Love: Perspectives from Sociology, Philosophy, and Peligious Studies



Karen Armstrong

.. . The word compassion does not mean to feel sorry for somebody. It is a word of Greek and Latin origin that means to feel with others. It is a difficult virtue, because our natural egotism makes us resistant to anything that seems to threaten our interests or identity, but if our inherent selfishness is allowed free rein in private, public, or international life, the result is likely to be disastrous.

All the great world religions agree that compassion is the chief religious virtue, and far more important than ideological or sexual orthodoxy. . . . This spirituality of empathy did not mean that you had to have warm feelings for others, but simply that you learned to enter their point of view and realize that they had the same fears and sorrows as yourself. This insight must then be translated into practical action.

. . . The Latin word ex-stasis means “to stand outside” the self. If every time we are tempted to speak unkindly of an annoying colleague, a sibling, or an enemy country we asked how we would like such a thing said of ourselves, and, as a result of this reflection, desisted, in that moment we would transcend the clamorous ego that often seeks to destroy others to ensure our own survival. If we lived in this way day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, we would enjoy a constant, slow-burning ecstasy that leaves the self behind. The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once remarked that when we put ourselves at the opposite pole of ego, we are in the place where God is.

But the practice of compassion has to be consistent. It does not work if it is selective. If, as Jesus explained, we simply love those who are well-disposed towards us, no effort is involved; we are simply banking up our own egotism and remain trapped in the selfishness that we are supposed to transcend. That, I think, is why Jesus demanded that his followers love their enemies. They were required to feel with people who would never feel affection for them, and extend their sympathy without expecting any benefit for themselves.

But does that mean that we are supposed to “love” Hitler or Osama bin Laden? The practice of compassion has nothing to do with feelings. According to the thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, what we call “love” simply requires that we seek the good of another. If we allow our rage and hatred to fester, this will not hurt Osama—it would probably gratify him—but we ourselves will be diminished. Instead, we should try to wish the best for Osama, which means that he will abandon the rage that has distorted his humanity, and give up his vile policies.

We need training in compassion, because it does not come to us naturally. The ancient Greeks knew this. Every year, on the Festival of Dionysus, all Athenian citizens had to attend the tragedies written by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. It was a mandatory course in empathy. Suffering was put on stage, and the audience was directed by the chorus to weep for people whom they would normally have considered beyond the pale. These tragedies were part of a religious festival; they were designed to make the audience extend their sympathy to people such as Oedipus, who murdered his father and had incestuous relations with his mother, or with Heracles, who in a fit of divinely inspired madness had killed his wife and children. These powerful dramas gave people an ekstasis that Aristotle called katharsis—a liberating purification of the emotions which transformed the terror inspired by these fearful human dilemmas into compassion. We need to find similarly imaginative ways to educate people today.

Intolerance is usually rooted in fear. The militant piety that we call fundamentalism, which erupted in every major world religion during the twentieth century, is inspired by a profound dread of annihilation. Every fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is convinced that the modern secular establishment wants to wipe them out. This kind of fear exacerbates the tensions that are currently dividing the United States.

. . . Christian fundamentalists believe that the federal government wants to destroy religion. They are fighting for survival, and when people feel that their backs are to the wall, they can often lash out aggressively. But when secularists and liberals feel that their sacred values are threatened by the Christian Right, they can be equally intolerant. Confucius would have recommended that both sides practice shu: Their own fear should help them to recognize the distress of their opponents, and to realize that there are probably faults on both sides. . . . We need the compassionate ethic, which teaches to reach out in sympathy to people who seem initially alien, more desperately than ever before.


From the very beginning of my work on the nature of love, I characterized it as an acceptance of another as he is in himself. I sometimes varied the language by speaking of the other as he or she “happens to be.” I did so in order to emphasize, as against theorists like Freud (or Plato), that love does not necessarily require a particular type of object. By its mere definition, it is a bestowing of value upon anyone or anything that matters to the lover. In talking about acceptance, I meant that this bestowal does not seek to alter another in ways that are alien to his or her inclinations and desires. Whatever they are, whatever they involve, they constitute the other as that person happens to exist at any moment. We accept them as an indication of our loving fidelity to the one who has them. Our ability to love is limited because our capacity for acceptance is.

Acceptance of this sort must not be confused with liking. Though love is a way of delighting in another, this does not mean that we derive pleasure from all the many attributes that belong to this individual. Most we accept in an act of courtesy. Some may be too hard to change. Even if they are repellent in themselves, we tolerate them because they are properties of the person we love. Lovers may even treasure these unlikable traits, much as they might prize a letter from their sweetheart that has become besmirched in the mail. Usually, however, we cherish what does seem likable and desirable in the beloved. For those qualities make it easier for us to accept her as she is.

While having this variable relation to pleasure or likeability, our acceptance is an interest in the other as one who is unique in her totality. Uniqueness does not mean that she is not similar to anyone else. It refers to the fact that a person’s life is molded and largely created by her own preference and choice of meaning. These are uniquely hers in the sense that she is the one who determines what they are. To accept another is to show allegiance to her autonomy in this respect.

