The Problem of Love

The Problem of Love

JPI 640
3 Credits

While most people intuit what love is and recognize it when they see it, it is not always easy to say what it is.  Its vast array of meanings (desire, giving, receiving, “eros,” “agape”) applied to the highest and lowest of activities (theological virtue, sex)—not to mention the variety of objects (wine, self, neighbor, God, enemies?) and subjects (the creature, God)—make this effort particularly difficult.  It is easy to think that such meanings have nothing to do with each other (Nygren) and choose one aspect (“good”) over the others (“bad”), instead of grasping the phenomenon of love it in its wholeness.

Moreover, while everyone experiences love as dramatic, often problematic, most do not think of love as a philosophical and theological question.  And when it is considered in thought, it is trivialized, be it in the objective “scientific” sphere (as a biological product which confers evolutionary benefits), or the subjective one (feelings).  On the contrary, in the Western intellectual tradition, love is a central category with deep metaphysical bearings, beginning with the eros of the soul for Beauty/Eternity (Plato), to the “desire for happiness” (human flourishing) ending in “friendship in virtue” (Aristotle), to the Beauty/Good that loves (even yearns) and is Himself Love (Christian revelation). 

This course will probe that tradition with an eye to what Christianity brings to it.   The fact that God is Love and that He loves the world first, creating it “freely” (willingly) and “out of goodness,” but also “cares” for it, brings in something entirely new to human thought. 

The course follows an historical trajectory, beginning with Plato (eros), Aristotle (the three friendships) St. Augustine (the utifrui 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, von Balthasar, Dante).

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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