Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical Letter

Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est - 7

Giovanni Reale

Seeking and passing on the gift of Love, which is God

It is well known that in the context of pagan Hellenic culture the term eros was used more often that not to express what today we would call "love", whereas in the context of Christian culture, it was expressed — as well as with other terms — with the word agape, which is the strongest and most meaningful. To tell the truth, the semantic ground covered by the two terms is precisely differentiated, and in some respects, quite emphatically.

In the first place, let us attempt to explain the structural differences between the two concepts. We will then examine whether and to what extent they are radically exclusive — as many people think — or whether, in a certain sense, they can interact.

The most penetrating reflections on eros that deserved to become famous belong to Plato, especially in his dialogues, the Symposium and Phaedrus, which have been imposed as reference points in all ages and still today are the Platonic texts most in demand and most widely read (I have also given much time to this subject, as well as to translation and comments on these dialogues, as in the monograph Eros dèmone mediatore, Rizzoli, 1997; Bompiani, 2005).

Eros is a mediating force that helps man to rise from the level of the sensible to the level of the intelligible. This force stems from a need to seek for and possess the beautiful (and the good) which he lacks or of which he yearns (orexis).

Eros cannot be a god, for a god lacks nothing; hence, he has no need or desire for what he has always and eternally possessed.

Eros is a demon, a great demon who is never in full possession of what he seeks. Thus, he is never satisfied and so continues to rise to ever higher levels. This force, as Plato notes in Phaedrus, gives wings to the soul so that it may fly ever higher.

The metaphor of the "ladder of love" in the Symposium has become emblematic: it is steep but can be climbed by a determined person.

The first rung of eros consists in love for physical beauty (the obvious starting point).

The second step consists in love for the soul (man is his soul, and loving man truly means loving his soul).

The third step consists in love for the soul's activities and the great things it produces (love for the beautiful things the soul can do).

The fourth step consists in love for what is most exalted: love for knowledge of the truth.

The fifth and last step consists in the vision and fruition of the Beautiful (and the Good) in itself and for itself, and uniting oneself with it (an anticipation of the mystical experience that Plotinus developed perfectly).

In this perspective, eros is a sort of copula mundi for Plato; in other words, it is that force which in rising from the sensible to the supra-sensible connects the whole of reality and unifies it.

As a result, the nature of eros is always mainly that of an "acquisitive" force that desires to attain and to possess, as we said, what it lacks.

Christian love as agape is in many ways the opposite of the ancient Hellenic concept of love as eros. Indeed, the great power of agape does not lie in "acquiring", in seeking to attain a good and make it one's own, but rather in "giving".

Ascending and descending

Eros is a force that rises from low to high: it is "ascending"; agape, on the contrary, is a force that descends from high to low, hence, "descending".

This involves a reversal of the concept of God which, for Christians, coincides with Love itself in the sense of "absolute self-giving". God loves man first and even gives man his Son to redeem him.

Christian agape, therefore, is not essentially and "acquisitive" force but a force of "giving"; it is not a "conquest" of man but a "grace" that comes to man from God.

Furthermore, eros is "desire" and agape is "sacrifice".

Eros is all the greater, the greater the beloved object, agape, on the other hand, is an inversely proportional relationship to the beloved object. God's love for man is all the greater, the lowlier man is: the suffering, the sick, the weak, the oppressed, the rejected are the best loved.

For Plato — as for the ancient Greeks in general — there could be no eros without the beautiful. Indeed, eros starts from the beautiful, which is expressed in the sensible, and in its culmination attains the vision and fruition of true Beauty.

Beauty, for Plato, coincided with Form (or Idea): it was an expression of a "just measure" of harmonious relations of an ontological order. He even defined God as the "Supreme Measure of all things" and understood Beauty as his supreme manifestation.

Plato formulated a paradigmatic and emblematic theory: Beauty's lot is the absolute privilege of revealing to us also through the senses the intelligible (supra-sensible, world of values), particularly through the sense of sight or in the dimension of the sensible.

As a result, it is Beauty that enables us to rise from the sensible to the supra-sensible, from the physical to the supra-physical, precisely though the love it elicits.

The following is one of Plato's most celebrated passages: "But the Beauty... we saw her there shining in company with the celestial forms; and coming to earth we find her here too, shining in clearness through the clearest aperture of sense. For sight is the most piercing of our bodily senses; though not by that is Wisdom seen [the Idea, that is, the supreme value of wisdom]; her loveliness would have been transporting if there had been a visible image of her, and the other ideas, if they had visible counterparts, would be equally lovely. Now, instead, Beauty alone received this fate of being what is most obvious and most lovable".

Love as agape says something similar, that is, it connects love and beauty but at a new level, understanding beauty in a sense that is even overwhelming, hence, in a totally innovative dimension.

Then, if absolute Love coincides with absolute Beauty, this is the response to the problem in the perspective of agape: absolute Beauty is the Love of Christ, who gave himself to man for his salvation and "humbled" himself to the point that even the most wretched of all wretches can be assured of being loved by him.

In Christ, therefore, beauty is manifested in its full splendor, which alone can save all things and all people absolutely.

