Harmonic Politics in a Disharmonious World

For the past two weeks, I’ve been discussing the metaphor of musical harmony as useful in understanding political philosophy and political theology. The classical tradition through Plato and Cicero and the Christian tradition through Augustine use musical metaphors and the notion of harmony to describe the search for a just society. In both traditions, the goal of government is to create social peace. When there is conflict, the goal is to restore social harmony. Social peace is best established in a free society through reasonable means based on shared values.

Events of this week in the Middle East allow me to address one of the most common objections to the viewpoint advanced in these blogs. Many of my friends and commentators suggest that using the word agape, or “self-giving love,” in connection with political reality is misguided. In their view, politics is the search for the advancement of self-interest, including the self-interest of social groups within or between societies. Politics is about the acquisition and use of power, and to bring non-power-related concepts into the discussion is misguided. I respectfully disagree.

The Current Example

Conflict erupted this week, beginning with an incursion from Gaza into Israel. Almost immediately, there were a series of threats and counter-threats on both sides. For the Israelis, the Hamas attack was an act of terrorism. From the perspective of Hamas and its supporters, the violence resulted from prior actions of the Israeli government. Amidst all this, the commentary of a retired American general caught my attention. Discussing what he viewed as the flaws of a prior and the present administration, which he feels represents an unrealistic understanding of international politics, he advanced the view that conflict is the basis of the relationship between nations. Such conflict may be peaceful or violent, but an element of conflict is always present. Those who seek a peaceful resolution of a conflict with a terrorist organization are simply deluded. It is this view that violence and competition sit at the foundation of the world order that I find limited, leading to unwise actions by leaders of the left and the right in innumerable situations.

What is Sophio-Agapism?

I refer to the vantage point of this series of blogs as “Sophio-agapism.” The term underscores the view that politics should be approached from the viewpoint of both a search for wisdom (sophia) and love (agape). In the philosophy of C.S. Peirce, the evolution of human society, like the evolution of the world, is characterized by chance, deterministic features, and agapistic love. To understand what Peirce is trying to say and its practical implications, it is crucial to understand what he means by “agapistic love.” In his “A Guess at the Riddle,” Peirce defines agapistic love as (i) an active bestowal of energy by the lover to the beloved, (ii) a cherishing of the beloved by the lover, (iii) and a positive sympathy on the part of the lover for the benefit of the beloved. [1] Love for Peirce is a kind of bestowal of energy that cherishes and seeks the best for that which is loved. This love is not just a human emotion but emerges as one of the elementary characteristics of the evolving universe.

Peirce begins his analysis of agapism with quotations from the First Letter of John, in which John concludes that “God is love” (I John 4:8,16). Peirce then proceeds to a discussion of the nature of that kind of love we see reflected in the life of Christ and to which John refers, as well as critiquing John’s supposed deviations from the pure gospel of love. Finally, he analyzes its application to evolutionary theory.  Peirce believed that agapism is central to the evolution of the universe and human society, and the other features of evolutionary growth, chance, and necessity are derived from this primordial love. In other words, love is a central characteristic of the world and human societies. It is not an “add-on” or a psychological reaction of certain individuals to harmonies in the world or society. It is a feature of reality itself. In another context, I have called the kind of love to which Peirce refers “Deep Love” or “Deep Relationality.” [2]

On the other hand, one should not overplay the role of love in a political philosophy. Just as the quantum world merges into the world of Newtonian physics, a world of material objects and force-dominated interactions, at the level of human society, the power of love and other factors in human society are impacted and limited by chance or fortuitous events and by the regularity, is created by a political system, an international economic system, and other systemic features that involve material objects and force. As to human society and human relationships, the impact of human freedom and the choices made by others cannot be underestimated. In such an environment, conflict cannot be entirely avoided, and the more irrational and unloving the other actors involved may be, the more likely it is that conflict is inevitable.

Defending a Sophio-Agapistic Political View

In defending a sophio-agapistic approach to political theory, reason moves from the phenomena of relationality embedded in the physical universe to an analysis of the human experience of relationship and then to the emergence of the various kinds of relationality in human society. [3] The variety of ways in which a deep relationality impacts human society can be unfolded by looking at various Greek terms for love as a part of the gradual evolution of the human race and human society. In Greek, there are at least five different relevant terms for love:

  • “eros” or romantic love evoked by desire (ἔρως),
  • “storge” or affection (στοργή),
  • “philia” or brotherly love (φιλία),
  • “pragma” or practical love (πράγμα), and
  • “agape” or self-giving love (αγάπη).

In my view, these loves emerge from the relationality found at the root of creation, in which human beings participate. Human capacity for loving relationality evolved as consciousness and society evolved. Humanity’s capacity for relationality and love has evolved in important and breathtaking ways.

