Love, Knowledge, and Freedom in Pleasantville, Religious Scripture, and Wider Western Literature

In: Religion and the Arts
David Carr University of Edinburgh Scotland, UK Edinburgh

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Love has long been extolled as a route to human moral and spiritual progress and fulfilment, not only in much past religious literature and narrative but in the more recent work of writers such as the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch. In such texts, however, the sentiment (or virtue) of love is clearly more than just blind or brute passion and presupposes distinctive human capacities for knowledge and free agency. That said, the relationship between knowledge and (right or virtuous) agency seems highly problematic or ambivalent on many traditional (perhaps most notably Christian) religious conceptions. This paper addresses such issues and complexities via some exploration of Genesis and the modern movie Pleasantville—with further aid from literary works of Shakespeare, Blake, Heinlein, and others—to the end of a more realistic view of human love and its moral and spiritual implications.

1 Introduction

The following amusing exchange between a precocious child and her mother occurs in a short story by Sebastian Faulks:

“Shall I tell you why I’m not a monkey?”
“If you must”, said Fluvia.
“It’s because a monkey doesn’t know it’s a monkey. A human being knows it’s human. That’s what sets us apart from every other animal on earth.”
Faulks 120

As the wise child discerns, knowledge—of ourselves, the world, and our relations with others—is a defining feature of human as distinct from other animal life. This dimension of human condition is also generally appreciated in religious literature—not least in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible which appears to trace human moral and spiritual downfall to some pursuit of knowledge in defiance of God’s will. That said, there are clearly also other religious traditions—even other interpretations of the Genesis narrative—that take a different and apparently more positive view of the place of knowledge in human affairs as more liberating and/or redemptive. Indeed, it is not too hard—as we shall see—to find books or passages of both Testaments that exhibit significant tensions between these rather different conceptions of knowledge and its formative role in human affairs. Thus, on the one hand, knowledge is revealed as the voice of divine will or command that requires strict and unswerving obedience from humans at their mortal peril; on the other hand, it is knowledge—for example, the truth to which the Christ of John’s Gospel has come into the world to testify (John 18: 37–38)—that promises to set us free from all bondage to worldly (religious or ecclesiastical no less that political) compulsion or authority. Of course, any account of knowledge in human life as the route to unbridled freedom may be no more satisfactory than one that emphasises total fettered constraint; but it is no small task to identify some more balanced or nuanced alternative to, or position between, such extremes—especially with regard to any religious or spiritual quest for ultimate salvation of the human soul.

However, it is also notable that one significant approach to human salvation or redemption advocated by Christian faith commends appropriate cultivation of the sentiment or virtue of love. Love is also fairly clearly connected to both knowledge and freedom. Thus, whatever pet owners may think, any really meaningful talk of love seems out of place in the case of creatures (snails, sparrows, or dogs) lacking the (rational) epistemic capacities of human agents; and, by the same token, the true reason-responsive and responsible agency of human freedom must also be lacking in the case of non-rational animals. That said, it is no less clear that the common usage of human love is wayward to the point of promiscuity (see Carr, “The moral status of love”)—and, indeed, past and present-day philosophers, theologians, and authors of other literature have been much taxed with distinguishing between different kinds and varieties of such affection.1 Still, despite this (or perhaps because of it) it is also far from easy to identify any very clear or unambiguous conception of love in Christian scripture (in itself, as we shall see, not entirely consistent in its use of such received Greek terms for this sentiment as arete and philia) that would seem precisely tailored to the salvific work—of love of God and neighbor—prescribed by (for example) the Sermon of the Mount in Matthew and in 2 Corinthians. It is therefore the general aim in what follows: first, to explore different and contrary conceptions of the relationship of knowledge to human freedom and salvation evident in past and present-day religious and wider art and literature; secondly, to explore the implications of such analysis for a clearer understanding—again, via attention to religious and wider literature and art—of love as a possible route to the proper (epistemically grounded) promotion of true human spiritual and moral liberation and fulfilment. But, to this end, we may begin with a conception of the relationship of knowledge to freedom as suggested by a recent work of modern popular cinema.

2 Experience and Wisdom in Pleasantville

In the 1998 American movie Pleasantville, David and Jennifer are late twentieth century siblings of high school age. Whereas Jennifer is, at least at the outset of the film, extroverted, flighty, and shallow, David is more introverted, serious, and solitary—and, as it happens, addicted to a TV soap-opera of the movie’s title. At an early point in the film, a heated struggle between brother and sister for control of the TV damages the remote-control, preventing access to any channels. However, following the mysterious appearance of a television repair man who supplies them with a new remote, the teenagers’ use of this transports them directly into the fictional world of Pleasantville, where they stand in for the offspring of the two leading adult characters, George and Betty Parker. The fictional world of Pleasantville, set in 1950’s suburban America, is quite static, self-contained, and—as cinematically depicted—quite devoid of color. The roads of Pleasantville lead to no other places. The actions of the characters—inasmuch as anything ever actually happens in the soap opera—all conform to a general standard of innocuous harmony or “niceness.” Such “negative” or “unpleasant” events as rain or fire—or, here more notably, sexual congress—seem never to occur. The local fire brigade is never called out for anything other than rescuing kittens from trees. Female roles are entirely confined to child-care and the (strictly punctual) preparation of family meals. Youthful leisure is restricted to “healthy” sports such as basketball, and there is otherwise little sign on the part of Pleasantville citizens of interest in high culture, art, books, or any other life of the mind.