Personal autonomy can be violated in many ways. One can impose one’s own desires, and even seek to crush what matters to the other. Malice entails a more or less conscious attempt to destroy someone’s autonomous nature. More often, people are oblivious to the fact that others have an autonomy of their own. Human beings often disregard each other’s separate being, or else aggress against it in the act of expressing their own autonomy. Love does not augment autonomy in the beloved. Love merely perceives and respects it. It bestows value on it by according great importance to its existence. The lover gives meaning to his or her life by affirming and attending to the sheer autonomy of the one he or she loves.

In saying this, I principally have in mind the love of persons. Though in a trivial sense things and ideals may be uniquely what they are, they cannot be autonomous like people. They do not make choices, and they have no feelings to which we might respond. At the same time, the love of persons is frequently central to love in general. We often love things and ideals by treating them as if they were persons, or at least resembled them. This is a byproduct of our need to bestow value. Through the imagination, our ideas about autonomy are easily extended to inanimate objects. Just as we consider it an infringement of a man’ s autonomy if he is forced to be a slave or an accomplice in his own destruction, so too do we feel that the autonomous being of a Victorian mahogany bureau is violated when someone thoughtlessly paints over it. For reasons of love alone, we may also care that trees in a forest remain as they are, authentically what they “want” to be, which is to say, alive and not cut down.

Characterizing love in terms of autonomy, we should beware of metaphysical quandaries. Some philosophers have thought that love penetrates to the secret essence of another person and respects the beloved’s free will in some ultimate realm of being. That is not what I mean by autonomy. Accepting another as just the entity that he or she happens to be implies no philosophical belief about freedom of the will. As far as love is concerned, the autonomous other may exist in a deterministic universe, all of it subject to ineluctable causation. Such questions lie beyond the province and the expertise of love. It addresses itself only to what appears before it in the empirical world, what is presented to it and what it makes present by means of its attentive attitude. If the object is a person, he or she will manifest needs and desires, feelings and emotions, choices and inclinations that constitute a personality. Except for moments of physical constraint and social or psychological subjugation, persons have the capacity to direct their lives on their own. Therein lies their autonomy, which may or may not result form causal factors beyond immediate inspection.

Love is more than just respect for, or even concern about, the autonomy of its object. It is also a means by which the lover carves out his own autonomous destiny in relation to the object’s autonomy. This is an act of freedom whether or not it increases other kinds of freedom that lovers have but sometimes sacrifice. The notion that love is by definition self-abnegation, a radical submission to another person, confuses it with masochistic imitations of the real thing. Love is not inherently sacrificial, even if—for reasons of love—one gives up some freedoms that might have been retained under other circumstances.

These freedoms, and the opportunities for happiness they could have made accessible, are often lost permanently through love. Yet the autonomy of lover or beloved is not thereby altered. It is not jeopardized by the fact that they have made sacrifices for each other. Choosing to be faithful, as they may, even promising to remain so forevermore, they are doing what they want. They have not been coerced into this mode of interpersonal response. The grandeur and instinctual goodness in their bestowal of value is not a sacrifice of themselves. What they give up are present and future possibilities that they now freely exclude. By refusing to cheat on their relationship, for example, they may renounce the freedom to behave with others as they do with each other; nor will they be able to abandon one another casually; or in general treat the beloved as just a thing to be used and thrown away. But they themselves accept these conditions, and therefore the residual autonomy of each remains inviolate.

Love is not a device for either finding new freedoms in life or preserving the ones we had before. People who avoid love because they wish to do exactly as they please, even if this means emotional isolation, correctly understand the risks that love involves. As a feeling, love can be joyous and exhilarating. But the life that includes this sentiment also consists of responsibilities, commitments, and obligations through which our loving attitude reveals itself. A parent’s love appears not only in moments of delight or well-earned pride but also in steadfast endurance and unremitting effort. Far from weakening love, such loss of freedom strengthens it. Nor is the autonomy of the one who loves endangered, as it would be if he were compelled to live a life he has not chosen. Love is a relationship in which each participant acts autonomously despite the forfeiture of freedoms that inevitably results.

In making this distinction between autonomy and freedom, I recognize that it is often difficult to separate them. Think of a man who loves his wife, or would like to do so, but who finds himself revolted by her addiction to cigarettes. As frequently happens, she, too, is disgusted with herself. The husband believes that, at some level of her being, she does want to break the habit. Is he violating her autonomy when he takes cigarettes out of her purse, or interferes when she is about to light up? He may feel that he is motivated by love, and that anything less intrusive would border on coldness or unconcern. He may claim that since she wants to stop smoking, having insisted as much on many occasions, his actions reveal attunement to her autonomous being. In limiting her momentary freedom, he may believe that he is faithful to her deeper self.

