in the bookstore

Sociology of Love.
The Agapic Dimension of Societal Life.
by Gennaro Iorio (Author)

Social Sciences in dialogue
World Love Index
SOCIAL-ONE is an international group of sociologists and social work scholars...

Seven Propositions on the Homo Agapicus:

a reaserch project for social scences

Michele Colasanto e Gennaro IorioMichele Colasanto and Gennaro Iorio

1 Introduction

In this brief and clearly not all-inclusive talk, our aim is to introduce a reflection on agapic (modelled on agape) behaviour, with the end goal of questioning ourselves, to encourage further research and found activities by a scientific community on this topic. What we propose is only the beginning of a work in progress, that in this session attempts to offer elements for a definition of the concept from the theoretical point of view and to discern at least a few of its characteristic dimensions. To such an end, we propose to discuss a few propositions on Agape. A reflection on the level of empirical operationalization should be added to this work, on the capacity of interpretation of historical facts and the sphere of use of the agape paradigm, but which will not be present in this session.  Starting from the observation that in empirical reality multiple forms of social behaviour co-exist, which sociological literature has many times highlighted through their typology, we will try in this work to define a few traits of the  Homo Agapicus, that is, of the behaviour of an Ego whose sense is characterized by the attitude of self-giving unconditionally toward the Alter and by the seeking of the good and the happiness of the latter, independently from the will and/or the effective restitution of the counter-gift. We will begin from a critical review, brief and not all-inclusive, on the theme of love restricted to the sociological sphere, to then concentrate more specifically on the task that we have set for ourselves.

2 The approach to the theme of Agape

The departure point for our thinking on the Homo Agapicus is the assumption according to which social relationships built among people respond to different modalities and frames of logic. 
Many studies highlight how social action can be characterized by a number of empirical typologies. In addition to the well-known theory by Weber (1864-1929), that specifies and defines a rational behaviour in respect to the goal, in respect to the value and tradition, important studies have been presented on the topic of subjectivity, which in order to exemplify the type of action, refer to a particular type of human being. They underscore how subjectivity is shown under multiple empirical expressions, responding to differentiated logics of action. Following such a framework, we intend to pursue our theoretical course, or rather, beside the gallery of typologies of the subject displayed for us in the existing literature; we propose the theoretical objective to define a few basic traits of the Homo Agapicus, that is, of a person who grounds his/her actions and his/her relationships in Agape.

A second premise, this time of methodology, was very well expressed in the conference of 1918 by Weber in Science as a Profession. The scientific profession is characterized by the assumption of a healthy attitude of scepticism in the face of reality, which allows for a disenchanted analysis of agapic behaviours of social agents. In fact, we do not presume to propose ourselves as “prophets” or “redemptors.” However, as with Weber, we too are aware of the limits of our knowledge, that is, that: “No science is absolutely free of presuppositions and no science can establish its basic worth for those who refute such presuppositions” (Weber, 1984, pp.39-43).

In this sense, we can observe how in the history of social sciences certain presuppositions did in fact exclude forms of social behaviours based on agape from empirical research. In this respect, Arendt (1906-1975) noted in regards to one of the social sciences:  “It is a characteristic of our political tradition (for reasons that we cannot expound here) to always have been extremely selective to the point of excluding, from its system of concepts, many authentic political experiences, among which we would not be surprised to find some which are truly important. Certain aspects of the doctrine of Jesus, which are not essentially linked to the Christian message and that, rather, originated from the life of the very close-knit community of the disciples, inclined to challenge the civil authorities of Israel, are for sure counted among these experiences, even if they were forgotten for reason of their natural exclusively religious expectations” (Arendt, 1994, pp. 304-5).

Science’s progress along the paths of knowledge proceeds through the illumination of parts of reality, but it also concurrently commits a multiple number of acts of omission, or of obstruction of other aspects of reality.

