Two Key Words of Human Existence: Love the Lovable and Hate the Hateful

ALICE VON HILDEBRAND

 

New Oxford Review

June, 2009

Recently I was told that a particular cardinal enjoys great popularity; “He gets along with everybody.” This was meant as a compliment, but I have my doubts. True, there are people who have a pleasant temperament; they are “jolly good fellows” and do not antagonize others. They are easy to get along with, enjoy a good meal, appreciate fine wines, and like relaxing on a golf course. They do not assume that it is their mission to correct and educate their neighbors. Such people are no doubt, unproblematic. But one can legitimately ask whether the popularity they enjoy is a response to their inner goodness or to their comfortable mediocrity.

 

A witty cynic once said, "Mediocre people are always at their best." To them it makes no difference what a person's ideas are, as long as he's a "nice guy," feels good about his beliefs, and does not challenge those of others. Why should we oppose people because of their "lifestyle"? People should be left to choose their own paths; this alone would guarantee universal peace. Who can say what truth is anyway? Everyone is entitled to his opinions. Popular people "wisely" refrain from engaging in "sensitive" topics, usually ethical or religious—the genesis of most disagreements. This explains why some of our most mediocre politicians have attained to key positions in government.

 

But are such people loved? The answer is that they are neither loved nor hated, for they are neither hot nor cold. On the day of their death they will be forgotten. They are not to be envied, for he who goes to his tomb without having been loved has had a sad life indeed (Schiller's "Hymn to Joy"). Dante has severe words for such people, who "lived without blame, and without praise" (Inferno). He refers to them as "These unfortunate who never were alive." One of the gems of Platonic wisdom is that one of the key purposes of education is to teach a child to love what is lovable and hate what is hateful. Inevitably, this leads to the following question: why are there noble and good people who are hated? This has been reported time and again in history. When Mother Teresa of Calcutta died, thousands upon thousands deeply mourned her passing. Whether she was universally loved as she deserved is far from certain; some nasty things have been said and written about her. She has even been called a hypocrite. It cannot be contested that some people seem allergic to Plato's advice: love what is lovable; hate what is hateful. The very goodness of some people is precisely what motivates the antagonism—nay, hatred—of others. How is this to be explained?

 

History is far from edifying. It tells us that there was a man in Athens named Aristides who was just. This was all the more admirable because he was a politician! In spite of all the daily temptations that such "leaders" are exposed to, his moral sense prevailed. It might be advisable for our senators and congressmen to take him as a role model. But how many of them even know he existed? 

 

What is deeply upsetting is that this man was hated precisely because he was just. A peasant, not knowing him personally, asked him to write his name on a shell at that time, this was the way illiterate people voted against someone. Aristides asked him whether he knew whom he was voting against. “No,” answered the peasant, “but I resent hearing him constantly called ‘the just.’” This historical fact is rich in lessons. Is it not irrational to reject a person simply because he is just? After reflecting on this "unjustifiable" impulse, one is bound to come to the conclusion that men's stands are often dictated by envy or resentment. Most people find it difficult to "forgive" the person who has rightly and unwittingly upset their conscience. A person who has long been comfortably "married" to his numb conscience will find it hard, maybe humanly impossible, not to hate the one who has disturbed this comfortable slumber.

 

Aristides was exiled from Athens for a time, but made wishes for her welfare upon his departure. His sad story is repeated often in history.

 

Socrates is another luminous personality from ancient Greece. He was a man of flawless integrity who was "interested in nothing but the truth," and who viewed those who proved him wrong to be "his greatest benefactors." Socrates, who claimed that the victim of injustice is better off than the one who commits it, was condemned to death.

 

Need we mention the Savior of the World, who was condemned to the most abominable death that human cruelty has imagined because He brought salvation and made people aware of their need to be saved? He too was hated because He was just.

 

This is the sad history of man. It was so and, alas, will always be so until "all men bend their knees" in front of their Savior and God, Christ the King of the Jews. How tragic to live in a society such as ours that expects "salvation" from a political messiah!

 

The two key words of human existence are "love" and "hatred." Alas, the world in which we live has certainly not learned the "art of living." To spread hatred is extremely easy; all that is needed is a glib tongue, a certain charisma, and a "cause" that sounds convincingly legitimate, such as social injustice. Without much effort, one can turn a crowd into a raging mob, capable of the worst crimes. Pogroms and lynching are characterized by their irrational ruthlessness and brutality—because "everyone" is involved, no one feels guilty. Mobs are "anonymous." The "leader" lights a match, and symbolically throws it into a gasoline tank: a fierce conflagration ensues in which many innocents may perish. Some men dedicate their lives to spreading hatred, enjoying the power they have over the masses through clever manipulation. To kindle hatred is easy enough; to teach how to truly love cannot be done without divine help.

 

Even though it is universally acknowledged that the concepts of love and hatred are the keys to human existence, it is sad indeed to see "how little love is loved" (to quote St Francis of Assisi), and to see the perverse satisfaction evil men take in feeding the poisonous flame of hatred.

