Falling in love with Love (2)

 This post is a follow-up on the previous one.  It is an updated version of a number of tentative responses which I had made to comments on my last blog.  In this regard I am indebted to Terry Sissons and Bob Willis for their comprehension, insights, focus  and clarity of expression. Putting my response into a post is intended to open the discussion to all. 

 I might feel personally committed to loving Love as the very condition of possibility of loving a real-life human being in their full reality.   I recognize, however, that there are many people who have people that they love, but who do not “love Love.”  They have other priorities in life.  I have also observed that these people do NOT shrivel up and die, and in many cases seem to thrive or at least to be no worse off than those of us who have chosen the more “mystical” approach to human community.

 And “community” is ultimately the issue: how human organisms interpret the “species-thing” which spawns them, by which they survive and in which they remain immersed all their lives.  My view here runs directly contrary to the radical individualism which often functions unchallenged in the imagery we have of ourselves. 

Individualism imagines that belonging to human society is like being the member of a club or a tenant in an apartment building or a homeowner in a residential neighborhood.  Individuals here are the primary reality; the aggregate, such as it is, is secondary.  The “club-member” image leaves out the pre-emptive and homogenizing power of culture and the metaphysical depth at which it organizes its community.  The analogy I would use instead is that of the many-headed hydra.  This mythological animal is one organism with many heads, all of whom identify with who they are.  The one organism is the cultural community, and the many heads are the so-called “individuals” who comprise it and work together for its survival and advancement.  The real “community” to which we belong is primary: it determines who we think we are and how we think we should live.

Analogies, like all metaphors, are not meant to be taken literally.  The “hydra” imagery is designed to force the imagination to be more aware of the dominant and perduring role of the cultural community — the locus of that set of virtualities created to direct the behaviors of rational organisms, filling the gaps left by the loss of instinctual directedness.  Society and its behavioral imperatives are the result.  They are fictions … but they are fictions that run our lives.  They may even be subconscious but they rule us and we obey them.  We can separate from them, but only with great difficulty, and only if we are absorbed into another commu­nity.  The image of the many-headed hydra is meant to disabuse us of any thought that we are absolutely independent individuals who can function outside of a cultural community. 

 In the area of “love” there are two false assumptions that I am challenging.  One is that “love” as we understand it, is a stand-alone pre-existing “thing,” a physical or metaphysical reality, a “person”(“God”), the ground of being and therefore the very meaning of existence.  And two, as a consequence, that the value choices (those virtualities that comprise culture) which run counter to that reality are anti-human and sooner or later will turn their adherents into dysfunctional self-centered idiopaths incapable of any socially constructive human interaction.

 In contrast I am saying that the whole enchilada is our choice.  That there is some pre-existing metaphysical reality beyond human survival that constrains our choices is a myth that almost by necessity accompanies every culture’s self-projection.  It is the primary mechanism for generating confidence in the common vision and its required behavior.  We have changed our social self-definition in the past, and may be in the process of changing it again.  Once those cultural shifts are made — and they take a very long time to complete — people live and thrive (or “shrivel”) based on the standards set by those conventional norms not in terms of some pre-existing metaphysical or physical reality.  In other words, cultural norms are typically projected as “absolute and objective,” but they are in fact all relative and collectively subjective.  They are created by the human community. 

 So, to apply this to our examples, human interaction as only sex or the maternal instinct (physical realities), or the “love” that is claimed to have spawned them (metaphysical-religious “realities”), potentially can be replaced by some other determinant.  We have all had experience of people who have chosen to live by priorities other than physical or metaphysical “love” — like those who identify authentic human achievement exclusively with the accumulation of goods, or the acquisition of social prestige — and while we may demur at their priorities, and complain that their beliefs work to the detriment of others, we know that they can be quite content conforming to their chosen set of values and lead satisfied lives.  They pursue their beliefs in good faith.  They do not become social pariahs; they are polite neighbors, law-abiding citizens and reliable in business.  We can easily project a future in which an entire society thinks along the same lines forcing all the heads of the hydra to agree and strive to conform to them or risk shriveling through social defeat.  Such a culture is not unimaginable at all.

 Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol illustrates the confrontation of two sets of such “values” which, over a long period of time, can coalesce into a “culture.”  Dickens was obviously opting for “love” and as an artist sought to construct a narrative that would move his readers to make the “right” choices.  If today I find the unconverted Ebenezer Scrooge an unsavory character, it may be mostly due to Dickens’ artistry.  There is nothing to prevent Scrooge’s values from dominating an entire culture, and indeed, many feel that they have.  Human commu­nity can be ruled by the elevation of conspicuous consumption into a transcendent value, determining worthy partners for reproduction and whether an individual will have enough self-esteem to live a psychologically healthy lifeIn fact, there is nothing to prevent such attitudes from dominating everyone on the planet, rich and poor, western, eastern, northern, southern, first world, third world, each with a social and psychological fallout that correspon­ded to their relative situation.

 What I’m saying is that if we want “love” to rule, and that means with all its egalitarian, generous and non-calculating implications, we have to fall in love with it.  “Love” can become a “reality” only through human loving.  “Love” is an exclusively human phenome­non; there was no such thing as “love” before we appeared, and it definitely was not the primordial condition of the universe of matter from which we have evolved.  If we don’t create love, it won’t exist.  We have to choose it, commit to it and support one another in the effort, for there is no other force or entity in the universe to guarantee its existence.   

 Psychopathic cultures?

 I recently saw “The Pianist,” a movie about the Jewish experience in the Warsaw Ghetto under the Nazis.  I see the Nazi phenomenon as paradigmatic of so-called “dysfunctional” cultural choices — Nazi culture was psychopathic.  My view is contrary to the claim, however, that “life and love are identical” … and hence the conclusion which follows from those premises, that a culture built in the absence of love, like the Nazi, will die out.  I wish it were true.  But if Germany had won the war, the world would have acculturated to those values.

 I used to think “love” was our “very being.”  But I no longer agree that we are dealing with a physical or metaphysical identity here.  It is a cultural choice.  That means that, just like individual psychopaths, psychopathic cultures like the Nazi can exist, and entire populations can live by them, however dysfunctionally, for a very long time — as long as any culture.  I think that it’s better when life and love are identical and I personally strive to make them identical, but I am persuaded that the primacy of “love” is a virtual truth — human wisdom — and not a metaphysical truth.  It’s a choice.  A metaphysical truth would make it a necessity, and we would literally die without it.  As it is we do not die, we live on in pain and inflict pain on others.

 In our current situation the only thing that will stop the cultural madness that we call “modern civilization” is an ecological mistake so irreversible as to end the possibility of life on earth for the human species.  Barring that, it seems that no amount of sado-masochis­tic self-destructive behavior — war, genocide, economic exploitation, social injustice, environmental pollution —  can stop us … nothing we do morally or spiritually will result in our dying out as a species.  Like Macbeth, we can “creep in this petty pace from day to day, until the last syllable of recorded time.”  That we didn’t all just die after what we did to one another in WWII, from Nanking to Auschwitz to Leningrad to Dresden and Hiroshima, is proof enough of that.

 Why is this point worth making?  Is this just another metaphysical quibble on my part?  Why not simply declare that a loving life is “better” and that without it life is impoverished?  I too believe the practical side of this question is the most important, but I believe we have to face our inescapable responsibility.  We can’t afford to deceive ourselves.  We have no marching orders from the Universe.  Love is OUR chosen project.  There was no such thing as “love” as we know it before we came along.  It is our invention, our creation.  There is no one to teach us how to do it; and nothing can help us do it but ourselves.  The “love” that we are in love with is part of our self-embrace.  It is not what we are but rather whom we may choose to be.

