Love – What Is It?
Degrees of Life and Love
Fully Living is Inseparable from Fully Loving
Love – What Is It?
The Ecological Inclination offered what is commonly understood as an “objective” account of experience, explaining it from the viewpoint of a detached observer. Within that experience my examination found a prominent desire for consistency, coherence and specific fulfillment. I began the essay describing my attitude toward my beautiful view that was threatened with destruction by a development. I had the desire for my enjoyment of that view to continue and put a great deal of work into opposing the city’s approval of it. The work of myself and the neighbors was eventually successful. We shared the motivation and desire to preserve the natural state of the bluff as it was because we enjoyed it. That is to say, we loved it. In uniting to preserve it we came to love each other and our community, which was the totality formed by the people and the place.
My awareness of that totality was precisely my love for it and was very unlike the unity of images that I formerly explained is imposed by acts of attention to particular contents of sense perception. The latter presents a picture of an objective world of subjects and objects existing independently of each other. I stress that this is a picture, for all that I experience are images, not only of objects but also of my own body. While it was associated with sensory images the love I now speak of was a sense of personal vitality and vital unity with a place, the people and things in it. It also differed from sense perception in having a particularly immediate character. In contrast with love considered as a feeling, sensation or desire which I have previously described, it seemed rather to be a substantive thing in which I the subject was immersed. This is in fact how love has been known to poets, musicians, artists and everyone else familiar with the rapture throughout human history.
I previously developed a complete worldview out of the self-evident truth of sense experience, following the tradition of Western philosophy, particularly empiricism and phenomenology. Now, moving away from that tradition, I proceed to focus my attention on the thing known as love to determine what it is. My method is the same as that which I employed in The Ecological Inclination: I consider it first as a whole then identify its parts.
Like sense experience, for example, seeing the red color, love is also a matter of self-evident truth. In a state of love, a person may be confused about exactly what it is they love. Is it the other person or is it that person’s appearance, their wealth, their power or some other attribute of the person but not the person? Is it even their own state of love, as in being “in love with love”? While confusion, deception and self-deception over the precise object of love are probably the rule rather than the exception, what is absolutely indubitable is the fact that one is in a state of love.
Loves vary in degree and extent. I may say, “I love my hollyhocks,” while the essence of Christianity is love of all men. Loves are also mixed. A person may love their home, which includes the house and the people living in it. To understand love it is necessary to choose a particular one and study it. The love that is widely regarded as supreme is the love of a mother for her child. For me, this is the most revealing.
As I hug my child I feel love for him, and in this state I can examine that love. I find that it is an indivisible awareness of intense, vibrant, absolutely creative and boundless vitality. Its quality is infinitely manifold, containing difference without distinctness, as white light contains all the different colors which only become distinct when refracted. Intensely alive, its vibrance discloses infinitely and universally harmonizing action. Being boundless and absolutely creative, it is infinite and eternal. As I feel this love I am aware of its place: it encompasses myself and my child, in fact, unites us in an indefinite spatial zone of love. This state of love is all-consuming, the quality that Emily Dickinson captured in her lines
That Love is all there is,
Is all we know of Love;
It is enough, the freight should be
Proportioned to the groove.
Previously I classified love as an emotion which colored sensory images. My experience of love for my child is not a coloring or a desire but rather an intuition, that is, the apprehension of an intelligible, as opposed to a sensible object. Such intuition was central to many Western and non-Western systems of thought prior to the modern era which has thoroughly dismissed it as a matter of superstition.
The different attributes of love that I have listed are identified by the same method I previously applied to sensory objects: first apprehending the whole, then focusing attention on the several attributes as attributes of it. Discerning the attributes of love consists of so many additional separate intuitions focused on its quality, vibrance, vitality and boundlessness. This is comparable to visually focusing first on the color, then the shape, then the sheen of the apple. In the images focused on a single attribute, the rest of the apple with its other attributes appear out of focus, in the background, as it were, of the attribute in focus. Similarly with love: it is directly known in the intuition of it alone and also evident in the intuitions of its particular attributes as their ground. For the attributes are intuited as attributes of love. As illustrated in my description of seeing first the whole, then the parts of the geranium, neither the images nor the intuitions of the parts or attributes of objects of experience are the same as they appear or are intuited in the whole object.
Love is the immediate awareness of life. Yet being the awareness of life, a certain manifestation of it but not life per se, it is attenuated, contracted into an experience. Love reveals life, and the examination of love reveals the nature of life. It is found that life is elemental: it is not a composition of nonliving pieces, nor is it the product of nonliving processes. Although it metamorphosizes, it always persists as life, indeed absolutely creative life. Life is unitary and therefore singular, infinite and eternal. It is further a manifold of vital impulses, different but not distinct. and indivisibly united.