The arrival of David and Jennifer, however, inevitably imports a range of 1990’s teenage values, attitudes, and sensibilities into the TV serial that are deeply at odds with those of Pleasantville. As these values and attitudes spread to influence or “contaminate” other characters in the drama, they are manifested in the gradual blossoming into color of affected individuals, events, and the objects upon which they act. For example, such “coloring in” follows from Jennifer’s sexual seduction of the captain of the school baseball team, her explanation of the mechanics and pleasures of autoeroticism to her TV mother Betty Carter, and David’s introduction of the world of visual art to the local proprietor of a soda fountain. But yet more serious disruptions of Pleasantville values and routines are manifested in Betty Carter’s desertion of her TV husband for the soda fountain proprietor (now turned painter) Bill Johnson, widespread assertion by wives of independence from husbands and disobedience of parents by offspring—not to mention the sudden appearance of fire (which the fire brigade hasn’t the experience to cope with), rain, and books. As former Pleasantville life becomes more and more disrupted—and more of the town’s population explodes into color—the much-alarmed city fathers try to halt the rot by banning “colored people” (a significantly ambiguous designation, given that the movie contains no Afro-American characters), destroying their property and burning books as sources of unwelcome notions. Ultimately, however, such repressive measures meet with little success, and the homes and roads of Pleasantville are opened up to new ideas and begin to connect with other places. Moreover, in a late highly significant scene, David (who will decide to return to his pre-TV life, leaving his now more sober bookworm of a sister behind in the television series) is seen seated beneath a large tree, eating an apple offered to him by his Pleasantville girlfriend Margaret, thereby also bringing the scene into more color.

3 Original Sin in Western Christianity

There can be small doubt that the movie scene of David eating the apple proffered by his female companion is deliberately intended to recall that foundational motif or myth of western European religious culture and sensibility narrated in the biblical book of Genesis—wherein Adam and Eve, the first created humans in the paradise of Eden, fall from divine grace through disobedience of God’s prohibition against eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The main human blame for this disobedience is also significantly, in view of its misogynist legacy, laid at the door of Eve who is said by Genesis to have been tempted by a serpent.2 However, while this is not actually mentioned in the Genesis narrative, later Christian tradition has often identified the snake of Eden (probably via a reference to the “evil one” as a serpent in Revelation) with the fallen angel Lucifer or Satan—an idea to be later reinforced by John Milton’s poetic masterpiece Paradise Lost.3 At all events, while the garden narrative of Genesis is a key theme of Judaism (even if it may have been originally borrowed from elsewhere), it was to acquire wider and larger significance—especially under the influence of St. Augustine—through its formative influence on the offspring Christian faith that came to shape the wider culture of Europe and beyond for two millenia.4 Hence, in orthodox or mainstream Christianity the trouble, toil, and strife to which humankind is widely heir is a consequence of the original sin of Eve and (subsequently) Adam—and that sin is primarily understood in terms of disobedience of God’s law or command. However, such transgression is also of an inherently epistemic character—a failure to respect or properly exercise knowledge: indeed, in the absence of knowledge, human agents could hardly understand why or for what they are being punished and/or suffering.

To be sure, on this understanding, the Genesis myth seems required to make much sense of the Christian narrative of the canonical gospels and epistles of the New Testament and of later Christian theology constructed upon these. Thus, in the mainstream or orthodox (Western and Eastern) Christian view, Jesus Christ is the human incarnation of God whose divine mission is to offer himself up for sacrifice—through suffering and death on the cross—for the forgiveness and remission of that sin which began with and has proliferated since Adam and Eve. Since that sin was essentially disobedience, Christ’s atonement for it must aim primarily towards bringing human agents back to their proper former obedience to God. Of course, there is more to Christianity than this, since Jesus’ ministry also involved teaching and healing (even if talk of giving sight to the blind may be more figuratively construed as helping people to better moral and spiritual understanding). Moreover, some tension or dissatisfaction with, and/or departure from, the ethics of divine command or prohibition of Mosaic and Judaic tradition seems also apparent in the Gospels and Epistles.

First, there would appear to be some suggestion—especially in Pauline epistles (perhaps notably the passage on law and sin in Romans 7: 7–11)—that the very knowledge of divine law may tempt some disobedience. The underlying idea here may be that certain forms of conduct can appear all the more tempting, desirable, or irresistible precisely by virtue of their prohibition. In this light, one might suppose that Adam and Eve were all the more prompted to eat from the tree because God forbade it—just as the most effective way of getting children to play with matches might be to keep telling them not to do so.5 Secondly, however, there is much in Gospels and Epistles to the effect that Mosaic and other traditional Jewish law lays emphasis on all the wrong things. For example, the Epistles—especially those addressed to the Gentiles—persistently downplay the spiritual and/or moral significance of traditional Judaic rules about what can or cannot be eaten (though some fuss is made about the eating of sacrifices to false deities), and Jesus (in Matthew 15: 11 and Mark 7: 15) insists that it is not what goes into people’s mouths that defiles them so much as what comes out of them (in the form of blasphemies, curses, slander, or lies). Relatedly, it is a key theme of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount that obedience to prohibitions against murder or adultery must fall well short of the inner transformation or metanoia required for true Christian spiritual and moral life: so, in harboring lust for one’s neighbor’s wife or hatred of one’s enemy, one has already committed adultery or murder in one’s heart, even if one never acts upon such sentiments.