Nietzsche (1844-1900), connects this extrapolation of elements of reality from the whole to the tragedy of modernity and he indicates to us the challenge that we are called to face.  Zarathushtra (Zoroaster – in Greek), the protagonists of the famous philosophical romance, was surrounded by a throng of lame people, of disabled persons and beggars who asked him for healing, but he responded in an unexpected manner. His experience taught him that the worst thing that could happen to a person is not to be missing an ear or an eye, but to break up the human person into pieces and to choose one piece of him/her, one sole part, and to enlarge it “ideologically” to the point that it becomes everything. This is violence because if one part, which in itself is real, purports to be everything, it must step beyond its field, occupy all the space and, therefore, eliminate the other dimensions that are just as human  (Nietzsche, 1986, p.169).

The non-acceptance of the limits of scientific knowledge, its hiding and removal, gave life to a series of attempts founded on the “logic of the power” of science and of sociology in particular, which often led it to non-fruitful conclusions, from the perspective of the depth of knowledge and, in some cases, to some tragic historical experiences (that is, to extrapolate a part and to make it become the everything of reality). But critical sociologists, especially of the sociology of knowledge, were aware of this partiality of the science, constrained by presuppositions which limited its field of research.
Our objective, in the limits of the work that we have set for ourselves, is to contribute to enlarge the field of research of social sciences by taking agape as our object, often retained as being unworthy of analysis and inquiry.

3 The re-discovery of love in social action

Sociology recently re-discovered the concept of love, even though still investigated in its restricted meaning; the dimension of eros and within the sphere of a couple’s life.  In ascertaining this subject, we can encounter a few principle stances: the historical and at times diagnostic one of Elias (1897-1977), Giddens (1938-), Beck (1944-) and Bauman (1925-), the one focused on sex as the exemplary case of interactive ritual by Randall Collins (1941-), and the one directed at analysing the processes of the commercialization of love by Arlie R. Hochschild (1940-), typical of a modernity characterized by calculation and quantification.

But there are also other analysis on love, both of the usual forerunner Simmel (1858-1918), from whom we will draw some points that we will present, as well as the research by Foucault (1926-1984) on sexuality as a form of experience and historical purview through which individuals were  inducted to get to know each other as desirous subjects, rather than discovering in desire the truth of  their being, first of all through a hermeneutical practice, then through the knowledge of a discipline such as bio-medicine and psychopathology (1978).

It is worthwhile mentioning during this session also the work of Luhmann (1927-1998), for whom love corresponds to a peculiar communicative code. The communicative convergence is by definition problematic, since in the world there are contingencies in the way a message emitted by the Ego can be perceived by the Alter. Given this ‘excess’ of possible meanings attributable to such an act, what guarantees the semantic convergence? It is here that Luhmann introduces the concept of code or symbolic medium, whose function is to increase the disposition in the speakers to accept what is being said, selectively restricting the excess number of possible alternatives. Among these codes is love, in virtue of which the probability of a message advanced by the Ego (as a request, prayer, offering, silence…) being accepted by the Alter will be higher than the probability that it will be refused. Love operates by convincing the Alter of the goodness of the Ego’s message (1987).

Giddens, instead, in his La trasformazione dell’intimità (1995) reconstructs the passage from a matrimony that is arranged on the basis of economic factors  (therefore a union not linked to mutual attraction, but a family affair to perpetuate the family lineage and the conservation of the family patrimony) to the birth of romantic love. The ideals of romantic love, diffused through the first mass literary genre, the romance, in its meaning of courtship and in its recounting of an ‘amorous’ relationship as a ‘story,’  represents one of the factors that have liberated the matrimonial union from relationships of convenience. From the unchangeable parental system that was passed down through generations, a way was born to establish bonds based on intimacy and sexuality. Romantic love, so to say, takes the place of possessions and income level in choosing a partner. Husband and wife begin to appear as shareholders in a common sentimental enterprise, which takes precedence even over work duties and towards one’s children. The home becomes an environment separate from work and, in contrast to the exploitive nature of the latter, it coincides with the affective space in one’s life. 