On the other hand, the wife may feel that unless she has actually asked her husband to help in this fashion, his behavior is not an expression of love. She may say that if he really loved her he would be less revolted by her addiction than he seems to be and less prone to take such extreme measures. But what if the husband’s patience and sympathetic affection are simply unavailing? What if the wife herself has lost all hope of controlling her need to smoke? We might conclude that it is destroying the possibility of love between these two people by preventing them from accepting what the other is autonomously. Or else we might say that they continue to love each other since they confront their problem jointly: their love, as in the words of Shakespeare’s sonnet, “bears it out even to the edge of doom.”

I see no ready solution to this ambiguity about love in relation to freedom and autonomy. One would have to know how much the would-be lovers cause suffering in each other, and how much their responses mask underlying hostility or resentment. If every possible solution has been tried and has failed, the couple may finally give up in the matter of cigarette smoking but love each other nevertheless. If they experience a feeling of helplessness, however, or anger in being yoked with this other person under these circumstances, their capacity to love each other may no longer exist. In that event, neither will be able to accept the other’s autonomy, regardless of what they would like. Love is not vouchsafed to human beings in every situation. That universal aptitude is not a freedom anyone can have on all occasions.


Romantic Love is the quality of “rightness” that defines the particular, unique other that one does marry; it is the emotion that propels one across the gap that separates single from married life; and it is “commitment,” the psychological concomitant of the all-or-nothing, exclusive, enduring relationship constituted by a marriage. The popular culture of love both prepares persons for and helps them to organize and carry through the aspects of marriage that depend on individual action.

“Love,” like other powerful cultural concepts, embodies a contradiction central to the society in which it flourishes. The ideal of love describes a relationship so right that it can be simultaneously perfectly free and perfectly binding. A purely voluntary commitment, love is a contradiction in terms. The power of the concept of love is continually renewed by the contradiction it bridges. Only if there really is something like love can our relationships be both voluntary and enduring.

In Contemporary America, two different ways of understanding love are rooted in different aspects of the institution of marriage. The contemporary structure of marriage as an institution—exclusive, voluntary, life-transforming, and enduring—generates no single logic. Rather, it poses tasks or practical difficulties of action, to which the wider culture generates many different, sometimes competing, and always only partially satisfactory solutions. The culture of “prosaic-realistic love” addresses the problem of how to make a relationship last. “Mythic” or “romantic” love focuses on the problem of deciding: whether to commit oneself to a relationship and how to choose whether or not to stay in a relationship. The culture of romantic love reproduces the institutional features of marriage as psychological states, honing the capacity to identify on other person as the person whom one loves and to know that this relationship is “it.”

The prosaic-realistic love culture may teach patience, the value of affection over infatuation, and how to discount strong emotions in favor of more constant thoughts and feelings, as well as such skills as “communication,” ” sharing,” sexual intimacy, and managing conflict. These are skills that many contemporary Americans believe make the difference between relationships that last and those that fail. But shared religious commitment and the quest for personal fulfillment may also at one time or another, for one group or another, be envisioned as ways of making relationships last.

The culture of romantic love has a stricter logic, presumably because it is more tightly bound to the key institutional features of marriage. Nonetheless, romantic love may enshrine sudden passion, a gradually growing inner certainty, or careful weighing of pros and cons as ways to know whether a relationship is worthy of commitment. These cultural solutions are not united by their inner logic, or by pervasive schemas that are transposed from one arena to another. Rather, however internally diverse, fluid, or incoherent they are, these cultural patterns are given unity by the institutional dilemmas to which they are addressed.

The culture of love flourishes because, while marriage is institutionalized, the process of getting married (or deciding whether or not to leave a marriage) and— in the contemporary period, the procedure for staying married—is not. As marriage has become more fragile, no longer fully settling the lives of those who rely on it, a second culture of love, prosaic realism, has blossomed alongside the old. This new love culture helps people to be the kinds of persons, with the kinds of feelings, skills, and virtues that will sustain an ongoing relationship.

Without expectations of (or hope for) stable relationships, there would be no need for a culture of love. People would come together or drift apart as friends do in our culture, arousing feelings we might frequently describe as “loving,” but without the need for a special cultural category of “love”—neither the mythic love that makes one person uniquely right, nor the prosaic love that makes relationship last.

Without voluntarism—cultural practices that make social relationships matters of choice—there would also be no need for a culture of love. Like Tevye’s wife, people could be married without continually examining whether or not they loved their partners enough to stay in the relationship, or in the right way to make the relationship last.

When marriage was a firmer institution, the mythic culture of romantic love helped bridge the gap between the voluntary choices of individuals to marry— the uninstitutionalized part of the institution of marriage—and the institution of marriage itself. In the current period, when divorce has radically altered marriage, a new culture of prosaic love attempts to bridge the gap between the persisting expectation that marriages should last and the increasingly insecure character of the marriage bond. Where institutions have begun to unravel, men and women do active cultural work to patch together rents in the institutional fabric.

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