 We even assemble the cultural weapons we use to fight this fight, they are ours: our artistry, our poetry, our myths, our religion.  The very fact that every culture claims some pre-existing metaphysical bedrock for its projected vision is, ironically, part of the deception.  It’s one of the fictions we use to help us keep going.  But there is no “love” (as we know and define it) at the heart of the universe.  Any “love” that we recognize as human comes exclusively from human beings.  The “God of Love” is our creation, our projection, our fictional narrative, our “Christmas Carol.”  It is we who make the material universe sacred by loving it … by accepting it as it is, and ourselves as we are — its progeny. 

 Little by little … over unimaginable eons of time … starting even before our eukaryotic single-celled ancestors first invented sexual reproduction, we, matter’s energy, have made ourselves into these bodies of ours.  We, matter’s energy now in human form, use these inherited bodies for our own purposes.  This is our work driven by a material energy which we increasingly manage and direct.

Matter’s energy is “LIFE.”  LIFE is from the beginning.  We would not be here without it.  There is no way we can avoid seeing our dynamic source, matter’s energy, LIFE, as an abundant, uncalculating magnanimity … a profligate limitless generosity and endless availability.  There is a correspondence between what must appear to us as the “unselfish” energy of LIFE and what we call “love.”  We have discovered a paradox: that it is universally fulfilling to imitate in our own relationships the almost infinite self-emptying self-donation that is characteristic of the roiling pool of dynamism — LIFE — that evolved us.  “Love” is how we express, in our terms and in the context of the relationships that sustain us, the limitless universal availability of matter’s energy — LIFE. 

 “Love” is the human expression of LIFE.  Through our choices the self-donation of LIFE stops being unconscious, unspecified, unfocused.  We humans as rational self-disposing, symbol-making organisms, can embrace LIFE as ours; we can appropriate it, make it our project and express it as “love.”  We can choose it.

 It’s a very wise choice … but it is a choice.

7 comments on “Falling in love with Love (2)

  1. rjjwillis says:

    I agree with your main points: 1)There is no “metaphysical love (i.e. God) that propels us to love, 2) That human love is a choice, one that flows out of the culture in which a human being is embedded.

    That being said, I disagree with either what you don’t say or what is implied.

    1) You correctly point out, to my understanding anyway, that a given culture may generate any number of values, not necessarily love, that get rewarded in that society. And that culture can continue on cherishing such values. Certainly. But you seem to imply that this can and will and could go on indefinitely. I disagree. I would say that a society that does not support and promote and value unity generated by mutual consideration and support has within it the seeds of its own destruction. I agree that destruction may be a long time coming, but, I would maintain, it will come. Using my own terminology, a society that is a closed system will inevitably break apart because an open system is in line with our material nature of beings-in-relationship while a closed system isn’t.

    2) I maintain that matter’s energy,Life, is in all matter the inbuilt urge to gather, to unite, to join. In self-reflecting beings like humans that urge takes choice to accomplish; in non self-reflecting beings like a mountain or a river or atoms or molecules or . . . the urge itself directs matter’s energy, Life works naturally to gather with like beings or, at least, with other non-antagonistic beings. And any attempt to shatter that joining is experienced as violence and it releases violent energy. You can think here of a divorce (among humans), or fission (among atoms), or cancer (among self-regulating systems), or floods (breaking out of river banks), or earthquakes tearing apart joined plates of land, or simply death (the breaking down of a self-maintaining system).

    3) I also maintain that any system that refuses to unite with likes or non-antagonistic other beings will, inevitably, self destruct.

    This being said, I agree that human love and Life are not identical. But I would say that Life and the urge to join are identical. Moreover, whether it is the NRA refusing to join in protecting life, or climate-change deniers refusing to change their destructive behavior at the expense of the earth and all its inhabitants, or racists refusing to value the dignity of “those others,” I would say that they are all acting contrary to the nature of matter, matter’s energy, Life.

    I am not as optimistic as you are about the viability of our human cultures, destructive as they are of all about them and about the nature of matter, to survive. At this point, I think that the universe would give a great sigh of relief if we humans just died out and let non-human beings continue on in peace and natural unity.

    My best, Bob

    • tonyequale says:

      Bob, thanks for your thorough assessment. I will respond to each of your points in turn.

