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The Table Video

Nicholas Wolterstorff

Love and Justice—and Beauty Too

Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University
June 2, 2017

In my writings I have explored at some length the relation between justice and that form of love which consists of seeking the good of someone: beneficence. In this talk I want to explore the relation between justice and another form of love, namely, love as attraction—what the ancient Greeks called eros. I will conclude by bringing beauty into the picture.


Thank you very much Evan. It’s a pleasure and honor to be here. Has it struck you.

Man: Has it struck me?

This is a blown up version of the brochure. This is a California forest fire right? [laughter] Right? [laughter] A hot topic I suppose. [laughter] So this is a speech after dinner. But there’s not an after dinner speech. Is the sound okay? [coughs]

These, this introductory paragraph is gonna cut the joints on love a bit different from how Tom worded it. Where’s, he’s here somewhere wherever. We use the English term love to refer to a number of quite different phenomena. There is the love that seeks to promote or sustain the good of some person or living thing. Call it love as beneficence. [coughs] Sorry.

The new testament uses the Greek term, term agape to refer to this kind of love when its object is god or a human being. Second there is the love that consists of being drawn to someone or something. On account of the intrinsic goodness of the person or thing. Call that love as attraction. It is love as attraction that one has in mind when one says for example I love Beethoven’s late string quartets or I loved last night’s display of the northern lights. Such love was called eros by the ancient Greeks.

Third there is the love that consists of finding enjoyment in some activity. Loving playing the piano, loving gardening, loving woodworking and so forth. Call this form of love activity love. Fourth there is the love that consists of being attached to someone or something. To one’s children, to one’s spouse, to one’s pets, to one’s house. Call this love as attachment. And fifth there is the love of friends for each other.

Call it love as friendship. Such love is called philia by the ancient Greeks and also by the new testament writers. Perhaps there are yet other phenomena that we use the term love to refer to and of course one could carve out species within these. [clears throat] Love is beneficence, love is attraction, and activity love, are united in being oriented towards instantiations of goodness. Towards what I will call embedded goodness.

They’re distinct from each other in the nature or the object of the orientation. The orientation toward embedded goodness of beneficence love is that of seeking to promote or sustain the good of someone or something. The orientation towards embedded goodness of attraction love is that of being drawn to someone or something. On account of the intrinsic goodness that that person or thing already possesses. And the orientation toward embedded goodness of activity love is similar to that of love as attraction. It’s the orientation of finding enjoyment. And some intrinsic goodness that the activity one is performing possesses.

Love as attachment is different and to my mind more mysterious. It does not consist of some distinct orientation toward embedded goodness. I find myself attached to my spouse, to my children, to friends, to my house, to our cat. It was not necessarily my recognition of the excellence of the person or thing that caused my attachment. If I can manage to view the situation objectively I may concede that were I just going for excellence I would not have fastened onto these children, this house, this, this cat. [laughter]

What accounts for my attachment is that in one way or another I became bonded. I recognize that your cat is a finer cat than mine. No matter, mine is the cat that I found huddled on my doorstep one cold winter morning with a piteous look on his face. I took it in and became attached. This is the cat I love.

Love as friendship is likewise not characterized I would say by a distinct orientation toward embedded goodness. Instead what characterizes friendship love is that it combines love as beneficence, love as attraction, and love as attachment. So friendship love is complex in a way that the others that I identified are not.

So that’s all to say that I’ve written extensively about the relation between love and justice. [coughs] Excuse me. And everything that I’ve written on the topic it was love as beneficence that I had in mind. My question was always how is beneficence love related to justice? How is seeking to promote or to sustain the good of someone related to treating them and others as justice requirers?

And in that respect my discussion concerning the relation between love and justice has been like so it seems to me almost all other discussions of the topic. Almost all of them have likewise focused on love as beneficence. Now I’ve nothing new to say on that topic. So in this talk I’m going to take a different tack. I’m going to explore the relation between attraction love and justice. How is love as attraction related to doing what justice requires?

After unearthing a fundamental affinity between attraction love and doing what justice requires I will then bring beauty into the picture. So attraction love. Love as attraction, eros. Is being drawn to something, attached, attracted to it. On account of its intrinsic goodness. Persons, animals, and plants, landscapes, works of arts, institutions and groups, projects, ideals, god, whatever. [clears throat] We love persons and things for something about them that we find good. Something that we find praise worthy.

Often it’s difficult sometimes impossible to put into words what that is. But whether describable or not it’s for some praise worthy features of mind, of character, of body, of commitment, of achievement that we love the person. Something about her makes her love worthy in our eyes. Something about the tree makes it love worthy. Something about the institution. The love that Plato had in mind in the Symposium and the love that Augustan had in mind when he spoke of our love of god was attraction love.

Now on this occasion I’m going to forego probing the nature of love as attraction and I’m going to assume that everyone here already has sufficient understanding of the phenomenon for me to able to make the points I’d like to make. [clears throat] I will confine myself to expressing my disagreement with two theses concerning the nature of attraction love. One propounded by Plato and on by Kierkegaard. And then after that to calling attention to a very distinct species of such love that I think is important for those of us who are scholars and teachers to take note of.

The situation in Plato’s Symposium as most of you know is that Socrates is summarizing the speeches given at a banquet where the participants agree that they would offer eulogies of the god Eros. And each speech proves more elevated than its predecessor. Finally we arrive at Socrates’ report of the speech that he himself gave.

He says that he began his eulogy with the declaration that love always has an object. And that object he says is something that the lover wants or desires but lacks. Quoting a bit. And so continued Socrates a man may be said to love a thing not yet provided or possessed. Certainly said Agathon, and such a person and in general all who feel desire feel it for what is not provided or present. For something that they have not or are not or lack. And that sort of thing is the object of desire and love. Assuredly said Agathon.

Now then said Socrates, let us agree to what we have thus far concluded. First is not love directed to certain things, objects? Of which in the second place one has a want or desire? And then Socrates reports that in the remainder of his speech he rehearsed what he once heard a woman named Diotima say on the topic of love. Diotima urged an ascent from love of beautiful things to beauty itself.

By ever climbing aloft the lover of beauty arrives at the beautiful itself and that alone so that in the end he comes to know the very essence of beauty. Eros said Socrates is desire for something that one lacks. Now I think we should entertain the possibility that what Socrates and Plato had in mind by the ancient Greek term eros is not exactly the same as what I’m calling love as attraction.

But if platonic eros is the same as what I’m calling attraction love then it seems to me that what Plato said is clearly false. Attraction love is not as such desire. It’s the state of the self that is often accompanied by the desire to be in some sort of contact with the object of one’s love but not always. And in any case it’s not identical with the desire to be in contact. My love of last night’s display of the northern lights may have been accompanied at a certain point by the desire that it lasts longer than it did. But my love of the northern lights was not identical with that desire that it would last longer.

And my love of Beethoven’s late string quartets is not accompanied right now by my desire to listen to them. I’d like to finish this talk instead. Plato’s analysis of eros as desire for something that one lacks has the ironic consequence that when the lover of beauty finally apprehends the beautiful itself his love of beauty disappears. He no longer lacks what he desires. My love of Beethoven’s string quartets does not appear, disappear when I’m listening to them. I love them, I do love them both when I’m listening to them and when I’m not.

Second Kierkegaard. In works of love Kierkegaard argues that every form of love other than agapic love is a form of self love. And in particular he says erotic love and friendship love are forms of self love. This he says was obscured from the ancients by their failure to recognize agapic love, that is love for the neighbor. They contrasted erotic love and friendship with self love which they found abhorrent. But says Kierkegaard, Christianity which is made manifest agapic love divides things otherwise. Self love and erotic love and friendship love are essentially the same but love for the neighbor, that’s true love.

I’m not on this occasion going to give you Kierkegaard’s argument for those claims. Now hereto perhaps what Kierkegaard had in mind by erotic love is not quite the same as what I’ve been calling attraction love. But it makes no difference since his thesis is that every form of love other than agapic love is at bottom a form of self love. And that thesis also seems to me plainly false. My love of Beethoven’s late string quartets has those quartets as its object, not myself. Now my love of last night’s display of the northern lights had that flashing display in the northern sky as its object. Not myself.

If one identifies my love of Beethoven’s late string quartets with my desire to be listening to those quartets then maybe there’s some plausibility in the claim that my love is at bottom a form of self love. But as I argued just a few minutes ago my love of Beethoven’s late string quartets is not the same as my desire to be listening to the quartets. I do now love the quartets. But I’m not now desiring to listen to them. Okay, disagreement with two classic theses concerning the nature of attraction love. Now this. The form of attraction love that I’ve come to think is especially important for you and me as scholars and Christians to take note of is love of learning.

And I have spoke, I’ve spoken about this form of love previously at Biola in a talk that I titled Fides Quaerens Intellectum. I realized that only five or six of you present have heard that talk and you might not in any case remember it, but be that as it may I’m going to brief. There are college and university professors who don’t love learning. Or at least don’t love that particular branch of learning in which they happen to find themselves.

But that’s not how it should be. What should be is that we who are teachers and scholars are in it for the love of it. My own case, from the first half hour of my first college philosophy course I found myself in love with philosophy. I remember vividly saying to myself after those first 30 minutes that I had no idea whether I was going to be any good at this stuff but if I was this was it.

And that love of philosophy has never grown cold. So what sort of love was that love of philosophy that I experienced in that first half hour? What form of love is love of learning? I suggest that love of learning comes in two main forms. First this. Notice how often those of us engaged in scholarship use the language of doing and making.

We speak of gathering evidence, of constructing theories, of developing arguments, of conducting research, of writing books, all highly activistic language. Love of learning when it take this form is the love of producing something of worth. A well-crafted essay, a new theory. It’s a species of what I called activity love. It’s like love of gardening, love of woodworking, and so forth. But this form of love was not the sort of love of learning that I experienced in that first half hour of philosophy. For the obvious reason that producing philosophical essays and books was still well in the future for me.

So love of learning takes a form in addition to the form of producing worthy pieces of scholarship. What is that other love of learning? I think it’s the love of understanding. And of coming to understand. Previously one was baffled, bewildered, perplexed, or just ignorant. Now one understands. As I see it such love is a very distinct, a very distinct species of love as attraction. The examples of attraction love that I’ve given thus far were all examples of love for something distinct from oneself.

Love of Beethoven’s string quartets, love of a display of the northern lights. Love of understanding is different in that it is attraction love for a state of oneself. Love of understanding is attraction love for that state of oneself that consists of understanding something, of god, of nature, of human beings, of human products, of human institutions. As I see it the second form of love of learning, the love of understanding does not simply exist alongside that first form, the love of producing worthy pieces of scholarship.

I think understanding is the point of the enterprise. Scholarship is ultimately for the sake of understanding. We produce works of scholarship in order to articulate, record, and communicate what we have understood. It’s the love understanding that keeps scholarship alive. If that love were extinguished scholarship would die out. What would be the point? Other things pay better. [laughter] So why do we human beings long for understanding when we don’t have it? Why do we love and prize it when we do have it? Well sometimes we love and prize understanding because what we’ve learned enables us and others to causally bring about certain things. Enables us to change ourselves and the world in certain ways.

But that reason prominent though it certainly is in the modern world is not the only reason for loving and prizing understanding. It’s not the reason some of us love and prize philosophical understanding. Because as the old saw has it philosophy bakes no bread. There are forms of understanding that are to be loved and prized wholly apart from what they enable us to do causally. They are of intrinsic worth. So why do some of us love and prize understanding that’s not of use for changing things?

The only way of answering this question that’s available to the secularist is to identify or postulate some factor within the psychological makeup of human beings. Aristotle thought that it’s characteristic of human beings to wonder about certain things. To wonder why projectiles fall to Earth for example. The Hebrew bible offers an answer of a very different sort. Not an incompatible answer, but different.

An answer that points away from the self rather than to the self. How great are your works oh lord, exclaims Israel a songwriter. Your thoughts are very deep, how manifold are your works, in wisdom you’ve made them all. The Earth is full of your creatures. Over and over that theme is sounded. The cosmos in which we find ourselves is not just here somehow, nor are we just here.

Both we and cosmos were made, we are works, works of god made with wisdom and power. And the response of the psalmist to this vision of the cosmos and ourselves as works of god made with wisdom and power is to meditate reverentially on these awesome manifestations of the divine wisdom and power and to praise the one by whose wisdom they were made. On the glorious splendor of your majesty and on your wondrous works I will meditate.

I will sing to the lord as long as I live. I will sing praise to my god while I have being. Cell biology of the last 50 years is an extraordinary scientific construct. Admirable both for its intrinsic worth and for its multifaceted utility. But more than that it has revealed to us some of the awesome intricacy of this part of god’s creation.

In coming to understand that intricacy, to understand, we get a glimpse of divine wisdom and power. In response we both praise the great achievements of the cell biologists and stand in awe of the divine wisdom and power that cell biology has brought to light. Well a lot more could be said on the topic of love as attraction, one could write a book on the matter. But I’ve got to move on to justice. Justice as we all know and as Aristotle already recognized comes in two basic forms. The first order of justice, and to use Aristotle’s terms corrective or rectifying justice.

First order justice pertains to how teachers interact with students, how merchandisers interact with clients, how the receptionist in the doctor’s office interacts with the people who come in for their appointments and so forth and so forth. Corrective or rectifying justice in the form of punishment, reprimands, reparations, fines, and the like, becomes relevant when there’s been a violation of first order justice. If the receptionist violates first order justice by insulting a patient then corrective justice in the form of a reprimand becomes relevant.

In what follows I’m going to be speaking only about first order justice. In the western tradition there are basically two ways of understanding first order justice. One that comes from Aristotle, and one that comes from a jurist of late Ulpian antiquity, Ulpian. It was Aristotle’s view that first order justice consists of equity in the distribution of benefits and burdens. For reasons that I’ve talked about elsewhere but won’t get into tonight I prefer Ulpian’s understanding.

Justice, justicia said Ulpian, is a steady and enduring will to render to each person his or her in Latine jus, J, U, S. That is his or her right or due. That definition strictly speaking is a definition of the virtue of being a just person. The definition implies that the action of treating someone justly consists of rendering to that person his or her right or due. And the definition implies that the property or quality of justice characterizes our social relationships.

In so far as we do each render to each his or her due. I have to say that justice consists of rendering to each his or her right does not by itself tell us much. Now we have to know how to think about rights. There are two quite different things that we call rights in English. We call them permission rights and claim rights. A permission right is the right to do something. That is to be permitted to do something.

To attend the church of one’s choice for example, to shop in one of the local shopping malls and so forth. A claim right by contrast is the right to have something done to one. That is to be treated a certain way. When Ulpian explained justice as rendering to each what is his or her right or due it was claim rights that he had in mind not permission rights. And it’s going to be claim rights that I’ve got in mind and what follows.

So once again I’ve written at length about the nature of claim rights. Let me summarize ever so briefly how I understand them. A claim right is always a claim to being treated a certain way by one’s fellows. Or in the limiting case by one’s self. You have a right with respect to me for example that I not insult you. So claim rights are social relationships. They have sociality built into them, claims as to how, legitimate claims as to how one should be treated.

More specifically a claim right is always to the good of being treated a certain way by others or by one’s self. I don’t have a right to somebody breaking my leg. Unless perchance the only way to save me from a really worse evil is to break my leg. But though a claim right is always to the good of being treated a certain way there are many good ways of being treated to which one does not have a right. Excuse me.

