This is a question that I came across while reading Josef Pieper’s book Love. Pieper was the most popular German Thomist philosopher in the second half of the twentieth century, whose timely insights into the condition of modern people was matched only by his brilliance in resolving difficult questions simply and beautifully. His essay Leisure the Basis of Culture is particularly good.

I was surprised to discover that the question of whether the highest form of Christian love is selfish has been a disputed one. The answer depends on whether there is a difference between “self-love” and “selfishness”. There are, to be sure, many kinds of love that are appropriately “egocentric.” Anyone who loves coffee, for example, loves the coffee for his or her own sake, not for the sake of the coffee. But because loving coffee ought to be for the good of the person, not for the good of the coffee, it is not selfish. The difficulty, however, regards the best love—the most intimate love between friends, which everyone would agree ought to be selfless. If I seek my happiness through loving another, especially Christ, is my love necessarily selfish?

These two kinds of loves have classically been distinguished as agape-love and eros-love. Loosely speaking, eros is need-based love and agape is gift-based love. On the surface, they seem opposed to each other: on the one hand there is the love of desire, usually leading to consumption, and on the other hand there is the love of friendship, leading to companionship and often self-sacrifice. If, moreover, this distinction between eros and agape is as absolute as it seems, then it would also seem that agape should not involve need. It should rather spring from one’s heart in a radically uncaused and totally gratuitous way. 

What are the implications of agape involving no need-love? First of all, it requires that the lover be sovereign in a particular way over what is loved. It must involve affirming the beloved from above, so to speak, without being personally invested in the other. It must also be totally disinterested in the outcome of any act of love, neither needing nor even wanting any response. Expressed in very careful terms, this understanding of agape can seem to desire purely the good of the other for his or her own sake. It allows, however, no room for one’s own happiness in love.

I am deeply unsatisfied with this thesis—so, incidentally, are Pieper and Aquinas. I was unsatisfied with it when I discovered it at the heart of Luther’s theology and became more dissatisfied with it as I discovered through Pieper what agape really must be. Although I admit that the breadth of this issue is a great deal broader than a little article can embrace, and though I do not want to make it seem a simpler problem than it is, let me put forward three brief counterpoints to this inhuman and indeed unchristian caricature of agape.

The first reason is this: every definition of love must rely on a definition of human nature. No-one, that is, can define love without knowing what a human is. And agape as disinterested gift-love fails to regard the limitation of people as creatures. Of course we cannot love totally disinterestedly—but that is not a failing! It is because we are deeply dependent beings, both in our actions and in our very existence. We cannot, as Lewis wryly remarks, look up at God and say, “I’m no beggar. I love you disinterestedly” (The Four Loves, London, 1960, 12). Nor ought we to try. Even to our friends on earth we should not be afraid to say, vulnerably, “I need you,” or to those with whom we are most intimate, “Your well-being is necessary to my happiness.” To do so is to recognize that we are radically dependent creatures.

This brings me to the second reason. People are free to become whomever they want to be, but that freedom is not radically existential, contra Sartre. We are capable, in other words, of determining who we are, but not what we are. Why is this relevant? Human beings desire to be happy, but that desire is not freely chosen. We are free to choose to want coffee; we are even, to a certain extent, free to choose to want life. We are not, however, free to choose to want happiness. But only God’s love can satisfy this deeply human need. Therefore it is ridiculous to suppose that for us the best kind of love is not need-based at all.

The third reason regards the Christian mission. Remember the moral center of the Gospel: Love your neighbor as yourself. The twofold commandment which Jesus gives his disciples could have been a threefold commandment: love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. But who can avoid loving themselves? I am not thinking here about depression or anxiety or self-doubt: they are indeed serious problems, but we must recognize, I think, that the reason people become depressed about their situations is precisely because they cannot avoid desiring their own good. We do not become depressed about mud because we are indifferent to mud. But no one is indifferent to himself or herself. So in exhorting his disciples to love even God, Jesus takes as the standard of agape the love which He Himself wove into our very creatureliness: love of self. We may infer from this that self-love is not selfishness. Indeed, we must admit that self-love is necessary to happiness and to any real gift of self for another’s sake.

What a happy thought this is! Luther and the theologians who cling to his thought such as Anders Nygren are not able to say that self-love is not the same as selfishness. But how else are we to turn to Christ on the Cross, or even to the Resurrected Christ, with true gratitude, which is to say, “I love you and I need you”?

This mysterious way in which we are called to depend on and give ourselves totally to everyone in Christ, and to Christ in everyone, is not easy to understand. But it is not selfish to seek happiness in Christ in this way. Love seeks above all the joy of union, and union is a common good. It is useful, I think, in unlocking this mystery, to meditate on Christ’s words on love at the end of John’s Gospel. To His apostles, He says, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love” (John 15:9), and to the Father He says, “all mine are thine, and thine are mine, and I am glorified in them” (John 17:10).



At the National Eucharistic Congress, Decided Excellence Catholic Media - with the help of Bishop William Waltersheid - will be presenting "Beautiful Revelation: The Eucharistic Timeline". Throughout human history, God has left repeated proof of His presence in the Eucharist and that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our Salvation. God has given us the wisdom. Have you taken the time to understand? Read this spiritual journey through time to examine critical moments that God uses to reveal the truth of the Body of Christ.

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