This noted, it yet seems that much New Testament—especially epistolic—literature, aims towards securing unswerving obedience to God by general fidelity to a fairly conventional or traditional list of virtues of honesty or truth-telling, fortitude, temperance—with heavy and repeated emphasis here on sexual abstinence, continence, or fidelity—and justice. On the other hand, however, insofar as a more novel Christian take on this traditional repertoire of virtues may be discerned, it might be with regard to the last of these—justice—which is here construed more in terms of non-resistance to violence and encouragement to love one’s enemies along with all other fellow human beings. But, even here, it remains a troubling feature of this advice that it often seems—especially in the Epistles—to endorse what would nowadays be considered a highly controversial inegalitarian and patriarchal encouragement of women to accept and obey the authority of their husbands, children to obey their parents, and slaves to obey their masters. Further, a more pressing present difficulty is that while some memorable and appealing things are said about love in New Testament literature—perhaps especially in 1 Corinthians—there is precious little advice about how to assist cultivation of this rather protean sentiment if or when it is not already present. Worse yet, if we (as all too human agents) look to the Epistles—especially the later letters of James and John and to John’s apocalypse—to find the emotional resources to love those who humiliate, abuse, and torment us, we find little more than advice that we should do this: or else! In short, if we neglect or ignore God’s commands to love others as ourselves, we do so at risk of punishment by the pains and fire of hell.

4 The (Gnostic) Heresy of Pleasantville

On the other hand, there can be little doubt that the apple-eating scene of Pleasantville is not meant to signify original sin or herald divine punishment. On the contrary, it evidently aims to celebrate movement from the stale, static, and monochrome universe of the TV soap opera to a world of more colorful and fertile possibilities, precisely in the light of fresh knowledge on the basis of newly acquired experience. On this view, knowledge acquisition and the new perspectives that it entrains are neither evil nor a disaster but a means to more open, tolerant, and loving values, attitudes and sensibilities, which—while no doubt ever falling short of moral and spiritual perfection—nevertheless vouchsafe progress to greater personal growth and more mature association with others. While its subjects will also doubtless make mistakes, which they may later come to regret, they have nevertheless moved—precisely by virtue of such knowledge—beyond the near mindless automatism of the soap opera towards authentic and responsible human agency. By contrast, it is the scripted “prelapsarian” prescribed and proscribed world of Pleasantville—wherein there is hardly much at all worth calling human growth—that not only precludes such progress but is also liable to react with hatred, intolerance, and violence to any questioning or challenging of its staid and settled ways. In sum, the Pleasantville narrative essentially reverses the orthodox Christian normative or moral interpretation of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve by construing consumption of the apple from the tree of knowledge as more an act of liberation or emancipation from a state of benighted and crippling ignorance than of disobedience leading to moral corruption and death.

Moreover, while this interpretation may appear to run heretically counter to the received Christian view, it is not without ancient precedent. For example, in The Apocryphon of St. John—one of the non-canonical ‘gospels’ discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945—much the same interpretation of the Genesis story as that of Pleasantville is clearly evident in a text of some antiquity. While the content of this work—like that of other so-called “Gnostic Gospels”—is overall not notably pellucid, it is clear enough from an explicit dialogue on the Genesis narrative between the apostle John and Jesus the Savior that the latter takes full responsibility for encouraging Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge: “But I was the one who induced them to eat” (“The Secret Gospel of John” 175). Thus, in line with so-called Gnostic theology, the gist of The Apocryphon of St. John is that Adam and Eve have been created from elements of spirit and matter by “rulers” of a lower order, who—recognising the human potential for independent thought and agency—have sought to keep them subjugated in a state of ignorance and delusion. The chief of these powers (in Gnostic terms) is a lower grade deity named Yaldaboath who—having vainly claimed “I am god and there is no other god beside me” (“The Secret Book of John” 161)—violates Eve and produces male offspring, one of whom takes the name of the Jewish deity Yahweh. At all events, in terms of wider and more elaborate Gnostic metaphysics, the created world of human experience is the work of an inferior deity or demiurge who falsely or vainly takes himself to be God. This event of botched creation is in turn the consequence of misguided action on the part of a higher spiritual power—Sophia (wisdom)—who is herself but an emanation of the original spiritual source of all, of whom Jesus the Savior is a more authentic incarnation or representative. In this light, the salvific mission of Jesus as Christ should be construed as concerned with the liberation of humans from the ignorance and delusion of a mistakenly created material world to which it has been confined and condemned by a spiritual imposter.

To be sure, while these wilder Gnostic speculations may lack wide modern credence, they are not entirely at odds with more sober religious and other reflections on the moral and spiritual dimensions of human development. To begin with, there is some correspondence between the epistemic speculations of non-canonical Christian narratives and more “official” Christian texts. Thus, in response to Pilate’s interrogation in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus explicitly characterizes his mission in epistemic terms as concerned to proclaim the truth—where the truth here to be revealed seems fairly opposed to received religious or political ordinance; and in a revered passage of 1 Corinthians the knowledge and truth of divine provenance and import is again contrasted with that of mundane sense experience wherein we presently see only “through a darkened glass” (13: 12). Indeed, it is no less striking that, aside from a significant appearance of the demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus, the Corinthians passage readily recalls the overall epistemology of Plato’s Republic, whereby the path to wisdom and knowledge of the (moral or spiritually) true and good also means emancipation from the (Platonic) cave of ignorance and delusion of sensible or empirical experience. Moreover, nearer modern times, the profoundly philosophical and allegorical poetry of William Blake’s Prophetic Books also depicts the material world as enthralled to a delusion mongering demiurgic figure named Urizen from whom such various salvific characters as Los and Orc seek emancipation via cultivation of a more reflective, creative, and visionary imagination. In this regard, the near (if not quite) Gnostic bent of Blake’s poetic allegory is also not greatly at odds with the Pleasantville narrative.

