Digest of terms
across the world,amongst the most highly prized of sentiments, but with many different connotations. These include romantic attachment, familial affection, sexual enjoyment, altruistic compassion, and religious devotion. They can be understood as variously complementary or mutually exclusive. Thus, the claims of a lover may be perceived as in rivalry with the interests of parental affection. Sexual love, even when not in the extremes of infatuation, may be regarded as a distraction from devotion to God. And care for wider humanity may be accompanied by an ignoring of more immediate others.
In concentrating here on love as compassion, there is no doubt about its being describable in terms which may be either secular or religious. One important determining feature for both is the extent of its sphere of application: how far and how deeply does it extend to and beyond immediate family or friends? Equally or selectively to neighbours and classmates? to all irrespective of age, gender, race, health, appearance? to all human beings and all living creatures?
In Indian tradition, a central notion is that of karuna. It qualifies the Hindu kama which is more focussed on sexual desire and sensual experience. These physical and aesthetic features continually feature more positively for Hindus than for Buddhists. Though the Kama Sutra may be better known for its exposition of sexual expression as religious, it was only one of several such pathways which include that of wealth creation. Buddhist paths (excepting Tantric versions) are less open to the erotic which is more generally viewed as distraction from compassion and generosity which warrant cultivation.
In Chinese tradition the most distinctive exposition of love is probably that associated with Mohist rather than Confucian ethics. According to MoTzu (living around 300 BCE) universal love is a heaven-derived principle. It entails belief and action in accord with the equality of all human beings. Such love involves mutual help irrespective of family allegiance or reciprocated response. It is passionate for peace and cares for the vulnerable.
In Christian tradition love is an attitude of heart and mind expressive of the goodness of God and found consistently in Jesus as imitated in the individual and communal lives of Christians over the centuries. It is different from filial and familial affection; though it is not dismissive of them. It is also different from erotic affection; though, again, there is no necessary undervaluing of that. In New Testament Greek, the term is agape. This is sometimes translated as charity or compassion, or anglicised to involve commitment to an agapeistic way of life. This entails altruism and a neighbourliness which is extended both locally and globally. The eucharist or communion meal has sometimes been referred to in this sense as a 'love feast'. Talk of loving God is said to be empty unless evidenced by love for humanity.
In Humanist ethics too love is seen as embedded in altruism. As a moral virtue it may be transposed into the language of fraternity, but there is often also a concern for equality motivated by compassion for the poor and underprivileged.
Less obviously it may be observed that love as commitment to furthering the interests of the disadvantaged, even if originally rooted in compassion, can become ruthlessly selective in its application, as in the fanaticism that engulfed both the Soviet and the Maoist experiments.