Cultural Psychology

Posts Tagged ‘amitology

What is True Charity?

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The other day a thought occurred to me which seems to clarify the meaning of Charity, as distinct from other related things like compassion and sympathy, generosity, kindness, etc. The definition: Charity is acting to love others for the sake of God.

At first glance this may strike you as prosaic – a mere formula, one in fact, found in traditional Christian teaching. Likely I had heard this formula someplace, yet it never quite stuck. This time, however, from my creative imagination, Muse, or call-it-what-you-will, there arose insight into the meaning, not merely the definition, of Charity.

To understand true Charity it helps to refer to Platonism.

A hallmark of Platonism is that God is identified as the source and very essence of Goodness. Plato’s defined God, in fact, as the Form or pattern of Goodness of which all individual good things partake, just as all triangles partake of the Form of a triangle. (This conceptual principle is a powerful and distinct asset to those who try to understand who or what God is – but that is a topic to take up another time.)

With this innovation, our definition becomes “Charity is the doing of good to others for the sake of the Good.”

How does this help? One way is with respect to the Platonic principle known as the unity of virtues. Because all virtues, and indeed all good things, are instances of the Good, a corollary is that pure virtue of any kind, i.e., pure Truth, pure Beauty, pure Justice, etc., must be compatible with every other pure virtue. One cannot, for example, act in a way that affirms Truth yet contradicts Justice or Beauty. This principle supplies a means by which we may test whether a given act is true Charity: the act must awaken in us an awareness of Goodness generally; contemplating or performing the proposed act should leave our mind ‘basking’ in the glow of the train of all divine virtues.

This has some very practical implications for modern social activism. It means that one cannot be motivated by Charity and yet act in a contentious way. Suppose a person is angry that poor people do not have adequate health care. This is certainly an important concern. But if this concern takes the form of hateful denunciation of other people – the greedy rich, selfish Republicans, whoever – then it is not a form of Charity. Because anger is not consistent, in fact it is incompatible, with the Virtues. This helps us see why St. Paul defined Charity as he did: Charity “charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.” (1 Corinthians 13 4–5)

The Platonic perspective also reveals four further attributes of Charity. First, it is it’s own reward. Plato had a name for that kind of experience where we suddenly we regain our ability to see truth: who we are, what really matters, what brings us happiness. He called it anamnesis, literally unforgetting (an = un, amnesis = forgetting). True Charity should have the quality of anamnesis: it realigns our mind such that we are again in touch with our true nature; we become properly oriented to ourselves, other people, Nature, and God.

Clearly this is much different from, say, sending money in a perfunctory way to a “charity” like Greenpeace. Sometimes such actions are performed out of a sense of mechanical duty. Other times they may be motivated by sentimentality – as when one feels sorrow at the plight of abused animals. There is nothing wrong with such actions. They are commendable, in fact, and may well constitute virtues in their own right; our only point here is Charity is something distinct and greater than these things, and to lose sight of the distinction is to risk losing sight of the full meaning and significance of Charity.

Second, the proposed definition shows how Charity is ultimately connected with our own salvation (understood in a broad, nondenominational, psychological sense). The truth is that, however much we may believe or protest otherwise, our ultimate instinctive concern is not with others, but for ourselves. Said another way, our first order of business is to help ourselves. History is full of examples of people who neglected their own moral development for the sake of busying themselves with other people’s problems. To such as these one might well say, “Physician, heal thyself,” or “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew16:26) We must be constantly aware, in whatever we think or do, or our own need of salvation in this broad sense. This is the meaning of humility. The moment we lose sight of our immense proclivity for error, much of which goes under the name of ‘egoism’, then our ego takes over and all manner of mischief is liable to occur. Unless God or the Good is in the picture, any action, even giving a million dollars to help others, will have a strong egoistic component.

Third, our Platonic perspective helps shows how Charity is contagious. If you act towards another with true Charity, the recipient knows, in their own soul, that your act is accompanied by your anamnesis. And since anamnesis always engenders feelings like trust, love, and hope, the person knows that you have gained a reward greater than any human being could give you.

This, in turn, produces a sympathetic anamnesis in the recipient. It reawakens in them a remembrance of what the important, the finer things in life are. And this is cause for them to affirm life and thank God – not so much for whatever charitable benefit they received, but because God made such a world where Charity itself exists. It may literally restore the other’s faith in humanity. Moreover, the recipient is presented with the fact that they too have the ability to show Charity to others. A quality of a truly Charitable act, then, is that it leaves the recipient in a frame of mind eager to show Charity to others. When you act with Charity to others, then, often more important than the physical gift to the other is the psychological gift.

Finally, the Platonic perspective helps us to see that Charity is different from other forms of helping, giving, sharing, etc., in terms of epistemology. True Charity, because it is consciously aligned with God and the Good, opens the mind to an influx of higher thoughts – the mode of knowledge Plato called noesis. This is distinct from our usual form of rationalistic thinking, called dianoia, or reasoning. Thus, a characteristic of true Charity is that it is frequently motivated by inspiration, often more an act of spontaneous creativity than cold calculation. Again, this is not to say that we should avoid applying our logical minds to helping others – only that Charity is something distinct from rationality alone.



Transformation of Society by the Power of Love

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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?