The Emergence of Relationality in Human Society

Reality is multilayered. At the bottom of material reality lies the principles of physics, from which chemistry and biology emerge as independent areas of reality. The human race emerged in a long process of biological and social development, with the result that religion, psychology, sociology, law, and other disciplines also developed due to the capacity of human beings to create human societies and institutions. Each level of reality depends on others yet has its degree of independence. While other levels are relevant and impact higher levels, they do not determine them. [4] At each level of reality, there is continuity, dependence on lower levels, freedom, and openness as new potentials arise. In particular, the unconscious relationality of the universe is now conscious, capable of infinitely more complex relationships on a mental and emotional level.

The emergence of human beings and human society vastly increased the range and kind of potential in the created order, including political options for the understanding and achievement of justice in society. The deep relationality of the universe involves a preference for sound relationships, for what the Jews call shalom, which is often translated as “peace”. Still, it has the more profound connotation of wholeness or completeness of order in life. The human desire and need for social interaction impact societies in the search for justice. In the context of political philosophy, when recognized and developed, what I term “noetic potentials,” such as justice, arise and can guide humans’ day-to-day activities. These noetic potentials develop and “unfold” in and among different societies in different ways. Still, all exemplify the order and symmetry in relationship potential in reality and every social reality.

The Politics of Agapism

For political purposes, all loves have some meaning, but three are most important to any well-functioning society:

  • Philia, which is considered the beloved part of a family or common community;
  • Pragma, which compromises to help the relationship work over time, showing patience and tolerancein sustaining and building a relationship; and
  • Agape, which remains committed, sacrifices, and cherishes even when the beloved, in the case of political love, a society, is unworthy. It is a commitment over time to the other.

These three loves are important to a functional society, particularly a functioning democratic society. Philia is that social bond we have because of a common family with shared norms and institutions of meaning. Societies need a sense of common history, background, life order, etc. Humans instinctively cling to family, close friendships, fellow believers, co-workers, etc. It is more than posturing when people speak of a business, a neighborhood, or even a nation as a family, or even of the “family of nations.”

As past events demonstrate, philia can negatively impact social relationships, where the bonds of a common family, race, religion, or cultural heritage overcome all other relational ties and create conflict. While all societies need a sense of community, social brotherhood, and sisterhood, where historic racial and other characteristics dominate, they can lead to conflict. The conflict in the Middle East between Jews and Arabs is a great example of this phenomenon. It is made more difficult by the religious differences between Judaism and Islam.

Pragma is that love that allows members of a society to tolerate differences and build a common society that benefits all, making the necessary compromises for any society to function. Pragma recognizes that society requires its members to be patient and loyal, even in times of stress. [5] Pragma encourages compliance with laws, even those with whom one privately disagrees, to advance the group’s common good. Pragma is “pragmatic” in that it accepts and nurtures the other to maintain a relationship of practical worth to the lover.

From a political perspective, pragma is an important form of love. Within a society, it is important to build social solidarity. On the other hand, there is a pragma among nations and societies. That is to say, we inhabit one world, and in that one world, it is in the best interests of everyone to create as much harmony as possible and to avoid destructive conflict. It is the viewpoint of this series of blogs that developing an intercultural, international pragma is of the first importance.

At the top of the pyramid of love is agape. Agape is that love willing to sacrifice for the good of the whole. Agape also means giving others the right and capacity to achieve their goals despite our questions concerning their reasonableness or desirability. Agape respects the freedom of the other and hopes for the flourishing of the other. Agape is a love that bestows itself on the deserving and underserving alike. Shared history or calculations of personal self-interest do not limit the love that is agape.

Agape is the highest form of Christian love but also appears in other religious traditions, such as the idea of “universal loving kindness” in Buddhism. [6] In Latin, agape is translated as “charitas,” from which we get our word “charity.”  This usage points to the difference between eros and agape: eros is a love evoked by something in the beloved that the lover needs; agape is a love as the free act of the lover. Agape is not a love evoked by desire but bestowed upon its recipient. Agape is not a love that can be commanded or required; it must be bestowed upon people and society by the action of free people. In international politics, agape is present, where those with power deliberately use less than all the power at their disposal in the interest of something higher—peace and harmony among people and social groups.

Agape is not unnecessary in human affairs, even amid conflict. Wise leaders avoid conflict and, when in a conflict, seek to minimize the damage and estrangement all conflict involves. As I put it in another context:

Wise leaders shun violence and conflict. This is the virtue of avoiding violence and conflict: the ability to manage people and situations as gently as snow falls on a winter day.

The best policy is this: Avoid conflict if at all possible.