The state of love for my son both reveals and affirms the unity of our individual lives. The lover and the beloved are united in what I call a spatially extended zone of love, which is the spatially extended awareness of their conjoined lives. When I feel love for my community, my love has an indefinite spatial extension corresponding in some degree with the physical community. The same is true when I feel love for the world: I feel a unity and a shared destiny with it, although the spatial extension of this feeling is especially indefinite.
Love’s infinite boundlessness reveals that life is the very substance of the universe, continuously extended throughout its total expanse. Particular lives are radiant centers of action which are indivisible parts of the whole universe. As such, they are functional dimensions of it like energy fields. The awareness that constitutes love is a function within the dimension formed by the subject’s indefinitely extended life. Love of the world is the awareness of oneself as an indivisible part of the world while more limited loves are the awareness of oneself as an indivisible part of certain conjoined lives, such as those of a family or community.
Degrees of Life and Love
The manifold quality of particular loves reflects the combined natures of the lover and the beloved. So, my love for my child is qualitatively different from my love for my community and every other particular love of mine. Particular loves are also more and less extensive and more and less comprehensive. Thus one can love a particular geographic place but not the people in it. Or, conversely, one can love all the people but not the place. The most extensive and comprehensive love is the love of all things. This is the love that Lao Tzu refers to as “deep love,”1 which is awareness of oneself as part of the unitary life of the universe.
The variety of loves that I have mentioned illuminates the multiple natures of particular things. They have both individual natures, as with an individual person, and collective natures which are disclosed by different loves. Love for my family is the awareness of my indivisible unity with the rest of my family, which includes me in respect of my nature as a member of the family. Similarly with love for the community: it is awareness of myself specifically as a member of the community conjoined with the rest of the people. Love for the world is awareness of one’s nature specifically as a part of the universe, conjoined with the rest of it.
Love reveals that life is vital willful activity which also has variable degrees. At its most intense, it is particularly expansive, as a living thing puts its whole heart into its life activity. We observe this especially in animals, and an excellent illustration is found in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. He describes the mating ritual of the male woodcock which consists in a spiral flight to a great altitude followed by a rapid drop to within inches of the ground. The bird repeats this spectacular display several times each evening during its spring mating season. Seeing it is an awe-inspiring experience, and Leopold’s narrative conveys his awareness of the bird’s profound willful vitality, that is, his love for its special life.2 In other chapters he expresses such love for a particular mountain and marsh, portraying them also as ardently living units.
Leopold calls the woodcock’s ritual “sky dance” in virtue of its special place. As it performs, the bird occupies a certain aerial space. Its movements are a unitary functional relationship between its body and the air in that space. All organisms exist in such places where their lives are indivisible with the other things in those places. Life is further multi-dimensional, with each particular life occupying its own place, which is the common space of multiple such places. This is seen in organisms’ particular habitats, which are defined as the places where they carry on all their functions. Multiple habitats exist in a single space, and they also persist through the generations of the individuals whose habitats they are. In a forest, for example, individual trees display manifold natures as they serve myriad vital functions for many other organisms, among which life and death are relative. The life of every tree is an overlapping set of lives, as at all times each tree sustains and is sustained by many other lives. When one dies, life continues in those organisms that it had nurtured and continues to nurture in death. Such life is eternal and eternally creative.
A person may experience himself as an indivisible part of the unified life in a certain place, and Leopold describes such an experience of his own.3 He was on a fishing trip in hot weather which began vainly in downstream water. After considering what a trout might do, he moved upstream to the cool Alder Fork, where the vegetation, water, sunlight, breeze, trout and himself formed a palpable living whole. Literally merging with the place and applying concentration and skill, he fulfilled his desire to catch some fish. His success was the outcome of a total endeavor on the part of himself and every component of the place, extending over the course of his day-long quest. The total life of the place, which on that day included Leopold, culminated in the total event of his audacious landing of the last trout. He felt the total fulfillment of that living place in a spatially extended awareness of its unified vital activity.
The feeling of love is an attenuated manifestation of life which is otherwise activity, not feeling. Yet it expresses the orientation or willful intention of one’s activity. I don’t just have a feeling of love for my child; much of my life’s activity is directed at and consists in caring for him, serving his interest. So with other loves: they reflect the intention of one’s activity. As the awareness of activity, love does not exist without it. There is no loving without doing. At a minimum, saying things like “I love the people in my city” means that I am consistently friendly in my encounters with them. Of course it can mean much more in terms of service in their interest. Love of all things means acting in the interest of all things both individually and collectively.