5 The Place of Knowledge in Human Moral and Spiritual Growth

Of course, narratives of this general metaphorical or allegorical drift are liable to inevitably loose interpretation and present attention is largely confined to the more conspicuously conflicting epistemic implications of the two main—more and less orthodox—readings of the encounter of Adam and Eve with the tree of knowledge in Genesis, in Pleasantville, and in other literary texts and narratives. Still, as already noticed, the heterodox narratives of some of these raise evident problems for the more orthodox interpretation and for the general theological and normative drift of any canonical gospels and epistles that largely build upon that reading. Moreover, to whatever extent the orthodox interpretation of Genesis and the Christian faith upon which this has been constructed has been a potent source of much human good in the world in the long course of its influence on European and other cultures, there may appear to be something objectionable about an essentially divine command conception of moral law from which disobedience is largely discouraged by threat of punishment in the fires of hell. Much more to the present purpose, it may be doubted—precisely in the spirit of Pleasantville—whether any human conduct that is exclusively so motivated can qualify as moral agency if it is not a product of free choice in the light of that knowledge of good and evil that God seeks to deny to Adam and Eve on the orthodox reading of Genesis. It is no less clear that such ideas of Christian salvation through strict obedience to divine law have drawn much distinguished criticism down the years (for example, from Dostoevsky in his Brothers Karamazov narrative of the “Grand Inquisitor”) that has also been at pains to emphasise, like Pleasantville, the human evil and cruelty that often follows in the wake of much repressive authority.

That said, it is less than clear that the experiential knowledge fostered by the young arrivals in Pleasantville, or even the more normative knowledge or moral judgements that might (or might not) follow in its wake, is liable to ensure the moral and/or spiritual progress or perfection to which the Christian vision (orthodox or other) aspires. Thus, in Romans, St. Paul poignantly writes: “The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong that is against my will; and if what I do is against my will, clearly it is no longer I who am the agent, but sin that has its lodging in me” (7: 19–20). To be sure, the legend of Faust, dramatically explored by such as Marlowe, Goethe, and Thomas Mann—which may, indeed, have origins in the narrative of Simon Magus, the Gnostic sorcerer allegedly at odds with early Christian apostles—may remind us that unbridled pursuit of experiential or other knowledge can have negative (diabolical) no less than positive consequences. It is far from clear that all new pastures explored by Pleasantville characters (such as the path of adultery) are morally or spiritually commendable. St. Paul seems at least right to suggest that though even fairly reliable knowledge of what is divinely or humanly good may be necessary for virtuous conduct it is far from sufficient, and that some human motives (which Paul attributes to “sin”) for consuming the fruits of knowledge may not ultimately conduce to our own or others’ best interests.

The shortfall between human knowledge and morally sound agency is of course well-trodden ethical territory: the so-called problem of akrasia, whereby agents may know full well what they should (morally) do in this or that circumstance yet fail to do it, is well-known from (Greek) philosophical antiquity. Attempts to address this problem via appeal to something like acts of will or volition are also—while controversial—no less familiar. However, the issue of present concern is not merely of moral or ethical, but of theological import: precisely, it is not only that of what might ensure right (personally or socially acceptable) conduct, but of what may conduce to good order of the (possibly immortal) human soul in accordance with some higher (orthodox or other) spiritual or religious conception of such flourishing. In this light, St. Paul’s apparent diagnosis of wrongdoing in terms of something like weakness of volition might seem somewhat wide of the mark (Romans 7: 14–20). To be sure, it may well be at significant odds with Jesus’ teaching in St. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. For, on the Pauline account, if one succeeds in obeying the commandment not to commit adultery by successfully overmastering or suppressing illicit desire, it might seem that one has managed to do the right (Christian) thing. The message of the Sermon on the Mount, however, is surely that even if one refrains through self-discipline from the act of adultery, one will remain in an adulterous state precisely by continuing to harbor (albeit supressed) lust in one’s heart (Matthew 5: 27–28). On this view, then, overcoming temptation by the power of volition would still fall short of the psychological and/or spiritual condition required for full Christian life—for which significantly greater inner transformation (or metanoia) is required.

In this regard, the difference between the moral psychologies of the Sermon on the Mount and (what is at least suggested by) Romans, seems not too far distant from Aristotle’s distinction in Nicomachean Ethics between moral virtue and continence (Book 7, 1036–1058). While both virtuous and continent agents may appear to respond in the much the same (correct) way to this or that moral challenge, the former do not require the effort of will that the latter require to act rightly—precisely insofar as the truly virtuous experience little or no conflict between their moral aspirations and any desires or inclinations that might be at odds with these. Insofar as virtuous agents know “in their hearts” that adultery is wrong, they would or should be quite free from any inner ravages of lust—and it seems to be this virtuous condition to which Christians are urged to aspire in the Sermon of the Mount. But such virtue hardly seems apt for cultivation via any ethics of (divine or other) law or command. Indeed, if such virtue had to be compelled by law or other constraint, it could hardly count as the advanced, enlightened, and voluntary commitment to good that constitutes genuine virtue rather than mere continence. In sum, the willful suppression of wayward desire (sin) that seems called for in Romans evidently fits better with the older ethics of divine command than with the new moral and spiritual dispensation of the Sermon—which precisely seeks and enjoins wholehearted embrace of, rather than reluctant (and, no doubt, punishment-avoiding) submission to, true Christian virtue. Moreover, it also seems consistent with such virtue that it is best cultivated in a general climate of freedom (closer to that of the reformed Pleasantville), wherein virtuous agents are free to choose what they clearly discern to be good in the light of full knowledge of why it is good, rather than in some state of blind or ignorant submission to moral authority and/or compulsion that (as in Genesis) condemns any and all knowledge-seeking—or free conduct in the light of such knowledge—as sinful disobedience.