If conflict arises, the best policy is this: Avoid unnecessary destruction. If conflict continues, the best policy is this: Seek a just solution. If conflict reaches a conclusion, the best policy is this: Show mercy and restore good relations. [7]

Even in conflict, the agapist approach involves self-control and the search for peace, even at personal and social cost—the cost of sacrificing to avoid and minimize violence.

The Current Situation

The conflict in the Middle East, Ukraine, and other areas can appropriately be analyzed using the ideas of sophio-agapism. Both Garza and the Ukraine are in the process of being utterly destroyed by constant bombardment in military action. When these conflicts are over, it will take years to rebuild the social and physical infrastructure being destroyed. In addition, because military activities breed resentment, the resentment created will be present no matter who wins the conflict. The Russians and the Western powers should consider the negative consequences of the Ukraine conflict, and Israel and Hamas should consider the negative impacts of the conflict in Gaza, no matter who wins. A victory that does no more than create even more embedded social hostility is unlikely to further the cause of peace in the long run.

Just War Pacifism and Sophio-Agapism

Some years ago, I suggested in a meeting that the political philosophy of John Paul II could be termed “just war pacifism.” My colleague in the conversation, a professor of philosophy, disagreed with my analysis that one could conceive of a form of pacifism that embraced just war theory and a form of just war theory that embraces pacifism. Nevertheless, I continue to think that this is a valuable way of thinking.

Plato, George Santayana, and General Douglas MacArthur are all recorded as saying, “Only the dead will never know war again.” War is a social reality that appears to be a permanent feature of human history. While it is the duty of every person to avoid conflict and war if at all possible, it’s also in the best interest of every human being to see that where war is being conducted, it is conducted in such a way as to lead to the least possible loss of life, and especially the life of innocents, and conducted in such a way as to make a peaceful result, and a more harmonious, social future more likely.

In the past few days, our televisions and media have been filled with images of the results of a horrific terror attack in which noncombatants, men, women, and children were killed and, in some cases, tortured and killed. No possible construction of just war theory condones this behavior. The inevitable human reaction is to want to make the person who did this pay, leading to more violence. For some months now, the citizens of Ukraine have been the subject of a dehumanizing conflict in which innocent noncombatants have become victims of violence. Violence has led to more violence. Human lives and human social solidarity are being destroyed.

Unfortunately, the situation in Gaza gives rise to yet another conundrum: when a terrorist organization is leading an entire social group, are members of that society willingly or unwillingly participating in the injustice of their leaders? This is precisely the conundrum that Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced in Germany before and during World War II and is not, in principle, resolvable. It is only solvable in a concrete case facing a concrete person. The citizens of Gaza and those opposing them must decide what to do to create a peaceful social environment.

Socio-agapism, when used as a principle of action in any area, is not a philosophy of weakness or inaction. It is a philosophy of wise engagement to achieve the best result for all. Even where a leader or society is in a position of great power, socio-agapism establishes a principle of wise calculation of the best interests of all involved with the belief that the best interests of all involved are also in each party’s best interests to a conflict. Socio-agapism does not provide an easy solution to all conflicts or give precise guidance to leaders. It suggests a path involving the relentless and sometimes costly search for social harmony and peaceful relationships within and among social groups.

I must conclude this week’s blog. I intend to return to the issue of just war pacifism near the end of these blogs. Those who believe that Christianity must embrace relentless pacifism will not like the conclusions of this week’s blog. Those who believe in “real politics” will also reject the notion that the search for social harmony and peace is fundamental. It’s contrary to their idea of the relentless conflict in competition among nations and social groups in which only victory removes conflict. My basic response to this point of view is that peace cannot be achieved “until swords made into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4; Joel 3:12; Micah 4:3). This is the eschatological hope that leads all right-thinking persons to embrace the search for peace.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] “Guess at the Riddle” in Essential Writings, 249-250.

[2] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Tao Te Ching Adapted for Christ-Followers Rev. Ed. (Permisio Por Favor/BookSurge, 2016).

[3] This entire section is taken from G. Christopher Scruggs, A “Sophio-Agapic Approach to Political Philosophy: a Constructive “Post-ideological Proposal” (Unpublished Manuscript, October 11, 2023).

[4] John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation, 2007), 102 and Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion (London, ENG: SPCK, 2005).

[5] Roman Krznaric, “The Ancient Greeks’ 6 Words for Love (And Why Knowing Them Can Change Your Life)” in Solutions Journalism ( December 28, 2013), at www.yesmagazine.org/health-happiness/2013/12/28/the-ancient-greeks-6-words-for-love-and-why-knowing-them-can-change-your-life/ (downloaded June 19, 2020).

[6] Id.

[7] G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Tao Te Ching Adapted for Christ-Followers Rev. Ed. (Permisio Por Favor/BookSurge, 2016), 136.