Whenever I hear someone say that something is a pet peeve of theirs, I cannot help but think “My biggest pet peeve is listening to people whine about their pet peeves.” I am very far from being a saint, so this distinct lack of charity (and immunity to irony, evidently) is something for which I will no doubt be a long while in the purgatorial flames.
I know I should be more charitable and loving; after all, loving others is the second greatest commandment.
Which brings me to what is probably my greatest theological pet peeve- how badly we moderns tend to butcher the greatest commandments.
Tell me if you’ve heard a version of this before, because I’ve been assaulted with this more times than I can remember:
Jesus says the second greatest commandment is that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. But how can we love others unless we first love ourselves?
Ostensibly, there is nothing wrong with this line of reasoning. After all, it is axiomatic that we cannot give what we do not have. If it only went that far, there would be no difficulties. The problem, however, is that this take on the second greatest commandment generally tends to devolve into a fairly absurd rationalization for loving ourselves better, which in modern parlance almost always becomes inextricably intertwined with self-esteem, self-image, and well, let’s be honest, with self.
Suddenly the second greatest commandment goes from something which requires much from us in regard to our fellow man into a commandment to feel better about ourselves.
And since we prove by our daily actions that we are basically infatuated with our own persons, it is hardly surprising that this line of reasoning makes a lot of sense to us.
So what could be so wrong with such a seemingly commonsense approach?
Firstly, there is the rather glaring anachronism. The idea of self-love that we moderns take for granted is simply not something that ancients would have ever considered. This commandment doesn’t state anything about whether or not one loves oneself, but rather takes it as an implicit premise that one naturally loves oneself. The reason for this is that the love in view here is not something with a psychological genesis or grounding but is rather a very tangible thing, evidenced in the action one can take.
St. Paul gives the lie to the modern approach by noting that we naturally love ourselves because of the simple acts of doing what it takes to keep our bodies alive. He says that:
After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church (Ephesians 5:29)
St. John likewise locates a love for neighbor in rather tangible expressions of keeping the body alive:
If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18)
As such, the presupposition entailed by the second commandment is that since we already love ourselves by virtue of eating and keeping ourselves alive, loving someone else as we love ourselves contains a similar tangible action. This does not mean that the necessities of life exhaust the meaning of this commandment- far from it. But this is rather a sort of implied minimum by analogy: since you demonstrate your love for yourself by providing yourself with the necessities of life, your love for others must at least operate in this same way. Conversely, if you were in need of love (say, hungry or thirsty), you would desire that someone would love you as themselves by giving you something to eat and drink.
There may seem to be some sort of disconnect here between the love shown to the body and the ancient Christian practice of asceticism, but in reality the two are quite compatible. St. Augustine explains:
And when some people say that they would rather be without a body altogether, they entirely deceive themselves. For it is not their body, but its corruptions and its heaviness, that they hate. And so it is not no body, but an uncorrupted and very light body, that they want. But they think a body of that kind would be no body at all, because they think such a thing as that must be a spirit. And as to the fact that they seem in some sort to scourge their bodies by abstinence and toil, those who do this in the right spirit do it not that they may get rid of their body, but that they may have it in subjection and ready for every needful work. (On Christian Doctrine, Chapter XXIV)
Thus, even for the ascetic the body is loved and cherished by the very act of trying to purify it and bring it into submission to reason.
The second difficulty lies in locating the impetus of the second commandment in some sort of psychological grounding. In the ancient understanding the command to love God and to love one’s neighbor has little to no psychological component, but rather betokens an act of the will which is related to the care for one’s own body that is axiomatically assumed.
In this respect, the second commandment is much easier to follow, since it is the “action and truth” which matters, rather than the particular disposition one may or may not have. We actually end up creating a nearly impossible situation for ourselves by dragging in a psychological component, for while it need not be conflated with emotions, it is quite difficult to not do so. The result is that our love of others can begin to be judged according to our subjectivity, which can vacillate with appalling unpredictability.
It is thus understandable that we can easily transpose this commandment to be contingent upon our own subjective assessment of ourselves and our disposition towards others; if this forms the ground of our capacity to love, then of course it makes sense that we cannot love others unless we first ‘love’ ourselves.
Seen in this light, such an approach might reasonably be considered legalistic, since it imposes upon the commandment meanings and metrics that are foreign to it. Instead of appraising the quality of one’s love based up the action performed, we can all too easily judge our capacity for love based upon the way we feel about someone, our present (or past!) disposition towards them, or any innumerable other criterion that go far beyond the action required by the commandment.
We see a similar thing in regards to the greatest commandment to love God. Jesus locates its fulfillment not in the subjectivity but rather in certain actions:
“If you love me, keep my commands.” (John 14:15)
Yet again we see that it is the “action and truth” of our relation to God that matters, rather than the particular subjective disposition that obtains in any circumstance. Loving God often fails to bring about a feeling or an emotional response, but then our emotions are fickle and poor measures of our ultimate devotion to something or someone.
The upshot is that the greatest commandments are something that we intimately understand, because the criterion for their fulfillment is rooted in our very constitution. We have to eat and drink to live, and that is ultimately how we demonstrate our love for ourselves.
This is only the first step on the road to charity, but it is where our love of our neighbors and our love for God begins and can blossom in its fulness. Love is not suggested by God but is actually commanded of us, which entails that our fulfillment of the greatest commandments is a matter primarily of the will and only secondarily of any particular psychological disposition.
In many ways this is actually freeing, for we are not required to have any particular feeling towards someone so as to love them. Those feelings may someday come, or they may be an impossibility in certain circumstances. We don’t have to stop being human and having emotional responses to things to really and truly love; otherwise, the command to love and pray for our enemies would be an absurd impossibility. Yet it is this very act of charity which Jesus says separates us from the pagans who naturally love those who love them.
Ultimately, our love for God and for our neighbors is not something that we can generate of ourselves. We cannot begin loving others because we learn how to love ourselves; rather, we love in a sort of infancy because of the natural love with which have been endowed, and then with supernatural love as God bestows it upon us. As St. John says:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God…And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. (1 John 4:7, 16)