6 Virtue and Love

But now, if the virtue required for good Christian (or other) conduct cannot be produced by external compulsion or self-imposed submission to divine command, the question of how else it might be engendered or fostered continues to be pressing. In this regard, it is also far from obvious that the laissez faire climate of association and conduct that ensues from the “coloring-in” of Pleasantville should be considered always or everywhere conducive to general human good or flourishing. Indeed, in the case where the now sexually awakened Betty Carter leaves her husband for the recently inspired art lover and artist Bill Johnson, it remains an open moral question whether this is ultimately conducive to the personal good of the individuals concerned and/or to their community, even if such individuals appear happier or more personally fulfilled in their new-found life. Here, to be sure, it might well be appropriate to ask in the Christian context “WWJD?” At all events, it would seem badly mistaken to throw out the baby of some reasonable standard of moral good with the bathwater of blind obedience to divine or other authority. In this light, it may now be asked what alternative standard might be suggested to replace the old order of imposed obedience to authority or (social or other) convention that might serve as a satisfactory normative brake on the various new lifestyle experiments of the freshly liberated inhabitants of Pleasantville, to ensure that any new freedom is not mere descent into self-indulgent anarchy. In short, what other psychological, moral, or spiritual condition might serve to motivate more enlightened personal concern for the common (Christian or other) good and how could this be promoted or cultivated?

Returning to the earlier conjectured moral contrast between Romans and the Sermon on the Mount, however, there may seem to be a fairly straightforward New Testament answer to this question. Precisely, in place of the self-imposed obedience to prescribed law urged by Paul, Jesus of the Sermon advocates love. Indeed, love—of God and/or one’s neighbour—is lauded in place of the repressive law of tradition not only in the Sermon, but no less notably in 1 Corinthians where the apostle says (as translated in the New English Bible):

Love is patient; love is kind and envies no-one. Love is never boastful or conceited, nor rude; never selfish, not quick to take offence. Love keeps no score of wrongs; does not gloat over other men’s sins but delights in the truth. There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope and its endurance. Love will never come to an end … [T]here are three things that last for ever: faith, hope and love; but the greatest of these is love.

13: 4–7

Still, an ordinary English speaker might well protest that love as commonly experienced and observed is frequently unkind, envious (certainly jealous), boastful, conceited, selfish, easily offended, sensitive to wrongs, and no stranger to vanity, illusion, and falsehood. Then again, one fairly predictable response to this is that the Greek terms rendered into English as “love” in the above passage and elsewhere in the New Testament evidently refer to or connote a more morally advanced kind of love that is not prey to the waywardness and caprice of more basic human amorous attachments. Indeed, in the King James translation of the above Corinthians passage the rather more restrained or moderate word ‘charity’ actually does duty for the New English Bible’s “love.” At all events, while the variety of Greek terms used to express more elevated types or ideals of divine, human, or human-divine association and commitment are far from unequivocal throughout the New Testament—indeed, are something of a semantic minefield—it seems clear enough that the forms of agape and (sometimes) philia mainly employed to this end aim to express and celebrate a more normatively exalted and selfless regard for others purged of the vanities and other defects of much common amorous attachment. It therefore seems that to love God and/or neighbor in the “charitable” sense advocated in the Gospels and Epistles is to be totally devoted to the good or interests of others in the absence of any and all distracting or intruding self-interest or concern.

All the same, such love is far from easy to understand either conceptually or psychologically—precisely insofar as it seems so remote from common human experience of what is ordinarily comprehended by this term. In moral (and psychological) terms, however, such selfless attachment might seem to have something in common with the love of the clod in William Blake’s poem “The clod and the pebble.” In these verses, the lump of clay is depicted as singing: “Love seeketh not itself to please; Nor for itself hath any care; But for another gives its ease; And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.” And here, of course, Blake contrasts such sentiment with the selfish love of the pebble who sings: “Love seeketh only self to please; to bind another to its delight; Joys in another’s loss of ease; And builds a hell in heaven’s despite” (Songs of Experience 118–119). On the face of it, indeed, this poem might possibly be read, not only as endorsing radically different types or kinds of human love, but—perhaps especially in light of the (more equivocal) last lines of first and third stanzas—as making some moral case for the selfless love of the clod over the selfish love of the pebble. However, to anyone better acquainted with the (morally and religiously) unorthodox and ironical character of Blake’s work, it seems more than likely that the poet is endorsing neither of these states as plausible or acceptable accounts of human love. It is hard to see either of these cloddish or pebbly sentiments—but perhaps especially the almost morbid self-effacing abasement of the clod—as consistent with or endorsed by any larger Blakean perspective on healthy human love.

To be sure, while recognizing that there is something morally or psychologically untoward about the more masochistic claim to love of Blake’s clod, it should also be admitted that love is often unacceptably self-interested or selfish: indeed, it is much of the point of the pebble’s song that it can be so to the extent of hardly counting as love at all. But if this means that worthwhile love should include some significant measure of unselfishness (or other-regard), it may yet be asked how unselfish it can be without ceasing to look much like genuine human love at all—as opposed, perhaps, to the apparent masochistic self-abasement of Blake’s clay. But what now of the apparently selfless and other-regarding attachments of arete or philia applauded in New Testament texts? Might we not at least make some sense of these as moral commitments whereby all self-concern—and/or the derivative satisfactions of more personal attachment—is subordinated to principled impersonal regard for some objective good of larger human benefit? Such impersonal commitment would require suspension of particular local affections and attachments to the purpose of fairness to or for all. To undertake such general commitment, one would have to regard others impartially, precisely without fear or favor, thus avoiding the risk of loving some more or less than others. Such principled commitment would also, to be sure, depart from the self-abasement of Blake’s clod (to which love does nevertheless sometimes come close to seeming in some New Testament places). Again, though, the trouble is that however morally commendable such commitment may seem, such complete disregard or “bracketing” of particular human attachments—and/or of any personal affective pleasure or satisfaction derivable from these—to the end of disinterested commitment to objective principle, no longer much resembles any normal or natural state of human love. As in the case of the more pathological self-denial or self-sacrifice of Blake’s clod, what seems conspicuously missing from such more principled subjection or sacrifice of one’s own satisfaction, interests or pleasure to those of others is precisely the personal satisfactions or benefits of other-regarding attachment that are normally held to accompany the ordinary course of human love.