According to Elias (1988), beyond this superficial emancipation, in the course of the process of civilization, intimacy becomes gradually confined to the private sphere in as much as it has become a behind-the-scenes activity. The bedroom, carefully hidden off, becomes the place of licit intimacy, while in public is cause for embarrassment and shame. Ever since humanity is no longer threatened with extinction, the eros has separated from its biological justification and, as such, will construct a key element for the constitution and the continuation of conjugal relationships, to then come to our day in which we can observe a further separation between conjugality and sexuality.

To this regard, Giddens defines the concept of ‘converging love,’ or rather he presupposes the end of the romantic ethos that implicates a strong asymmetry in the couple and a domestic subjection of women.   What seems to emerge today is the possibility of a ‘pure relationship,’ characterized by the sentimental, emotional and sexual equality between two partners, which will result negotiable and worthy of being continued only if it benefits both partners, that is, if both feel that it is emotionally gratifying to them. Our current “divorcing society” would be its demonstration and also its consequence, when it doesn’t break out in outright violence as many increases in official statistics stand to show (Giddens, op cit., p. 59 e ss.).

It is on this very last possibility, that is, to cut off the relationship in whatever moment, that the critical reflection by Bauman (2004) hinges. In a fluid-modern society, in which identities and lifestyles have to be constantly re-invented, much like careers, also emotional ties become flexible.  According to Bauman, even though we are anxious to establish relationships, we will be fearful of being stuck in stable relationships. We compensate for such an anxiety by reverting to the principle of consumerist whims: one cannot build a relationship, but we are freed from our desires. A symptom of this attitude is the need to be perennially connected to a crowd of individuals. The language of connectivity is progressively taking the place of that regarding relationships. And every connection is by definition temporary and thus, replaceable; to become disconnected is in fact a choice that is just as legitimate. From Bauman’s point of view, there is nothing lasting, except the rapid pace of change: this rhythm would be what redeems.  Certainly in late-modern society, due to geographic mobility, both work and family-related, the social circles to which we belong are multiple and diverse, and our identity, just as the social relations we build, are not inscribed into a forced destiny.

From this synthetic and, for obvious reasons, incomplete review, we can deduce first of all that the theme of love has become the object of study in recent sociological work, while it was rarely so in the reflections of the classics and those who immediately followed, if not for some exceptions such as Simmel, Elias and Sorokin (1889-1968). Finally, it is important to note how the sources, the empirical references in the majority of the studies cited, with the exception of Elias, such as those of Giddens, Luhmann, Beck or Hoecschild, lost track of the sense of real people. In fact, they refer to stories, romances and questions from readers and experts of daily news, as well as Internet announcements. The people, their actions, the meaning given to actions and observation, all disappear in a course that makes an abstraction of the representations of love: persons are substituted by characters.

However, we have to note that love as an object of analysis is always more rooted, on one hand, in the private sphere of people, loosing its social meanings and assuming only an indirect and secondary importance, and on the other, is largely understood in the sense of eros, in a couple as affectivity and emotionality. But if on one hand we observe this new relevance of love as eros that at times hesitantly verges on the sense of love as philia and is generally silent on that of agape.
There are other authors, instead, that have considered love as a force capable of generated social bonds, of transforming or reviving human relationships. It is a love that is rooted in the public actions of persons, that pervades the coexistence of individuals, societal groups and communities, that is, agapic behaviour.

4 The concept of Agape

4.1 The states of peace of L. Boltanski

The starting point for our reflection on agape is the work of Boltanski (1940-). He gathers and defines the different “spheres of action” that he subdivides into the “sphere of dispute” and the “sphere of peace.” Boltanski highlights how there are different contexts of behaviour, each of which has elaborated its own procedures of justification, therefore, its own rules and competences through which the meaning of an action and its very identification is constructed, by the agent and by the recipient of the action. This theoretical element allows us to have a “lay” approach to agape, viewing it as a possible type of social interaction that, on one hand, does not exhaust the wealth of actions that can be carried out and the social types, but on the other, it is not prematurely excluded as behaviour that is ideologically oriented and impracticable. Thus, from the logical-theoretical point of view, agape is a behaviour that stands with dignity alongside other possibilities of behaviour (exploitive, expressive, functional, value-driven, etc.). Rather, perhaps it can traverse the individual subjects in the different moments of their life and, up to date, the exclusion of the theoretical analysis has surely been a tragic operation (in the aforementioned sense), of which sociology has taken ownership (2005).

