Don’t Believe in Modern Love

Jeff McLeod - Modern Love


It might sound like a throwaway question along the lines of “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” But St. Thomas asked in all earnestness how many souls we have. More precisely, “Whether there are other souls besides the intellectual soul, essentially different from the intellectual soul, in man” (ST I, 76, Art. 3).

St. Thomas in his day knew the temptation was to imagine there were too many souls, not to imagine there was no soul at all. For someone to believe there is no soul at all would mean they simply don’t understand the meaning of the word soul. Surely they don’t pester the tour guide, “I’ve seen the library, and the dorms, and the classrooms, but where is the University?” The soul is not an extra something in the body, it has to do with the body being an organized, purposeful whole.

I think St. Thomas was right that it’s all too tempting to think of man as having too many souls. In everyday life we talk about ourselves in terms of a thinking part and a feeling part and we envision them at odds with one another, as if they had minds of their own. We may feel unhappy or angry without knowing why. Some people will become enraged at other drivers on the highway in a manner that is fully disproportionate to the situation. We eat more than we intended, and we smoke though we know it is bad for us. Even St. Paul described the experience of personal division when he said in Romans 7:23 that he felt as if he were governed by two laws, one within his members and another in his mind. We speak as though we are mere spectators to a battle between our animal soul and our intelligent soul.

Science goads us on. We learn, for example, that a person’s reasoning functions reside in the frontal cortex of the brain, that memories reside in the hippocampus, and that emotions go through the amygdala and involve the endocrine system. Thus we get swept away by the mechanical metaphor and envision each part of us being a cog in what is essentially a mechanical system which governs us through multiple little motors, strangers to one another.

St. Thomas assures us that there is indeed one rational soul that governs the total person, and this soul creates new capacities in us by subsuming the lower animal functions. In the infusion of the intellectual soul, all of the “component” parts, so to speak, are transformed and elevated into a new whole with new properties. We are not animal-men, we are a new creation. I just love that the German language has two words for the verb “to eat.” For animals, the word is fressen, and for humans the word is essen. Human nature raises the animal functions to a higher plane. Dogs don’t put linen on the dinner table and light candles, we do. They don’t engage in modesty or courtship either. God has elevated the animal nature in us.

How can the lower souls be elevated by the intellectual soul? We can envision this if we consider that we can take three sticks, each possessing the property of length, and combine them into a triangle which throws the sticks into a different ground against which new properties emerge, properties such as angle, side, base, height, and area. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the parts realize their latent potential when configured into a whole. The sticks, strictly speaking, are no more.

Confusion about the unity and integrity of the human person, and the soul, has profound consequences for how we think about ourselves. Take love for example. I would like to explore the concept of love briefly here to show how, just like the soul itself, love has both sensitive and rational aspects. Just as we can be blinded to the potential of a person by reducing him to degenerate animal and nutritive souls, i.e. brain parts or “motors,” so also we deprive ourselves of the joy of real love by having a false picture of ourselves as disjointed and dis-integrated.

The relevant part of the Summa Theologiae is ST, I-II, 26. On love. What St. Thomas says here is easily confirmed by personal experience, but I must note that his is a first rate psychology. It is a more insightful and nuanced theory of emotion than many of the theories taught in psychology textbooks today.

St. Thomas examines the semantic field of the idea of love, beginning with the Latin word amor to denote the core idea of love as a passion, or emotion. Amor is the innate motivating source that draws us out from ourselves toward life. It moves us unconsciously as it were towards an external object, toward a particular good we recognize as particularly fitting for us, toward something that we perceive as being able to complete us. It is the powerful inclination toward an object, whether that object is our favorite song, our spouse, or a very large slice of carrot cake.

The Greek word eros, which Thomistic philosopher Josef Pieper provocatively described as “intoxicated god-sent madness” is recognized as an apt synonym for the Latin amor. By the way I learned much of what I know about the philosophy of love from Pieper and I highly recommend his work Faith, Hope and Love to all readers [1].

This love, amor, is a passion in the literal sense of something not being willed, but rather suffered within us; and more than that, amor is something that enraptures us and draws us forward with great urgency.

