Transformation of Society by the Power of Love
Each year on Martin Luther King Day I try to write something related to the principles Dr. King stood for. This year the topic concerns the work of the sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin. Sorokin devoted much of the latter part of his career to what he called amitology, that is, a science of love — work which he pursued at the Harvard Center for Creative Altruism. This work was dismissed by the social science establishment as eccentric and unimportant. But perhaps the time has come to re-examine Sorokin’s contributions and to consider whether he may have been ahead of his time.
The best literary production of this phase of Sorokin’s career is a book titled, The Ways and Power of Love. The book has many important features, several of which I’d like to mention here.
The first is Sorokin’s theory that love can be understood and studied as a real force or energy. This notion may seem like a silly or simple-minded idea – one more fit for a pop song than for scientific discussion. But in Sorokin’s hands the concept is substantial and credible. As to whether love is a cosmic, metaphysical force, perhaps we cannot know or determine with certainty scientifically. But we can at least say with some confidence that in many important and objective ways love functions in the same way that forces and energies act. Love motivates activity. Love can be transmitted. Love is cumulative. All of these concepts can be operationally defined and demonstrated in objective, observable ways. We can remain fully scientific and still assert that love is, at the very least, something like a force or energy.
Transformation From a Hate Culture To a Love Culture
A second noteworthy principle of Sorokin’s amitology follows from the first: if love is something like an energy, then we can meaningfully consider the ways in which this energy may be (1) produced, (2) accumulated, and (3) distributed. These considerations have very practical implications for the kind of cultural transformation needed in the world today. We clearly must do something (or at least try) to change the present cultural orientation away from hatred, anger, fear, and conflict as organizing principles. Much as we might want this transformation to occur, merely wishing for it is not enough. Something tangible must happen to produce the change. There must be actual sources of the opposite energy — that is, love — creating and placing this positive energy into the social and cultural milieu.
Clearly the most obvious way for this to happen is for individuals to become emitters of love energy in their immediate surroundings. Such an idea is scarcely new. This was talked about in the 60’s, but without much lasting success. However, if, following Sorokin’s lead, we allow ourselves to see this as a scientific issue, new possibilities emerge. One example is to see the problem in terms of mathematical chaos theory. We could quite plausibly suppose that the rate of positive cultural change in relation to the number of love emitters is something like exponential. Imagine certain individuals who see it as their task to go out into their communities spreading love – through their own actions, by setting positive examples, and by teaching others about love. One or two people alone can accomplish only so much. But at some point, as the number of love emitters increases, a critical mass is reached, and suddenly the entirely social fabric of the community changes direction — no longer being conflict-, competition-, and fear-based, but love based.
Because such a transformation process is non-linear, the benefits of each additional love-emitter are that much more important. That is, if you choose to become a love emitter, your added contribution might make the crucial difference; there might already be nine love emitters in your community, but if you become the tenth, the total number may achieve critical mass at which a transformative revolution takes off.
Love and Social Media
It also occurs to me how this principle could be applied to such social media as Facebook. Unfortunately, the networking potential offered new social media has, thus far, all-to-often been directed negatively. People of every political stripe use Facebook and email for hate campaigns. Someone will post a derogatory picture and comment about President Obama or Sarah Palin. Then others will forward it to a dozen of their contacts. Within a day thousands of copies are circulating — the negative energies of hate, anger, resentment spreading exponentially across the web and around the world. This scenario is being played out perhaps many thousands of times every day.
But now consider an opposite scenario. What if people began spreading love and positive energies in precisely the same way? What if it became our ‘custom’ not to send a hate email to five or ten contacts, but some article concerning love, compassion, generosity, and optimism?
A third noteworthy aspect of Sorokin’s science of love is the importance, and perhaps the central role, of groups and organizations. As a sociologist, Sorokin had a keen awareness of the interplay between society and the personality of the individual. In place of Freud’s primitive tripartite model of human personality (id, ego, superego), Sorokin understood human personality as a dynamic interplay between a large number of alternative egos or sub-egos within the same person. Among these egos, Sorokin gave prominent place to those associated with our social roles. Each group we belong to, and each stratum or role we occupy within that group, has associated with it in our psyche a separate ego. Thus, for example, as members of a religion, say the Catholic Church, one may have a “Catholic ego.” And as American citizens, we have a “US citizen ego”, and so on. To the extent that our social institutions themselves conflict (as when Catholic moral principles teach that war is wrong, but national pride or competitiveness urges a war), then this conflict necessarily manifests itself within our own personalities. Until such time as our social institutions are themselves harmonized with each other, we will be individually conflicted; and because of these conflicts, we will continually be a cross-purposes within ourselves, never being able to rally all our mental, emotional, and physical resources to accomplish anything productive.
There is much more to this part of Sorokin’s theories, but the main point is that if we wish to increase the number of love emitters in our society, we should give some thought as to how we might develop new social institutions, or adapt old ones, to organize this effort.
Fourth and finally, Sorokin explained how love and altruism should be understood as creative activities — in just the same way that we understand art, literature, and (to some extent at least) scientific activity to be creative. True creativity comes from a source other than our individual egos and rationalistic minds. It comes, rather, Sorokin insisted, from a higher source — what he called the supraconscious. Whether we understand the supraconscious in a religious sense of a grace or inspiring energy from God, or as coming from some kind of collective unconscious, or something else entirely is unimportant. The mere fact that we have such works as those of Shakespeare, Plato, Beethoven, Mozart, and Michelangelo proves without doubt there is such a thing as creative genius. And just as there are creative geniuses in art and literature, there are creative geniuses in morality and ethics — people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa.
Moreover, each one of us can creatively assist in the growth and spread of love. Our best ethical contributions, however, come not from our egoistic strivings and rationalistic schemes. No. If we are to be agents of a ‘love revolution’, then it is essential that we surrender our egoistic plans to a higher source of inspiration. Great accomplishments require great humility.
Such then, are several if the key points of Sorokin’s science of love and social transformation. Does it sound unrealistic? If so, maybe that’s due to heavy conditioning by our cynical and materialistic culture. Nobody can be happy in a hate- and conflict-dominated culture. A change is necessary. And how else could a cultural transformation occur except by the means outlined by Sorokin?
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