As seen in Leopold’s experience in the Alder Fork, love reflects collective action. Any time people act together with a shared purpose, there is a measure of love among them. In a vegetable garden the life activity of the plants is united with that of the gardener to form a palpable living whole. The pleasure of harvesting the vegetables is a common though milder analogue of Leopold’s rapture in catching the fish. Indeed, love invariably reflects shared willful activity. My child contributes to my life, as does my community and the world. We interact, we are interdependent and have a shared purpose. So love captures, so to speak, some portion, or all of willful life activity in the world.
Much of my life activity involves no feeling of love at all, for I am mostly engaged in living, not feeling. Thus there are degrees of love, ranging from intense passion to minimal enjoyment. As love is the immediate awareness of life, so these degrees of love are degrees of awareness of life and also awareness of degrees of life. Leopold’s experience in the Alder Fork is an example of especially expansive human life activity and the awareness of it. Comparing it to normal life activity and awareness the latter are seen to be much less intense and far less in scope. As awareness of willful activity, love has temporal extension, and these admit of degrees as well – longer and shorter-term loves.
Everything I do is some willful life activity. These include bodily actions and awareness, such as the awareness of love. My sense perception is also a life activity. Instead of moving my body or having an awareness that literally extends beyond my body, sense perception presents me with images.
In The Ecological Inclination I explored sensory images, treating them specifically as images. When I look across my room with the intention of examining what I see as images what I see is a two-dimensional image of the other side of the room and the contents over there. This isn’t normal seeing. Normally I look over there and I see the images of objects literally over there, at a distance from the image of my body. My visual perception is three-dimensional, having depth as well as height and width.
My examination of love has revealed that as my love forms an extended zone around my body, so does my life. Love involves the awareness of the spatial extension of my life, which constitutes a certain dimension of the world. So my experience of love belongs to this dimension, as do my sense perceptions. Together they form a three-dimensional space of experience around my body, which is a certain functional realm of my life. The images of things that I see are literally over there, approximately where their objects are.
I introduced intuition with an examination of love, a particularly intangible thing, but there is also intuition of common tangible objects. As my feeling of love extends into the space around my body, it reveals the continuity of my life, which intersects with the lives of other things. My experience of their lives may take the form of love for them or consist of intuition of their lives. Thus, for example, my experience of my cat is not just the image of a black shape. I am aware of its very life, and this awareness is intuition of it. Like the awareness of the object of my love, my intuition of the cat is in the space of my experience which corresponds to the physical space in which the cat actually is. Normal experience is a combination of sensory perception and intuition. As I intuit the cat’s very life, that is its essence, over there, my visual image of its color and shape are also over there, in a certain location in the space of my experience.
In contrast with the feeling of love, which is the awareness of the conjoined lives of the lover and beloved, intuition presents the life of its object as somewhat distinct from the subject. Obviously my intuition of the cat is a part of my life, yet it grasps the cat’s life as relatively autonomous. Intuition is awareness of the very life of a thing, but it is not the thing, so intuiting it does not allow me to move it or control its activity. Thus my grasp of the thing, of which I am aware in virtue of it intersecting with my life, is a reduction for me both of it and me.
I have introduced intuition as my awareness of the very life of a thing and which is located in the space of my experience corresponding to the place of that thing. But of course not everything around me is an autonomous living thing. Although rocks are inorganic, they have a distinct nature, and that is the object of my intuition of them. Man-made objects, on the other hand, are neither alive nor natural. They are artifacts created for human use.
The intuition of living things, being awareness of their very lives, discloses their will to live, to function and exist as what they are. After all, the business of plants and animals is mostly to survive and grow, and their functions serve themselves. In contrast, the function of artifacts is their actual use by people, for example the function of a hammer is hammering, not lying in the toolbox. A hammer can’t function by itself; it must be swung by a person who understands what a hammer is and how to use it. The will to pound the nails, therefore, is not in the hammer but in the person actually using it. So intuition of an actual hammer is intuition of a person using it as a hammer. Otherwise my intuition of the hammer is awareness of its potential use and further includes the will to use it in an attenuated form. Provided that one knows what their uses are, the intuition of all artifacts not in actual use involves the subtle desire and impulse to put them to their proper use. Relative to the intuition of living things and artifacts in actual use, such intuition constitutes a further degree of reduction of life activity.
When I am in a room and see an empty chair, I have a subtle desire and urge to go and sit in the chair. Seeing a doorway, I have a slight impulse to walk through it. As we live today in a mostly man-made world, we are in fact continually pulled in countless directions by the things around us. Sitting in my room, I see a window that can be raised; a fan that can be switched on, drawers that can be pulled open, lamps that can be turned on and shelves of books that can all be read. I concentrate on the image I see on my computer screen and on my writing to escape this deluge of demands.
