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Well Ordered Life Series: Part 1

By: Mr. Ben Walter

Love is a good place to begin thinking about the four cardinal and three theological virtues because it is the most powerful motivator in our lives. Love inspires us and brings happiness like nothing else. Perversions of love, misplaced love, and the absence of love are responsible for almost all our woes.
The conversation around "What is love?" is old. Let's go almost 2,500 years back to a relatively short dialogue by Plato, The Symposium. In this work, an Athenian tells his friend about a dinner-party conversation he heard about second hand. Socrates and his friends were there and each guest, in turn, gave a speech about love.
The love they discuss is Eros, the god of passion and desire. The first speeches praise different aspects of Eros. One speaker says that humans inspired by this passion become braver. Another speaker says that Eros is the most beautiful god. Another says that Eros consists in humans' instinct to look for their "other half." All of the speeches assume that Eros is a passion between two people. Socrates, speaking last, takes the conversation in a different direction.
Socrates argues that Eros is the desire for beauty. However, seeking beauty is the means and not the end of Eros. There is a progression of Eros far beyond the particular and the physical. Socrates argues that someone starts by loving a particular body that is beautiful. However, he will then progress to realize that there are many different kinds of physical beauty. After a while, he will further understand that people are beautiful not so much from their physical appearance as from their souls. Having contemplated this inner beauty, he can then appreciate beautiful actions and knowledge. Lastly, the lover glimpses beauty itself, not just its representations.
This progression is called Socrates' Ladder of Love.
The Beautiful
Beautiful knowledge
Beautiful laws
Beautiful souls
Beautiful bodies
According to Socrates, Eros leads us from loving beauty to loving Beauty. But how does one progress along this ladder? Is it a natural progression? We'll come back to this question in a minute.
In his gospel and epistles, John the beloved apostle presents a different word for love, Agape. John uses this Greek word in a revolutionary way. He defines it as the unconditional and selfless love of God. It is this kind of love that we are to show one another.
"Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God." 1 John 4:7
In his famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul extols agape love over the other two theological virtues of faith and hope. He states, rather radically, that all virtuous action are worthless if not performed in love.
This brings up two questions. First, how do we synthesize the Classical and the Christian loves, The Eros and the Agape? Second, how does someone know what Beauty is--how to desire truly beautiful things? Enter St. Augustine, who was a brilliant philosopher deeply steeped in, and sometimes deeply conflicted about, the connection between the two.
St. Augustine agreed with the Platonic idea that Eros, desire, leads us to the divine. He agreed that we desire things because we are not whole; that we love the beautiful so that it can become a part of us. Augustine, however, disagreed that Eros, on its own, leads us to goodness. He argued that we must first be transformed in order to know what to desire. This transformation, he thought, occurs from the Agape love that God shows us. God first loves us, suffers with us, changes us. Then we, touched by His Agape love, are able to desire (i.e. have Eros for) the True, Good, and Beautiful. Furthermore, and most importantly, we are able to love (Agape) others.
Love is the starting place and the ending place of all the virtues. From Plato, we learn that our natural desire for beauty can lead us to desire beautiful actions, ideas, and even the divine. From St. John we learn that the ultimate love is God's sacrificial love for us, which we need to share with others. From St. Augustine, we learn that these two loves, Eros and Agape, are not mutually exclusive.
It is important not only to love good things, but also to have correctly ordered love. Ordered love implies desiring things in the right amount and the right way. For example, we might love our child and our morning cup of coffee, but we should love each to a different degree and in a different way. Discerning how to order our love requires temperance and prudence, two other virtues to be covered later.
Some questions to consider:
  • What do you love and what does it tell you about yourself?
  • Do you know what Beauty looks like or have you given up searching for it?
  • How do you show love for others?
  • Are your loves well-ordered?
Extra Reading:
Stay tuned for Part 2: Justice

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