But St. Thomas goes on to differentiate two aspects of this love that appear in humans: not only is there a strictly sensitive love (i.e., love as passion) but there is a derivative, or analogous rational love, i.e., a love that is proper to a reasoning person. We are human beings with intellect and will. It makes perfect sense that since we are integrated living organisms whose animal nature is elevated by our intellectual soul, the passion of amor is likewise transformed into a purified love. Two rational species of love are: dilectio (=desire), with connotations emphasizing election and choice; and caritas (=charity), which is an evaluation of the object of our love as having very high intrinsic value.

Because we love rationally by our nature, our love has (or is supposed to have) depth and dimension. This triad of loves, amordilectio, and caritas reveals our true and complete nature. Anything less than this full picture of love is not the love of the whole person, it is the love of an animal. Do humans sometimes eat like animals? Yes we do. Do we feel good about it? No we don’t. Should we love and show affection like animals do, i.e. is it acceptable to be indiscriminant, selfish and impulsive? Modern love seems to say not only yes, but a most enthusiastic yes.

How does Christian love elevate the modern love which isn’t really love? Let’s compare the two.

The dimension of desire, dilectio, implies a decision as can be seen by the root election within the word. Pure amor becomes the love of a person for another person. You love your beloved not because you are in love with being in love, but because you chose him or her. You came to know them and you pointed to them and said, you, I choose you, by an act of my will. There is also the idea of exclusivity in the concept that love is choosing. Love is not a decision in the sense of drawing two columns on a legal pad and weighing the pros and cons, as if buying a horse. It is choosing the person with whom we wish to share a destiny in life. It is choosing the person whom we will allow to change us and shape our lives.

Now add the dimension of caritas. This lovely Latin word began in the ancient marketplace where it referred to something of great value. Thus the Roman author Varro used this word in a civil treatise to instruct farmers on what must be done in order that they might sell their produce at a high price, Ut tum vendas cum caritas est. The first Christians seized on this word as an expression for the intelligent, objective, dare I say infinite love one person has for another, and the love God has for us. Deus caritas est. The connotation of caritas applying to a thing of great value implies also that the lover is willing to suffer and undergo great pain and discomfort for the sake of the beloved.

Modern love emphasizes undifferentiated amor, and to the extent that it recognizes the complementary ideas of choice, deliberation, and caritas, it recognizes degenerate notions of these along the lines of weighing the pros and cons when buying a car, or seeing your car as better than other men’s cars. Modern love does not reckon with the intrinsic value of the beloved. Modern love is obsessive, possessive, and self-centered because it is after all the satisfaction of passion.

What happens if we sever amor from caritas? This is also an aspect of modern love. I will note again that the word caritas is most often translated as charity. In recent years, this has not been the case, and I believe the reason is that charity has become a pejorative term due precisely to its being severed from the holistic, Catholic love that gave birth to it. Charity has become a contemptible thing wherein the lover gives to the other out of pity, having been moved to action by the wretchedness of the receiver. It is almost a mechanical act performed out of guilt or obligation.

The saints show us a different kind of caritas. Their Christian love is shot-through with a joy and passion that the world does not understand. There is always amor in caritas. Josef Pieper tells us that the verb amare has roots in the word “same.” We have a natural love and attraction to other people in part because we recognize them as being like us. We sense we come from the same place, and that we are here on earth for a blessed purpose. A mysterious bond connects us. We can love others quite passionately in the act of charity if we see them clearly enough. G.K. Chesterton said we do not understand St. Francis of Assisi if we view him as merely a holy man; we must view him as a man who was passionately in love. This is what I am getting at.

In closing, let me offer a very familiar paragraph from the Bible, one that is read at many wedding Masses. I hope it takes on deeper meaning today, as St. Paul tells the Corinthians exactly what human love is and what it is not:

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NABRE translation).

Human love is intelligent, rational love. We know this because we are not merely animals, we are transformed into something new. It is this kind of transformation that God has in mind for us, and that St. Athanasius had in mind when he said that “the glory of God is man fully alive.” We are destined for divinity as adopted sons and daughters of God. Our individual souls are the necessary and sufficient principles that manifest this possibility in us through love.

[1] Pieper, J. (1997). Faith, Hope, Love. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

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16 thoughts on “Don’t Believe in Modern Love”

  1. “It is choosing the person with whom we wish to share a destiny in life. It is choosing the person whom we will allow to change us and shape our lives.”

