October 2011

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   fatti non foste a viver come bruti,

                                                                            ma per seguir virtude…


                                                                                  you were not made to live like brutes,

                                                          but to follow virtue…


                                                                                            Dante Alighieri, circa 1300 AD


Love Is a Virtue


by Carmine Gorga



Perhaps Plato was right. Poets ought to be banned from the realm. Only this morning have I realized how much damage did Dante do. The initial error was admittedly tiny; but outsized consequences ensued from that. He got carried away. Instead of accepting faithfully the magnificent synthesis operated by St Thomas Aquinas between Aristotle and the Jewish-Christian tradition, instead of remaining satisfied with his magisterial intuition as truncated above, namely, we “were not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue”, he added: “(e conoscenza) and knowledge”.


Humanity has been on a slippery slope from that instant on.


To see the middle of the story, you have to run all the way to the end of the 16th century and repeat with Francis Bacon: “Knowledge is power”.


From there to the nihilistic Nietzschean delusion of self-power through “will to power”, there is only a swell of the chest.


Let the hot air get out and calmly return to St Thomas. He said, “Virtue is the peak of power”. Do you see the source of the modern confusion? We have objectified (remember the objectivism of Ayn Rand, among others) power. What does it mean? We have separated men and women from power. And we have made power our golden calf, our idol.


And we do indeed get a mountain of gold out of personal power—only to forget the Midas curse. All we touch becomes objectified metal, including our inner self. Even the power of science as a system of human values (indeed, virtues, as shown by Bronowski) has sometimes been corrupted by some scientists “just trying to make money”, as pointed out by Mirowski.


Yes, let us return to the safety of St Thomas. He did say virtue is the peak of power (over the perfectibility of the self). He was right.


Love is a virtue.


I am surprising myself these days; I am speaking way too much about love. Before I go one inch farther, allow me to tell you quite frankly, good reader, that I know very little about love.


All I know about love comes from my understanding of justice.


There too I was surprised. It was only after many years of study of political and economic justice that I discovered the essential characteristic of justice. No matter what jurists and philosophers tell you about it, justice is a virtue.


And no matter what theologians, philosophers, and sociologists tell you about it, if they do not tell you that love is a virtue they deceive themselves and deceive you.


Love is a virtue.


That is all I know about love. And since I know that love is a virtue, I also know that justice cannot be practiced without love: love for yourself, and love for your neighbor.


That is what I discovered years ago. Now allow me to expand a little bit on this strange relationship: No love, no justice.


And from there, the issue becomes entirely clear. You cannot practice justice, if you do not have courage. Nor can you optimally practice justice, if you do not know what justice is. Hence, you need to be aided by the three intellectual virtues. If you want to practice justice, you also need to all four cardinal virtues.


And the linkages do not stop there. You cannot practice justice, if you do not have hope and faith. Hope that you and your community have the strength to carry on the works of justice; and faith that you will ultimately succeed.


And there you have it. The four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. The three intellectual virtues are wisdom, science, and understanding. And the three theological virtues are hope, faith, and love.


You cannot properly practice one virtue without properly practicing them all. (Dante was either redundant or incomplete.)


I always said that love is not made on the hearth but in heaven. Now I know it for sure. Love is the ultimate theological virtue; love is a gift from God. (You can make this explanation light and secular, but atomistic and mysterious, by believing in the power of love without believing in God.)

All this is to see the virtues aligned longitudinally, north-south. To have a more complete understanding of the virtues we have also to see each one of them aligned latitudinally, east-west. Here is what happens then.


Love, especially love unrelated to men and women, becomes an ungodly mess, fit only to be revealed by poets and sears. And then see where they get you.


Love in the concrete can be truly understood when it is related to our weaknesses and our vices. Hence love stands “in the golden mean”, as Aristotle—and Confucius—would say, or “at the peak”, as St Thomas would say, of this arc that goes from indifference to hate. (Find for yourself the two extremes within which all other virtues lie.)


John Stuart Mill veered a step away from indifference and put tolerance at the East Side of the chain.


Oh, did I forget Freud? We mustn’t forget Freud. Freud got exasperated with all these nuances: he obliterated them all, and recognized only the Ego at the center of the universe. Thus he reduced love to sex.


Do you see it now? Once you put it at the center of two perpendicular lines, you see how complex love is. Then you see why ultimately love comes from God and wants to return to God.


Thus even love turns out to be one of the things borrowed—just like the earth. Now you can accuse me of having this “feeling”—or worse, perhaps, this opinion—about love. And I cannot empirically, factually, scientifically “prove” (what? the existence of, the validity of) my opinion. But in this Age of Rights, I have the right to my opinion—and I am certainly going to exercise this hard fought right.


And so I repeat. Love is one of those borrowed things—just like the earth. Now there is something I can prove: I did not create the earth; and none of my ancestors did. I do not know about you. But neither I nor my family is that bright. (To borrow from Garrison Keillor, we are just a little bit “above average”.) And I can prove this statement. I have neither fashioned nor inherited any legal document that gives me “proof” that I have created the earth. And neither I nor any one of my ancestors has ever had all that it takes to create a speck of dirt: no genes, no chemicals to create such a “soup”.


I and (I hope) all the members of my family consider ourselves simply guests on spaceship earth.


And there you have in a nutshell the struggle of the last 800 years. When you put Love, God, and the love of God at the center of the discussion you automatically put man in proper perspective.


The best you can do is to consider the gift of being made a co-creator with God. That’s a full load of responsibility for me, but it is not nearly good enough for those who exalt individualism.


Individualism, by denying the reality of Society and the reality of The Other, had necessarily to hide away the complexity of the virtues. To love means, not only to love yourself and your god, it especially means to love The Other—no matter how despicable s/he might appear to you.




Deep thanks to David S. Wise and Peter J. Bearse for invaluable editorial assistance.


Carmine Gorga, PhD, is president of The Somist Institute and author of numerous publications in economic theory and policy. Mr. Gorga can be reached at cgorga@jhu.edu. He blogs at a-new-economic-atlas/.