Natural things today also mostly serve human uses and are therefore commonly intuited like artifacts, not autonomous living things. We fail to grasp trees and flowers as living things when we regard them as objects to beautify our surroundings. Crops and livestock are viewed as food, not living plants and animals. People, too, are viewed primarily in instrumental capacities – the bureaucrat, the salesperson, the stranger – and not as living human beings.
Using things, natural and man-made, is life activity. To the extent that my use is limited, so is my life activity with respect to them. My life activity is also limited to the extent that the objects I use are limited. There are countless ways in which I can use a fresh potato, but only one way that I can use a plate of French fries. One of the ways I can use a potato is to plant some of the eyes, tend the bushes and harvest new potatoes. I can prepare them in many ways, store, package and sell them. I can also serve them at dinner and enjoy eating them with family and friends. There is much potential life activity in a potato. Yet life today is filled with ready-made and ready-to-use objects. There is also extreme division and commodification of labor. Few people grow any of their own food or prepare it from scratch, and keeping the home in repair is mostly contracted out. Automation takes contraction of life activity to a whole new level, minimizing human functions in mechanized or computerized processes.
A further reduction of both the subject and object is constituted by sense perception. In contrast with intuition, sense perception fails to disclose to me the life of the thing that I see. I have no experience of its vital nature, rather only its external appearance. Moreover, this appearance is for me alone, with its particular angle of view, perspective and so forth. Sense perception was explored at length in The Ecological Inclination, so I now leave it to consider the other kinds of objects in the world that constitute a progressive scale of life reduction.
The next degree of reduction of life and love consists of sense perception of pictures – art, photos, videos and films. Such images are man-made objects, and their primary use is to be seen as representations of their subjects. Videos and films with audio add recorded sounds to the recorded visual images. Radio and telephone transmissions as well as strictly audio recordings are electronic representations of original sounds. All of these are strictly sensory images created to stand apart from their tangible subjects. Face-to-face with a person, I am aware of their life, indeed, our shared life in the world. Watching them on Zoom or having a phone conversation with them excludes such intuition, and I am left with lifeless representations.
Sentiment, however, can be added to the experience of seeing or hearing such representations. In a phone call with my child I feel my love for him and am aware of our shared life. My life intersects with his even though he is physically in another state, and my feeling of love is the awareness of this intersection. I also feel this love when I look at his photograph on the wall or on Facebook.
Most of the people and things represented in images have no such personal connection, so their images are to me little more than lifeless representations. Though flat, they still belong to my life activity and relate more or less to its past and present. So, for example, I see images of immigrant children in cages, associate them with historical precedents and am moved to join the local protest rally. The constricted life activity of seeing the images thus gives rise to the expansive activity of protesting.
Beyond pictures and recordings of actual things, a further reduction of life activity is constituted by language. Linguistic representations of things and events are not the things and therefore remove us from those things. In-person spoken language entails the presence of the speaker and hearer while spoken language transmitted electronically and written language sets them apart and therefore doubles the reduction of life activity.
Language may have major impact in the world, for example the order “Charge!” in a battle or the use of military history records and other communications in warfare. The point I want to stress about language is that, compared to love and non-linguistic forms, it is an especially limited manifestation of life activity. The history of the battle is not the battle, and the readers of it are in their armchairs, not the trenches.
Unlike pictures, no modern language resembles anything non-linguistic. Ancient hieroglyphics come closest to such representation with ideograms getting second place. The spoken languages corresponding to written practices are altogether different. Resemblance between words and things is limited to onomatopoeia. So language not only reduces immediate life activity, it translates it into the other media of spoken and written words. This reduction is very evident with human life so dominated by language in our information age.
“A picture is worth a thousand words” says the cliché, and this is true. Verbal representations are at a further remove from their subjects than visual representations. In addition, verbal expression goes far beyond objective representation as there is a whole social dimension in linguistic communication.
Then there are the matters of interpretation and meaning. Jean Baudrillard maintains that there are no objective uses of language whatsoever. At a minimum, the speaker or writer selects something out of the whole world to speak or write about, asserting that it is the thing that is important now and the rest isn’t. Once the focus is chosen, it advances. The words are first “The house at 100 Main Street is on fire.” Next comes “The fire truck has arrived,” then “The fire is being extinguished” and so on.