Indeed, in the light of such reflections—not least on Blake’s poem—one might question whether it is actually helpful to construe love as liable to the radically diverse types or varieties popularized by such accounts as that of C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. Thus, on the one hand, while we may admit that there are, to be sure, different grades or shades of love, some of the states commonly so-called—such as the narcissism of Blake’s pebble or the masochism of his clod—are so psychologically deviant as to be hardly worth calling love at all. On the other hand, however, while agape or caritas—construed as something like Christian charity—may identify a morally positive form of normative commitment, such principled commitment seems also significantly different from or alien to what is ordinarily called (in human terms) love. In that case, how might a more presently useful notion of this common human affection be conceived? In Robert Heinlein’s cult science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, a leading character defines love as “that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own” (333). While this definition from a work of fiction is anyway not too distant from those of some modern analytical philosophers,6 it certainly serves well enough for present purposes to make the crucial point that human love is typically, if not invariably, a form of attachment that involves (at least) two parties—one at least of whom (namely the lover) must be interested in who or what is loved with some view to his or her own personal satisfaction or benefit. Indeed, bearing in mind that the targets of genuine love may be objects or pursuits (such as artworks, sports, or horticulture) no less than people, it seems that love is generally a human (cognitive, epistemic, or sentimental) investment to the end of some reward or “pay-off” of significant personal gratification. Thus, if Janet loves playing the piano, then she may be expected to get some pleasure from it; if she loves John, then she will also (at least usually) look forward to the enjoyment of his company; and so forth.

Still, even if one is entirely comfortable with this somewhat instrumental-seeming take on the sentiment of present concern, what might we say of unrequited love—whereby someone claims to love, but that love is rejected usually terminating any and all prospect of happy or pleasurable “feedback” for the lover? Indeed, this is such a common feature and consequence of human association and relationships that it seems hard to gainsay that what many lovers feel towards those who reject them is real enough love. Indeed, even in the case of rejected lovers who now declare—in the spirit of Aesop’s fox and grapes—that they no longer care anything for those who spurn them, we may not seriously doubt that what they had felt was real love. But then, would not those who continued to love without hope of the pleasure or satisfactions of requited love now resemble the submissive clod of Blake’s poem who refuses the prospect of any and all such personal benefit from love? This, however, by no means follows from Heinlein’s definition: for genuine lovers may well accept that their love is unrequited, yet still derive pleasure from the happiness which those whom they love now find with others. While such lovers cannot hope for the happiness of actual personal contact or association with their loved ones, they may yet derive much satisfaction from knowing that these others are nevertheless happy. Indeed, this may often be the case with parents who are somewhat discomforted by an offspring’s choice of career, partner, or decision to live far away from them. While not entirely content with these outcomes, such carers may nevertheless be genuinely satisfied, precisely in the light of their love of the cared-for, that these others are happy and fulfilled—and might be correspondingly unhappy if they knew this not to be so. This, however, is evidently far from the doormat state of the clod of clay who seems to deny that his or her own happiness, even on behalf of the wellbeing of others, matters much at all.

7 Love, Knowledge, and Experience

There cannot also be much doubt that the other-regarding attachment just indicated is a very advanced kind or level of love. As noted, it is far from entirely selfless or self-denying, since it looks to significant satisfaction or fulfilment of self via serious investment in something worthwhile yet beyond the self. Just as the dancer who loves ballet may sacrifice all else to the pursuit of her art, so parents who love their children may give up all for them and husbands and wives who really love their spouses will stick to them in poverty and sickness no less than in riches and health. Nevertheless, there is significant “pay-off” here: such lovers invariably so love, not in the clay’s spirit of self-effacement or denial, but because it is through such commitments that they come significantly to “find themselves.” Still, neither are these the commitments of those who set aside or deny their own personal interests in thrall to some disinterested principle of self-denying or philanthropic service to the good of others. On the contrary, it is questionable whether a mother bearing with patience the abuse of a difficult daughter, guided only by obedience to (Christian or other) general rule or principle, should be regarded as motivated by genuine love—since it seems clear that someone might be so inspired in the absence of much genuine human affection. It is therefore hard to conceive genuine human love—for people or other things or activities—apart from substantial personal and particular attachment to and/or investment in whom or what is loved. In sum, love seems neither a matter of passive cloddish submission to others nor of more voluntary but still submissive commitment to the authority of some disinterested law or principle. But then, given some such personal dimension, love can hardly ever be completely impartial and inevitably fastens upon some rather than other things, activities, or people. But now, it may seem hard from a psychological viewpoint to see how real human love might be universally extended—in the spirit of this or that ideal philosophical or theological interpretation of agape or caritas—to all possible acquaintances of particular loving agents. Thus, while one might (or perhaps in this sense might not) hope that people may come to love as many of their fellow humans as possible, it is also hard to regard any such more principled attachment to loving all equally (however admirable) as much like real human love.

Still, it yet seems from what has been said so far that genuine human loves have not only diverse objects but that some of these may also be liable for evaluation as better, “higher,” or nobler than others. Thus, for example, the patient long-suffering love of a mother for her wayward child may appear more praiseworthy than a teenage boy’s (not uncommendable) devotion to improving his football skills. Understanding the grounds of such evaluation therefore requires some appreciation of the complex psychology of love and of its no less complicated place in human affairs and association. In the most basic terms, despite that people may sometimes hold that other sentient creatures such as dogs or hamsters may love, such sentiment seems to be a form of distinctly human desire, pro-attitude or attachment. The dancer’s desire or commitment to improving her ballet skills or the mother’s concern for the welfare of her offspring, may both count as forms of love by virtue of their interest in, devotion, or attachment to these objects. However, while we have noted a significant sense in which such loves need to be free, voluntary, and uncoerced attachments to their human or other objects, it is no less clear that they are grounded in or shaped under the influence or constraint of both human nature and nurture. In this regard, while most if not all human agents will commonly experience some sexual attraction and/or become attached to other humans (especially early carers) or to this or that form of early play or entertainment, later human attachments or loves are clearly liable to significant variation or divergence in the light of highly personal trajectories of human development.

