Across Enemy Lines by Sunday's Child via flickr

How to Love Your Enemy

Robert Miner—

Beyond his status as a musical innovator—guitarist extraordinaire, master architect of King Crimson, collaborator with David Bowie and Brian Eno—Robert Fripp is a serious man. He dresses impeccably; he reads old books in his study. One perceptive reader of his online journal, noticing his apparent fondness for Anglican liturgy, asked Fripp whether he considered himself a Christian. His response: “If we accept that a Christian is one who follows the precepts of Christ, we love our enemies & pray for them. I have forgiven my enemies, and pray for them, but I have not yet been able to love them. So, I guess the answer is no.”

The integrity of Fripp’s response is both admirable and evident. But what does it mean to love our enemy? Can we be so confident that enemy love is beyond our capacity, unless we first know what enemy love is? In the Questions on Love and Charity, Thomas Aquinas addresses this question. He does so by asking whether charity—the greatest of the theological virtues (23.6), and the “form” of all the others (23.8)—necessarily includes the love of one’s enemy. Everything turns on what enemy love is. If it means loving your enemies “so far as they are enemies,” he argues, it is not only difficult to love your enemy, but actually impossible. Since you cannot but desire your own good—that is, the preservation and flourishing of your being, and whatever is connected to it—you cannot simultaneously love that which you perceive to oppose your good (25.8 co). If the command enjoins us to love our enemy qua enemy, then we are obliged to admit not only that we are “not yet” able to do this, but also that we can never do it.

Fortunately, Aquinas discerns another sense of enemy love. “Love of enemies,” he says, “can be taken with respect to nature, but in a universal sense. And thus love of enemies is necessary for charity, as someone who by loving God and his neighbor does not exclude his enemies from the generality of love that he has for his neighbor” (25.8 co). To love our enemies, we have to see them not simply as our enemies, but under a different aspect, a different ratio. Enemies qua enemies are opposed to us, and so must be hated—“since things hostile to us must be displeasing to us.” But—Thomas continues—“enemies are not opposed to us so far as they are human beings and capable of blessedness. And according to this, we must love them” (25.8 ad 2).

If we are able to see our enemy as neighbor, rather than as enemy, we will discern her common humanity. Such a task, though extremely difficult, is not quite impossible. The common humanity of our enemy lies especially in her capacity for beatitudo. I have translated this key term as “blessedness.” It denotes something like active participation in divine love, radiating outward from love of God to love of self and neighbor—in that order, according to Question 26. As Mark Jordan suggests in the first essay appended to Questions on Love on Charity, the virtue of caritas is not a mere instrument for this participation. It is this participation—possible for us here and now, at least incompletely. Consider a person who hates you, who seeks to undermine you at every turn. That such a person is your enemy is a truth about that person. But it is never the only truth about that person. It is never the deepest truth about that person. To bear this in mind, so that both our affections and the actions springing from those affections are significantly altered, is to take the first step towards obeying the commandment.

To be sure, the first step is not to be confused with the ideal—expressed paradigmatically by what Kierkegaard calls the “conciliatory spirit in love.” On Aquinas’s analysis, the growth and maturation of caritas involves three steps (gradus), three levels of excellence in loving God, self, and neighbor. The first level, Aquinas proposes at Question 24, Article 9, is “charity beginning” (caritas incipiens). The second is “charity progressing” (caritas proficiens). The third is “charity that is completed” (caritas perfecta). What enemy love looks like, with respect to both its interior affections and its “outward signs or effects,” will differ from one level to the next. At the “beginner” level, it entails only the will not to exclude the enemy from the set of neighbors who are loved in charity. The corresponding outward effects will be those “shown toward neighbors in general, as when someone prays for all the faithful or for the entire people.” If one were to pray only for friends, and exclude one’s enemies, then prayer would become an instrument of spite, against which Aquinas cites Leviticus 19.18’s injunction not to seek revenge.

If Aquinas is correct to hold that enemy love will be displayed differently at each of charity’s three levels, then Fripp has every reason to revise his judgment that he has “not yet” been able to love his enemies. Aquinas invites him to consider an alternative. Rather than declare his inability to obey the command “Love your enemies,” Fripp might reevaluate himself as a “beginner in charity.” Insofar as he has been able to forgive and pray for his enemies, he has taken the first step toward loving them—even if only the first step. Such a reevaluation requires humility. It tends not to come easily to those who are accustomed to excelling in all they do. (The binary proposition “Either I am x at the highest level, or I am not x at all” is a symptom of pride.) However advanced we might be in other domains, we are likely to be mere beginners in charity. But the alternative offered by Aquinas would enable Fripp to avoid the despairing conclusion to which his evident personal integrity leads him, without asking him to forfeit a drop of that integrity. Instead, his integrity would be placed under the more secure protection of humility—and so confirm Thomas Merton’s dictum that in great saints, perfect humility and perfect integrity coincide.

Robert C. Miner is author of Thomas Aquinas on the Passions and professor of philosophy in the Honors College at Baylor University. His latest work is a translation of Thomas Aquinas’s Questions on Love and Charity: Summa Theologiae, Secunda Secundae, Questions 23–46.

Further Reading:

Questions on Love and Charity cover

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