No, it’s not, contrary to the sentimental meme. Reading or hearing the sappier assurances that all you need is love triggers my gag reflex. For example, as quoted in Chris Hedges’ recent article, "Acts of Love," even the existential psychologist Viktor Frankl rhapsodizes “that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire,” that “the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart” is that “The salvation of man is through love and in love.” Luckily, Chris Hedges' defense of the meme is slightly more readable, so I'll summarize and discuss his article to elucidate why love is not our highest good after all, contrary to popular opinion.
Chris Hedges on Love
Hedges summarizes his view of why love is so great:
Love, the deepest human commitment, the force that defies empirical examination and yet is the defining and most glorious element in human life, the love between two people, between children and parents, between friends, between partners, reminds us of why we have been created for our brief sojourns on the planet. Those who cannot love--and I have seen these deformed human beings in the wars and conflicts I covered--are spiritually and emotionally dead. They affirm themselves through destruction, first of others and then, finally, of themselves. Those incapable of love never live.
According to Hedges, love is opposed to loneliness, which is the “most acute form of human suffering.” As he explains, “The isolated human individual can never be fully human. And for those cut off from others, for those alienated from the world around them, the false covenants of race, nationalism, the glorious cause, class and gender compete, with great seduction, against the covenant of love.”
Indeed, Hedges subscribes to Freud’s Manichean interpretation of the evolution of civilization as a conflict between instincts for love and for death and destruction. Neither extreme, though, is ideal. For example, Hedges says, materialistic happiness is a sort of pseudo-love of objects or of fame, which “withers if there is no meaning.” At the opposite end, “to live only for meaning--indifferent to all happiness--makes us fanatic, self-righteous and cold. It leaves us cut off from our own humanity and the humanity of others. We must hope for grace, for our lives to be sustained by moments of meaning and happiness, both equally worthy of human communion.”
Hedges ties this notion of grace to the god of his moderate Christian theology. Indeed, he seems to identify love with “the reality of the eternal,” or of God, which “must be grounded in that which we cannot touch, see or define, in mystery, in a kind of faith in the ultimate worth of compassion, even when the reality of the world around us seems to belittle compassion as futile.” This is the sophisticated, still somewhat obscure way of saying more bluntly, with a variation on the meme that love is the highest good, that God is love.
Continuing with his Manichean theme, Hedges opposes love to hate. According to him, we love due to knowledge of what unites us, namely the universal desire for love. But we’re tempted to hate when we’re distressed by “uncertainty and fear. If you hate others they will soon hate or fear you. They will reject you. Your behavior assures it. And through hate you become sucked into the sham covenants of the nation, the tribe, and you begin to speak in the language of violence, the language of death.” Thus, the dark side of the force, as it were, which attracts lonely or fearful people, leads them to hate, which in turn leads to destructive worship of idols.
By contrast, love is an action that makes a difference in the world for the better: “If our body dies, it is the love that we have lived that will remain--what the religious understand as the soul--as the irreducible essence of life. It is the small, inconspicuous things we do that reveal the pity and beauty and ultimate power and mystery of human existence.” Not only do lovers thus achieve a kind of immortality, but “To survive as a human being is possible only through love.” Love “alone gives us meaning that endures. It alone allows us to embrace and cherish life. Love has the power both to resist in our nature what we know we must resist and to affirm what we know we must affirm.”
Love is No Mystery
Whatever his motivation, the ploy of hiding the goodness of love along with a god-of-the-gaps fails. Putting aside the broad scientific picture of the universe’s magnificence in which our preoccupation with love falls out as at best parochial, there’s the more specific evidence from neurology that refutes Hedges’ contention that love “defies empirical investigation.” In particular, neurologists now know that various so-called love hormones such as oxytocin cause strong emotional bonds in mammals. So what Hedges must mean when he insists that love is irreducibly mysterious is that altruism makes no sense in evolutionary terms. But even if we lay aside biologists’ theories of altruism, such as the peacock’s tail comparison, the mystery is solved simply by assuming that altruism is a consequence of an adaptation rather than an adaptation itself, that is, a trait that’s indirectly preserved as a result of another trait that was directly selected for its enhancement of our fitness to serve as hosts for our genes. In the same way, while our capacities to produce music or to scientifically study distant galaxies through a telescope may have negligible immediate evolutionary value, such capacities were opened up by our generic high intelligence which is itself naturally selected because of its utility to our genes.
Whether we’re speaking of love for a family member or a life partner, or for a neighbour, nation or species, these benevolent impulses are at a minimum experimental riffs on the basic evolutionary theme, which is that of the human parents’ emotional bonds which are needed to procreate and to care for their helpless infant who carries their genetic legacy. The bonds between human parents and between them and their child aren’t at all mysterious in evolutionary terms, and our ancestors apparently learned that similar bonds can be formed in extended social relationships, giving rise to love of tribe or in much rarer cases of people in general. Thus, even when love causes us to sacrifice ourselves and our genes, as long as the evolutionary utility of the basic emotional bonds and of great intelligence is higher than the costs incurred in the trial-and-error process of putting those traits to work, there’s no evolutionary mystery of love.
Indeed, even were the costs to prove greater, or to take another example, even were our high intelligence to lead ultimately to our extinction through our investigations in the counterproductive area of weapons of mass destruction, there would be no mystery since the forces of natural selection are mindless. Nature has no allegiance to any species and creates them as freely and as indifferently as it creates solar systems and galaxies, often by destroying the earlier results of its work. Our extinction would make room for new forms of biological complexity, just as the death of the dinosaurs made way for the reign of mammals. And even were we to destroy our planet’s capacity to sustain any life at all, there would still be no evolutionary mystery, since the genes aren’t all-powerful, all-knowing gods: their natural process of replicating through the defense mechanism of creating host organisms would simply terminate and Earth might come to resemble something like Mars. On the contrary, the burden of having to believe that love is ineffable falls on the shoulders of even a cryptotheist like Hedges who is left to wonder where God must be hiding, given that God would have left us in a cosmos that’s mostly hostile to life while still commanding us to be vulnerable by loving each other. Once the theistic projections of human self-centeredness are duly trashed if only on the aesthetic ground of being intolerably clichéd, we can face the prospect not just that love is a thoroughly natural phenomenon, but that any such phenomenon comes and goes, serving no transcendent purpose.
No Refuge in Human Nature
First, though, I want to point out that the underlying disagreement has to do with different views of human nature. Several times Hedges says that the so-called negative alternatives to love cut us off from our humanity, that if you don’t love you’re not “fully human,” or that “To survive as a human being is possible only through love.” There are several problems with this appeal to a human essence. First, the empirical evidence shows that, if anything, our nature is mixed. The clearest way to see this is to look at how the human brain evolved by accruing new layers and modules. Thus, for example, the language-processing and other higher-reasoning functions are implemented by the most recent, outer neural layer called the mammalian cerebral cortex, whereas hormones and other substrates for emotions are secreted by more ancient structures in the limbic system which we share with even more species. Our identity as human beings would depend largely on our neural capacities, and since those capacities happen to conflict with each other, as in the infamous cases of logic’s frequent conflicts with feelings, it begs the question to say that love is more authentic to our nature than, say, reason or anxiety.
Moreover, talk of love as necessary for a full human being raises the question as to whether a full or complete human is better than an incomplete one. We could just as easily say that men have an instinct to rape women and that to be fully male we must, therefore, succumb to that instinct. Finally, there is no human essence in any teleological sense, no transcendent plan we ought to follow. On the contrary, we’re constantly in the process of evolving, and again, if anything, we’re characterized by our control over our evolution and thus over our nature. Instead of being engineered by our genes, for example, we stand at the threshold of being able to engineer them in the pursuit of our personal goals. As the existentialist philosopher Sartre said, for us existence precedes essence, meaning that we’re largely free to choose what we are and ought to be. Any appeal to human essence, then, is lame since it’s easily met with the response that we needn’t choose to be that way.
The Third Way
Happiness.) Clearly, reciprocated love feels better than loneliness or anxiety, so if you think happiness is the highest good in life, you’ll place a high value on love. I agree with Hedges, though, when he says that happiness is usually opposed to meaning. A simpleminded person might be content with meaningless pleasure, whereas someone with philosophical interests will prefer pleasure that arises from profound activities, which is to say activities that respond well to deep facts. One such fact would be our self-conflicted nature. Refined rather than trivial pleasure, therefore, might be taken in some way of appreciating the absurdity that we each cancel ourselves out. For example, there’s the pleasure of gallows humour, such as the pleasure many people derive from watching the political satires of Jon Stewart or Bill Maher, and there’s what Buddhists and other mystics call the bliss from meditating on the illusoriness of material distinctions. (See Postmodern Religion and Buddhism.)
Contrary to Hedges, however, a philosophical passion for meaningful pursuits doesn’t entail spiritual death and destructiveness, although it should cause the philosopher to suffer. To take the obvious example, a mystic may prefer an ascetic life which allows for maximal attention to the most profound matters. This ascetic may be lonely but will hardly be unspiritual or predatory. What Hedges misses, then, is the difference between what we can call, by way of much simplification, Western and Eastern approaches to ethical questions. Westerners are generally more optimistic, because Western religions, with the exception of present-day Islam, are friendlier to secular enterprises. That is, Judaism and Christianity are largely secularized, the fundamentalist’s oblivious protests against secular civilization notwithstanding, and so most Jews and Christians view history in terms of linear progress and their behaviour indicates that they effectively welcome technoscientific advances. With some exceptions such as Confucianism and exoteric Hinduism, Eastern philosophies are more pessimistic precisely because they’re more mystical. Buddhists, for example, condemn the whole apparent material world for causing suffering, and hold out the hope not of happiness but of peace through detachment and renunciation, which extinguish the ego that’s so cherished by individualistic Westerners.
