Ars Philosopha — January 24, 2013, 9:00 am

Can We Truly Love Our Enemies?

Philosopher Jerome Neu argues that our emotional responses can be trained

I’m toward the end — God willing — of a harrowing divorce, so when I heard about Jerome Neu’s On Loving Our Enemies (Oxford University Press, 2012), I knew I both needed and feared it. The title recalled for me the summer I was twenty-one. I had been a kind of neo-Hindu-Christian Buddhist for the previous fifteen years — my father ran a syncretist quasi-cult called the Church of Living Love — and although I had read a good bit of Friedrich Nietzsche, there was one book I wouldn’t open: The Antichrist, a late masterpiece. It was medicine I didn’t want to take. Finally, in the summer of 1988, while on a two-month-long road trip with my father, I read — or rather, misread — the book and found that I’d been right: I soon lost my “faith,” whatever it had been.

It was probably no coincidence that I discovered the Smiths that summer, too. I remember frequently singing in my head the lyrics to “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” especially, of course:

In my life
Oh why do I smile
At people whom I’d much rather
Kick in the eye

“Listening For Voices,” December 1886

Okay, I was a young twenty-one. But the sentiment wasn’t entirely trivial. I was losing an ethic I’d been following my entire life — that De imitatione Christi (the title of another of my favorite books, by the fifteenth-century German canon Thomas à Kempis), was how a person should be. That summer, I decided that Christ was plain wrong when he taught “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). And that the Buddhist lama Gyalse Nugulchu Thogme was still crazier when he wrote during the fourteenth century, “If, in return for not the slightest wrong of mine, someone were to cut off even my head, through the power of compassion to take all his negative actions upon myself is the practice of a bodhisattva. Even if someone says all sorts of derogatory things about me and proclaims throughout the universe, in return, out of love, to extol that person’s qualities is a bodhisattva” (The Heart of Compassion, verses 13 and 14).

Freud famously claimed that loving our enemies is psychologically impossible, and perhaps unjust to our friends. Given limited emotional resources, he argued, don’t our friends deserve more of us than our enemies? In The Antichrist, Nietzsche expressed the suspicion that “loving” our neighbors might be a self-deceptive expression of our resentment for them — even of our contempt. If, for example, someone is trying to limit your time with your children, is it sensible to love that person, even if it is possible? Are anger, resentment, even hatred truly unacceptable emotions? Would I be living a better life if I never felt outrage? Or a less complete one?

Twenty-four years later, I’m no wiser about Christian faith or being a bodhisattva, and I still like the Smiths. But a divorce — this is my second, both of them involving children — is the kind of traumatic event that makes you think about love more than does falling in love, getting married, or even having a child. Here’s a person you once loved as much as anyone you’ve known. You became bonded by love, offered promises of love (insisted I’ll never love anyone else or I couldn’t live without you), had children together (sat in a hospital room holding a brand-new baby, a kind of synthesis of the two of you, only better), and now suddenly you’re sitting under fluorescents at the cheap conference table of a balding mediator in a $300 blue suit, and it’s Annie Lennox: “I don’t love you anymore/ I don’t think I ever did.”  Worse still, you’re fighting over the kids, and it’s not just that you’ve lost this love — your partner has become your enemy. Even if you wanted to love that person again, could you? More to the point: could I?

So, here I am, reluctantly and desperately reading On Loving Our Enemies. Jerome Neu is not writing a self-help book. He’s a professional philosopher, made famous by his brilliant analysis of emotion, A Tear Is an Intellectual Thing (OUP, 2000; the title is from William Blake’s “The Grey Monk”). His new book is mostly about Freud, and Freud, as we know, is a bit skeptical about love: he’d like to reduce it to something akin to fear and sex. Fear is part of divorce; sex, of course, has nothing to do with it (ask any adulterer, or better yet, read Norman Rush). But Neu teaches — and I think Freud would agree — that our emotional responses, while not entirely under our control, can be trained, for better or for worse. He uses Diderot’s The Paradox of Acting to support the point that we can seem to feel ways that we truly do not. But it is also the case, he argues, that by pretending to feel a particular way we may incline ourselves in an emotional direction: “The effects may work backward, that is, from standards of external behavior to the shape of internal life.”

If I want to love my ex-wife, in this light, the first step is to start acting as if I love her. But even if this technique makes it psychologically possible to do so, is it the right thing to do? “The distinction between the psychological and the moral (fact/value),” Neu writes, “may be more questionable than it might at first appear.” That is to say, figuring out how I can feel and how I ought to feel might not be as simple as the (seemingly morally desirable) goal of loving my enemy or the impossibility of actually doing it. For Neu, as for Freud, I am probably not even in a position to say whether or not I actually love or hate my ex-wife. Self-knowledge is so elusive that perhaps the best I can say is whether I am speaking and acting in a loving or a hateful way.

My next step, then: smile at my ex. Even as I understand the impulse behind Morrissey’s line.

Share
Single Page

More from Clancy Martin:

Conversation March 30, 2015, 2:45 pm

On Death

“I think that the would-be suicide needs, more than anything else, to talk to a person like you, who has had to fight for life.”

Ars Philosopha October 9, 2014, 8:00 am

Are Humans Good or Evil?

A brief philosophical debate.

Ars Philosopha March 14, 2014, 12:46 pm

On Hypocrisy

Should we condemn hypocrites, when we can’t help but be hypocrites ourselves?

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2017

The New Climate

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Dream Preferred

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Snowden’s Box

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

American Duce

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Prayer’s Chance

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bee-Brained

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Snowden’s Box·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration (detail) by Taylor Callery
Post
The Forty-Fifth President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Photograph (detail) by Philip Montgomery
Article
A Prayer’s Chance·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Photograph (detail) by Robin Hammond/NOOR
Article
Bee-Brained·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration (detail) by Eda Akaltun. Source photograph of Jairam Hathwar at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee © Pete Marovich/UPI/Newscom
Article
My First Car·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Number of U.S. major-league baseball players this year who are natives of the Dominican Republic:

79

A psychopharmacologist named David Nutt declared that there was no good reason why scientists couldn’t come up with a cocktail of drugs that mimics all the pleasurable effects of alcohol without any of the negative side effects.

Three bodies were tossed from a low-flying plane in the Sinaloa state of Mexico.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today