I think it would be a great good in my life if the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam were to give me one of, were to give me Rembrandt’s great painting the Jewish Bride. It’s about the right size to hang on my living room wall. Along with a substantial security force to stand guard. But though that would be a really great good in my life I don’t have a right to it. The Rijksmuseum is not wronging me, not depriving me of what I’ve got a right to by not giving me that painting. So the great challenge facing anyone who wants to develop a theory of rights is to explain the difference.

Why do we have a right to some good ways of being treated by others and not to other good ways of being treated? Be nice but you don’t have a right to it. What accounts for the difference? Hereto as one would expect there are different views on the matter. Let me present my own without on this occasion polemicizing it against alternative views.

To explain the difference as I see it between those good ways of being treated to which one has a right and those to which one does not have a right, we have to bring into the picture two fundamental facts about human beings. One is the fact that every human being has worth, dignity, goodness, excellence, in certain respects. Every human being is praise worthy in certain respects.

Every human being is estimable in certain respects. Here’s a point, not only is it the case that our lives are praise worthy or regret worthy in certain respects and to certain degrees. We ourselves are praise worthy in various respects and to various degrees. On account of some achievement on our part. Some capacity that we have, some property that we possess, some relationship in which we stand. The most fundamental of these worth bestowing relationships is that each and every one of us has the ineradicable and intrinsic worth of bearing the image of god and of having the honor of being someone whom god wants as friend.

The other fact about human beings that has to be brought into the picture is that we can treat others in ways that befit their worth and in ways that do not befit their worth. If you are a student in a course I am teaching and you have done top notch work then what befits your worth is that I give you an A for the course. What does not befit your worth is that I give you a C. Using these ideas I can now explain how I understand claim rights. I think you have a right to the good of my treating you a certain way.

Just in case if I didn’t treat you that way I would not be treating you as befits your worth. Not treating you with due respect for your worth. So as I see it rights are what respect for worth requires. If you are a top, a student who has done top notch work in my course then you have a right to the good of my giving you an A for the course. If I give you anything less I’m not treating you as you have a right to be treated by me. And that’s true even if some substantial good could be achieved by giving you a C rather than an A.

Suppose I find you rather cocky and full of yourself. Suppose I find not you but the student rather cocky and full of himself. [chuckles] And I think some self reformation is in order. And that giving the student a C might accomplish that. And you know I taught for 45 years so I learned how on even the best papers you can find some flaws and you can highlight the flaws. So a C would not seem totally implausible. I would wrong the student. The student has a right to an A.

I’ve gotta find some other means of character reformation. Okay, the affinity between the state of the self of attraction love of someone or something and the activity of treating others as justice requires is now obvious. These are two modes of acknowledging an intrinsic embedded goodness. In particular and maybe surprisingly the love of understanding bears to acting justly the deep affinity of both being modes of acknowledging embedded goodness. And now let me bring beauty into the picture.

Or to speak more precisely just as it was not an affinity between attraction love and justice as such that came to light in the preceding section. But an affinity between attraction love and the action of treating others as justice requires. So too it’s not going to be an affinity between attraction love and beauty as such that I’m going to bring to light but an affinity between attraction love and the action of absorb delighted attention to something on account of its beauty. So what’s beauty?

I can do no better in answering this question than appropriate Aquinas’ account, famous Aquinas account of beauty. Beauty said Aquinas is a species of goodness. Beautiful things are a subset of good things. Now those assertions are of course truisms. The question is what sort of goodness is beauty? What species of good things are the beautiful things? Aquinas’ answer to that question was this quote, beautiful things are those which please when seen.

Beautiful things are those which please when seen. The term seen has to be understood there as seen or heard because in another place Aquinas says quote, those senses chiefly regard the beautiful which are the most cognitive, namely sight and hearing, as ministering to reason for we speak of beautiful sights and beautiful sounds.

