Love is in the air and snow is on the ground. It is hard to know of which there is more - love or snow? Paul’s great hymn to love in 1st Corinthians 13 has been the traditional scripture passage for the week of winter carnival and the attendant Valentine’s Day celebrations at the School. It is one of the great literary classics and perhaps one of the more familiar passages of Scripture even in our spiritual-lite and religious adverse age.
What is love? It is the question of Plato’s Symposium and belongs to a serious reflection upon the understanding of our humanity in its desires and drives that concern our relation with one another. Love is a big little word. Paul uses the word ‘love’ explicitly ten times and refers to it another seven times. In other words, love is emphatically front and center in 1st Corinthians seventeen times in seventeen verses. What does he mean by love?
As with Plato, love means more than simply the romantic and the sensual even as it shapes and informs those aspects of our humanity. As with Plato, Paul is not arguing for the idea of love as an object, a thing, even love as the beloved, but as an activity of the soul. There are a great number of words for love that the ancient Greeks have bequeathed to us and which have carried over into a variety of Latin terms as well. Ordinarily in English we have to make do with the big little word love to cover a whole range of meanings.
In Greek, there is eros, for instance, from which we get the idea of the erotic and the sensual; there is philos, or friendship love, we might say, and which extends to a whole host of words like philosophy, the love of wisdom, or philanthropy, the love of our humanity associated with generosity; there is storge, the love of family or nation or community; and there is agape, the social and communal love which extends to matters spiritual. That is the word which Paul uses but which is translated as caritas in the Latin with its connotations about grace and rendered rather beautifully in the King James version as charity. But it would be a mistake to place these different terms for love in tight little boxes, sequestered and isolated from one another. Plato deliberately, it seems to me, uses the word eros with all of its sensual connotations to embark upon the journey of love which is spiritual and intellectual but as such embraces all the forms of love, from the lowest to the highest.
Like other significant ideas, love cannot be easily tied down and defined. It is not a thing but an activity of the soul. Paul is arguing for the divine love which perfects our human loves, loves which we know to be incomplete and partial. His hymn signals the redemption of desire, of love, and shows us something of its force and power. It is not self-centered; it is not boastful; it endures all things, and so forth. Without it we are, he says, nothing. Love belongs to the perfection of our humanity. It is “the still more excellent way” of life. It has to do with our care for one another in the care of God.
“In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,” as Shakespeare puts it (Sonnet # 141) and in ways that challenge our image-obsessed culture, “for they in thee a thousand errors note.” Perhaps not the best thing to say to your Valentine on Valentine’s day! “But ‘tis my heart that loves what they despise,/ who, in despite of view, is pleased to dote.” That may play out a bit better. “Nor are mine ears with thy tongue’s tune delighted,” also not recommended for romance. “Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone, /Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited/ to any sensual feast with thee alone.” This doesn’t seem to fit the Valentine mood. But what he is getting at is the shortcomings of sense and sense perception in order to point to something greater. “But my wits nor my five senses can/ Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,/ Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man,/ Thy proud heart’s slave and vassal wretch to be.” Ah, to be sure, there is the conquering power of love. In the awakening to a more mature kind of love, John Donne in ‘The Good Morrow’ speaks about how the lovers “watch one another not out of fear,/for love all love of other sights controls/ and makes one little room an everywhere.” With love, all is lovely.
There is even a cosmic dimension to love. “From the graced decorum of the hair/ even to the tingling sweet/ soles of the simple earth-confiding feet,/ and from the inmost heart/ outwards unto the thin/ silk curtains of the skin,/ every least part/ astonished hears/ and sweet replies to some like region of the spheres,” as Coventry Patmore puts it in ‘To the Body’.
Paul’s hymn highlights the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, the greatest of which is charity, love. It is this love which perfects the cardinal or classical virtues of temperance, courage, prudence and justice by ordering them to their end in God without which, as Augustine suggests, they become splendid vices. His hymn awakens us to the perfecting love of God for our humanity and to the love which is patient and kind in the face of all adversity. In our times, it is good to be reminded of such a love. For without it, we are indeed nothing. Here is love is more.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK TeacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy