Amo: Volo ut sis

28 Nov 2018

In a letter to Hannah Arendt1, Martin Heidegger claims that Augustine once said, “Amo: volo ut sis” — without citation, of course. This leaves us to fend for ourselves in the vast world of Augustine’s writings. Arendt herself continues this sin, first, in Origins of Totalitarianism2 and, again, although less egregiously, in Life of the Mind3. While both Heidegger and Arendt provide us with translations of their own, we are given nothing in the way of guideposts to the original source. In as much as such delving is important, we could be stumbling around in the dark at length. Yet we can do ourselves a favour by turning to Augustine’s most famous conception of love:

For many things may be done that have a good appearance, and yet proceed not from the root of charity. For thorns also have flowers: some actions truly seem rough, seem savage; howbeit they are done for discipline at the bidding of charity. Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.

“Love, and do what you will”. And so, from Augustine we get the same kind of love of Proverbs 13:24: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” — or Samuel Butler’s more popular articulation: “Then spare the rod and spoil the child”. That Butler had a more indecent meaning in mind has not stopped his version from becoming the standard-bearer for the concept. The sentiment behind this kind of love is that of a crucible, that cares not for the object at hand but what it could be. It is the kind of love that acts upon the loved to better it, as a preparation, of sorts, to help it realize the truest version of itself.

Love not in the man his error, but the man: for the man God made, the error the man himself made. Love that which God made, love not that which the man himself made. When you love that, you take away this: when you esteem that, you amend this. But even if you be severe at any time, let it be because of love, for correction.

There are times where one acts in the best interest of another, despite what may be easier or what either may desire. Even when we find the rod itself to be too extreme, there is something common enough about this notion and it is one that any parent understands: “though I may appear rough or cruel, I am trying to do what is good for you”. This is the love by which the world grows. That which, in recognition of an error, is compelled to act as a corrective. When we do not take the world as it is, but as it could be.

Amo: Volo ut sis is not this. The Latin translates, most directly, to “I love: I will you to be”. Not merely “want” but “will” in that there a sense that my love brings you into being. It is a definition of the concept, but love must always be directed, it requires an object towards which it is aimed. A relation, not an emotion. Which is not to say that love is unfelt, but it is felt in that relation. Arendt (and then Augustine) tells us that, “Love is the soul’s gravity, or the other round: ‘the specific gravity of bodies is, as it were, their love, whether they are carried downwards by their weight, or upwards by their levity. For the body is borne by its gravity, as the spirit by love, whithersoever it is borne.’”.

I love — and the very fact of my love is that I wish for you to be as you are, without response or reciprocation to be fulfilled. That I am pulled towards you without pulling back in kind. Volo ut sis. I love what you are. That you are. Without the need for the lover.

But even the pull helps highlight the tragic sense to it. We are broken, we are messy creatures — and if our love were truly perfect, it would not need to be articulated at all. Amo. I love. Not te amo. Without the object even being needed to be directed at. It simply would be a love that is. So, when we say it — and when we experience the gravity of it — we bring our desire for other into the world. We want to praise and appreciate and maintain the object at which it is directed, but the direction frames it as something that we want. As a possession (or to be possessed by the object of desire, likewise reducing it).

Yet this is still the highest form of love, the greatest affirmation. It was with this love that Augustine’s God willed the human into the world, not as something desired, but as something to be accepted as is. That God is capable of such love is a matter of divinity (and with the advantage of eternity). All we can do with our mortal measure of grace is make the attempt. So we try and we pair our love with a promise. “I will you to be” says “I will you to be as you are, but my very willing reveals that I desire to possess or fulfill rather than simply appreciate — but I wish that I could will you to be. And I wish that I could overcome my imperfections to accept, without conditions, instead of desire.

Amo: Volo ut sis speaks to a love that seeks. That wishes. That tries. It is neither an emotion nor a relation. It is a reminder and a promise. It is a desire not only for the object towards which it is aimed, but also a desire that wishes mastery over itself. To love with a love that is more than love.4

It is through this promise that we arrive at true political life, power with rather than power over: we love the world in which others are possible, not for their particular qualities, but the mere possibility of those qualities being expressed in public. It is a love empty of possession by virtue of the fact that it is independent of what will be revealed in that space of appearances where you become you — and that is only possible by virtue of being together. It is not merely that I want you to be, but my love wills you into being because you appear as you in this space that is politics.

I love. Through my love, I will you, as an individual completely apart and distinct from me, into being. By the sign of my love, I bring you into being — and you me. The possibility of that can only ever be promised, not held. So I love and I promise and together we make the world. Amo: Volo ut sis.

  1. “Thank you for your letters - for how you have accepted me into your love - beloved. Do you know that this is the most difficult thing a human is given to endure? For anything else, there are methods, aids, limits, and understanding - here alone everything means: to be in one’s love = to be forced into one’s innermost existence. Amo means volo, ut sis, Augustine once said: I love you - I want you to be what you are.” -Letters, 1925-1975 

  2. “This mere existence, that is, all that which is mysteriously given us by birth and which includes the shape of our bodies and the talents of our minds, can be adequately dealt with only by the unpredictable hazards of friendship and sympathy, or by the great and incalculable grace of love, which says with Augustine, “Volo ut sis (I want you to be),” without being able to give any particular reason for such supreme and unsurpassable affirmation.” -The Origins of Totalitarianism - Chapter IX: The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man 

  3. “What is saved, moreover, in this transformation of his earlier conception is the Will’s power of assertion and denial; there is no greater assertion of something or somebody than to love it, that is, to say: I will that you be—Amo: Volo ut sis.” -The Life of the Mind - Part 2, Chapter 2: Augustine, the First Philosopher of the Will. 

  4. I was a child and she was a child, / In this kingdom by the sea, / But we loved with a love that was more than love— / I and my Annabel Lee—.” -Edgar Allen Poe, “Annabel Lee”