Further to this, returning to earlier observations about the place of knowledge in any significant human development, genuine love attachments will usually be more than just states of blind infatuated desire—which, indeed, we are often inclined to dismiss as falling short of the “real thing”—and be matters of significant epistemic engagement. So, despite common talk of the “blindness” of human (notably erotic) love and any and all claims that non-human creatures can also be capable of love (or, indeed, of knowledge), it is evident that the affectionate attachments of dogs, cats, and rabbits—and it is significant that the list does not usually extend much beyond this to tortoises, goldfish, and stick-insects—fall well short of the cognitive or rational grasp or appreciation of what is loved by human agents. While Fido may doggedly follow me around or lick my face, he cannot appreciate or admire me for my skill at chess, sense of humor, or taste in visual art. This is also precisely why any animal or pet attachments cannot grow, develop, or deepen (or perhaps even wane or fade) in the way that human love both can and does: the more one gets to know a topic of interest (such as Baroque music), an activity (such as Alpine mountaineering) or a person (such as a friend or spouse) the more one may come to love this “object”—or, perhaps, by the same token, become bored or sated with it. At any rate, in what is perhaps one of the most influential modern philosophical accounts of such love, the distinguished twentieth-century philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch precisely claims—speaking specifically here of the love of one human agent for another—that “love is knowledge of the individual” (28).

All the same, while there may be something to this claim, it seems misleading as stated.7 At any rate, it cannot be (as the context from which this quote is taken tends to suggest) that the sentiment of love in and of itself enables or suffices for knowledge of other people. Clearly, it is not only that there can be states of attachment that we might fairly describe as love from which any very accurate knowledge of others is notably absent; but—as also lately indicated—there may well be quite precise knowledge of others from which love is absent (or, indeed, which fosters repulsion or hate). It is more likely, however, that the point Murdoch intends to make is that on the best possible conception of love as a desirable state of human association, it is a condition that is significantly assisted or enabled by cultivation of knowledge and understanding of one person by another. On this view, accurate knowledge of others fosters the understanding of and sympathy for them that is necessary—though, as we have seen, it cannot be sufficient, since knowledge may also breed contempt—for serious or true love of them. Indeed, this is surely the main point of her famous and much cited example in Sovereignty of the Good of the mother who, after initially looking down from a cloud of resentful prejudice and misrepresentation of her daughter-in-law, manages in due course to cultivate significant affection for her on correction of her earlier misperceptions—and, of course, this kind of link between correct knowledge or perception and right affection is also much explored in the fictional literary output of Murdoch the novelist. At all events, Murdoch clearly aims to forge a strong link between knowledge and her (albeit idealized conception) of human love. On this view, accurate knowledge of the other is a conceptual desideratum of true human love which is also by the same token incompatible with misconception and/or false perception.

Indeed, given the marked Platonic drift of Murdoch’s thought, this epistemic perspective on love—or, at least, upon less self-focused and more other-regarding dimensions of human attachment—is hardly surprising. Generally, in her fictional no less than philosophical output, Murdoch subscribes to the basic epistemology of the cave allegory of Plato’s Republic that human life and agency is largely a matter of unfortunate and dismal entrapment in a sensual and sensible experience of vanity and delusion from which escape is required to the end of a clearer view of ourselves, our relations with others, and the world in general. That said, Murdoch’s emphasis on the more affective character of love as a key means to such liberation may also seem somewhat at odds with Plato’s apparent hope of escape from empirically conditioned sensible experience to a more rational state of intelligible experience. However, Murdoch’s basic fidelity to Plato seems well supported by observations on the psychological mechanisms of human sensible entrapment in other significant Platonic works and dialogues. Thus, for example, Murdoch’s oft quoted remark that “in the moral life, the enemy is the fat relentless ego” (52) seems a fairly faithful precis of a lengthy passage of the Laws (1318) wherein Plato offers just this diagnosis of the prime source of human attachment to the vain delusions of sensible experience: human agents are precisely drawn to those aspects of sensible and sensual experience that are most immediately gratifying and/or pander to egoistic self-esteem. It is also here worth recalling the lately cited passage of 1 Corinthians in which, after noting at some length the selfish impediments to love, the apostle asserts that whereas we now see through a glass darkly, we may yet hope (in a presumably more advanced spiritual state) to see more clearly. In this passage also, true love is evidently conceived as a condition that requires significant and constant cleansing of the doors of perception in a spirit that recalls both Plato (by whom this Epistle may well have been influenced) and Murdoch.