What people ordinarily say and write, moreover, reflects their personal history and worldview. With the case of the house fire, they expect the fire truck to come and the fire to be extinguished. They don’t say, “What’s this blaring red machine?” or “Why aren’t they extinguishing the fire instantly?” or “People have no right to fire protection.”
Much verbal communication conveys ideology, and there is a good amount of sheer propaganda. “We’re fighting the Vietnam War to stop the advance of Chinese communism” is a prime example. So language serves to impose interpretations on life activity.
Scientific language selects certain aspects of things and redefines them. A rock, for example, is a natural object which physics defines as a certain quantity of mass having a certain quantity of force due to gravity. Chemistry defines the rock as having a certain chemical composition. An animal is another natural object which biology defines as being of a certain species and composed of cells and other physiological parts.
A major aspect of science is quantification, which compounds its reduction of life activity. A patient in an intensive care unit is hooked up to multiple monitors that register different vital signs. Such technology is life-saving, but it directs attention to these measurements and away from the living human being. Especially at the end of life this preoccupation raises questions concerning quality of life.
The supremely quantified science is economics, the focus of which is profit. Neoliberal economics “externalizes” certain costs of business to society which include inequality and environmental damage. Financial activity is an especially extreme reduction of life as its material is financial instruments. Apart from physical cash, money is nothing but accounting entries, much of which exists strictly in electronic form. Further, financial activity can become exponentially detached from actual things. There are countless financial abuses of people that include usury, speculation, leveraged buyouts and fraud; then there are derivatives and pyramided debt. The financialization of the global economy is at the heart of very many of the world’s ills. Its phantom nature is exposed in every crash, which nevertheless causes massive loss of tangible property and livelihoods and produces real pain and suffering.
The languages used by politicians, historians, journalists, economists and scientists treat everything as something other than what it ultimately is, which is manifestations of universal life. Language is a form of life activity which is thoroughly intertwined with nonverbal life activity and plays a large role in directing the latter. The meaning of language is to a significant degree merely its links with past and present experience. In any case, language involves reduction of life activity, detachment from nonverbal life and limited or distorted representation of things. These deficiencies are especially apparent and disturbing insofar as so much human life today consists of the experience of common and specialized languages. This experience is also highly fragmented, with new information continually displacing the old and reducing links with the past and present. It is further contracted insofar as it consists of sound bytes and discrete bits of one-dimensional language.
Above I separated nonverbal images and language for the purpose of discussion. Today we are inundated with images combined with information in print and electronic media. These are powerful tools of propaganda, indeed mind control, that rely on repetition and deception. The massive impact that propaganda has speaks volumes about the contraction of life in general today to media, where brand and icon play dominant roles. “Trump” is a brand stamped on all of his business assets and political actions. He himself is an icon representing wealth, power and celebrity. Much more than the actual person, his followers admire these qualities which give him an immense presence in the world. To follow him is literally to contribute to his power and celebrity and therefore to share in them. Otherwise his followers are suffering loss of individual wealth and political power. While he was president Trump was an icon in which the life activity of a nation was contracted into his image.
He is a particular icon, but life today abounds with objects serving as more generic signs. A sign is not the thing it signifies nor does it, like a picture, resemble that thing which is itself often intangible. A common form is the sign of status. A mcmansion is a sign of wealth which may be owned by a person actually drowning in debt. Nearly every perceptible aspect of people’s lives is in fact a conventional sign of status – their speech, physical condition, dress, hair, job, house, address and much more. Signs are yet another degree of contraction of life activity which overlies the other kinds of experience. To consider people in terms of signs is to impose certain identities on them and to treat them in those capacities rather than as living human beings. At the same time signs of status play an enormous role in consumer behavior. Much of the stuff that people purchase (and rapidly dispose of) identifies them as having a certain status, especially as being “with it.” People consciously advertise their status with their consumer choices and activity. Thus the contraction of life activity through signs of status is a two-way street: people both narrowly, superficially and sometimes falsely identify themselves and are so identified by others through the signification of objects and actions.
The final degree of life reduction consists of thoughts and images of memory, imagination and dreams. My account of language above refers to audible and visible language, which belong to sensory experience. The kind of experience that is considered strictly cerebral has minimal or no spatial extension and therefore minimal or no immediate effect on the world outside the subject. Of course it may have immense effect insofar as it constitutes preparation for or as guidance for external action.
I have surveyed the hierarchy of life and love, tracing its degrees of reduction. The body is the center of one’s life action, and although its action radiates into and is shared with neighboring people, things and places, this action is limited. Compared with the totality of universal life, it is a small, possibly infinitesimally small, blip. It is limited not only in terms of its spatial reach and impact on the world but also its time span. The body is mortal, coming to be out of universal life and passing away back into it. This mortal life is a reduction of universal life, the limitation of which is removed with the body’s death.
