This post originated as an open letter to my own family this past June, later republished on a political community blog. It was born out of a dissatisfaction with how Love is popularly conceived of, as a vague positive force one pays lip service to, rather than a concrete and potent phenomenon. Religious texts are cited, but are not in conflict with secular wisdom on the matter. Not especially original.
[Epistemic Status: Quotes of Ancient Wisdom + heartfelt speculation = ???]
Seneca the Younger wrote in a moral letter to Lucius Annaeus:
If you ask how one can make oneself a friend quickly, I will tell you, provided we are agreed that I may pay my debt at once and square the account, so far as this letter is concerned.
Hecato, says: “I can show you a philtre, compounded without drugs, herbs, or any witch’s incantation: ‘If you would be loved, love.'”
He who regards himself only, and enters upon friendships for this reason, reckons wrongly. The end will be like the beginning: he has made friends with one who might assist him out of bondage; at the first rattle of the chain such a friend will desert him.
For what purpose, then, do I make a man my friend?
In order to have someone for whom I may die, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, and pay the pledge, too. The friendship which you portray is a bargain and not a friendship; it regards convenience only, and looks to the results. Beyond question the feeling of a lover has in it something akin to friendship; one might call it friendship run mad. But, though this is true, does anyone love for the sake of gain, or promotion, or renown?
Pure love, careless of all other things, kindles the soul with desire for the beautiful object, not without the hope of a return of the affection.
CS Lewis comments further in earnest:
Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.
And Lewis writes in the Screwtape Letters (Chapter 18) as a literal devil's advocate:
The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. “To be” means “to be in competition”.
The anarchist philosopher David Friedman brings it back around in The Machinery of Freedom (page 12):
Under any institutions, there are essentially only three ways that I can get another person to help me achieve my ends: love, trade, and force.
By love I mean making my end your end. Those who love me wish me to get what I want (except for those who think I am very stupid about what is good for me). So they voluntarily, 'unselfishly', help me. Love is too narrow a word. You might also share my end not because it is my end but because in a particular respect we perceive the good in the same way.
The takeaway is simply this. To Love is to identify your good, your end, with another’s. Love may be friendship run mad, or we could reverse the Roman master's frame to make friendship into Love stunted, by caution, by fear, by taboo. To seek Love out of desire for gain and not a desire to give is folly.
To my knowledge, none have yet succeeded in creating a cardinal metric for love, but an ordinal approach seems to work.
When someone you claim to Love proposes a new end of theirs: 'I want to go back to school', 'I think it would be great to see that movie', 'I need to rob a bank'; how fully is that end integrated into your own, and how high a priority is it, relative to your ends and those of others? Clearly, not all of these desires are equal. They make varying demands of you, with different costs. I might Love my family more than enough to see a show with them, but not enough to be an accessory to armed robbery. But this allows us to really see what it means to Love, to Love oneself, to Love another as much as oneself, or more than oneself.
I am not a Christian, but this framework renders much of the New Testament much more concrete. Too often Love is conflated with vague feelings of warmth and goodness, when in reality it is an overpowering and definite force. To Love your fellow man as much as yourself means to place the good of everyone else as highly as your own. To Love your God as much or more than yourself means to subordinate your desires to theirs. Properly understood, these are appropriately radical demands, which very few actively strive towards and fewer fulfill. Yet if we were to encounter such a person who genuinely Loved the whole mass of humanity as much as they did themselves, and was wise enough to act appropriately on these grounds, we would recognize them as a truly formidable will.
We might also see that Love is a mechanism for short-circuiting multipolar traps. By disrupting the assumption that each agent acts for their own good over that of others, death spirals can be stopped before they even begin. That Love declaws Moloch isn't namby-pamby New Age feel-good BS, it's a concrete observation.
The truly dedicated may extend Love across time. To Love the people of the past, in spite of their mistakes, which are clear in hindsight, and to Love the people of the future, whose actions and virtue are uncertain. Though there is little we can do now for the dead and gone, we may yet act for those who are young or yet to be born; delaying consumption and benefit on our own parts for their sake, in the hopes they will maintain our pact and do the same for the future from their end. With a high coefficient of Love maintained across time, some acausal negotiation becomes viable.
One must always be watchful for those who love falsely. Those who claim to love others and yet do not place their skin in the game. Most often, claimed love is a method for control of others, and those who Love truly are the easiest victims. This is the basis of many abusive relationships between individuals, and also between groups.
None of this makes Love any easier, although it may be more desirable to strive for it. The first person to Love, to endlessly press 'Cooperate' in the great game of life, is the surest mark in the world. It is upon this realization that most people chicken out. Does this put the lie to Love?
Clearly not, if you've been following along. When you place the ends of others above your own, having your own ends stalled isn't an unpleasant side effect, it's the expectation. That's the point. That's the known cost. That's the real question underneath the demand to Love. Do you genuinely place the good of others above your own, and what circumstances would cause you to stop, to break faith?
This is up to each person. Those who seek to travel this path, whether haltingly or with full faith, may take solace in one thing. Love is the surest thing in the world. Both its costs and benefits are known. More importantly, Love is a positive-sum game. The goal is not to win, it is to continue to play, and to bring in more players.
The exhortation should then be clear. Love, with full knowledge of what it means to Love, with the understanding that by doing so you exalt others above yourself. With the understanding that the means of Love is not coercion or threats, but sacrifice, and it must begin on your part. With the understanding that Love is a positive-sum game, and that you should not seek benefit from it, for while that benefit will undoubtedly come, it will not land on your shoulders.
And lastly, do not boast of Love. I do not Love as much as I wish I would, and nobody should interpret this letter otherwise. If I might close by paraphrasing the Bible, with all the irony it brings coming from me:
When you Love, be not as the hypocrites, for they stand and declare their Love in the temples, and the stages, and the studios, and on the corners of streets, that they may be seen. Truly, I tell you, they have received their reward.
In a world with more than one person capable of Love, it makes sense to also include yourself in the set of people you love (see the exact words in Mark 12:31), otherwise we get a reverse Prisonner's Dilemma:
If you care about me so much that you would accept 10 years of torture just to get me an ice-cream; and if I care about you so much that I would accept 10 years of torture just to get you an ice-cream... then if we both act on our preferences, we each get 10 years of torture and 1 ice-cream... which is an outcome horrifying to both of us.
Another constraint is the convergent goals: Suppose that the only thing I care about is that you get an ice-cream. I would gladly kill myself now just to give you an ice-cream. But before I pull the trigger, I realize that if I kill myself now, there will be no one to give you an ice-cream tomorrow. But I deeply care about you getting an ice-cream tomorrow... therefore, I must keep living. And if there is a threat to my life, I need to defend myself. Also, I need to make some money, because the ice-cream costs money. Maybe I should buy a large freezer and stock up with ice-creams, just to be sure you won't miss your daily ice-cream in case of COVID-19 lockdown. Freezers aren't cheap. Another expensive thing is a private power plant, to make extra sure the freezer keeps running. Also, I need to work hard on preventing an unfriendly AI, because it could convert the ice-cream to paperclips.
Or maybe there are other people who care about you as much as I do, in which case it would be okay for myself to die, if the others will keep the mission going. But that still means I need to make sure that I don't kill the meme of Love. So I would be more likely to sacrifice my life for people who share my values. As you wrote:
But that is exactly what it means for the meme to win, isn't it?