Office Hours: The Sweet Science, Part 2

Sep 01, 2010 |J. Budziszewski

All you need is love, love, love. Right?  

Part 1: The Sweet Science »

I had just reminded Peter that you can't promise to have a feeling. So when a man and woman getting married promise to love each other until death, that can't be what they're promising. Love is a commitment of the will to the true good of the other person. I thought we were finished, but we weren't.

"Don't you see?" he asked.

"See what?"

"That only makes the problem worse."

I lifted an eyebrow. "Why? Are you confused now about what romantic love has to do with feelings at all?"

"Well, that too, but can we come back to that? When I said it makes the problem worse, I meant something different."

"Then what did you mean?"

"Well, Professor, a commitment of the will to the true good of the other person isn't just a definition of romantic love, is it? Isn't it also a definition of charity or agape or 'Christian love' or whatever you want to call it?"

"Yes," I answered.

"So charity and romantic love are the same thing. But I should have charity for everyone, right? 'Love your neighbor' — I should love all my neighbors."

"Ye-es."

"So why shouldn't I love them all that way?" he continued. "There's no particular reason I should marry only one girl; I could marry a dozen girls, a hundred, a thousand. In fact, since I should love all girls, there's no particular reason to have such a thing as 'marriage.' I should just —"

Snorting with laughter, I almost choked on my coffee. "Slow down! You've — you've — taken a wrong turn."

"Where?"

"Right at the beginning."

"What are you calling the beginning?"

"When you said charity and romantic love are the same thing."

"C'mon," he protested. "If both are a commitment of the will to the true good of the other person, how could they not be the same thing?"

I answered, "That's like saying that since every cat is a mammal, every mammal must be a cat. Romantic love is a particular mode of charity. Call it erotic charity. Every mode of charity is different."

"But if erotic charity is a mode of charity, and charity is unlimited, then erotic charity is a mode of something unlimited, so why isn't it unlimited too?"

"It's true that I should love all my neighbors, but it doesn't follow that I should love each of them in the same way."

"Why not?"

"Well, Peter, is love for parents a mode of charity?"

"Should our will be committed to our parents true good."

"Yes."

"I ask again: Is love for parents a mode of charity?"

This time he answered, "Yes."

"I agree. So should you love my parents?"

"As neighbors, sure I should love them."

"As neighbors, sure. But should you love them as your parents?"

"Well, no."

"So filial charity isn't universal either."

"No, but that's different, Professor. I should love my parents as my parents because they are my parents. Your parents just aren't my parents."

"In the same way, then, why shouldn't you say you should love your wife as your wife because she is your wife? My wife just isn't your wife."

"Because the cases are too different."

"How so?" I asked.

"My parents are my parents because I was born to them," he said. "That's an objective biological fact. You and your wife weren't born married."

I answered, "No, my wife and I are married because we exchanged marital vows. That's an objective moral fact."

"The cases are still too different. I couldn't have been born from many mothers. You don't have to give me a reason not to, because it's impossible. But I could exchange marital vows with more women. You do have to give me a reason not to, and you haven't."

"Quite true. I do have to. But I can."

"Give me one."

"One of the things that the bond between a man and a woman is about is having and raising children. Every child needs a mom and dad. But if a man has children with many women, or a woman with many men, then his care for his children is impaired. Aren't we having an epidemic of fatherless children for just that reason?"

Peter thought that over. "I sort of see that, Professor. I mean, I see why that would be a good reason to tell people not to get sexually involved with lots of people. But that doesn't mean sexual love is somehow limited to one person in itself. It only means that no matter how many people you're in love with, you shouldn't get sexually involved with more than one."

"I understand what you're telling me," I answered. "You mean that the good of the children imposes a limit on sexual love, so to speak, from the outside."

"Yeah. What I want to know is whether it's limited from the inside — whether from its own nature sexual love is somehow limited to one person."

I grinned. "Lovers say it is. Aren't love poems all through history and all over the world addressed from the lover to the beloved? A lyric "to my darlings, Mary, Ellen, Susan, Penelope, Martha, Hortense, and Gwen" would be recognized everywhere as farce."

His mouth shaped an answering smile. "I guess it would be. But if that's true, what is it about love that makes it true? Why is it that having a lot of lovers makes a farce of romantic love instead of enlarging it?"

"What do you think?"

He reflected for a few moments, then he said, "I just remembered something else you said in class once about love. You called it a 'mutual and total gift of self' to the other person. Would that be the reason? Because if you give yourself totally to another person, there's none left to give someone else?"

"It is a total gift of self, but that's not exactly the reason. In some ways you can give yourself totally to more than one. Think of Christ dying on the Cross for our sins. Think of a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his buddies."

"I notice you said 'in some ways,' Peter said." Do you mean there are other ways in which you can't give yourself totally to more than one? And romantic love is one of them?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Can't you guess?"

"No."

"You're forgetting the most obvious and distinctive thing about romantic love."

"I don't know what."

"Do you remember the line from the Song of Songs you mentioned earlier?" See "The Sweet Science, Part 1."

"You mean where the lover says to the beloved, 'Kiss me with kisses of your mouth'?"

"Exactly."

"Are you just reminding me that romantic love is expressed through the body?"

"You're getting warm, but all human action and relationship is expressed through the body. Parents know their infants through the way they wiggle, coo, and fill their diapers. Furniture movers know their partners through the way they position their limbs and the way their sweat smells."

"Well, yes, I guess, but romantic love is even more, um, bodily. I mean, marriage isn't even completed until — is that the right word? Completed?"

"Completed. Consummated. Until what, Peter?"

"Until they join their bodies."

"Yes. Now do you see how profoundly that sets sexual love profoundly apart from all other loves? Our bodies are what individuate us."

He looked a little lost. "You'd better unwrap that one pretty slowly, Prof."

"Look," I said. You and I are equally human, yet we distinguish me, this human (I slapped my chest), from you, that human (he grinned and slapped his) through the difference in our matter, in our bodies. I don't mean we don't have any other differences, and I don't mean we don't have souls. But all of the other differences between us are known and experienced through that difference. And even the soul itself makes itself known to other souls only through the body."

"I think — yeah, I'm getting it — keep going."

"Okay, now notice what this means. All charity is a gift of self to others in the general sense that I spend myself for their true good. Right?"

"Yes."

"But the consummation of erotic love is a gift of self in a way that no other gift of self can be, because —"

"I've got it!" he said. "Because it's a joining of the very thing that makes them two selves in the first place! Right? Right?"

"Right," I answered. "Any other gift of self can be made to any number of persons, but this gift of self picks out one person from the multitude and makes my body hers. Bone cries to bone and flesh cries to flesh, "Here at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; I give myself to you and no other."

"Whoosh," Peter said. I didn't answer because although I'm sure the utterance had some propositional content, I wasn't sure what it was.

After a few moments, I added, "To return to your other issue —"

Dazed, he said "Did I have another issue?"

"You said you did."

"What was it again?"

"What all this has to do with the feelings at all."

"Oh, yeah," he said. "I remember now. That's sort of where we started, isn't it?"

His eyes wandered over my office. I suppose he was thinking it all over. Coming back into focus, they locked onto me.

"You know what, Professor?"

"What?"

"I think maybe I can work that part out for myself."

Copyright 2010 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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