    Jeff this sentence resonated with me right away. It was felt at the time of meeting my
    wife, but never intellectualized. She was the exact opposite of a domineering person or even one that would be called a leader, she looked to me for leadership in the common understanding. Actually a great sense of freedom accompanied it. Not the usual nonsense about the “chains of matrimony”. The chains for both of us were found in the suffering she endured with her physical body.

    1. I’m so glad you noticed this, thank you. It is the most personal line in what I wrote because this describes my own marriage as well. Marriage entails reciprocity in ways we can never predict, but must embrace. Thank you Howard.

  2. Jeff, it stands to reason that if God elevated us from our animal selves we should
    not be eating that which we have been elevated from. Eastern deism has taught this
    ( as Genesis once did ) since the beginning. So, if we still have higher planes to reach on this drive (eating) maybe it’s true of love, desire and charity (eros) too.

    1. You can imagine that my reply has to do with the Incarnation.

      Once God became man, remember he was not only consubstantial with the Father, he was consubstantial with us.

      The scandal of the Incarnation is that human nature — and that includes our animal aspects — became divinized. Our mission is to live in our concrete world, to sanctify it, and to return it to God. The Incarnation embraces our concrete nature.

    2. Jesus sometimes fasted, sometimes ate Passover lamb. He multiplied fish as well as loaves. He also grilled fish and ate it for breakfast — and that was after the Resurrection.

      There is nothing wrong with vegetarianism; and the Fathers were clear that despite the pagan and occult associations of vegetarianism in the ancient world, it was okay for individuals to choose to fast from flesh, milk, etc. throughout the whole year. But it was okay as an exception to normal life. They were also clear that there is nothing wrong with eating meat and fish, or drinking milk and eating butter. Jesus was our example in this, as in other things.

      Catholicism has always taught that, like Jesus, we will be resurrected with bodies, not as bodiless souls. We will always have “animal selves,” but inside us too, the lion will lay down with the lamb. Soul and body were not created to be enemies, but friends and partners. When we are made new, we will know even better why God loved matter and created it to be “very good.”

    3. Jesus ( God ) said in Genesis 1:29 what we humans were expected and encouraged to eat. Then, after the flood, the
      authors of the bible changed God’s mind for Him and not
      only allowed the breaking of the 5th command (not to kill)
      but degraded certain fauna into blood sacrifices. As I said,
      Jesus had all He could do to convince Pharisees and Samaritans to love each other, he wasn’t about to take on
      at that point in history man’s diet before the fall. Take your
      family to any abbatoir banshee and have lunch inside on me.

  3. Dr. McLeod, this is nicely written. Thank you for sharing. When you rightly point out that modern love is self-centered and possessive, I am reminded of a rather telling quote from “Mad Men”: “what you call ‘love’ was invented by guys like me in order to sell nylons.”

    One thing, though: the German words (in the infinitive) for animal and human eating are not “issen” and “frissen,” but rather “essen” and “fressen.”

    1. Thank you WSquared for your German infinitive correction, I have edited the piece accordingly.

      Wise observation about Mad Men. You opened a whole new dimension — modern love is conditioned by advertising and the need to sell stuff. Many kids think advertising depicts the world as it really is and feel as if they are missing something.

    2. You’re most welcome.

      Regarding advertising and what we are conditioned to think of as “good,” you might want to read Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How A Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Harvard, 2012) if you haven’t already. In it, Gregory discusses “Living the Goods Life,” among other things.

      The whole book is worth chewing over as a good one to think with,
      particularly as an exploration of what happens when we de-couple faith from reason (to cut a long story short, by doing so, we end up with neither faith nor reason– there’s probably room for opening up 1 Cor 13 in another way here, namely the part about how “if I do not have love, I have nothing,” which brings us back to your apt statement that human love is intelligent, rational love).

      modern love is conditioned by advertising and the need to sell stuff.

      Very true. And the truth of what you’ve written often comes to a head during something like wedding planning. We see this whenever the Sacramental/liturgical sense of marriage and married love is lost even among many Catholics, whereby getting married in the Church has become categorized as one mere aesthetic choice among many known as the “church wedding.”