God's great love for outcasts

Kierkegaard highlights perfectly the Christian message that is the most devastating of all time: "Christ says: ...'Not one [sparrow] will fall to the ground without the Father's will' (Mt 10:29). Oh! I make an even humbler offering: before God I am less than a sparrow: so all the more certain it is that God loves me, the more firmly the syllogism ends.

"Yes, one might perhaps imagine that God could ignore the Tsar of Russia: God has so many things to attend to! And the Tsar of Russia is so great a thing. But a sparrow... no, no..., for God is love, and love is inversely related to the greatness and excellency of the object. When you feel abandoned by the world, when you are suffering, when no one cares for you, you conclude: 'Now, God no longer cares for me'.

"You should be ashamed; how foolish you are, what a slanderer you are to talk of God like that! No, God loves best precisely the most forsaken on this earth. And if that person too were not the most abandoned and still had a small consolation, indeed, if this were to be taken away: at that very moment he would become even more certain that God loved him".

In a passage from his book Memory and Identity, John Paul II faultlessly sums up this concept: "Yet the passion of Christ on the Cross gave a radically new meaning to suffering, transforming it from within. It introduced into human history, which is the history of sin, a blameless suffering accepted purely for love. This suffering opens the door to the hope of liberation, hope for the definitive elimination of that 'sting' which is tearing humanity apart. It is this suffering which burns and consumes evil with the flame of love and draws forth even from a sin great flowering of good".

This is true Beauty, the only beauty that will save: the Beauty of absolute Love that burns and consumes evil with the flames of love.

Augustine expressed the same concepts in the most exalted poetry, transfiguring them into a lyrical dimension:

"O Lord, I love you. I have no doubts, I am certain that I love you. You have moved my heart with your words and I have loved you. But Heaven and earth and all that is in them, that is, from every side, they tell me that they love you, nor do they cease to tell everyone, so that no excuses may be found....

"But in loving you, what do I love? Not a physical beauty, not a transitory weightlessness, not a brightness like that of the light that pleases these eyes, not the dulcet melodies of every kind of song, not the sweet fragrance of flowers, balms, aromas, not manna or honey, not the joyful members of the carnal embrace. I do not love these things, for I love my God.

"And yet I love, as it were, a light, a voice, a fragrance, a food, an embrace, when I love my God, a light, voice, frangrance, food, embrace of the inner man who is within me, where a light shines in my soul that is not confined to place, where a voice rings out that time cannot silence, where a fragrance is smelled that the wind does not blow away, where I enjoy a taste that voracity cannot diminish, where I am clasped in an embrace that satiety never loosens. This is what I love when I love my God".

Is there a way of mediating and reconciling these two very different visions?

Many people do not think so.

The great German philologist Wilamowitz Moellendorff, mincing no words, said that the Platonic eros and love as agape; of course, they could have learned it from each other, but as this is how they were: it would have been impossible for them to do so".

Yet many philosophers and theologians, especially in the context of German culture, have insisted on the irreconcilability of these two paradigms. Some have even reprimanded Augustine for his insistence on that "desire" which human beings have for God, that special human sentiment which is restless unless it rests in him.

This would be an incorrect return to the Platonic concept of eros as orexis, hence a fallacious compromise.

A holy desire

Augustine's assertions do not actually imply a compromise between the two interpretations of love. He plainly states: "The Christian's whole life is holy desire"; "this is our life: exercising ourselves in desire", in the desire to conform ourselves to God and thus, see him as he is.

Well, far from being out of tune with self-giving love, this "desire" in Augustine is part of the gift God makes man: "This is what God does by making us wait: he increases our desire; in arousing desire within us, he extends our soul and enables it to welcome him. Therefore, let us desire, brethren, because we must be filled".

This extension of desire thus takes place precisely in the dimension of self-giving love. It can rightly be said that "desire" is inserted by Augustine in that structural connection of God's self-giving love for man: God, having loved us first, gave desire to us, as well as a possibility of loving him and of loving him precisely as he has loved us.

In Part 1 of Benedict XVI's Encyclical, we read with deep satisfaction his clear stance in favour of the reconcilability of the concepts of eros and agape, with which we perfectly agree.

However, the following should be explained. Indeed, Benedict XVI calls attention to and consecrates a new hermeneutical paradigm of love.

Indeed, in addition to the paradigm of love as the acquisitive, typically Greek eros and to the paradigm of love understood as gift of self in a restrictive sense, excluding in toto the former (as many believe), a third hermeneutical paradigm of love understood as agape inclusive of eros is established.

This third paradigm involves an amplification and transfiguration of certain essential characteristics of the Hellenic eros (such as, for example, those of "desire", examined above), and an evaluation of them in the dimension of agape, in the perspective of conceiving God as self-giving Love in the absolute.

I was particularly struck by the biblical image Benedict XVI uses to illustrate the mediation of the two paradigms. He writes:

"Yet eros and agape— ascending love and descending love — can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized".

And he explains: "In the account of Jacob's ladder, the Fathers of the Church saw this inseparable connection between ascending and descending love, between eros which seeks God and agape which passes on the gift received".

This splendid image perfectly illustrates the dynamic relational connection between the two paradigms and included the new one, founded on the concept of God as Love, understood in its full importance — with all its implications and consequences — in which the essential connotations both of love as eros and love as agape, hence, also the connecting links between them, acquire new meaning and value.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
6 September 2006, page 9

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069