However, it seems to be in Plato’s Socratic dialogue Symposium that the strongest case yet is made for healthy or genuine love as turning crucially upon epistemic progress. While this dialogue seems not focused upon the “higher” New Testament and gospel loves of arete and philia, but upon the more physical or sensual attractions of eros, it nevertheless seriously explores the potential of even such erotic attachments for higher moral and spiritual development in the light of improved understanding or appreciation of the objects of affection. Allegedly reporting the views of the prophetess Diotima, Plato’s Socrates seeks to show how even the superficial, wanton, and (at least from any modern moral perspective) sexually exploitative homoerotic relationships of ancient Greek times between older and younger males might nevertheless constitute a basis—under the enlightened mentorship of an older and wiser partner—for growth of respect for those qualities of virtuous character that underpin deeper friendship and, yet beyond this, to appreciation of other-regarding human love of perhaps closer approximation to the higher aspirations of agape. At all events, on what has been referred to as “the ladder of love” (see, for example, Blondell), love is a matter of ascent from basic physical attraction to particular objects (bodies) of desire or lust to more morally or spiritually elevated appreciation of and/or regard for others. So considered, agents may be enabled to move beyond such earlier fixations—as, for example, Jennifer appears to move in Pleasantville—either by renouncing them entirely or by adopting a more considered or balanced perspective on them. In this regard, Murdoch does seem to take the view that erotic desire must ultimately fall short of—if not actually operating to disable—the proper epistemically shaped love of others.

8 Conclusion: Love of God and Other Persons

Plato’s ladder of love in the Symposium certainly seems to promise significantly higher development of this sentiment by virtue of better knowledge of others or deeper reflection on one’s relationships. However, it may now be asked how close—or in what way—this might come to the love of God or of one’s neighbor as oneself as prescribed or advocated in various parts of the New (Mark, Matthew) and Old (Deuteronomy, Leviticus) Testaments of the Christian Bible. Indeed, it is far from easy to understand what might here be meant by loving God if such a deity is construed as some entirely immaterial and/or empirically transcendent spiritual being to whom agents cannot entertain the normal routes of human relational access. Even if we grant that such a God does love us, it is yet hard to see quite what form human love might take by way of meaningful reciprocation. To be sure, on what seems to be the conventional view of traditional Judaism—towards which Jesus may appear to be somewhat critical in the Sermon of the Mount and elsewhere—such love might be construed as strict obedience (on pain of punishment) to his purportedly revealed (Mosaic and other) prescriptions and commandments or in terms of not arousing his jealousy (as warned in Exodus) by worshipping other gods. But this, for reasons upon which we have already touched, is not unproblematic.

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the title character attempts to bribe, compel, or extort love from his three daughters. However, he soon discovers from the two elder of these offspring—who seem ready to string him along entirely, of course, to their own advantage—that such attempted coercion breeds only contempt and ultimate cruel rejection. He has subsequently to learn—the hard way—the true meaning of love from the only daughter who has been able to see through this foolish pantomime. By analogy, if the God of the Christian scriptures is to be regarded as a truly loving father to his children, one might reasonably expect Him not to be the foolish parent of King Lear, whose bounty is conditional upon the flattery or obsequiousness of others, but more like the loving parent of previous notice who encourages the efforts of offspring to grow through their own authentic and responsible choices—but is also there to support them when these turn out (as with so many human choices) to be mistaken. So considered, such a loving parent might more clearly resemble the father of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son than the jealous God of much traditional Judeo-Christian conception—and, as such, to be more at home in the universe of reformed Pleasantville than in prelapsarian Eden. Moreover, insofar as it is far from easy to make clear sense of the love of God in terms of any very personal relationship between some created human agent and an immaterial or empirically transcendent creator, it might also be fairly held that the interpretation of the New Testament injunction to love God and one’s neighbour which best accords with the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount is basically tantamount to the more practically feasible advice to love one’s neighbor as oneself: to suppose, in short, that this is essentially what loving God amounts to and what He ultimately requires or intends.

What, then, of such human love of others? On the one hand, as we have seen, such sentiment cannot only be a matter of blind or servile (erotic or other) infatuation, which seems scarcely deserving of the name love: as Wittgenstein memorably put it, “Love is not a feeling, love is put to the test” (504, 89e). Thus considered, genuine human love requires commitment to other persons or projects to which significantly (epistemically) informed freedom of choice and action is also presupposed. On the other hand, such love has clear human limits and is also liable to fall well short of unrestricted extension to others of the sort that seems required by the command or advice to love one’s neighbor as oneself. To be sure, some agents (so-called “people people”) may be naturally disposed to a kind or caring attitude to others, and others may aspire (perhaps against nature) to some such condition as a matter of more principled religious or moral (Christian or other) commitment. But, apart from the fact that any injunction to love others as oneself may be futile if people do not already love themselves (as many do not), neither natural temperament nor principled commitment clearly qualifies as genuine human love. So, while individual attempts to cultivate the temperament or adopt the moral principle towards as many others as possible may be much to the good, real human love is inevitably interested, partial, and selective and may only extend so far. Indeed, any meaningful or substantial ascent of Plato’s ladder of love will usually require focused devotion to particular people or projects that also precludes such wider and more diverse attention. That said, as emphasized in (for notable example) 1 Corinthians and the moral thought of Iris Murdoch, love is clearly one of the most potent forces for positive moral and spiritual growth in human life. As such, however, something like an appropriately reformed (or colored-in) Pleasantville climate of informed, liberated, and responsible association seems required for cultivation of the fullest, widest, and best love or loves of which agents—within their human limits—may be capable.


For one notable modern instance of such effort, of course, see C.S. Lewis’s, “The Four Loves”; but see also various recent essays in Kroeker and Schaubroeck’s Love, Reason and Morality.


For some of the extensive literature on Eve’s responsibility for original sin, see Pagels, Adam, Eve and the Serpent; Norris, The Story of Eve; Jacobs, Gender, Power and Persuasion; and Flood, Representations of Eve in Antiquity and the English Middle Ages.


On the myth of Satan, see Kelly, Satan: A Biography.


While the literature on this topic is extensive, see McFarlane, In Adam’s Fall; and Boyce, Born Bad.


The general psychology here, if not also Freudian, may reflect what Edgar Allen Poe called “the imp of the perverse.”


See, for example, some of the positions defended and criticized in Kroeker and Schaubroeck.


See, further to this, Carr, “Love, truth and moral judgement.”

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