Marc De Kesel

 The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. Love does not harm the neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law”. Thus spake Paul in his Letter to the Romans (13:10). The ‘law’ mentioned here is the one of the Covenant commanding the people of Israel to worship the one true God and to love the neighbor as oneself (Mc 12: 29-31). And so, love is the attitude of the one obeying and fulfilling that law. 

Jan van Scorel,  The Good Samaritan , 1537

Jan van Scorel, The Good Samaritan, 1537

This is at least the way a Jew in the first century understands it. The Jew informed by Paul’s letters, however, understands it in a quite different manner. For he has learned that his people has failed in fulfilling that law, that therefore God’s Son has intervened and, by his sacrificial act of love, has taken upon him that collective failure in order to directly realize the kingdom of love, not only for the descendants of Jacob, the Jews, but for the Greek, i.e. for all non-Jews as well.   

Unlike the Jewish doctrine of Jesus’s time, the Christian manifestation disconnects the fulfillment of the law from the observance of that law. The fulfillment becomes a state on its own, beyond the law, leaving the realm of the law behind and entering the new realm of what Paul calls ‘faith, hope and [precisely] love’. This is why some Christians suppose themselves to be beyond any law, giving up their jobs, refusing to pay taxes, neglecting the laws of marriage – in short, falling into anarchism. Remember that for which Paul reprimands the Christians of Thessaloniki  (1 Tess 4: 11-12; 2 Tess 2: 6-12).

Paul has to tell his followers that love, although being the fulfillment of the law, is nonetheless itself a law still to be obeyed and fulfilled. In other words, love is not simply the state or redemption the Christian enjoys, it is also an imperative: the Christian also has to love, has to make efforts for it; he has to obey love’s commandments. Read for instance his Letter to the Colossians (3: 13-15): “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

A double bind structure characterizes Christian love. It presents the fulfillment of the law as a law still to be fulfilled. The one acknowledging the Christian love message is both saved from sin and death and has still to be saved from them. He has to feel and act as if he has entered the kingdom of love beyond the law and he has to obey love as a commandment, as a law still to be fulfilled.  

The ‘as if’ is crucial here. Obeying the commandment of love, is it possible at all not to do as if  one is already in the kingdom of love, as if one is beyond the law? Is the order to love not immediately also an order to feel and act as if one is already in the realm of love (‘s fulfillment)? What, then, is the ethical value of a commandment that, on a universal scale, obliges us to do as if ?   

It is because of this kind of ethical reasoning that, in his Civilization and Its Discontent, Sigmund Freud recoiled from the universal commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves: “Why should we do it? What good will it do us? But, above all, how shall we achieve it? How can it be possible? My love is something valuable to me which I ought not to throw away without reflection. It imposes duties on me for whose fulfillment I must be ready to make sacrifices. If I love someone, he must deserve it in some way.

Freud does not deny the inherent character of love’s sacrificial dimension, but precisely for that very reason, he hesitates at a universal law that commands us to love everyone. A world in which everyone loves everyone out of compliance with a commandment to love cannot be but a sadistic universe, Freud suggests. Love is unsuitable for being the object of a universal law. 

But can love do without any law? 

Miniature from the  Codex Menasse , detail, 13th century

Miniature from the Codex Menasse, detail, 13th century

All great erotic traditions have their ‘laws of love’, their specific code helping lovers in the difficult way to deal with that strange kind of ‘supreme good’. These kinds of law, however, are precisely not universal. They do not tell that we should love, but only how we should love – how we should love, not everyone, but our beloved. And those laws do not pretend to ensure the fulfillment of our desire. They just help us a little in how to manage something which in its core is unmanageable. 

Consider for instance the Fin’Amors, i.e. the poetic tradition of courtly love which tells about the ways  to conquer the unconquerable Lady. That tradition discusses the code the lover has to observe, not so much in order to succeed in his conquest as to deal with – and to endorse correctly – the very impossibility of it. 

Unlike the Christian agapeic love tradition, the  erotic culture of Fin’Amors emphasizes the absolute character of the law and the radical impossibility to get beyond its limits. 

Strange to notice that precisely erotic love supposes the absoluteness of the law, while agapeic love claims the possibility to leave all law behind.