But in reference to the other objects of the other senses. I may have. But in reference to the other objects of the other senses we don’t use the term beautiful for we don’t speak of beautiful taste and beautiful colors. Thus it is evident that beauty adds to goodness a relation to the cognitive faculty. Okay so things which are seen or heard. Which please upon being seen or heard. From that passage you can gather that a thesis of Aquinas’ philosophical psychology was that being seen consists in the satisfaction of desire.

And a thesis of his theory of the good was that since good is what all seek the notion of the good is that which calms a desire. I think those theses are not very plausible but I am going to skip over them to get to this. Even though those two theses about cognitive psychology and the nature of goodness are not very plausible in my view the claim that being pleased, I’m sorry. What I, we must not overlook what I judge to be the main point that Aquinas was getting at.

And that point is this. In some cases of enjoyment the object of one’s enjoyment is something seen or heard. And that says Aquinas is the indicator of beauty. Beauty is that which pleases upon being seen or heard. As I noted above sometimes what gives one enjoyment is some activity that one is performing. Riding horse, working wood. Sometimes what gives one enjoyment is some sensation one is having. A taste of a single malt scotch for example. But sometimes what gives one enjoyment is not some aspect of one’s self. But something that one is looking at or listening to. The skyscape of a setting sun. A bird song.

And that’s what Aquinas was calling attention to. Usually when one is enjoying the skyscape of a setting sun that one is watching one is also enjoying watching the setting sun, enjoying that activity. But if what one enjoys is just the activity of watching the setting sun, not the setting sun itself, beauty’s not in the picture. Beauty enters the picture when what one enjoys is a thing seen, a skyscape. Or a thing heard, a bird song.

Beauty enters the picture when it is the thing seen or the thing heard that gives one enjoyment. And Aquinas was of the view which I won’t try to spell out on this occasion that one’s visual or auditory apprehension of an object is like certain other modes of apprehension in that it involves one’s faculty of cognition he says.

And so it is that in his discussion of beauty he remarks sense is a sort of reason. Just as is every cognitive faculty. Okay. When Aquinas said that beautiful things are those that please when seen or heard he’s not saying that the beauty of an object just is its capacity for giving pleasure upon being seen or heard, he’s not expressing a subjectivist view of beauty. Recall that he regards beauty as a species of goodness. What differentiates, here’s his thought, what differentiates the beauty mode of goodness from other modes of goodness is that beauty is that mode of goodness and objects that gives one enjoyment upon seeing or hearing the object. Such enjoyment is as it were the telltale sign of being in the presence of beauty.

As opposed to being in the presence of some other sort of goodness. Qualifications are in order. As with all our faculties the functioning of our capacity for the enjoyment of beauty is disorder. Sometimes one gets enjoyment out of seeing or hearing things that aren’t beautiful. And sometimes one fails to get enjoyment out of seeing or hearing things that are beautiful. One may be so distracted. If no one sees the object or hears the sound one takes no note of its excellence and hence gets no enjoyment from it. But suppose that one’s faculties for enjoyment are functioning properly, sensory enjoyment, and that one is attending appropriately. Then beauty is that species of goodness in objects which gives one enjoyment upon seeing or hearing the object and taking note of its goodness.

That’s how Aquinas was thinking. And I think that’s right. The affinity between attraction love for someone or something and you delighted absorbed attention to something beautiful is now obvious. Well the former is a state of the self and the latter is an action. Both are modes of acknowledging the presence of goodness in things. In particular and maybe not so surprisingly in this case the love of understanding bears to the action of delighted absorbed attention to something beautiful the affinity of being both modes of acknowledging embedded goodness.

And the affinity between doing what justice requires and delighted absorbed attention to something beautiful is likewise obvious. Being attracted to something on account of its worth, absorbed attention to something beautiful, rendering to someone what justice requires are all of the modes of acknowledging goodness. In the written paper I offer a bonus. I’m going to refrain from offering that bonus. I introduce worship into the picture. You can flesh that our for yourself. Worship is one more mode of acknowledging excellence. Thanks. [applause]