In its internal striving to re-found a “moral sociology” of a Durkheimian stamp (the analysis of social behaviour starting from the ideal reasons of the subjects), Boltanski highlights that in differentiated contexts the practices of justifications of the actions put a central focus on the subject, too often squelched by the dimensions of the social structure. This is one of the general theoretical objectives of the work of Boltanski: to re-evaluate the dimension of the subject in respect to the structure, objectives which were privileged by his teacher Bourdieu (1930-2002).

In the ‘state of peace’ persons renounce to utilitarian behaviour based on exchange and they act by giving more than what the situation calls for in that moment.  To analytically delineate that state of peace, Boltanski reasons on the three forms of social bonds built on love, as they are traditionally described: the theory of Aristotelian love (philia), of Platonic love (eros), and that of Christian love (agape). The latter has been characterized by:

1) ‘renouncement and the rendering equal’: because of the annulment of the use of any measuring stick able to calculate what has been given and what has been received; each one is part of the social relationship as irreplaceable, unique and singular; 

2) ‘Neglect of the past and of the future’: agape is centered on the present moment; the only anchoring point to act without considering what happened yesterday or could happen in the future. Everything is oblivion and ignorance and, given this, its temporal horizon has no limits. Such a dimension prefigures the third characteristic;

3) ‘Absence of anticipation in the interaction’: the person in the state of agape is silent, he/she sets aside every judgement on his/her interlocutor and does not anticipate any action or conjecture, because he/she is entirely projected in the present moment; 

4) ‘Silence of all desires’: because agape acts by keeping track of others’ needs, giving gratuitously;

5) ‘Practical action and realization’: agape is first of all social behaviour and praxis. It is not a sentiment, a spiritual state or an intention. It is directed to persons in what they concretely and singularly possess: ‘Agape,’ writes Boltanski, ‘is activated only if aroused by the presence of single individuals; but the people it is directed to are the ones it encounters on its journey and with whom it exchanges glances.’ (p.75).

On this point, however, it is important to add that the behaviour should be understood according to Weber’s thinking, that is, an attitude that besides doing something practical, in favour of the Alter, contains also a ‘not doing,’ a ‘letting go,’ or even more, a ‘to suffer’ (Weber, 1999, p.4).

This affirmation by Boltanski is, in our view, an important analytical reflection of the concept we are examining and its aforementioned characteristics are no doubt of great value for the empirical analysis of the homo agapicus.  Correlated to this level of shared analysis, there are other less convincing aspects. Agape, for Boltanski, cannot be transformed into a project, it cannot be placed as the objective of an action that is intentionally aimed at weaving relations of love and, therefore, of producing adequate institutional forms: For this reason, agape cannot be used for: 1) a discourse; 2) a theory; 3) a project:  3.1) personal ends, 3.2) social ends.

According to Boltanski, this is impossible because the use of the language would presuppose that, in fact, the authors would have stepped out of agape and therefore would have distanced themselves sufficiently to make it possible to consider, weigh and describe the relationship of love externally to it. Such a negation, even if acceptable in the sense that agape does not speak of itself, in that it is not self-referenced and does not need justification, nevertheless, it could be criticized on three counts;    they could be summed up, on the one hand, by the exclusion of the reflective dimension of agape by Boltanski and, on the other, by the absence of any reference to social context and  the generating of a new one.

Margaret Archer so begins a wonderful book on how social behaviour is born, indicating in the ‘inner conversation’ its propulsive force: “If we were not reflective, as human beings, nothing similar to society could exist. Whatever form of social interaction, from the dyad to the global system, presupposes that the subjects know, so to say, that they are themselves. If it were not like this, they could not recognize as their own the words they say, nor could they recognize the ‘paternity’ of their own intentions, initiatives and reactions” (Archer, 2006, p.77).

a) Boltanski in his work  L’Amour et la Justice comme compétences (1990), from which was extracted Stati di pace, tries to distance himself from interpretive schemes that are too structural, typical of his teacher Bourdieu, as we have already highlighted. To pursue such an objective, he adopted elements of the philosophy of language in his analytical scheme to signal the autonomy of the subject from the social structure. In particular, he takes into serious consideration the analysis of the rules of definition of the competences and procedures of justification of the social actions that occur with the very use of the language. In the state of peace, instead, the characteristics of agape induce the subjects to rid themselves of the word, in contrast to its very initial intentions. In behaviour founded on love for others, that element of the typical subjectivity of the person would not be present.

