The common objects of their love (2)

Reading what I wrote yesterday (part 1), it seems that trying to analyse the English word ‘love’ may have been a red herring. Augustine was a Berber who grew up in what is now Algeria, in the late 4th century, and was educated and wrote in Latin. Whatever he meant by ‘love’ is unlikely to square with the connotations the word carries for us in early 21st century English. Catholic theologians, responding to Biden’s speech online, emphasize that Augustine would have been thinking of Godly devotion as the primary force knitting a multitude into one people.

On the other hand, when the concept of love gets bandied around today, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves how compromised that concept can be. Above all, I’d say that for the concept to have any practical value, it needs to be limited to open-hearted engagement. Love of money, is something other than love. The same goes for loving the freedom to waltz in and out of public institutions bearing high-powered semi-automatic firearms. The same, potentially, for loving your country, if doing so is premised on self-interest, exploiting outsiders, and penchant for cruelty.

A safer catchall term would be ‘care’, and ‘objects of care’, as in things that we care enough about for them to concretely affect our choices and behaviour, and I think that’s what Biden was aiming for. Let’s have another look:

“Many centuries ago, Saint Augustine, a saint of my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans? I think I know. Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honor. And, yes, the truth.”

The concept of ‘objects of care’ is something I came across while researching my MSc dissertation a couple of years ago, and for all I know it can be traced back to Augustine. Objects of care are things we care about profoundly – a child, a vocation, the concept of a safe, just, sustainable society – and which can motivate us to action. In the context of climate change, which the dissertation focused on, objects of care would include things in our life which make the issue of climate change personally relevant.

The depth of our attachment to those objects of care determines the force of the emotions aroused by any threat to those objects, and the types of action fuelled by those emotions. This happens deep inside the cranium, where our raw affective impulses stand by ready to be activated. Impulses to rage and fear, for example, but also impulses to respond with curiosity, playfulness and protective nurturing, among others.

We have some cognitive capacity to determine our objects of care, but no control over the deep affective processes that drive our emotional and behavioural responses.

People reveal their objects of care in their speech, which tells us something valuable about how they will perceive and respond to particular events and situations. Will they consider climate change a threat to the world, or a hoax cooked up to rob them of something precious? Will they experience an imminent presidential transition as a blessed relief, or as a cataclysm demanding radical action?

People also package their objects of care into stories, about the world and themselves. Groups of us with similar stories, common pillars of the self, gravitate together, if we don’t already inhabit the same physical and cultural environment. A clan, or community, is one such common object of care for its (consenting) members, and by sleight of hand that phenomenon can be magnified to unify the will of millions of unconnected strangers, at the scale of a nation or a mass creed. This hack into the psyche of the crowd – seed it with common objects of care – was surely noted by those with public leverage at the inception of every civilizational project, and ‘leaders’ have been exploiting it ever since. Indoctrination is for real, and it delivers. ‘Progress’ for some has been the prize, and misery for many the price.

Back to Biden. Are…

Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honor. And, yes, the truth.

…worthy common objects of care for a would-be good and honourable nation? Certainly. But they’re equally objects of care for groups who’d march in white hoods with flaming torches, who’d plot to kidnap and execute a Governor, and who’d storm the U.S. Capitol to keep an unworthy man in power.

Again, it comes down to whether these are open-hearted or closed-hearted impulses. Inclusive or exclusive. Selfless or selfish. Are they motivated by fear and anger, or by the urges to nurture, support and share? Is it Opportunity for all, or Opportunity for my lot, not that lot? Security for all, or Security for us, not them? Liberty, dignity, respect and honor for all, or only for me, not you? Is it objective Truth we could all (with enough effort and goodwill) more or less agree on, or simply my Truth, end of?

To the extent that national leaders and governments can influence a people’s common objects of care, they must use that influence to make those objects cared for – loved, even – in ways which are positive, open-hearted and inclusive. They must leverage their hour in the limelight to foster generous, supportive, non-hierarchical channels of interaction among us all. That’s all people everywhere, by the way, and all of nature too. Otherwise, those objects of care they want us to have in common, national pride or whatever they call it (Make [insert from dropdown list] Great Again) – they’re not worth having.

And if those big, abstract things like Liberty, Honour, Country still seem too unwieldy and amorphous to ‘love’ in any practical way, too prone to serving the interests of people who’ll never yield their hierarchical privileges, too open to distortion in damaged hands…too delusional and dangerous, at the end of the day…then maybe we’d be better off falling back on the advice of Dewi Sant, Saint David, patron saint here in Wales, to simply

“Gwnewch y pethau bychain mewn bywyd

Do [and appreciate] the little things in life.

Picture: The little things in life: Bernie’s mittens, inauguration day.