To come to the main point, then, the glorification of love seems a more Western proclivity, given that love is presumed to be necessary for happiness and that only optimists are inclined to pursue that goal. Easterners are less likely to romanticize love; indeed, they still often have arranged marriages and think of familial relationships in terms of duties. This hardly means that Easterners are more lonely, idolatrous, or self-destructive. What the lovesick Westerner might fail to realize is that a philosophically heroic, ethical, and pleasurable life is possible. This is the third path I have in mind. Instead of performing good deeds as a result of feeling compassion, kindness, or some other optimistic emotion, the humanitarianism of a melancholic philosopher who appreciates the existential or mystical context of human life can be motivated by pity, by ironically antisocial conscientiousness, or even by an aesthetic passion for avoiding clichés. Just because someone is a Scrooge with respect to love doesn’t mean she's cruel, contrary to Dickens’ morality tale. Indeed, constitutionally antisocial folks, such as those suffering from Asperger Syndrome, are likely to compensate for the shallowness of their social emotions with excessive rule-following, which compels them to be scrupulous. (For dramatizations of this, see the Vulcans from Star Trek or Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory.) The point is that love is hardly the only source of morality.
Compare two cases of altruism: on the one hand, a loving, upbeat person rescues a stranger out of compassion or some other tenderhearted sentiment; on the other, a melancholic person rescues a stranger out of pity for everyone’s existential plight, disgust with our haplessness, and distaste for ugly states of affairs. In the first case, the feeling may be based on the optimistic assumption that everyone has human rights, but more fundamentally this feeling is caused directly or indirectly by the genes, as the altruist extends her parental instinct by way of some perceived similarity between the stranger and the altruist’s child or at least her image of what her child would be like. That is, the altruist identifies with the stranger so that her feeling of love compels her to act as though she were rescuing her child. In the second case, the altruist is also guided by feelings, but by pessimistic ones. The result is the same but the two altruists’ characters and philosophical outlooks differ. Which case is superior depends on which philosophy is best.
To think that love is our primary purpose in life is to adopt a very narrow, hopeful, and genetically determined viewpoint. Sure, there are sophisticated justifications of love, such as theological or New Age ones, but these are rationalizations since love is, first and foremost, a hormonal contribution to the proliferation of our genes. A loving person is optimistic in that she affirms the value of human nature--as that nature is given to us prior to philosophical reflection. That affirmation, in turn, is aligned with our genetically determined function. By contrast, a melancholy person is pessimistic in that she devalues that state of human nature; that is, she’s repulsed by our inner conflicts, suffering the alienation and anxiety that are caused not by the genes but by skepticism of social conventions and politically correct delusions. By heroically overcoming the horror of facing the existential truth or by tragically failing to emerge intact from that confrontation, the introvert, philosopher, or mystic thus tends to malfunction as a vessel for microscopic replicators.
Either way, the question of whether love or a less optimistic basis for morality makes for the best human life turns on a conflict between (1) the pragmatic consequentialist who prizes success above all else, ignoring the value of the means by which the success is achieved, and (2) the existentialist who aesthetically rejects certain such means. A lover doesn’t mind being a tool for the perpetuation of the human species, because she typically subscribes to some delusion that covers up her existential plight. A nonlover rebels against the natural order, preferring what she’d call a higher grade of human being, such as a posthuman or a spiritual, tasteful, authentic, or enlightened person. Optimistic love has no place in the latter's mind, since such an emotion is stamped out by her gloomier responses to a plague of unwelcome truths. When you loathe all our weaknesses, especially our gullibility and our susceptibility to wishful thinking and self-deception; when you harbour absurd, fruitless contempt for the zombie-like mindlessness of natural forces which is the source of most suffering; and when you’re inflicted with alienation and anxiety as the costs of doing philosophical business, you lose the childish innocence needed for love. You become cynical. But if you survive your ruminations, your standards are elevated and you become a mystical insider, an observer of human folly, with godlike detachment, and your suffering is alleviated by schadenfreude. (See Procreate for Ancestors.)
Is love for people, then, the meaning of life? Perhaps for human cattle, but not for the enlightened ones who instead love knowledge enough to be horrified by the world. The meaning of the philosopher’s life is to rebel: to struggle, to overcome, and to create as a godlike animal. People don’t deserve love; instead, we warrant pity, disgust, fear, or awe. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky says that hell is the inability to love, which is correct in the sense that a misanthrope suffers a lot and is demonic in that she makes a play for God’s throne; that is, she strives to become more than an animal and a slave to natural cycles. Arguably, where Dostoevsky errs, though, is in his Christian apology for our jailer, for his proscription of demigodhood and his conviction that existential insight is immoral and counterproductive. For a Christian, hell is the worst place to be, but for a philosopher, hell in the sense of an illuminated state of mind is an obligatory burden that a more promising beast shoulders, quaking while the fires of angst burn away the chains that bind her to the Cave of Ignorance, so that she might be reborn with a nobler, posthuman character.