I & Thou: Wisdom, Interpersonal Love, and the Two Roles of Love

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” -Jesus “Not Quintana” Christ

In my “Golden & Platinum” post, I wrote that the study of love is a life’s work, and that the golden rule implies a platinum rule. In this “I & Thou” post, I’ll try to outline a little more what love is, and how one follows the golden rule on an individual level.

As quoted above, the golden rule begs several questions-roughly one per word-but let’s begin with: Who counts as your neighbor?

I Will Destroy Thou, Says the Quintana Type of Neighbor

Most of us would like to define “neighbor” as “people I like, that I run into while in a good mood.” But we fail even to love those people as we love ourselves, mostly because we end up asking them for more (attention, time, autographs, nude photographs) than they want to give. So we have to get less whimsical and more categorical. There’s just one problem: Every categorical boundary we can draw up, to distinguish “neighbor” from “thing,” turns out to be blurry. Tell me “neighbor” means a caucasian cup of Joe like yourself, and I’ll show you a Barack Obama (mocha blend) or a Michael Jackson (curdled cream and sugar in a plastic cup). Tell me “neighbor” means a fellow penis-and-land owning colonist, and I’ll introduce you to an urchin girl who breaks your heart, forcing you to love your “non-neighbor.” We might even go out on a limb and say that the line between human beings and other entities is likewise blurry-after all, human-animal chimeras and very primitive cyborgs already exist-not to mention serial killers, cat ladies, freak show figurants, and talk show guests. And then there’s again the matter of what the neighbor/non-neighbor boundary implies about non-neighbors: if we’re sure our dog’s not our “neighbor,” then is our affection, compassion, protection of that dog without value, reason, justification? Did the moral masters who formulated the golden rule forget to add, “oh, and also anything else you feel like loving”? I don’t personally think so.


The safe, yet horrifying, conclusion: Our neighbor is any entity with whom we consciously come in contact.

This conclusion opens up a few cans of worms. For instance, if a cow is my neighbor, how should I love it? As humanity’s great store of bestiality jokes can attest, it’s easy to take a wrong turn at this kind of question. All kidding (and lambing) aside, we could label this issue the “How Now Brown Cow” objection-if every entity is in some sense my neighbor, and there’s an infinite variety of neighbors out there, then doesn’t loving any or all of these entities imply an infinite, and infinitely complicated, process of coming to know, and learning how to love, each new entity?

This objection can be answered two ways. First, the golden rule, with “neighbor” so defined, does indeed imply something like an infinite learning process. Second, just because it’s possibly an infinite process, doesn’t mean there’s no way to begin. Loving others is like mathematics, or art-it’s a subject the study of which might very well go on forever, but which nonetheless has its basics, its arithmetic, its primary colors, from which to begin.

Even Not-So-Smart Neighbor Knows Red, Yellow, and Blue Make Awesome

And then there’s maybe the biggest objection to this definition of neighbor: Are you freaking kidding me? I have to get home in time for the new episode of Lost! I can’t spend four hours playing hackey sack and amateur grief counselor with every bum on the street between my office and my apartment building. We might, in honor of People-Who-Hate People Party President Bill Hicks, call this the “Bum Hurdle” objection.

This objection, like the first, can be answered in two ways. First, again, hell yes the golden rule will cramp your style; hell yes it implies a daunting totality of investment-hence the platinum rule, “Love God (who is love) with all your mind, heart, and spirit.” Second, the golden rule is incredibly doable, because you mostly have to love your neighbors one at a time-it’s “love your neighbors,” not “love everyone who exists”-and you’re still allowed to love yourself, which could very well involve watching Lost at the end of a tiring day.

Speaking of tiring: In even taking on the subject of love, I feel like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. But then, it’s going to take at least three posts (Golden & Platinum, I & Thou, and the upcoming Harmony & Diversity) to lay the groundwork for some outrageous conjectural payoff later on, and besides, anyone who knows me knows how I feel about biting off more than I can chew:

“Mmmmmmmmm, Toooo Muuuuch.”

I said above that there were some basics to the study of love, and I also mentioned that the golden rule begs several questions. To probe these questions is to deepen one’s understanding of the golden rule, and is a part of obeying the platinum rule. The questions begged, then: 1) Who am I? 2) Who is my neighbor (”Thou,” in Martin Buber’s philosophy)? 3) What is, “to love”? 4) And what is, “as”?

We’ve started to answer the second question, and if you’ve read this far, I presume you can start to answer the first question as well. But each self “I” and each neighbor “thou” is a complex entity, so there’s more to explore in the case of each.