Love discloses that the fundamental reality is universal life. Its universality is evident in especially expansive love, the greatest being the love of all things. Love is not life, but the immediate awareness of life, and particular loves are the immediate awareness of particular parts of universal life or particular life activities. My love for my child is the immediate awareness of our joint life activity. Universal life is indivisible, so this awareness is not distinct but occupies an indefinite zone in the space of my experience, with its quality being fairly indistinct as well. There is evidently an immense variety of loves which differ with respect to their quality, extent and intent. Love for all people is extensive but selective; it omits everything nonhuman. Love for a certain person is narrow in extent and intent.
Fully Living Is Inseparable from Fully Loving
Swedenborg wrote that a man’s life is his love.4 One’s life is large and full in proportion to their love, the greatest life being that animated by the love of all things. This love is the awareness of one’s life activity as part of the total life of the universe and is directed at the good of all things, that is, at serving all things. So we return to the model of global sustainability or universal justice as the total goal of one’s life action.
Life activity however consists of countless particular actions involving innumerable particular objects. Being animated by the love of all things therefore means a couple of things: First, as far as possible, putting one’s whole heart into one’s actions. Affirm life! Don’t deny or diminish your own life. Second, exercise intuition: be aware of things as living beings. This is especially pertinent in regard to human relations as people are usually treated as strangers of no account or in some instrumental capacity. To intuit the very life of another person is to respect them as a human being. Intuition of other people involves awareness of their degree of life affirmation, something that typically needs improvement but which can be lifted somewhat by one’s own spirit. Finally, being animated by the love of all things means engaging in activities that advance the goal of universal justice. Presently there is little activity directed at this vision. Good intentions are aimed at innumerable limited objectives that do not all add up to it, thus limiting organized progress.
In our time we face the “end of nature,” mass destruction of life on earth and growing global human conflict. There is much discouragement among those aware of the crisis. A vital source of strength for them is provided by life as I have described it. Each living thing in the world is a radiant and creative source of life, indivisible with universal life and therefore ultimately in the service of the whole.
Human beings are apparently unique among living things in that they can voluntarily love more or less and also voluntarily expand or contract their life activity. In the Christian tradition this phenomenon has been attributed to man’s free will. It is enough for our purpose here to understand that human love can embrace all things or a very few things. Similarly, human life activity can serve all things or a very few things. Love is a relation – the awareness of the shared life of two or more things, so although much is said of “self-love,” it is an oxymoron. Narcissists’ love is not for themselves, but for their images, as the mythical Narcissus was in love with his reflection in the water.
A person lives to the degree that they are animated by the love of all things and acts to serve all things. Such conduct of course consists of so many specific actions. With the dominance of information in our time, much action to serve the world must therefore consist in communication such as lobbying. Talk is a substantial reduction of life activity but is justified by its universal intention. This universal love is the principal redemption in our otherwise fallen human world.
Meanwhile, to do good we must survive. Bodily weakness and pain definitely reduce life activity, and death extinguishes it. To stay alive and functional in our present world requires being some part of the infernal machine. Trump’s policies for immigrants and refugees were executed by ICE and other government officials, and they exemplified the banality of evil described by Hannah Arendt. The same is true of people working in fossil fuel extraction, coal miners especially, who live in otherwise very economically depressed regions. Most people are wage laborers in the system of global neoliberal capitalism.
Apart from contributing to the destruction of the world, people’s individual life activity tends to be severely diminished. They work in order to earn money to consume. There is little or no worker ownership or even sense of ownership of the means of production or the product. This contrasts with craftsmanship, where the worker owns the tools, personally gives form to the material and, as Marx said, “sees himself” in the product.5 We also have what Marx called “commodity fetishism” in which the product stands alone before the consumer, detached from the workers who produced it. We don’t see the people making goods nor the production process. In our time there is further what I call “expanded commodity fetishism” which is ignorance of the environmental effects of products. People are generally in the dark about the production, transportation, disposal and usage impacts of consumer objects. A stunning example of this is the massive use of smartphones for taking photos and communicating during the People’s Climate March. Both kinds of commodity fetishism are especially significant in the globalized economy where consumer items are mostly produced in third world sweatshops, produce is grown and harvested in appalling work conditions, global food and product safety standards are progressively weakened and environmental costs are externalized everywhere. All this is magnified by the fact that nearly every kind of production and service is commodified. Rather than making things and performing functions for themselves people mostly pay others to do the work, and this practice is largely the effect of having to spend an inordinate amount of time working and commuting. People are wage laborers in an economic system driven strictly by the profit motive in which workers, consumers, the environment and democracy are disposable. Today’s ruling class is the global corporate elite which nevertheless defers to the God-almighty market. Global neoliberal capitalism is a total system in which, according to Zygmunt Bauman, people function not as swimmers but as plankton6, and which Egberto Willies calls the new slavery.7
That people prefer the craftsman model is demonstrated by their enthusiasm for cooking with basic ingredients and gardening. I previously compared growing one’s own vegetables to Leopold’s Alder Fork experience. People especially enjoy events such as Thanksgiving dinners to which everyone contributes a dish. Eating the dinner together is the culmination of the whole process in which the people feel a special bond and share a sense of fulfillment of their collective purpose. This sense is akin to that also felt at times among activists and volunteers when they win in their issue or electoral campaigns.
