Love is for persons, not for qualities or ideas, except only derivatively, that is, insofar as the latter exist in the former. To insist that love is love for this person is not an appeal to settle for someone with less than stellar qualifications—for “settling” is itself the attitude of the consumer who prudently resigns himself to buy only what he can afford. Far from settling, to learn to love persons is the task of a lifetime.

Ours is an age of numbered lists. To be sure, the numbered list has had a long and distinguished history. Every religion worth its salt has at least one. There are the Ten Commandments, the Four Noble Truths, the Five Pillars of Islam, and the Five Constants of Confucianism. Roman Catholicism has been particularly prolific in this regard, having given us, among many others, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Three Theological Virtues, the Seven Gifts and the Twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit, the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy and the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy. In short, if, pace Quoleth, there is something new under the sun, the numbered list isn’t it.

To say that ours is an age of numbered lists then is not to claim that the numbered list is new. Nor is it to deny its value as a mnemonic device capable of reducing whole systems of thought to its bare essentials. The best numbered lists are intellectual achievements in their own right—not only because they are masterful syntheses but because they are deeply democratic. The rice farmer may have neither the time nor the disposition to learn about the fine points of just war theory, the jus ad bellum and the jus in bellum, but he is bound to remember “thou shalt not kill.” The coal miner may know little about subsidiarity or Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, but if he abides by “thou shalt not steal” and “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods” he will be laboring for the common good nevertheless.

What I mean when I say that we live in an age of numbered lists then is that never before have we had such a profusion of utterly trivial numbered lists. In an age of unfettered capitalism, we are graced not with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit but with the seven daily habits of highly productive people. Instead of the twelve fruits we have the twelve important reasons you are running late or, for the more body-conscious, the twelve reasons you are not losing weight. The list post has become ubiquitous on the internet, with websites like Buzzfeed being almost entirely dedicated to the genre. This is not accidental, for the list post fulfills two widespread needs of our time. On the one hand, its eminently readable format is perfectly suited for the internet’s relentless demand for easily digestible, click-inducing content. On the other hand, the list post is ideally designed for a consumerist society, one in which we feel acutely the need for some method or algorithm to help us rank or evaluate the vast panoply of consumer goods on offer. The list post can provide just that—a list of a given product’s pros and cons, say, or a list of important criteria by which to evaluate what car/smartphone/gadget to buy next.

All of this would be well and good if the list post genre limited itself to the relatively trivial matters of weight loss, increasing one’s productivity, or what smartphone to buy next. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Terence, no domain of human interest is foreign to the list post. I say unfortunately because those very traits that are the format’s strengths on the internet foster a pernicious illusion when applied to arguably the most important sphere of human concern—love and human relationships. Or so I shall argue.

The pernicious illusion is this—that choosing a life partner is like picking out a new toaster. In both cases, it is a matter of weighing pros and cons according to one’s preferences, to try to find a product or person that exhibits a good ratio of traits we love vs traits we’d rather avoid. This kind of thinking is encouraged not only by, say, compatibility algorithms on dating websites, but even by well-intentioned Christian websites that often employ the list post to advise its readers on what traits to look for in one’s prospective spouse. Now, there is nothing wrong in encouraging single Christians to find prospective spouses who exemplify some set of Christian virtues. The problem is that any overemphasis on abstract, impersonal traits obscures a crucial difference between what ought to be our love for persons as opposed to our fondness for material goods.

The twentieth century Catholic philosopher Peter Geach, reminiscing about what he had learned from his first great mentor, the British idealist (and atheist), J.M.E. McTaggart, tells us: “on love as we find it in our experience McTaggart wrote nobly. Love is for a person, not in respect of this or that characteristic, but just as this person.”[1]

McTaggart’s insight gets at the heart of what is unique to the love of persons. While to like one’s smartphone or car is just to appreciate one or more of its traits—its speed or reliability, say—the same is not true of the love of persons. Whereas there is a kind of inordinate attachment in someone who loves his car because it is this car rather than because it is, say, a good or reliable means of transportation, one has not even begun to love a person until one loves her as this person rather than only insofar as she exhibits this or that pleasant trait.

In this respect the often-used locution “what I love about you is…” is revealing. Taken literally, if “what I love about you” is your wit, then what I really love is wit—I love you only insofar as you exhibit that trait which I love. And that means that you are at bottom interchangeable with someone else who displays the same degree or combination of traits I seek. Yes, perhaps right now you display the optimal combination of pros and cons available—or at least among the ones I can afford—but there is always the possibility of a new model coming along, a model with even more impressive features. And a new model always comes along. If what I love about you is just your particular combination of qualities, then it makes as much sense for me not to make the switch as it would make sense for someone not to take a free upgrade on their smartphone—that is, no sense at all, sentimental attachment to old models notwithstanding.