1) “I”:

As I’ve stated already, to love others as oneself, one must first love oneself; one must therefore have a self. To have a self is to have a self-model and be able to self-narrate, to be able to say, to oneself or aloud, “Why yes I did just wink at you,” or, “Why no, I didn’t wink at your wife; my eye was twitching,” or, “That wasn’t even my eye, dude, that was some other eye you saw winking.” But more on what a self is later, and how’s it tied to memetics. For now, simply note that the golden rule is by all accounts damned hard to follow, and that only insofar as you can actually process the meme string, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” with its persony concepts of “your neighbor” and “yourself,” do you stand a chance of succeeding in loving your neighbor as yourself.

But elevating one’s natural genetic selfish self to the fearless fairness of the golden rule can be hard work, and so the temptation persists to find a shortcut. The most common shortcut proposed is to replace the development of spiritual life with the achievement of ego death. I’ve personally known the mystical state of “ego death,” in which the mind’s ability to model selves is shut down, leaving the rest of the mind both fearless and “at one” with everything around them. While enjoyable, the experience left me permanently skeptical of the value of ego death. After all, it’s the loss of a complex brain function, not the development of something new-it’s a temporary chemical lobotomy. And ego death doesn’t seem to result in active love-I don’t recall any children’s hospitals being built by people on psilocybin. Two plausible reasons ego death doesn’t seem to result in active love: If you’re fearless and pain-free, you don’t empathize well with people in fear and pain; and if you can’t tell yourself apart from your neighbors, you can’t keep track of what’s yours to give yourself and your neighbors-a problem Terence McKenna described as forgetting which spoon goes in which mouth.

The sad fact of the matter is, we can’t arrive at love simply by getting rid of the “I,” the self-modeling part of us, the self-narrating part of us, because to do so is to get rid of our ability to know what’s ours to give (to model oneself is partly to inventory what one has), as well as our ability to value the free will which goes hand-in-hand with the ability to model and narrate selves, as well as our firsthand knowledge of what selves like ours need-fuel, and physical protection, and companionship, and purpose, and free will, and ultimately, a harmony among those needs.

Of course, this phrase, “selves like ours,” begs the question, “How can we know whether our neighbor has needs like ours?” Insofar as they likewise are memetic beings with self-modeling and self-narrating abilities, our neighbors can simply tell us their needs, and we can honor their free will by trying to meet only those needs they make known. Insofar as we understand their expressed needs, we can then place on those needs a value relative to our own needs’ values, and seek to meet those needs without self-bias.

The biggest lessons, however, which one can draw about love from knowing one’s own needs, are that each entity has needs, and that any entity’s ultimate need is to enjoy harmony among its needs, so that all its needs can be met together.

Indecision Sucks, Concludes Future ManBearPig Neighbor

2) “Thou”:

I’ve mentioned that there are infinite possible neighbors or “Thous” for any given self or “I.” However, as there are two known natures-genetic and memetic-there are two basic types of thou, genetic and memetic-genetic.

Note that by “genetic thou,” I speak of such entities as the aforementioned cow, and of plants and protozoans. Genetic thous have needs which may include affection, but insofar as they are bound up in the zero-sum game of genetic life, their needs do not include the achievement of true love, nor the preservation of their free will or self-modeling and self-narrating capacity. Genetic thous may communicate their needs, but only insofar as such communication benefits their genes; they may conceal their needs, or actively deceive, or be unable to communicate a need. They are nevertheless deserving of all possible love, which means the “I” must do everything possible to determine the genetic thou’s real needs. These needs may include nice clean grass, if the thou you must figure out how to love right now is a brown cow. They may include protection from fear and pain, by keeping wolves away, in the case of the cow, and killing it with a bolt to the brain, Chigurh-style, rather than letting it rot; the needs may be simpler, as in the case of protozoa, which don’t as far as we know feel fear or pain and don’t even much care whether they live or die-to love them and preserve them is in large part an act of love for the higher animals, ecosystem, and potential future evolution they undergird.

The memetic-genetic type of thou also goes by the term “sentient,” or “conscious being” or “one made in the image of God”-in any case, this kind of thou is self-modeling and self-narrating, capable of free will, of true love, of knowledge of infinity. A sentient thou’s needs stack up much higher than a genetic thou’s. To love a sentient being means to want to preserve its self-modeling, self-narrating, behavior, thus its free will. If a sentient being gives up its free will, it gives up its ability to self-narrate, without which it is no longer memetic. Therefore, while the “I” ought to answer all of a sentient thou’s expressed needs, it must be careful not to violate the thou’s free will in doing so, as doing this risks breaking the thou’s spirit, in which event the sentient thou surrenders its self-narrating capacity in order to meet other of its needs.

