Viktor Frankl, a psychoanalytic psychologist, imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II, had a direct response to Nietzsche by saying that the primary human force is the Will to Meaning, a will to make sense out of life and particularly out of suffering. Finding meaning, not a specific meaning common to all people, but finding a meaning itself has the survival value. As people think of life as meaningless, then they die. Yet, this contentless Will to Meaning has a contradiction in it. It cannot be opposing Nietzsche’s Will to Power if, in finding meaning, one person’s meaning for life is to gain more influence over another. In other words, Frankl’s deliberately contentless theme of the Will to Meaning must accommodate the content in some people’s minds that the Will to Power is their own personal meaning to life. It is the way the world works, at least as some people try to make meaning out of a cruel world. Yet, Frankl’s view, I think, is a developmentally more sophisticated worldview because it makes room for much more than the brutish vying for dominance and control in the world.
Jesus Christ, in contrast to Nietzsche and Frankl, has a different worldview. It is the Will to Love. Others, of course, have said this, too, but we must be scholarly here and give credit to the original proclamations. This Will to Love consciously repudiates the need to dominate, to seek power. Even if Nietzsche is correct that the Will to Power typifies the untrained, under-developed will of humanity, Christ’s challenge is to overcome that. Nietzsche, in other words, takes what is and mistakenly presumes that this is what ought to be. Frankl, in contrast, takes what is (we are presuming for now that the Will to Power is a natural tendency in humans) and is showing us that we can fill in the blank with other, perhaps better content when we ask, “What is the meaning of life and suffering for me?” Christ, in contrast to Frankl, and in common with Nietzsche, commits to one particular content—in this case, love—as the central Will for humanity.
It seems to me that we have a developmental progression here in terms of a greater fulfillment of humanity, the fulfillment of who we are as persons. We start in the mire of a Will to Power and can do great damage if we stay there, and if the world stays there. The Will to Meaning is a transition in that it takes us out of the inevitability of seeking power. The Will to Love, which honors the life of all, is the highest of these world views. Why? Because it is the only one of the three that is intimately concerned about all life. If humanity will survive, our questing after the Will to Power is a dangerous path because in its conscious, extreme form, it destroys others so that one’s own domain can expand.
To those like Nietzsche who think that love and the equality of persons is a weakened view of humanity, my response is this: How are you distorting the moral virtue of love? How are you misunderstanding it? To love is to help with the survival of all others, not to destroy for one’s own survival, dominance, and control. In the seeking of others’ betterment, one finds vitality and joy and gives the freedom to others to do the same. The Will to Love is the only assurance of survival and the thriving of all, including the self.
Which of these world views will you bring to others today?
The first phase of a multi-million-dollar, multi-year forgiveness research project in three culturally distinct regions of the world is providing clarity to an ancient concept that researchers say could bring psychological health to individuals as well as peace and unity to families, communities, and countries.
“Agape love is an under-researched concept that has significant implications for harmonious relationships and good mental health,” according to forgiveness pioneer Dr. Robert Enright, an educational psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI). “The goal of this project is to define what agape love is and is not, and to develop accurate measures of agape so we can assess the degree to which a person understands and practices it.”
That 3-year research project is focused on incorporating agape love fundamentals with Dr. Enright’s Forgiveness Education Curriculum materials for grade school students. Working with 60 teachers and up to 1,200 elementary students in Northern Ireland, Israel (both Arabic- and Hebrew-speaking schools), and Taiwan, the research is being funded by the John Templeton Foundation which has been supporting research on forgiveness for more than 20 years.
Agape love is a concept found in at least eight world religions and dates back to the work of three Greek philosophers:
- Socrates (470 BC – 399 BC), who was among the first moral philosophers to espouse the theory of virtue ethics;
- Plato (428 BC – 347 BC), a student of Socrates who is the namesake of Platonic love; and,
- Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), a student of Plato, who is called “the father of psychology.”