      (1) To your first pont: As a matter of practical fact, I agree that an open, cooperative social structure and its corresponding ideological expression is the best. But is it the only way? Even as an ideal is it a product of our culture? In her book Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict sketches three primitive societies that are organized around social values that are at complete variance with our western “christian” culture. One is centered on ritualized paranoia, a second considers competitive individuals to be insane and puts them in “asylums,” and a third displays social superiority by the voluntary abandonment and destruction of personal property. These cultures are assumed to have been like this for millennia and so have proved to be highly viable. This tells me that we choose the way we live, and unless those patterns involve the literal physical destruction of our organisms, we can live with whatever we tell ourselves is good and important … and complying with those norms makes us feel good and important.

      In our own multi millennial culture, are certain violence-based cultural memes sociopathic, or are they “natural”? Militarism, for example, meaning the maintenance of standing armies and the violent coercion that they imply, has been a meme shared among all the cultures of our lineage since the beginning of recorded history. In my opinion the glorification of war and the idolization of the military is as psychopathic as you can get. If it’s a truism that the proliferation of guns inevitably results in an exponential increase in homicide, doesn’t the very existence of standing armies imply their inevitable use in war? If there were no armies, there could never be a war … and since war would be impossible, it might even become inconceievable. Militarism and war constitute a situation that we have lived with since “forever,” if it hasn’t destroyed us up until now, what would prevent us from continuing this insanity forever? The first “armies” were formed six thousand years ago in our ancestral culture. What qualifies as viability?

      (2) To your second point: Aside from some of your examples, I absolutely agree. In fact, that it is an intrinsic property of matter to aggregate, integrate and complexify is one of the principal theses of The Mystery of Matter. In my scheme of things the integrative function accounts for evolution and is observable well before the advent of life in the development of the periodic table of the elements and the emergence of complex and ultimately self-replicating molecules. In us it grounds communitarianism and serves as the ultimate refutation of the radical individualism espoused by Ayn Rand inspired conservatives.

      (3) To your third point: I would repeat my agreement with you about matter’s tendency to integrate. I believe it is natural and forms the physical foundations of communitarianism among us. But, even so, it is not coercive. It makes the communitarian choice reasonable and even superlative, but not necessary, as we in fact see before our eyes.
      I would venture a guess that if we were to relieve the universe of the burden of our humanity, destructive as it appears to be to itself and other species, the universe would simply evolve another conscious and intelligent self-embracing material organism, for I believe such qualities are the natural extrusion of matter’s existential energy. Perhaps that “new” organism will develop trained paleo-anthropologists who will discover our ruins and learn from our mistakes and choose more wisely than we did.

      • theotheri says:

        However it is definied, like Bob. I would agree that “a society that does not support and promote and value unity generated by mutual consideration and support has within it the seeds of its own destruction. I agree that destruction may be a long time coming, but, I would maintain, it will come”

        It has been many years since I’ve read Benedict’s work, and it was read with a different purpose in mind. Having said that, I would not accept Benedict’s work without question. As all of us who have lived in other cultures know, it takes years to get a grasp of some of the subtleties of other cultures. Behaviors interpreted within late 19th and early 20th century European contexts may have misunderstood much. As an example, “competitive behaviour” is often destructive in any culture. Even in our own developed world, some competitive behaviors of both individuals and businesses are outlawed because they are so damaging to the broader community – as our current banking crises have demonstrated. Similarly, do we not award the honor of sainthood to many people who have given their worldly goods to the poor? What behaviors exactly was Benedict describing?

        It seems to me that all possible human behaviors are “natural. This includes love, just as it includes competitive and violent behaviours. Different cultures set standards within which they may be expressed and which are forbidden. As you have pointed out yourself, Tony, it is the context within which behaviors occur that determines their morality, or their destructiveness. What is destructive within one cultural context may be constructive in another. Even what may be defined as “love” in one culture may be defined as criminal or pathological in others. Homosexuality is a current example.

