The Great Conversation:
By Matt McKeown
Agapē, or charity, is by most accounts the highest of the four loves; and it is a challenging height.
The fourth and last of the traditional loves is αγάπη (agapē), which is generally translated as something like “unconditional love” or “selfless love.” Through the Latin caritas, “charity” was for a long time the conventional term for this love in English—though in more recent years the word charity has tended more specifically to mean donating money to people or causes that need it. In the western tradition, this kind of love is specially associated with God, and tends to indicate a generous, provident care for the beloved that seeks no benefit for itself, not even the pleasure of the beloved’s company or reciprocal affection. A terminally ill person secretly making arrangements to provide for a friend after their death affords an example: the dying person is not seeking even the short-term benefit of gratitude, only the actual well-being of the friend.
It would not be quite accurate to identify this love with compassion; compassion is specifically for the suffering, and charity (in the old sense) can be extended to anyone, whether they are suffering or not. However, compassion is probably the commonest and most obvious example of charity, and this is probably how giving money to the needy—what used to be called “alms”—became the word’s primary meaning.
One of the things that makes compassion a useful shorthand for charity more generally is that it is given not because it is deserved, but simply because it is needed. This is particularly clear in the case of that type of compassion we call “forgiveness,” which is not only undeserved but, by its very nature, given to those who do not deserve it. Forgiveness has accordingly become a bit of a dirty word in some circles today; it is not hard to see how “Show love to those who do not deserve it” can be twisted into cover for emotional manipulation and abuse. Many of the great minds of our tradition have recognized this, and, more generally, recognized that truly unconditional love is an intimidating task. As Dostoevsky put it in The Brothers Karamazov, “I am sorry I can say nothing more to console you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
Interestingly, in the Christian tradition (which overwhelmingly defines itself in terms of this love), charity is regularly presented or explained in terms of the other three loves. The phrase “unconditional love” naturally prompts many of us to think of a parent’s love for their children—although, sad to say, there are a lot of people who have reason to know that parental love is not always unconditional. The unselfconsciousness that attends friendship is readily present in charity; but friendship is normally based on some shared interest or purpose, which charity does not require. Bridal imagery is a favorite in both Scripture and the writings of the mystics as a way to articulate divine love, but to interpret this literally would be, to say the least, grotesque. All the other loves capture something about charity, but none of them exhaust it.
It would be misleading to imply that charity is an exclusively Christian (or even an exclusively Abrahamic) idea; universal benevolence, expressed principally in terms of compassion, is a salient feature of many forms of Buddhism and Hinduism. However, most western readers will probably find charity as a concept easiest to approach through Christian sources, and we have focused on those accordingly below. And yet, perhaps one of the loveliest literary examples of charity comes from Victor Hugo in the period when he had abandoned the Catholicism of his youth: namely, the story of Jean Valjean’s theft from Bishop Myriel in Les Misérables. After being taken in for a night by the kindly bishop, Valjean steals his silverware and runs off, only to be detained by the police; Valjean pretends that Bishop Myriel gave him the silver as a gift, and the rightly skeptical officers take him back to the cleric’s residence. Without a second thought, the bishops tells Valjean that he is delighted he has returned, as he forgot the candlesticks. The police leave, and Bishop Myriel hands the candlesticks to the shocked Valjean with a whisper, “With these I have ransomed your soul.”
The Gospel According to St. John
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Song of Songs
Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio
Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven
Charles Williams, The Forgiveness of Sins
Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place