      The “church wedding” is sold or billed as “pretty,” “formal,” “proper,” “traditional” (or the flipside is “fussy” and “with all the trimmings”) and/or as something one does to “please” one’s family or “keep the peace,” with no intimate spiritual or intellectual sense of what Benedict XVI wrote in both Caritas in Veritate and Deus Caritas Est. There is no sense that God enables us to love more fully than we ever imagined, He being Love and Being Itself; rather, we “go to church” where “the Big Guy Upstairs” somehow “signs off” on some mostly emotional “choice” that we made.

      Many kids think advertising depicts the world as it really is and feel as if they are missing something.

      This isn’t just true of kids. It’s true also of many adults. And it’s not just advertising, but one’s “identity” as a consumer, whereby yet another pervasive and related idea is that because one pays for something, or believes one has the ability to, then one is entitled to get what one wants.

      “we do not understand St. Francis of Assisi if we view him as merely a holy man; we must view him as a man who was passionately in love.”

      The words “live in My Love” spring to mind, to say nothing of St. John’s Gospel on the True Vine.

    3. You have shared so much insight here, I am just absorbing it. I will take a look at Gregory’s book, though I’m almost afraid of what I might find!

      Perhaps you should write a piece on wedding planning, once again you opened a whole dimension on the topic of love that I didn’t envision. You are on to something there, the wedding as a social event seems to heighten self-deception, which is the very opposite of what is needed for a real and holy marriage.

      I can’t tell you how much I gained by reading your thoughts here just now. Thank you.

    4. Dr. McLeod, first of all, thank you for this engaging discussion. Regarding Gregory’s book, it’s an invitation to “be not afraid.” 😉 For one, what he argues is that the oft-taken-for-granted and “commonplace” assumption that faith and reason are antithetical is historically contingent. What we’re dealing with is a historical moment where nobody (seemingly) can agree on how to interpret Scripture, and the state of modern philosophy can barely even agree on Truth (let alone whether it exists). All of the fragmentation again poses the age-old problem of what Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome have to do with each other. Dealing with the thread below this one, we’re in an odd theological moment where even among many Catholics, the Incarnation is the elephant in the room.

      It’s not for nothing that Fr. Robert Barron has written The Priority of Christ, which examines modern philosophy and proposes that Christ is the true hermeneutic, and that Benedict XVI wrote his Jesus of Nazareth books that pose the question of how we even read Scripture, even and especially in light of not only the historical-critical method, but Divino Afflante Spiritu.

      So Gregory gives us a ton to work with while acknowledging historical truth: that yeah, a lot of professed Catholics did not live up to their beliefs. But then again, the Lord said to take heart, for He had overcome the world: He promised us that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church, but He did not promise us a sinless Church (or what would seem to our perceptions a sinless Church) as any sort of facile “proof” that the gates of Hell would not prevail. Else there would be no real need for redemption, and forgiveness (and mercy) would be meaningless.

      You are on to something there, the wedding as a social event seems to heighten self-deception, which is the very opposite of what is needed for a real and holy marriage.

      I think that tons of other people have said these things far better and eloquently than I, but for what it’s worth, every bride has a ton of cultural baggage to sort through, if it indeed occurs to her to do so: there are a ton of cultural expectations on what it means for her to be a bride, but also a woman. Even if she suspects as much, she often does not know where to begin. Even many secular discussions about weddings that decry the wedding industry’s emphasis on “buying and selling stuff” have some sense that “Your Wedding is not All About You.” But even there, wanting to marry in the Catholic Church is often reduced to one aesthetic choice among many: there is rarely any curiosity as to what it means to actually marry in the Catholic Church (as opposed to getting married in a church), and there is sometimes an emphasis on “family tradition” and “ceremony” (usually with a few personalized touches), but no sense of liturgy or the Sacrament (and also that one should not profane it).

      The lack of the sense of the sacred is quite pervasive, and it’s even a good example of what Ross Douthat has recently called “bad religion” (I haven’t read the book; only the reviews). Sometimes, even if the sacred matters, it’s still reduced to “God talk” or other personalized pious bromides; only in such a cultural context could anyone complain that 1 Cor 13 is “so overdone” when if one reads it carefully and thinks and prays with it, honesty would reveal very quickly that the reason why it has staying power is that it’s the one we all stink at. Daily). Moreover, one ex-Catholic I encountered was quite adamant that she would not have a unity candle at her wedding, since it was a “Catholic”/”religious” thing. She didn’t know that it mostly originated in soap opera (if memory serves me correctly), and that the Church mostly discourages it because it is not part of the liturgy: moreover, the ultimate unifier– and not just symbol– of the couple who becomes “one flesh” is the Eucharist. That the rite of marriage in a Nuptial Mass takes place within the Liturgy of the Eucharist is no accident.