3) “to love”:

The golden rule takes as given the listener’s self-love. In examining our self-love, we find that our desire is to answer as many of our needs as possible, together. Implied in this standard are two principles: harmony and diversity. In other words, the more needs we can meet, the better, so long as those needs can all be met together. In seeking to answer all of our neighbor’s needs together, we must therefore determine whether the neighbor has free will, self-narration, spirit; if so, we must answer his needs as stated but always desirous of helping him voluntarily achieve the higher need of harmonizing his needs so they may be answered together. If the neighbor is a genetic being, we must by force seek to answer all its known needs together. In either case, as in our sentient self-love, we seek to achieve harmony and diversity together, all needs answered together (including, in the case of a sentient neighbor, the need for free will or self-narration). To put it another way, we in each case seek peace, or the kingdom of God, or heaven, for ourselves and for our neighbor. To put it yet another way, in failing to harmonize our needs, we sin, in the sense put forth by Martin Buber: “For sin is just this, what man cannot by its very nature do with his whole being.”

4) “as”:

The golden rule begs a fourth and final question: what exactly does “as” signify? In other words, how do we know whether our self-love and neighbor-love are equal? We often speak as if the comparison were simple: “If I were you.” But if I were you, I wouldn’t be me, goes the common rejoinder. Indeed. While all beings may have needs, and all beings may have the overarching need to have their needs met harmoniously, this still leaves us in considerable darkness as to whether we have, in a given instance, loved neighbor as self, modeled both our own self and our neighbor’s self according to some standard. What “as” truly implies, then, is true objectivity, or our best stab at it-we’re to bear in mind our self-model, not in order to ensure that any action serves our own needs (genetic ego), but only in order to ensure that needs are met based on what we personally have to give to answer each need, be it a need of our own or a neighbor’s. In other words, we’re to be like lady Justice, blind as to whose stuff’s on our scale, but never forgetting ourselves in the sense of forgetting what’s ours to mete out (apparently, in the case of lady Justice, the use of her scales and wicked sword).

I guess what I’m driving at, is that this little concept, rendered in English as “as,” invokes for us nothing less than the concept of justice itself, and that this concept is rightly sobering and demanding of attention. To answer our collective needs harmoniously, requires an objective scale by which to weigh each need against each other, and against each self’s ability to answer needs. This objective “God’s eye view” is, in an ideal world, a consensual reality to which each lover refers, but it is not a manufactured or arbitrary or imagined reality; needs are by nature non-negotiable (i.e., needs cannot be ignored away; the only way to get rid of a need is to kill or let die that part of an entity which has that need). The objective reality, the God’s-eye-view, on which the golden rule turns out to depend, is a consciousness which is there whether or not any potential lover sees it or makes use of it, and it’s a continuous consciousness, meaning the part one person sees is connected to the part another person sees-otherwise it’s not objective.  We have a word for an independently there, continuous consciousness: a mind.  And the objective reality on which we derive the “as” of the golden rule, is not just a mind, but a mind accessible by any other mind, like John Malkovich’s mind in Being John Malkovich, only unlike John Malkovich’s mind, it’s larger than any other mind can comprehend. (Though some would say Malkovich’s decision to slum it in Eragon is pretty incomprehensible.) And that’s where our awe should come into play, because we have a word for a mind accessible by, but larger than, any other mind: God.

Warning: Deities in Imagination Are Closer Than They Appear

We might chew on the above idea a little more often, if it didn’t taste so much like humble pie.  But that’s just it: To love our neighbor as ourselves requires humility.  Humility in that we can only love others well insofar as we can look at ourselves objectively.  Humility in that we should always seek first to have the kingdom of God before we presume to be able to share it.  Humility in that we should always, short of objective knowledge, presume our direct knowledge of our own sin as more certain than our secondhand knowledge of others’ sin.  Humility in discarding the pride of self-bias even where certain of our superiority to our neighbor.  If we can accept that the golden rule demands from us such humility, is it so hard to imagine the rule may also demand from us the greatest humility, which is to turn our minds to this greatest of minds, and acknowledge?

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One Response to “I & Thou: Wisdom, Interpersonal Love, and the Two Roles of Love”

  1. » Blog Archive » Love Gone Platinum: Rationality and the First Two Laws of Love Says:

    […] effort, rather than a one-time adoption of a rule of thumb or two, the reason being that the possible diversity of neighbors one encounters is infinite. This sounds like a recipe for suffering, and in some sense it is. The tyranny of selfishness would […]

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