        In that context, I, like you, think that the sanctification of militarism –and I would add terrorism – as it is expressed in the world today is psychopathic. I don’t see how, if it continues, we can possibly avoid self-destructing as a species. So like Bob, I am not benign in the hope that it can continue indefinitely.

        Neither, of course, can we continue endlessly with our environmental destruction. We would not be the first species to die out because our own life styles have destroyed the environment on which our lives depend.

        One last clarification – Tony, I am not defending or elevating economic individuality, as you suggest I am. I don’t think there is such a thing. I’m talking about the importance of a much broader human individuality on which the whole human community depends for its continued health. The ability to protect our individual differences seem to me to be one of the most important signifiers of the health of any individual/community gestalt.

  2. theotheri says:

    Tony – I’ve read this post several times with interest. I have a handful of small quibbles that I think probably reflect nothing more than our individual differences. I have not fallen in love with “love,” for instance, and do not find the same poetic energy in putting it that way that you do. But I take your point.

    Nor am I convinced that love is exclusively human. You have not actually defined what you mean by love, however, and obviously one can limit its definition to something only humans are capable of.

    The issue that seems significant to me, however, is the question of the relationship between the individual and the whole. You point out that there are psychopathic cultures just as there are psychopathic individuals. You describe the terrifying havoc such culture can create, as well as look with despair at individuals whose lives seem to be directed by self-seeking materialism.

    But as with any other organism, the parts and the whole are inextricable. Yes, the parts can grow into an all-consuming cancer that ultimately destroys the whole. But so too, it is the parts that can control disease, that overcome it and preserve the health of the whole. An organism that destroys these essential parts cannot continue to live

    A society that suppresses individuality on a broad enough scale becomes psychopathic. In order to keep power from becoming all-encompassing, society needs the individual AS INDIVIDUALS to remain healthy,. I find it hopeful that it is individuals who are saying to the RC Church today that excommunication, silencing the disruptive, and suppressing accusations against church officials is no longer acceptable. The church is reeling because individuals are saying no.

    Similarly, communism fell because individuals said no. Change didn’t come from above. It came from individuals below. On the other hand, the extreme individualism we see manifest in American politics, the refusal, or inability, to cooperate is terrifying.

    Nonetheless, that individual self-seeking you find so dangerous — and I agree that it can develop into a deadly cancer — is also just as essential to human life and fulfillment, to human love, if you will, as is community. I believe there is a necessary tension between the two that we cannot live without. If we are going to survive at all, both must flourish together.

    • tonyequale says:


      Thanks for following up.

      Of course I agree that individuals have autonomy and affect their social matrix, my only insistence is that we recognize that all the ideas, and all the motivations that drive individuals are culturally generated and socially embedded. Individuals are social artifacts, and in a society of many individuals, the single individual’s contribution, even one with authority, carries weight only in conjunction with others. What appear to be ideas so innovative as to be revolutionary are really the work of a community. Proof of that is the very fact that when the revolutionary speaks, other people understand. That could not be possible if there were no common element. The very sharing of common elements, ideas and motivations, generates the social reality without which no human individual can survive. What gives culture its overwhelming command over our thinking and behavior is that our culture is not really distinct from ourselves.

      The interactive nature of community/individual is not created by an individual confronting a community or vice versa. Neither one is an independent entity. Interaction is rather the living expression of a pre-existing quasi-organismic unity. Relationship is not created by interaction, rather interaction is generated by the relationship.

      It’s important in this conception not to mistake a parasitic authority for the community. The Vatican is not the Church, despite its claims and our imagery. Those who are rejecting the Vatican are a community energized by shared cultural ideas. They take concerted action as a community, and will have effect only as a community. Rebellion is a cultural communitarian phenomenon. Similarly, the Soviet authorities were not “communism.” One can wonder if a true communitarian social experiment has ever been tried. In any case, what brought about the disintegration of central authority in the Soviet Union was the concerted resistance of many people who constituted a cultural movement. “Individuals” were not the agents of change, the movement was, the community.

