“I love you,” perhaps the most famous phrase in all of human speech. But what does it mean? I love many things: my wife and children, a fine bottle of wine, foie gras, London, to name a very few. “I love” tells you something about my state of mind…and that’s an end to it.
But surely this is not what we mean when we speak of Love! Love in the true sense is not just an emotion. It is something real, something fundamental. Anaximander, arguably the father of Western philosophy, is quoted as saying that the phenomenon of Presence (Being itself) arises when two potential relata “give each other reck.”
The existentialist Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, writes, “In the beginning is the relation;” and according to St. Paul only three things endure ”and the greatest of these is Love”.
So what do we need to create a model of this phenomenon that “makes the world go round” and yet makes “time stand still”?
I propose that Love (capital L) occurs when and only when these four propositions are simultaneously true:
(1)I love you
(2)You love me
(3)I feel loved by you
(4)You feel loved by me.
Only when all four of these conditions are met can we properly speak of Love. For “I love you” to be more than just an ejaculation of emotion, I must recognize you as my ontological equal, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”, because to love is to recognize yourself in the other (“love your neighbor as yourself”).
(Note: the term “ontological equal” will remain undefined in this essay. It does not necessarily imply “identical”. It may perhaps have more the sense of “congruent”. Perhaps an ontological equal is any entity we refer to as “whom” rather than as “which”. In another essay in this collection, Mary Poppins, Sufi Master, we meet a character who asserts that absolutely all entities are ontologically equal in the strongest possible sense. But for our purposes in this essay, we will leave the term undefined.)
The account of Love found in Genesis is telling: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and the two of them become one body.” I am incomplete, something is missing, and I discover that in you. A primal unity is reestablished.
For Love to be more than a state of mind, for it to denote an Actual Entity, I must not only love you, but you also must love me. For you to love me, you must recognize me as your ontological equal. You must see yourself in me and you must feel that I complete you and make you whole just as I see myself in you and feel that you complete me and make me whole.
If this is not the case, then any ontological reciprocity I seem to experience is mere mirage. When I look at you, I would not be seeing myself in you; I would just be seeing my own reflection. I would, in fact, be Narcissus.
Love denotes Relation and so it is still not enough for me to love you and you to love me. These two propositions are entirely independent of one another; the subjective realities they describe are disconnected. We have not yet established the existence of Relation.
Love requires not only that I love you but also that I feel loved by you. When I feel loved by you, I feel you and when I feel you, I feel you in me. You may love me but if I do not feel that love, for whatever reason, then we are not talking about Love. Love requires that the primal body, torn apart (per Genesis), be reunited; and that only happens when I feel your love in me.
Likewise, of course, Love also requires that you feel loved by me. There can be no Love without total reciprocity.
Let’s rephrase our four initial propositions in light of these reflections. What we are really saying is this:
(1) I see myself in you.
(2) You see yourself in me.
(3) I feel you in me.
(4) You feel me in you.
Of course, we are using “see” and “feel” metaphorically. I don’t need the sense of sight to see myself in you nor do I need the sense of touch to feel you in me. Metaphorically speaking, “seeing” is how we relate to that which transcends us while “feeling” is how we relate to that which is immanent in us. So rephrasing again,
(1) You transcend me.
(2) I transcend you.
(3) You are immanent in me.
(4) I am immanent in you.
These are the necessary and sufficient conditions for Love. For Love to exist, the transcendent must be immanent and the immanent transcendent.
But when I love you and you love me and when I feel you, your love, in me and you feel me, my love, in you, we discover together that the I’s we believed we were are in fact only fragments of who we truly are. Like shards of pottery that thought themselves complete, albeit strangely rough edged, we now find our real identities as parts of a smooth, curvaceous vase.
The things we thought of as subjects, building blocks of our world, turn out not to be Actual Entities at all. It turns out that the foundational building blocks of Universe are not subjects (or objects) but dynamic relations.
