Is all love laudable?

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Consider the following instruction on love from Virgil to Dante the pilgrim while they are among the penitent slothful on Mt Purgatory:

"So the enamored soul falls to desire -

A motion spiritual - nor rest can find

Till its loved object it enjoy entire.

Now can you you see how wholly those are blind

To truth, who think all love is laudable

Just in itself, no matter of what kind,

Since (they would argue) its material

Seems always good; yet, though the wax be good,

The imprint is not always good as well."

"No," says Virgil in the Divine Comedy: Purgatorio, "all love is not laudable."

Dante the author explores the wrongness of thinking that love, of whatever kind, is always good. He says that some would argue for this standpoint because love as a substance, in and of itself, seems always good. That love is love.

Then he illustrates the error of that thinking by using the image of melted wax and an imprinting seal. That even though the wax be of the highest quality (the substance of love) the imprint (that which is embraced) is not always good as well.

Dorothy Sayers, of the famous Inklings group, comments on these lines of Dante's poem in her translation from Penguin Classics:

"It is interesting to see that this prevalent sentimental heresy was not unknown even in Dante's day. 'People argue that because love is, generally directed to the good, therefore each and every love must itself be good; but it is not true, for it is the form which specifically determines what kind of love it is; just as if a seal is clumsily impressed [on wax], the print is a bad print however good the wax may be.'"

Even if we were to define love as selflessness or self-giving, which I think is correct, the person who loves heroin gives themselves selflessly and fully to heroin. But the union of that love (the wax) and the object (the seal) leaves the wax deformed.

Virgil instructs that, "The enamored soul falls to desire, and it cannot find rest till its loved object it enjoy entire." Love is a desire for complete union with the beloved object. The object that we love, when we pull it to ourselves, will bring us life or death.

Jesus' famous teaching on greed comes to mind: "The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil."

And I'm not even sure that it is up to us to determine what will bring us life or death. I'm not sure that humans are capable of rightly seeing and choosing for themselves what object of love is good and fitting, since everyone of us will defend our beloved object, whatever it may be, with fierceness and devotion, because of our love for it. If we love something, it will always seem to give us life because fulfilling our desires always feels right and good.

Because of this inability to see rightly, and to choose the good, perhaps we must also require instruction from another ancient and wise poet as Dante depended on Virgil on Mt Purgatory. "Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path" says the Psalmist. (Ps 119:105). The scriptures therefore must instruct us in the proper objects of love; both what to love and how to love them; to know to whom or to what we should direct our love. It matters, and it requires value judgments, and it requires making distinctions.

As Sayers intimates in her commentary, Virgil's teaching on love takes place on the level of the slothful because "sloth or acedia is insidious, is rather difficult to define. It is not merely idleness of mind and laziness of the body: it is that whole poisoning of the will...One form of [sloth] which appeals very strongly to some modern minds is that acquiescence in evil error which readily disguises itself as 'Tolerance.'"

Sloth is, in this instance, the refusal to make distinctions between what is good and what is not, and it is often disguised as tolerance. In this case, the substance of our love becomes misdirected or it embraces the wrong thing, and we couldn't care less.

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