      Analogously, the very economic individualism that you feel is essential to human life is also a cultural belief, the product of a community of people. Its maintenance ironically depends upon cooperative practices among its practitioners and consensus in their ideas. It’s here, I believe, in the false projections about the exclusive reality of independent individuals where the dangerous “tea-party” ideologies draw their vision. I agree with Bob on the priority of the gestalt — the relationship — the problem as I see it is that we can live on and on, however dysfunctionally, in its denial.

  3. tonyequale says:


    As I said in my last response to your comments on the previous blog, it is somewhat unfortunate that I have obsessed on this issue of love’s metaphysical ground. In part it was an attempt to correct a false impression that I left in my response to Leon two or three blogs back, the one on LIFE.

    Leon clearly got the impression from that blog that I was saying that LIFE and love were identical. That was definitely due to a failure on my part to express myself accurately. The two “falling in love” blogs were an attempt to compensate for that, but, again unfortunately, I tried to do so without reprising the earlier discussion with Leon as context and referencing my corrections to it. I tried to make it clear that LIFE and love are NOT identical, and that we are not physically or metaphysically constrained to love.

    Then, zounds! I felt that I had yawed too much to the side of “non-identity,” now leaving the false impression that “love” doesn’t have a solid ground in LIFE at all, but is simply an arbitrary choice … and as such that LIFE can be as fruitfully embraced without it.

    In what I hope will finally be an adequate clarification (and not a further obfuscation) of what I think LIFE and love ARE, and how I think they are related, I offer the following attempt at a short summary:

    (1) The only physical/metaphysical reality in the universe is LIFE: material energy, universally available, and apparently endless in time and limitless in potential.

    (2) Love is a human word and notion that refers to an exclusively human act and attitude that on the plane of human social interaction attempts to imitate the universal availability of material energy: LIFE.

    (3) LIFE and love are not identical, they are analogues. They function on different planes of existence, LIFE on all planes, love exclusively on the human plane. Human love as we know it is an exclusively human phenomenon. Nothing else in the universe, as far as we know, “loves.”

    (4) Love is grounded in the organismic urges of LIFE, but it is perceived as so grounded by our understanding. We understand our urges to be LIFE, but also, by understanding them, we transcend them, we are not controlled by them, and therefore we can use them as signs and symbols of social relationships — another plane of existence, a virtual world — that we create and choose to live in.

    (5) How we are related to the virtual world that we create with our heads, using our natural urges as symbols, is key to understanding the human phenomenon. What our heads produce is culture, a constellation of symbolic meanings given to natural fuctions. The human organism cannot function outside of a virtual world, and culture alone provides the instructions for functioning in that world.

    Love is the most authentic human analogue for LIFE. But since love is our creation, conceived by our understanding and activated by our choice, it is neither an automatic reflex of our bodies, nor a “command” from some higher power or primal infrastructure which we must obey.

    If “love” is to be loved (made a cultural centerpiece) which I personally espouse and would encourage, it must be consciously chosen and put into practice with all its egalitarian and selfless implications.

    I hope this summary helps.


    • theotheri says:

      Thank you, Tony, for taking the time to explain. What I find most helpful is the realization that this entire discussion harks back to Leon’s original comments. I kept reading and re-reading your posts and thinking that there was something you weren’t saying, that the discussion really was about something else than seemed apparent to me. Putting it into the context of an earlier discussion gives me quite a different perspective.

      I’m not sure now is the time to pursue it, but I do think some day a discussion with you about love, etc., in its own right might be enlightening. As it stands, we are only partly on the same page.

      I’m still wondering how you are defining love so that you can claim that it is uniquely human. Above all, I wonder what you could mean by asking if certain behaviors are “natural.” I know that Catholic theologians can do so, but personally, I cannot think how there can be such a thing as an “unnatural” behavior. Destructive, yes. Immoral, yes. Cruel, psychopathic, illegal, yes. But unnatural?

      Now back to the more mundane world of leaking pipes under the floor board, and a circuit breaker that keeps tripping for unidentified reasons. Speaking of living in mystery…

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