Affirming life today means seeking to reverse the present life-denying, indeed life-destroying trajectory of the world. The Enlightenment myth of continual progress lingers, but we are in fact on a course of rapid regression. As technology has invaded more and more of life its mystique has remained or even grown, causing people to fear any reduction of it. In this regard Lao Tzu’s admonition, “Know when to stop,” must be heeded. Scientific and technological “progress” has been devastatingly blind and indiscriminate, and the time has come to require it to put people and planet first. In a better world there would be a loss of total wealth and mobility, but much needed gains in community bonds. People would also no longer be controlled in thought and deed by the truly totalitarian global neoliberal capitalist system.
This essay has built up a complete picture of the world from the self-evident truth revealed in love, providing the guidance for life that follows from this truth. The life that it prescribes is that of the individual: to feel universal love and act to serve all things. As love is always to some degree mutual, the person who loves the world has some feeling of the world loving them in return. In such a life there is enchantment, unconditional life affirmation, strength and hope.
By nature every living being is a particular configuration within the infinite, eternal and absolutely creative universal life whose full effort is directed at performing its function in the universally harmonizing life of the whole. This life is supremely active, a condition Aldo Leopold captured in his observation of the call of the grebe which seemed to dominate and unify all the wildlife sounds in a Manitoba marsh. He wrote, “…perhaps it is the grebe who reminds them that if all are to survive, each must ceaselessly feed and fight, breed and die.”8
Humans can obviously fall short of living fully. Christians regard such failure as sin, the universal consequence of Adam’s original sin. In the Ancient Greek tradition it was failure to fulfill one’s human nature by practicing the classical virtues, first among which was courage. Lao Tzu wrote, “Because of deep love, one is courageous.”9
Fully living in the manner I have described, one can accomplish some good, lead and inspire other people. Common experience is very far from this model. On the social front action according to this paradigm attempts to return to paradise – to get people to establish bonds with each other and the earth. How to do this? There is no formula, and experience shows that the desired consciousness arises in responses to major threats to the community but otherwise exists only in exceptional situations. Then there is the whole question of what to do in these circumstances. NIMBYs often embark on litigation, which commodifies their response. That is, the actual work of opposition is transferred to lawyers, and the group’s main activity is raising funds to pay them. At the other extreme, we have the Occupy Wall Street case in which people took the occupation and their experience of it as ends in themselves. There was broad resistance to expanding the movement to other issues, targets and electoral work.
Protest rallies are mini OWSs, while electoral campaigns can create temporary communities. We are continually confronted with the question of what to do after the event, after the election. On the one hand, there is the matter of keeping the people together. The second issue is what should the people do?
Having been active in so many particular issue and electoral campaigns, I am aware of some major challenges. The first is that although a quite large number of people are fired up over things happening in the country, far too many are unengaged. Volunteering in recent elections I found that it has become harder to reach people: they pick up their phones and answer their doors less and less. Even people I know respond less to phone calls, emails, texts and Facebook messages. So while there appear be more concerned people, their connections are becoming worse. Lancaster Stands Up has achieved a great breakthrough with a method that combines values-centered messaging, canvassing, town hall meetings and local cells. It has made a critical contribution to what is otherwise the implementation of Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution strategy that prioritizes electing candidates up and down the ballot who support his agenda.
In activism overall what I find missing is the vital component of a movement identified by Grace Lee Boggs in her statement
To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more 'human' human beings. In order to change/transform the world, they must change/transform themselves.10
Water Protectors’ resistance has amplified and publicized Native American consciousness of people’s unity with their land and resources and among themselves. Assuming such indigenous consciousness has always been a challenge for outsiders, as it is intrinsically tied to native people’s way of life – their culture, which is the continuation of their history. Four Arrows, an individual of Irish/Cherokee descent with a long record of involvement with Native Americans, published an article entitled “Can Adopting a Complementary Indigenous Perspective Save Us?”11 The key word here is “perspective,” which is in fact that of dedicated environmentalists. Yet apart from personal conservation habits and advocacy activities such people presently fall short of living in full harmony with the earth and fellow humans.