The influence of those three philosophers continued well into the 19th century, helped shape much of Western moral philosophy, and gained renewed interest with the modern advent of virtue ethics in the late 1950s. This “Aristotelian philosophical view of virtue ethics” was used by Dr. Enright’s initial research team (composed of UW-Madison and IFI researchers) to develop its definition of agape love:
“Agape love is a moral virtue in which a person willingly and unconditionally offers goodness, at a cost to the giver, to another or others in need.”
To further explain, the team added:
“There is a giving of the self to the other(s) that is: a) understood, b) motivated c) willed, and d) acted upon toward other people in such a way that the actions cost the one expressing that love. Because so much is given in agape, it follows that something is taken away from the one who engages in this form of love and such taking away might be needed energy, needed material possessions, needed comfort, and/or even needed safety. Yet, there is a paradox to agape: In the giving, there is psychological gain for the giver, including a sense of joy in the giving.”
That definition was the key element in the research team’s initial report called “The Philosophy and Social Science of Agape Love.” It was published this month in the latest issue of the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, a quarterly publication of the American Psychological Association (APA).
In addition to examining the true meaning of agape love, the research report explores the characteristics of a moral virtue and delineates both the commonalities and significant differences between agape and other forms of love. It also provides an in-depth critique of existing social scientific love scales in preparation for a phase-two activity that will result in the development of a specific psychological agape love scale that is statistically reliable and valid and that has cross-cultural validity.
“Agape love is worth studying because, as a moral virtue, it challenges people to strive for betterment in their humanity,” the report concludes. “Agape requires heroic commitment to the betterment of others. As such, agape may aid humanity in reaching its highest level when people begin to deliberately, consciously, and willingly cultivate this moral virtue.”
The content of the agape and forgiveness curriculum across the three world zones will be described by the teachers themselves during the International Educational Conference on Agape Love and Forgiveness being held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus on July 19-20, 2022. Additional information about agape love and the conference is available at the Agape Love and Forgiveness website.
Do you think forgiveness could be set aside for the vast majority of people if most never reacted with unhealthy anger or resentment?
Forgiving others is not done exclusively because it has excellent psychological benefits, shown by research. Forgiving others also is good in and of itself because it is a moral virtue (as are justice and kindness and respect). Showing goodness as the goal of forgiving (rather than deriving a psychological benefit) is sufficient for forgiveness to be a part of your and others’ life. To address your point directly, as we both know, reacting to injustices only with temperate, short-term (not unhealthy) anger is not likely as part of the human condition. Thus, the need for forgiveness, for psychological reasons, will continue to be alive and well on this earth.
In your process of forgiveness (page 2 of Forgiveness Is a Choice), you say that forgetting what happened to the forgiver is unhealthy. Yet, it seems to me that, once a person forgives, it is healthy to move on and just “forget about it.” Would you please clarify your position for me?
There are at least two different meanings to the term “to forget.” The first one, which I see as unhealthy, is to suppress the knowledge that the other is a danger to you. It is important to remember that some people are not “on our side.” The second meaning of the term “to forgive” is to move on, as you say. So, you can move on from a situation while you see the humanity in the other (as you choose to forgive). As you see the humanity in the other, it is important to acknowledge the other’s weaknesses if the person still has a pattern of behavior that is hurtful to you.
Forgiveness Is a Choice, Dr. Robert Enright.
I am having difficulty with a former partner. I have forgiven him (he asked me to forgive and I have). I cannot go back to that situation because I really cannot trust him. He keeps telling me that I have not forgiven. If I genuinely have forgiven, he insists, then I would take him back. How should I respond?
With a gentle and forgiving heart, you can discuss with him the difference between what forgiveness is (a moral virtue in which you are good to those who have been unfair to you) and reconciliation (which is not a moral virtue, but instead is a negotiation strategy in which two or more people come together again in mutual trust). Again, with gentleness, you can point out that your trust has been deeply hurt by his actions and so you can offer forgiveness, but not reconciliation. If he does not accept this or says anything hurtful to you about this, then this is another situation in which you can forgive.