June 25, 2021

“Should I hang out with someone whose political views I hate?” So asked a New York Times reader to the paper’s Ethical Columnist this week. But it could have been written from Britain, where public life has become dominated by political hatred. The Left loathes the Right, an organisation called Stop Funding Hate dominates the headlines and, five years after the EU referendum, ardent Remainers continue to hate Brexiteers, and vice versa.

Hatred, it seems, is the new currency of politics. So it might sound deliberately perverse to argue that love is at the heart of the problem. But there is a strong case to be made that the root cause of today’s toxic culture is love — and our two opposing understandings of it.

Back in 1930, the protestant Swedish theologian Anders Nygren wrote his highly influential Agape and Eros, proposing that these two terms represented contrasting and even contradictory expressions. Nygren suggested that Eros was an ego-centric and acquisitive kind of love, a love that puts the needs of the lover at the centre of the picture. Eros, he contended, is a spiritualised form of self-interest.

Agape, by contrast, is a love that shows no partiality. It is a love of humanity in general; irrespective of where people come from, what skin colour they have, how they make love, what religion they are. It is disinterested and impartial.

So what’s wrong with this? A strong theological contrast to the view of Nygren can be found in the work of the Jewish theologian and philosopher Michael Wyschogrod — not someone at the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist perhaps, but bear with me. For Wyschogrod, all love, properly speaking, is the concrete love of one person for another. There is, he contends, no such thing as love in general. All love is partial and specific — it is Eros. (This, for instance, is why he thinks it is perfectly justifiable that the God of the Bible has a very special — indeed preferential — love for the Jewish people.)

Undifferentiated love, he writes, “does not meet the individual in his individuality, but sees him as a member of a species, whether that species be the working class, the poor, those created in the image of God, or whatnot… In the name of these abstractions men have committed the most heinous crimes against real, concrete, existing human beings.” Love, then, is intrinsically partial. For Agape lovers, love makes us all equal. For Eros lovers, it really doesn’t.

What does this mean in practice? Well, I have a very partial love of my children. I have their photo on my phone, rather than one of some random human. The love I have for them is highly specific. They are not avatars for some generalised love of humanity. They are absolutely not fungible, just as one dollar bill is exchangeable for any other.

So here is the opposition between Agape and Eros: Agape love believes that love proceeds from the general to the specific; Eros love believes that it proceeds from the specific to the general. Joy Division had it right: love will tear us apart.

Certainly both forms of love may struggle to reach out too far from their original expression: Agape loves the general category of human beings, but often finds it difficult to express its love of the singular, individual human life, worrying that too much investment in one specific person distorts its universal mission. It can be nervous of the passionate intensity generated by specific bonds.

By contrast, Eros can all too easily become trapped in a domestic or nationalistic frame, failing to reach out beyond the narrowly specific. “Flag shaggers” is the derogatory phrase de jour; a recognition that love of country can have overly erotic, and thus overly partial, connotations. What us nationalists see as love, they see as hate.

But this charge of not being able to properly love is also what us Eros lovers think of Agape lovers: their love is not carnal enough, too abstract, lacking in passion. We are deeply divided by what we think of as love. It is Romanticism vs the Enlightenment endlessly replayed.

Consider, for example, the extreme Agapeism of someone like the philosopher Peter Singer and his argument about the moral claims that animals have over us:

“… the racist violates the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of his own race. Similarly, the speciesist allows the interests of his own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is the same in each case.”

Singer believes that our moral lives should be guided by a generosity to life in general. In his utilitarian calculus, the interests of all human life — and indeed non-human — life has to be weighed on the basis of an equal consideration of interests, broadly determined as the capacity to feel pain and appreciate happiness. And Singer is interesting because he seeks to live his life quite rigorously by these standards.

 

I once, rather facetiously, asked Singer how he could justify buying Christmas presents for his children, given that such gifts are obviously an expression of his partiality. His answer, in effect, was that we are all fallen creatures. For the extreme Agapeist, Eros love is a kind of secular sin, albeit an understandable one. We seemed to exist on entirely different moral planets.

But while many of us instinctively fall into one of these categories, I wonder whether this way of describing contrasting approaches to our moral and political lives isn’t just the cause of so much hatred, but also contains the basis for a kind of natural sympathy. After all, the Eros lover knows that they must reach out further than their partiality; hence the oft-mentioned dictum that charity begins at home but doesn’t end there.

Likewise, even extreme Agapeists like Singer appreciate the call to love in the singular, even if they don’t quite know how to square it with their wider philosophy. Few would now subscribe to the Marxist desire to abolish the family — not because they believe in allegedly right-wing family values, but because the family, in all its Eros partiality, is still the place where many of us learn what love means.

We are, after all, more invested in other expressions of love than those which define our core political commitments. Radicals who want to love the whole world can still say “forsaking all others” at their marriages, without a feeling of contradiction. Similarly, when I shout En-ger-land enthusiastically at the telly, I can be expressing partiality without the presumption of absolute superiority.

Many Remainers can and do love their country. Leavers can and do love people beyond it. The human heart is often the root of political division. But it might also be the place where we best understand each other too.