 

Because both love and hatred are "feelings," many are those who view man's affective life as responsible for most evil deeds. We are told to "control" our feelings and follow the infallible guide of reason. That "reasonable animals" are often very unreasonable, however, need not be mentioned. But the question is worth raising: are "feelings" by their very nature dangerous enemies that should be suppressed as much as possible? Are there not noble and good feelings that should be cultivated?

 

A good concordance informs us that the word "heart" is mentioned some 800 times in the Bible. The Holy Book tells us that we should give "our hearts" to God. We are not told to give our "intelligence" to God, for the plain reason that the donation of one's heart necessarily includes all other faculties of the person. When falling in love, we say to our loved one: "I give you my heart," which is to say, my whole self. The "heart" symbolizes the very center of the human person. This should convince us that the "heart," the center of affectivity, should play a key role in both human and religious life.

 

Why is the heart (and the affective sphere) often assumed to be the center of "subjectivism,” triggering in us unfair and unjust judgments? Because, alas, our affective responses can be in disharmony with the object to which we respond: what is good, noble, true, and beautiful should have our assent; what is wicked, low, impure, false, and ignoble should be rejected. Man, since the Fall, is capable of doing the very opposite. Christ tells us that, "For from within out of the heart proceeds evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, and murders” (Mk. 7:21).

 

It is, however, an error to assume that this lack of "objectivity" is the exclusive prerogative of the heart. It is one of the errors spread by "intellectuals" to cover the fact that some of them are blackguards who, under the noble title of scholarship, poison the minds of their gullible victims. Both Nazism and communism were produced by "intellectuals," not by the man on the street. Ideas are dynamic, and eventually lead to action. Kierkegaard, in two complementary quotations, sheds light on this problem. He wrote that, "Every man is more or less afraid of the truth" (Journals). He makes it clear that he is referring to religious or ethical truths that command obedience. He also exclaimed, "Oh, the sins of passion and of the heart, how much nearer to salvation than the sins of reason" (Ibid.). Rationalism, this ridiculous conviction that reason can know all things, is responsible for innumerable intellectual aberrations. Man is tempted to forget that his reason is not only very limited and has been darkened by original sin, but that it is often poisoned by arrogant pride. And pride is the enemy of God.

 

There are truths that are unpalatable for a variety of reasons, one being that truth exacts our humble assent. Intellectual talents feed our pride: we assume that we know better than anyone else. Most heresies and key errors were engendered by "geniuses" whose pride blinded them to the fact that they were fallible. How very few of them, when proven wrong, acknowledged their errors! To be blind is bad enough; to deny that one is blind is hopeless. Skepticism, relativism, subjectivism, empiricism, idealism—none was bomona farm. They are all manufactured in colleges and universities. Nietzsche denied God's existence on the grounds that if God existed, it would be unbearable for Nietzsche not to be god. He "honestly" tells us, through Zarathustra, that he wants to be god, a god that suffers no rival.

 

Such "blindness" is most prevalent in the ethical sphere. The "canonization" of science in the modern world is easily explained by the fact that it does not "preach": it gives us plain, blunt facts about the workings of the material universe, and leaves our consciences at peace. Science does not meddle with our "lifestyles." Moreover, it gives us a feeling of power and greatness: the mind-boggling discoveries of the past fifty years nurture in us the illusion that we are masters of the universe.

 

The very "neutrality" of scientific knowledge is soothing and explains its popularity. Ethics, on the other hand, is "irksome." It commands; it condemns. Modem man reasons that this approach might have had some validity for primitive people—and, of course, during the Dark Ages. But now man is "mature"; each of us is properly disposed to decide how we should live. It is no easy task to convince a thief that thievery is immoral: in his eyes, it is a fast way of re-establishing justice. The rich man is rich because he cheated the poor; ergo, it is legitimate to "unburden" the rich man of his "unjustly" acquired property— or try to convince a lecherous man that he is living in sin. A typical response might be: was it not God Himself who chose to link intense pleasure to certain activities? What could be wrong with enjoying these treasures rooted in our nature?

 

True as it is that our feelings, our passions, our affectivity can mislead us, the very same thing is true of our intellect. Our hearts can be perverse. So can our minds. The rivalry between professors is well known. They rarely acknowledge the accomplishments of their colleagues. Great artists can be outrageously unjust toward other artists. Was it not El Greco who claimed that Michelangelo could not paint? The rivalry between singers, actors, and "geniuses" is often more poisonous than that between businessmen. But praiseworthy are those who joyfully perceive the merits of others. Humility is not only a key virtue; it makes one "intelligent." Stupidity is often a sin.

 

The point is that not only can our hearts be poisoned by "subjectivism," so can our intellects.

 

We are desperately in need of salvation. Happy is the man who knows that it cannot come from politicians. God alone is the Savior. The sickness affecting our society is not an economic one, as is now often claimed; it is an ethical one. Economic disasters are often a consequence of immoral laws and immoral practices. To legalize crime, to call good evil and evil good (Is. 5:20), has always been and will always be the road to self-destruction. May we wake up to our need for salvation before it is too late.

©2019 by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.