, food, and sex, which are the sins of greed, gluttony, and lust. Thus human love can go wrong in three ways: it can love something that is bad, it can be too weak, or it can love a secondary good, something other than God, beyond proper measure.
In the next canto, but still on the same terrace, Virgil re-iterates the possibility that love can go wrong.
Now you can plainly see how deeply hidden
truth is from scrutinists who would insist
that every love is, in itself, praiseworthy;
and they are led to error by the matter
of love, because it may seem—always—good;
but not each seal is fine, although the wax is.
Purgatorio XVIII, 34-39, Mandelbaum
Though the wax is good, a seal may be bad and leave a poor imprint. Likewise, though love is good, its application may be bad. Purgatory is the place where these loves are corrected and directed towards good things in their proper order and measure. The right ordering of love is an idea that Dante draws from St. Augustine.
Central to many of Augustine works is the dual command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk. 10:27). For Augustine, the second command, to love your neighbor, flows from the first command. Only in loving God first and most can we love our neighbor rightly. In fact, we love other people best by loving them in God. All other loves are out of alignment if God is not placed first.
The person who lives a just and holy life is one who is a sound judge of these things. He is also a person who has ordered his love, so that he does not love what it is wrong to love, or fail to love what should be loved, or love too much what should be loved less (or love too little what should be loved more), or love two things equally if one of them should be loved either less or more than the other, or love things either more of less if they should be loved equally. No sinner, qua sinner, should be loved; every human being, qua human being, should be loved on God’s account; and God should be loved for himself.
(On Christian Teaching, Bk. I, 27)
Several things flow out of Augustine’s words. First, true love is intimately related to the love of God. If our “love” results in loving something more than God, we must question whether it is in fact love. One of the most subtle dangers is loving a good thing more than God.
Second, love of God entails obedience to God. The same John who declare that love was enough wrote that, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments” (1 Jn. 5:2). Obedience to God and love of God are bound together. Such a view is rather counterintuitive. Obedience would seem to kill love, yet much is counterintuitive when are our intuition is out of alignment.
I write this recognizing that many Christians have a narrow understanding of obedience to God. Sometimes our obedience is not to God, but to our preconceptions of God. If we find our obedience causes us to not be loving, we must seriously question the form that our obedience takes. John writes, “If anyone says, “‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn. 4:20). It is like a möbius strip. We display our love through obedience, but we also display our obedience through love. I find myself constantly having to recalibrate my love and obedience as my understanding of each deepens. When Christians call attention to sin, the ultimate aim is love. Since God made us, only he can tell us how to live a truly happy life. As Augustine wrote of God, “You made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Confessions 1.1.1)
There is this paradox in love. Sometimes love is a scalpel knife, cutting out the tumor; what appears not loving may be the most loving thing possible. As T.S. Eliot writes:
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
The Four Quartets, “East Coker”
Sometimes God’s compassion, and ours, must be “sharp.” For this reason, our understanding of love must be equally sharp, for a dull blade wounds more than it cures. It also makes all the difference in the world that the surgeon is himself wounded. When we must cut, we must remember that our surgeon was wounded for the sake of our sickness. God has experienced the blade with which he cuts. And lest we become prideful, the cancer we seek to cure is the cancer we share.