Love is Relation, and therefore always personal and binary, but never exclusive. We may in fact love many people, even simultaneously, in the course of our lives. While love between me and one other ontological equal is sufficient to reconstitute primal unity, that particular relation is neither exclusive nor unique.
In response to the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus was asked, “And who is my neighbor?” He responded with the story of the Good Samaritan. The point of that story is that every ontological equal is my neighbor and therefore in some sense myself. Potentially at least, and perhaps ideally so, a relation of love can exist between me and every ontological equal I encounter.
Of course, it turns out that I am surrounded by ontological equals, every one of whom has the potential to enter into a relationship with me, every one of whom is at least theoretically capable of completing me and being completed by me, of forming an actual entity.
Yet every one of these persons is unique. Everyone is capable of completing me, but each in a different way. To return to the analogy of the vase, I am confronted with a myriad of broken shards, each one uniquely shaped, and yet each shard fits together perfectly with my jagged edges to constitute a perfect piece of pottery, a whole. By extension, we must assume that every shard in the heap will fit together with every other shard in the heap and that each such relation will constitute a whole, an Actual Entity. It is the phenomenon of relation that constitutes actuality, not the mere existence of relata.
This result is radically different from what we imagine from our everyday lives. When we shatter a vase, we need to reunite each and every shard to recreate the whole and no random combination of fewer pieces is at all likely to form a whole vase. We call that entropy. But in the sphere of ontology, any two pieces can come together to recreate a whole. The domain of Love is the domain of perfect, eternal order with zero entropy.
In the world we seem (doxa) to live in, identity is mercilessly conserved, events are drearily orientable, and relations are both transitive and commutative. Any one “shard” can only fit together with a handful of adjacent shards and only when all the shards fit together, when every shard in the pile is accounted for, do you have an Actual Entity. It’s no wonder we’re all on Prozac®.
In the world we actually (aletheia) live in, the world of Love, identity is indefinitely plastic, events are non-orientable and relations are neither transitive nor commutative. Every shard is absolutely unique, but any two shards can relate to one another and each such relationship constitutes a whole. This is a world of exuberant joy and endless creativity.
Let’s take a trivially simple example. In the world we seem to live in, if a > b and b > c, we are entitled to conclude that a > c. But in the world we actually live in, knowing that a > b and b > c tells me nothing at all about the relationship between a and c.
The essential identity of b in a > b is not necessarily conserved in b > c. The identity of b is as much a function of its relation as its relation is a function of its identity. Again, in Mary Poppins, Sufi Master, we encounter the notion that identity is an artifical construct and that function is the only reality. (“What’s in a name?” For us, names convey identity; but in earlier times and less literate cultures, names convey function.)
Surprisingly, the famous British realist, Bertrand Russell, once held a view very close to this. He asserted that only universals really existed and that the phenomena of substance, structure and materiality were simply products of the intersections of universals…but I digress.
It turns out that the solitary unit I thought I was is not who I am at all. I am rather potential for the emergence of Actual Entities though relations with others but I am not myself an Actual Entity. “I am a rock, I am an island” turns out not only to be false but oxymoronic. There is no I, no self, in isolation from other, apart from relation.
The fact that I can enter into relation with any “other” to form an Actual Entity gives new meaning to the existentialist mantra, “I know who I am and I know that I can be whoever I want to be.” It also resonates with John Paul Sartre’s famous rubric, “I am not what I am and I am what I am not.”
Can we take this reflection further? If Love is the paradigmatic and defining human experience, if it reveals our true identities, why should we be content to treat it as some sort of exceptional phenomenon? Why shouldn’t it be the cornerstone of an all-embracing ontological model?
Of course, there is an obvious problem with such an undertaking. The language we have been using up to now (Love, Self, Other, Relation, etc…) seems peculiar to human experience. Can we somehow generalize the dynamics we have been discussing so that they apply more comfortably to the full spectrum of events and entities in our world?
