Is Love Really All You Need?

New Oxford Review – July 2017

Fifty years is a long time to beat up a word. Love is the word, and after all these years of battering, it hardly looks itself. Its luster has dulled. Repeated blows have so flattened its majesty that it can mean anything, and thus means nothing.

Its emasculation plunged to new depths recently. After the terrorist massacre at the Orlando nightclub in the summer of 2017, disparate groups arose hysterically chanting “love” as the solution to that barbaric act. Really? Now, I am as desirous as the next guy of a world brimming with love, but this remedy gives cognitive dissonance a new dimension. Imagine groups in 1943 reacting to Auschwitz and Dachau by joining in marches with banners emblazoned, “All You Need Is Love.” Hardly a solution to the Final Solution. In the end, this gauzy antinominalism leads only to more death. If this be love, let us have no part of it.

Such mindless groupthink, a witch’s brew of leftist ideology and therapeutic couture, profoundly eviscerates love, and it is profoundly dangerous to the welfare of society. The Catholic Church will have none of it because she alone shows the world the truth about love, for her Bridegroom is Love incarnate. And herein lies the real, dual answer: You need both love and truth.

All the virtues are regulated, guided, and ordered by truth. So it is that the cardinal virtues take their lead from prudence, an act of the intellect that applies truth to the exercise of all the rest. (Of all the virtues, St. Thomas Aquinas devoted the most time to prudence, citing no less than eight integral parts.) Without truth, a virtue is like a spinning wheel unhinged from its axis; it takes a pell-mell course. The virtue of love is no exception; truth bridles love’s formidable power. The ancient Greeks recognized its fearsome wildness in plays like Euripede’s The Bacchae. Their revered Oracle at Delphi not only warned ancient Greeks to know thyself, it delivered the oft-forgotten yet no less important mandate nothing to excess. Aristotle’s in medio stat virtus (virtue stands in the middle) essentially bowed to truth alone to know the path to the good, thus raising virtue to the impressive heights of arete (excellence).

Love is not some homogenized virtue, one size fitting all. Its legitimate expressions fan out like a rainbow, and its array of lights is dictated by truth. Sometimes love demands severity, sometimes tenderness. Still, other times it demands indifference. T.S. Elliot wrote, “Lord / teach us to love / and not to love.” That enigmatic verse attests to the strict dependence of virtue on truth. How can man know when to love and not to love without the unerring standard of truth? Ecclesiastes dramatically confirms the multilayered inflections of love: “A time to kill, and a time to heal… a time love, and a time to hate… A time for war and a time for peace.” These sacred words, while bracing to pious ears, must be maddening to the dispositions of the sentimentalized Catholics from whom “love” is the answer to all that ails the world.

Poetic weight is added to this teaching by no less a master than Dante. In the Commedia he typically follows Aquinas in acknowledging that love is the reigning raison d’être of every human act. God created man in His own image and likeness, and He wove through every fiber of man’s being a craving for love. Each spiritual particle of man’s nature, indeed of creation itself, bears the imprint of love. St. Augustine testifies to this divine imprint on all of creation, albeit with a slightly different emphasis:

Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air, amply spread around everywhere, question the beauty of the sky, question the serried ranks of the stars, question the sun making the day glorious with its bright beams, question the moon tempering the darkness of the following night with its shining rays, question the animals that move in the waters, that amble about on dry land, that fly in the air; their souls hidden, their bodies evident; the visible bodies needing to be controlled, the invisible souls controlling them. Question all these things. They all answer you, “Here we are, look! We’re beautiful!” Their beauty is their confession. Who made these beautiful changeable things, if not the One Who is beautiful and unchangeable?

Consistent with this Thomistic doctrine, Dante shows how even the seven capital sins are simply variations of love. Pride, envy, and anger are sins of perverted love. As Henry Fairlie wrote in his illuminating book The Seven Deadly Sins Today, “This love is directed to a worthy object – in every case, to oneself – but it is directed in a false manner. The fault in them is that one imagines that one may gain some good for oneself by causing harm to others.” Sloth is a sin of defective love that is directed to a deserving object but not given proper measure. Avarice, gluttony, and lust are sins of excessive love. Again Fairlie: “This love may again be directed to what in themselves are deserving objects, but it is so excessive that it interrupts, and must in the end, destroy one’s capacity to love other objects that are also and perhaps even more deserving.”

War, for instance, is an act of love toward the injured parties of the aggressor, enabling them to live in peace. G. K. Chesterton declared, “The soldier goes to war not because he hates the enemy in front of him, but because he loves those he has left behind him.” It was no accident that St. Bernard of Clairvaux summoned the Second Crusade, that St. Joan of Arc led the armies of France, and that Catholic chaplains ready men’s souls for war. Those closest to God know best love’s splendidly refracted shafts of light.

Penalties for crimes are acts of love toward those who might be victimized by the incursions of the miscreant – or, more according to the mind of St. Thomas, a loving redress of the fabric of the common good torn by the unjust. A parent’s rightful punishment of his child is love’s act, securely building the foundations of character. A student’s failing grade stings, but that “F” is a teacher’s act of love, not only toward the student’s future success, but in tribute to the demands of truth.

Chesterton put his characteristically deft finger on the problem when he wrote, “The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

 Malcolm Muggeridge undoubtedly had this in mind when he wrote about the “inhumanity of the humane” in a 1978 New York Times editorial. Humanism without truth does indeed become inhuman when truth has ceased to be its compass. Today’s young chanters (and we must add to their number for U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch) who call for love as an answer to terrorism off the exact recipe for more terrorism. Truth takes the world as it is, not as we wish it would be. From there it fashions strategies that truly serve the ends of love, though reaching it not by naiveté’s straight line. Love is seldom a straight line – it parallels the cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. Straight lines are for tyrants.

When love is carefully encased in truth, it radiates peace, men scale the heights of perfection, and societies prosper. Without truth, love is a silk noose strangling the souls of men and squeezing the life from society. Flannery O’Connor slices through the hardened carapace of our post-Christian age with chilling logic: “If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness, which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of gas chambers.”

Reprinted with permission from NEW OXFORD REVIEW, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley CA 94706, U.S.A.; www.newoxfordreview.org,

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