In fact, while not emphasizing the language and its self-referencing nature in the social construction of reality, Wittgenstein (1889-1951) showed how the word is integral to the social reality and as a lived experience; if it is not said, perhaps it does not even exist. Such an intuition is successively taken up again by Habermas (1929-) in his Teoria dell’agire comunicativo (1981) to criticize, on one hand, the reductionism in which Marxist structuralism falls into, and on the other, to underline how the life of persons is characterized by language that allows society to reproduce itself through the mutual understanding of the subjects that live in it.

Therefore, the language and the experience derived from the praxis of the conscious subject, then shared with its interlocutors, is the principal mechanism of societal reproduction and generally, therefore, also of agapic behaviour. At the same time, language allows persons to manifest their reflective and subjective natures which otherwise, as in the case of Boltanski, would be negated, with alienating and bureaucratic effects for the life of the subjects and their interactions. 

b) Boltanski speaks of agape directed by a more general objective which regards the re-foundation of a moral sociology; that is, of behaviour motivated by one’s own ideals. How is it possible to pursue such an objective without considering a general reflective dimension of the person and his/her ideal motivations? That is, the characteristic dimensions of a person, such as his/her affectivity, will, cognitive ability, which regard his/her actions, the social context, his/her interlocutors, etc.? The constructive dimension should therefore be introduced into the scheme offered by Boltanski on agapic behaviour. One example of this is the life of Francis of Assisi, who Boltanski names as a typical example and a documented source of agape. Francis suffered for, reflected on and practiced an asceticism to live agape in relationship with others, the world and in himself.  Paradoxically, then Boltanski makes reference to the rule of Saint Francis to indicate historical cases, precisely as he theorizes that reflecting on love makes us step out of love itself: but scripture is distant from one’s behaviour even more than from the spoken word.

c) Agape is all concentrated in the present moment, but in certain aspects every significant social action has this characteristic. Schutz (1899-1959) sustained the thesis by which I could not ‘affirm with my thinking my action while I carry it out, but I can exclusively grasp the act I accomplished (my past behaviour):… to understand my behaviour I must stop and think…’(Schutz, 1979, p. 188). Therefore, behaviour is inevitably linked to a reflective dimension of the person, and therefore to its negation. For this reason, the reflective dimension of agapic behaviour, as for any other human behaviour, is essential and does not negate its peculiarity.

In the end, paradoxically, in a hypothetical world in which everyone acts according to an agapic logic, the hypothesis of Boltanski is more similar to a world of nomads, of incommunicable robots, in which social relationships and interactions have been abolished. Only the action remains, which is not social, because it lacks the dimension that gives it meaning. Boltanski states: ‘Equilibrium can be reached only by letting-do, which excludes even one’s own theorizing. In fact ... agape is not an interactive model’ (p.141). In the ‘state of peace’ social behaviour is excluded because the intentionality that gives meaning to it is missing, the social relationship is missing because each one lives forgetful of the past and the future, deaf and indifferent to the actions of others, but involved only in giving. The social interaction is missing because this type of behaviour throws out any reference to a context in which the action is carried out: this is neglectful! And yet, the only historical source used by Boltanski, Saint Francis, was aware of the times he lived in, he proposed to reform the Church, he met with Saint Clare, he responded to ‘God’s call,’ he questioned himself so as to deepen the spiritual dimension of his life, etc.

In conclusion, we can say that Boltanski is a notable author who opened up a new field of research, that of agapic behaviour. According our intentions, however, the research should begin right where he stopped investigating: on discoursing, theorizing and projecting, for oneself and for society. We would recover a history that risks losing sight of the subject, the concrete person in all of his/her constitutive dimensions.