Now, lest you, dear reader, think that this essay is an exercise in pharisaic self-affirmation—“thank you God, because I am not like those lost, secular, consumerist souls”—note that I did mention earlier that we Christians are far from immune from this degenerate form of love. For even in respectably “orthodox” and conservative circles of Christian young adults, the list post mindset is very much alive. It’s just that the traits contained in said list—which may or may not be a conscious list—are perhaps a little more high-minded. But the same kind of serial dating, the same continuous search for someone who is just a little more optimal, or, in the Christian case, a little “holier,” a little more prayerful, more “serious about his faith,” still obtains. And while prayerfulness is worthy of admiration, only persons are worthy of love—a love that, despite the increasingly long list of dates with “great guys” or “great girls,” tarries to come. It tarries because often the willingness to love this person never comes, because the consumerist drive for the next best thing trains the mind to love abstract, general traits rather than persons.

Perhaps no one spoke best of the dangers of choosing a spouse based on abstract ideals than George Eliot in her greatest novel, Middlemarch. Middlemarch’s protagonist, Dorothea Brooke, is a great-souled woman who longs to escape the provincial atavism to which she seems destined by gender and place. She seeks to develop her considerable intellectual gifts, to dedicate herself to some meaningful work of the mind. She eventually chooses to do so by one of the few means available to women of the time—by marrying a man she believes is himself engaged in such work, so that, by aiding him in needs both material and editorial, she may have some participation in a joint intellectual flourishing. “The union which attracted her,” Eliot tells us, “was one that would deliver her from her girlish subjection to her own ignorance and give her the freedom of voluntary submission to a guide who would take her along the grandest path.”[2]

Eliot, a keen but not a cynical observer of the human condition, does not belittle Dorothea’s ideals, for they stem neither from vanity nor unbridled ambition, but rather from a greatness of spirit Eliot likens to that of St. Teresa of Ávila. Still, Dorothea’s ideals contain the seed of her own unhappy marriage. For when deciding between two suitors, the handsome and jovial Sir James Chattam, who genuinely cares for her, and the parson Casaubon, “scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted,” Dorothea chooses the latter.[3] Casaubon, it becomes clear, is in turn interested in Dorothea precisely only insofar as she may support him in the writing of his magnum opus, an encyclopedic Key to All Mythologies, which, as fate would have it, Casaubon never finishes. That Casaubon turns out a failure is an integral part of Eliot’s masterful lesson—that the tragedy in a marriage based on the love of apparent qualities lies not only in the fact that the persons go unloved, as both Casaubon and Dorothea most certainly do, but in that even those apparent qualities will often turn out to be mere projection and illusion. When Dorothea sees “reflected [in Casaubon’s mind] in vague labyrinthine extension every quality she herself brought,” she is unwittingly condemning both herself and Casaubon to an unhappy marriage of unfulfilled expectations, a marriage in which both wife and husband go unloved as persons, which is to say, are not loved at all.[4]

At this point, one might object that while McTaggart’s remarks are indeed noble, they are also dangerous. Granted, a marriage like Dorothea and Casaubon’s is undesirable. But, surely, it is wise for the Christian to look for certain qualities in one’s spouse, even to stick to them in the face of a growing attraction to someone new. For the heart is fickle and deceitful above all things and human beings are prone to confuse love with lust. Having a list of qualities one sticks to when looking for a spouse surely will serve as an antidote against the romantic raptures of a wanton heart.

Though the worry of confusing love with lust is clearly warranted, it is misplaced if meant to apply to McTaggart’s insight. For lust is always precisely the love of a person’s physical beauty, or her pleasurableness, rather than love for the person herself. This is in fact what separates lust from Eros, which as Pope Benedict XVI and C.S. Lewis reminded us is a genuine form of love. Lewis is worth quoting at length here:

Sexual desire, without Eros, wants “it,” the “thing in itself;” Eros wants the Beloved. The “thing” is a sensory pleasure; that is, an event occurring within one’s own body. We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he “wants a woman.” Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition (one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes). Now Eros makes a man really want, not a woman, but one particular woman. In some mysterious but quite indisputable fashion the lover desires the Beloved herself, not the pleasure she can give.[5]

If Lewis is right—and his is a claim from experience, not theoretical speculation—then McTaggart’s insight, far from confusing love with lust, is indeed a precondition for clearly distinguishing the two.

But perhaps there is a lingering worry. This love for a person qua person, especially when in the form of erotic love, can often be accompanied by an upheaval of mind and body, an intensity of thought and feeling—even if not strictly sexual—incompatible with a sober moral life of reasoned reflection and self-control. It is the kind of intensity we associate with teenage love and teenage angst—the all-consuming fire, the disorienting excitement of first love. Surely these are things we need to grow out of. Surely, so the worry goes, there comes a time when such passion must give way to pragmatic concern. Isn’t that what it means to mature in Christian virtue?