Returning to our four original propositions, we note that there was no explicit requirement that the subjects be human. The only requirement was that they be ontological equals and that they have the capacity to enter into a certain type of dynamic relationship.
If we are to go further along this line of reasoning, we will need to define our terms much more closely.
Since we are seeking to generalize beyond mere human experience, we will no longer speak of Love; moving forward, we will confine ourselves to the more antiseptic term, “Relation”. Likewise, where we have been speaking of Self and Other, we will now speak only of Relata.
But we still face one more difficulty. We are using the word “relation” in two different ways. Like Buber, we are using it to denote Actual Entities, the building blocks of universe. But we are also using it to denote the bond that exists between two “relata”. In other words, we are using “relation” to describe one of the components of a relationship as well as the relationship itself. Surely, we need to fix that, no?
Actually, we don’t…and we can’t. One of the many peculiar features of our newly discovered ontological landscape is the fact that wholes reside totally in each of their parts. “Relation” (qua Actual Entity) resides equally and totally in “relation” (qua bond) and in each “relatum”.
In fact, the whole terminology of “parts and wholes” is misleading. It is an artifact of the orientable, transitive and commutative world view. In fact, Actual Entities, wholes, do not consist of “parts” at all. Rather they consist of “functions” (as above). Each of the relata and their relationship represents the entire entity but each represents that entirety in a different dynamic role.
It may help clarify things if we refer to relata and relation (qua bond) as the “personae” of the relation (qua actual entity)…or as “persons”. This is tricky because “persona” has the connotation of “mask” while “person” threatens to bring back anthropomorphism.
But when we speak of personae or persons in this context, we are not talking about masks or about human individuals. We are talking about “manifestations”. Relation (qua actual entity) manifests itself in each of its two relata and in the relation (qua bond) between them.
Now at last we are able to move beyond the sphere of human relationships and speak of the phenomenon of relationship more generally. We can finally ask, “What dynamic conditions are required for the constitution of a Relation…of an Actual Entity?”
The answer, of course, is “two relata, each transcendent of the other according to the modality of ‘sight’, each immanent in the other according to the modality of ‘touch’, and the relation between them.”
Each of the relata, and the relation between them, retains an indispensably unique role in the ontological dance. Seeing and feeling are not commutative. I cannot feel myself in you nor see you in me; nor can you feel yourself in me or see me in you. Because of this, relata and relation do not collapse into a single, undifferentiated being. Relation remains irreducibly, and incurably, dynamic. The three persons of an Actual Entity retain ontologically distinct roles in the eternal dynamic of Universe.
Eternal? Indeed so, because if Relation occurs, it occurs outside of time.
According to the hyper-linear perspective (doxa), relations spring up out of a pre-existent space-time ground and then inevitably wither back into that ground (“dust to dust”). But from the non-linear perspective (aletheia) of this essay, patches of space-time spring into being as Relations occur. What seems to be a single, all encompassing, space-time is merely an abstraction from and a generalization of the unique space-times that are proper to each Relation. “Love springs eternal” after all!
What has emerged here is a Trinitarian model of reality. This concept has previously appeared only in the context of the Christian notion of God. Our reflections, however, suggest that we have been much too narrow in our application of this idea.
When speaking in terms of God, Christian theologians typically label the concept of Trinity as a “mystery”, something alien from, and inaccessible to, human reason. We are suggesting that that notion is radically wrong!
Instead, our model suggests that the entire universe is made up of Trinitarian entities…and nothing but Trinitarian entities. To quote Stephen Hawking (totally out of context), “It’s turtles, all the way down!” Far from being alien and inaccessible, Trinity is the ontological foundation and empirical essence of our every experience! Without Trinity, there is no actuality. Trinity is not just a model for God, it is a model for all Being. It is nothing less than the structure and shape of Love.
*Apologies to Hugh Grant et al.