The Problem of Love

The Problem of Love

JPI 640
3 Credits

While most people intuit what love is—recognizing it when they see it—it is not always easy to say what it is. Moreover, while everyone experiences love as dramatic and often problematic, most do not think of love as a philosophical and theological problem. Our very word “love” witnesses to the problem, in its resistance to the perennial attempts to tie it down to one of its many elements. The tendency to partiality is instantiated well in the so-called “problem of love” where ascending eros (now taken to be “need love,” “interested love,” “egoism”) is understood to be incompatible with the Christian descending agape (now taken to be self-abnegation, “disinterested” or “altruistic” concern for the other alone).

It is evident that persons, chiefly God, ought to be loved “for their own sakes,” as ends, not as means. It is also evident that as a creature one cannot but desire one’s own happiness or fulfillment. What is not clear, however, is how these two loves are united. This course attempts to give an account of that unity, with an eye to the question about the novelty of Christian love.

It does so by considering the various polarities of love: love as an inclination (amor naturalis and passio) and love as an act (amor rationalis); “love of concupiscence” and “love of friendship;” ascending “eros” and descending “agape.” It also considers the various “objects” of love (self, neighbor, and God) and the order between them (the ordo amoris). All of this is done with an eye to the novelty of Christian love and the claims made on account of it (Nygren) and against it (Comte).

The course follows a historical trajectory, beginning with Plato (eros), Aristotle (the three friendships), St. Augustine (the uti-frui distinction), the Cistercians and Victorines (the “stages” of the love of God), St. Thomas (the natural desire for happiness, love as a passion, the two-fold distinction, and the order of love), and, finally, modern and post-modern altruism (Comte, Mill, Derrida). The course will end with a consideration of the nature of the Christian novelty with respect to love (Richard of St. Victor, Balthasar, John Paul II, Scola).

Selected Texts


Margaret Harper McCarthy

Margaret Harper McCarthy

Associate Professor of Theological Anthropology

Dr. McCarthy’s teaching and writing focuses on various themes belonging to theological anthropology relative to the question of sexual difference (the imago Dei, equality, experience, feminism, the nature of love), but also relative to the nature-grace question (Christocentrism, predestination, the relation between the church and the world).

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