Once again, this worry reflects a misdiagnosis of what ails teenage love. What ails teenage love is not its intensity. Its intensity is in fact what is noblest about teenage love. It is what many an adult sighs for in his or her more nostalgic moments. When directed towards God, it is the mark of the mystic. The ill of teenage love, insofar as it has an ill, is one we are by now acquainted with—it is idolatry, the projection of idealized quasi-divine traits onto another human being. The problem with teenage love is not that it loves too much but too little. It loves not this person, who alone is worthy of love, but a fantasy, a projection of idealized traits. It is the type of love characteristic of teenagers because teenagers are often still in the first stages of learning to see a person for who she is, rather than who they want the person to be. That learning is the task of a lifetime, of course, and being older provides in and of itself no guarantee that one has become better at it—“teenage love” is by no means a phenomenon reserved to teenagers. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to think that what characterizes Christian love is the sober-minded assessment of candidates based on some list of putative qualities. It is a mistake to think that the Christian lover can bypass the intensity of erotic love. The way to Christian Agape is through Christian Eros.

Nowhere is this plainer than in the life of Simon Peter.

Here is a standard take on Simon Peter. St. Peter was a fool. Lovable, well-meaning, as fools often are, but a fool nevertheless. Impetuous and temperamental, here is a man who draws the sword in anger to defend Him who had commanded His followers to turn the other cheek. Peter, who promptly jumps off the boat to walk on water only to begin to drown. Peter, who takes Jesus aside to rebuke Him for speaking of His death—of which Peter understood nothing. Peter, who boldly pledges never to leave Jesus, even if everyone else did—and later denies Him three times.

The takeaway, so we often hear, is that God calls the flawed and the clueless to do His work. And, of course, this is true enough—who would deny it? Yet there is much more to be gleaned from Peter’s behavior than the generic and pious assertion that we are all unworthy servants. For it is Peter’s very cluelessness that reveals the greatness of his love. Or rather, it is his steadfastness amidst the cluelessness. Time and again, Peter is shown to misunderstand Jesus’s mission, to misunderstand Jesus Himself. Yet unlike Judas—who, according to one popular theory, grew disillusioned due to Jesus’s lack of revolutionary zeal—Peter never lets this constant puzzlement dampen his love. Ultimately, Peter remains with Jesus because he loves Jesus the person, not Jesus qua revolutionary or qua rabbi who would never deign to wash Peter’s feet. At Capernaum, when Jesus spoke shockingly of His flesh and blood, Peter accepts to live in incomprehension, professing a love that relies not on the elusive task of understanding the Beloved’s qualities or actions, but on the desire to remain in union with the person of the Beloved.[6] This Petrine love is the very same personal love of which McTaggart spoke.

This Petrine love is also the key to understand just how far Christianity is from mere political or philosophical ideology. For ideologies are intrinsically abstract. They are fundamentally about the love of principles or qualities, about the advancement of some cause or the procurement of some social good. The love of persons is just the opposite—its object, the person, is entirely concrete. Whenever Jesus calls Peter to action, He does so not on the basis of abstractions, but always by appealing to Peter’s love. We see this in John 21, when Jesus urges Peter to shepherd His sheep as an outpouring of Peter’s love for Him.[7] Perhaps even more strikingly, we see it in that fateful encounter recorded in Tradition, the Quo Vadis, when Peter is finally persuaded to face martyrdom not by clever moral arguments, ideologies, or categorical imperatives, but by love of the risen Lord who returns to Rome to be crucified again.

Love is for persons, not for qualities or ideas, except only derivatively, that is, insofar as the latter exist in the former. To insist that love is love for this person is not an appeal to settle for someone with less than stellar qualifications—for “settling” is itself the attitude of the consumer who prudently resigns himself to buy only what he can afford. Far from settling, to learn to love persons is the task of a lifetime. In W.B. Yeats’s For Anne Gregory (1933), the poet tells Anne:

I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not for your yellow hair.[8]

If the old religious man is right, we shall love fully only when we can say with St. Paul, “it is no longer I that live, but Christ that lives in me.”[9] Meanwhile, as the saying goes, anything worth doing is worth doing badly. And the list post isn’t helping.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics as we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Peter Geach. Truth and Hope: The Fürst Franz Josef und Fürstin Gina Lectures Delivered at the International Academy of Philosophy in the Principality of Liechtensten. (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1998), p. 13.

[2] George Eliot. Middlemarch. Ed. by Gregory Maertz. (Peterborough, ON, Canada: Broadview Press, 2004), p. 51.

[3] Ibid., p. 244.

[4] Ibid., p. 47.

[5] C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves. (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1960), pp. 134-135.

[6] John 6:53-69.

[7] John 21:15-17.

[8] W.B. Yeats. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats– Revised Second Edition. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996), p. 245.

[9] Galatians 2:20.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Penitent Saint Peter” (between 1600 and 1649) by Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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