      Even among those who will admit that the Catholic Church is heavy artillery against the “wedding industrial complex,” as one wedding blog put it, there is not much of a sense (though there has been some) that the prime reason for that is that the Church as the Body of Christ is called to be counter-cultural, and what makes for that counter-cultural sense of being is the Church’s teachings on love, sex, and marriage. Again, if Christ is God Incarnate, then it does have some bearing on what we mean by “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” (perhaps the Latin “sicut in Caelo et in Terra” makes it clearer as to what– and Whom– is actually present). It also speaks, I think, to something that Fr. Barron points out repeatedly: in a culture that often domesticates Christ, we often forget that He is, well, strange.

    5. Quick notes. I used the phrase “wedding industrial complex” while teaching a class, and asked what people thought. They laughed while nodding enthusiastically. In another class I led a discussion about our shallow and rigid schema of the concept of “wedding,” and what constitutes a proper wedding. It got their attention, and they were very intrigued by my steering the discussion toward how mainstream culture is beneath us, that elevated and radical lives are needed.

      Also: I will never view the “unity candle” in the same way again. Of course you are spot on. What a flimsy substitute for the Eucharist.

      Also, I did indeed get Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation and thanks to you I am riveted by it. It is a deep and scholarly book. Wow. I’ll be checking back in to discuss this more. Love the book. And your comments about weddings, as I said, are sharp as a tack. Fantastic.

    6. Dr. McLeod, I’m so glad that Gregory’s book is proving good to think with, and that your class discussion has been fruitful. Gregory’s Unintended Reformation is a book I’d like to read again. Ever since it came out, I’ve been contending that it should be on every Catholic’s reading list for The Year of Faith. One aspect of the book (among many) that was very instructive was Gregory’s account of the fracturing of the Catholic worldview and its influence in everyday life: when that worldview recedes, the more interesting question is what it cedes ground to.

      Linking “living the goods life” with the subject of weddings and the need to sell stuff, there’s Rebecca Mead’s One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, which is an approachable journalistic account, and the more scholarly Brides, Inc.: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition by Vicki Howard that does get down to… business. Mead’s book directly and indirectly deals with the fact that something larger is at stake– namely, the presentation of an idealized self.

      Moreover, Gregory’s book and what we’ve been discussing about love and the Incarnation also pertain to the correct relationship between matter and spirit. Respect for the fullness of the human person is why Caritas matters, and why John Paul II taught that lust within marriage is still sinful. In so far as weddings are social events, if love is understood primarily as an emotion and warm fuzzies, and if love does not have to answer to right use of reason, one then wonders what kind of society results.

      Moreover, as Roxanne Carter at once put it, is a wedding an expression of ourselves (and how cute we are as a couple), or is it witness to what makes us belong to God (which has implications for what we mean by any authentic sense of self, anyway, and what it means to will the best for the other as other)? If we’re going to say that a wedding ceremony “reflects the couple’s relationship and their love for each other,” that rather begs the question– again– of what we even mean by “love.” “Consent” also begs the question of what we’ve consented to. A couple’s free consent is necessary for the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony to be valid. But Holy Matrimony does not acquiesce to “love is whatever we want it to mean.” Love that is subject to the right use of reason actually holds people accountable.

      Piggybacking on your comment that the unity candle is a flimsy substitute for the Eucharist, Fr. Gerald P. Carey wrote a beautiful circular letter to his brother priests while he worked for the Office of Worship in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia:
      Liturgical abuse (although the unity candle is hardly the most serious example) is problematic, and how it compounds the already existing problem of years of bad catechesis in an already fragmented culture.

      I had to do a ton of unpacking when I was preparing for our wedding, which cut in two directions simultaneously– namely, why I even had certain cultural assumptions about love, marriage, and things, and also what it means to marry in the Catholic Church as well as what it means to be Catholic, period. Pope Benedict is probably about the last person anyone would think of in the same sentence as “wedding planning.” But he was there for me.

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