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Human Love as Unfullling UnionAccording to St. Thomas Aquinas

William J. HoyeFaculty of Catholic Theology, University of Münster, Germany

Lecture held in Rome at the International Congress on ChristianHumanism in the Third Mellennium: The Perspective of ThomasAquinas on September 23, 20031.

The Question

It is common experience as well as a long-standing truism thatfriends desire to keep company with one another. ThomasAquinas even claims that ”this appears to be the most characteristicmark of friendship.”1 He emphasizes this, interestingly,by remarking that ”we even take more delight in the company ofa friend than in the company of ourselves.”2 And he explains thisby the fact that we are able to know others better than ourselves.But keeping company is only one kind of union. A closer analysisof love reveals that it consists in a reciprocal encounter revolvingaround different kinds of union. The thesis that my paper isto support maintains that the union of love which is the essenceof love is not the fulllment of the longing for union with thebeloved, but rather the union of longing itself with the beloved.This union is a form of becoming, prior to the desire for union.Now human love is commonly understood as the fulllmentof the desire for union with another person. The classic defenderof this position is not, as is often presumed, Plato himself butAristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. A human being is accordinglya half looking for its other half and attaining wholenessthrough the union of love. Perhaps the best known contemporarydefender of it is Erich Fromm in his famous book The Art ofLoving.3 In opposition to this, Thomas Aquinas takes the standpointthat love, rather than consisting in fulllment, is itself thecause of a desire for union. In his opinion love is the union oflonging itself, that is to say, the union of the affect [unio affectus].A good translation for affectus is in my opinion heart. Thetranslation affections, in the plural, seems to me misleading. Thedifferentiated perspective which Aquinas presents should resultin some light being shed on the intricate nature of human love.

1 Hoc videtur esse amicitiae maxime proprium, simul conversari ad amicum.Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, IV, cap. 22, n.

2. Cf. also InIII Sent., dist. 29, q. 1; In Ethic., IX, lect. 13, n. 12.2 In III Sent., dist. 29, q. 1, a. 5, ad 6. Quia magis potest homo cognoscerequae sunt alterius quam quae propria, ideo magis delectatur in conversandoad amicum quam etiam ad seipsum

3 New York: Harper & Row, 1974; originally published in 1956.

 

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