Building a community from scratch in which the people are united with each other and their place was actually achieved by Grace Lee and James Boggs in Detroit. The two were very-long term activists, starting out as Marxists in the 1930s, and their work continued until Grace’s death at the age of 100 in 2015. Their early experience established the core principle of solidarity, which for them was actual collective consciousness. James Boggs came from a tiny but close-knit community of Black sharecroppers in Alabama. Grace was a Chinese-American brought up in the spirit of Confucianism, which values human relationships over individual merit. Through participation in the Back Marxist, labor and civil rights movements, they built a large global network of people with whom they shared publications, correspondence and conversations – all supremely human associations. Following the 1967 Detroit Rebellion in which over the course of five days 43 people were killed, 342 were injured, nearly 1,400 buildings were burned and some 7,000 National Guard and U.S. Army troops were called into service, James and Grace shifted their focus to community building. In 2011 Grace recorded the achievements of that endeavor to date.12 Most notable was Detroit Summer, which included youth-centered urban farming, housing rehabilitation, arts, education and social services – all aimed at self-sufficiency. The paramount value guiding these community activities was love. Expanding the traditional African American focus on respect and economic progress, Grace also emphasized environmental sustainability through local production to meet essential needs and the rejection of consumerism. The economy she envisioned was precisely that of the community David Korten13 insists is required to avoid global climate catastrophe. Grace saw another benefit of her project especially for urban youth: it provided meaning for their lives. She advocated reforming American education to move away from programming youth to be workers in the inhuman neoliberal capitalist system. Our educational system in fact has as one of its principal functions to select and eliminate, that is, to sort people into social and economic classes and to dispose of the rest. Education, she said, should include engagement in sustainable community building and the political process. She particularly targeted urban youth who are the prime subjects of disposal by the system which casts them into the streets and prison.
Conditions in Michigan became much worse after 2011 and Grace’s death, with the administration of Rick Snyder and the Flint water crisis. In their time Grace and Jimmy had a unique opportunity to build a community in Detroit. The place had indeed hit rock bottom; they were long-term highly respected citizens and, perhaps most importantly, there was a vast amount of vacant land in the city. They made remarkable progress toward their goal of a self-reliant beloved community. Still, as family-sustaining jobs, decent affordable housing and healthcare remained insufficient Grace held high hopes for the Obama era. We subsequently witnessed the backlash to that and the incredible regression of the Trump era.
Conscious unity of people and place exists, as exemplified by certain NIMBY uprisings, Native American tribes and Grace and Jimmy Boggs’ Detroit community. This essay has explained what it is – the awareness of the full life of these places, in other words, all-encompassing love. It further presents a complete world view based on such love. Like the other paradigm laid out in The Ecological Inclination, this one provides a certain direction for life and moral satisfaction to be gained from following it.
Grace’s and Four Arrows’ way of life and perspective are transformational. They are means of overcoming individualism by redefining the individual as primarily an organic part of the local and global community as well as of nature. Their positions go far beyond “All is one. Om.” For they also define the specific context of the individual who is an indivisible part of the whole.
Still, their ideals depend on both the cooperation and enlightenment of other people. Unity among the people and place can assume a sinister form as expressed, for example, in the phrase Blut und Boden which has been revived among supporters of Trump. The extreme crises we face today require a more precise system of understanding, method and goal. We need to transform ourselves, and we can do this by affirming that our primary identity is as citizens. The insights and values of my pair of essays are preserved and enriched in the third moment of the dialectical process which I present next in Citizenship.
- Lao Tzu, Tao-te Ching, 67.
2. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac with Essays on Conservation from Round River (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970) 32-6.
3. Ibid. p. 40-3.
4. Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christian Religion,n. 399.
5. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society Translated and Edited by Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1967) 295.
6. Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2001) 196.
7. Egberto Willies, “The New Form of Slavery is Not Racial, but Subtle, More Dangerous and Affects All” Daily Kos November 4, 2018.
8. Leopold, Sand County Almanac, 172.
9. Lao Tzu, Tao-te Ching, 67.
11. Four Arrows, “Can Adopting a Complementary Indigenous Perspective Save Us?” Truthout December 15, 2018.
12. Adrian Harewood and Tom Keefer, “Revolution as a New Beginning: An Interview with Grace Lee Boggs,” Upping the Ante, March 26, 2005.
13. David C. Korten, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2010).