5 A few prepositions on Homo Agapicus

After having discerned the typical traits of agapic behaviour ( renouncement and rendering equal, the present moment, praxis, language) and its limits in Boltanski’s formulation, let’s proceed to delineate some other dimensions of the concept that we propose to discuss, in forms of scientific propositions to pose for empirical verification.

Proposition 1: Agape as the primary motivation for the action

An initial track is suggested to us by the timeless Simmel: behaviour oriented by love as the primary motivating force is foreign to the contrast between egotistical action and altruistic action. This is the intuition that he proposes in  Frammento sull’amore (2001), published posthumously and that represents the last phase of Simmel’s thinking, characterized at once by an existential and social reflection.

Simmel highlighted how egoism and altruism are not the two extremes of the continuum of human motivation because agape cannot be reduced to either of the two extremes. It is possible that social action out of love be independent from that alternative. It abolishes every distance between the I and the you. In Simmel’s words, the specific peculiarity of love regards the fact that it ‘.. does not eliminate per se the being of the I nor that of the you, in fact, it makes it the presupposition on the basis of which the elimination of the distance is accomplished’ (p.161).

In this interpretation we re-find a more general piece of analysis by Simmel that regards a series of questions that have to do with the charter of sociology, which a century ago was expressed with the question  ‘how is society possible?’.
His answer was that society is at once a unity among being products of society, being its members and the intimacy of subjects. Empirical society takes shape from the combination of these three elements. The being per se and the social being form a togetherness, the person in his/her totality, that cannot do without depending on these three elements for his/her very existence. Rather, they play out in different ways, according to the forms the relationships he/she establishes assume  (for example, different is the encounter between client and bank employee, two friends and two people in love) The three dimensions, the being per se, being member and the “something more” of every person defines the field of action of each one, in which one contemporaneously experiences the dimension of being creator of and being created by society, of being son and father, but also something more (society transformed). All of this is the empirical society that can therefore be the object of observation (Simmel, 1989, pp.32-36).

Proposition 2: Agape as interpenetration of the subjects creates emerging properties of society, that is: its social institutionalization

What happens when this society is produced by intimacy and members that act by putting agape at the basis of their actions?
Niklas Luhmann, even though in a context of love such as eros, elaborated the concept, particularly useful in this session, of a system of interpenetration to highlight the social content that is created by behaviour that is the product of two subjects who freely deliberate to live each for the other. Love in this case is a relationship of mutual penetration in the life of the Alter and Ego, which is at the basis of behaving and carrying out an action. Each one, in the moment they turn to the world of the other, changes him/herself. In fact, every subject transforms itself and becomes part of its object. In addition, the ‘object’ does not remain static, but assumes the action in itself, accepting to change in turn. Such mechanisms, even though analytically separated, occur contemporaneously empirically:   ‘Self-reproduction and hetero-reproduction remain, according to systemic contexts, separated and are yet accomplished uno actu’ (Luhmann, 1987, p.234).

Love then is a primary action and irreducible because with its action it determines its own object and creates it as a particular object that before its love did not exist. But at the same time, the person who loves is different from who he/she was before, that is, before he/she began acting out of love. In this sense, one can understand the unity of agapic behaviour, because love in the moment that it is lived with each person recreates the subject and the object at the same time: ‘From what I can see, there is no other sentiment in which the absoluteness of its object, in which the terminus a quo is the terminus ad quem, even in their insurmountable differences, unite so unconditionally in a current that no point is nourished by an intermediary body (Simmel, 2001, pp. 169-170).

So agapic behaviour of persons produces a reality sui generis (unique in kind), a unity between subjects that in the reciprocal agapic action brings about a generative and proper society, one that Boltanski would call the state of peace, but that in the dynamic here described is different, in that the subjects are not strangers to each other, they do not stop being self-reflective, they do not neglect to use their own faculties to live the other, but they are its presupposition.

All the same, to express the social reality that is created, it seems to us more heuristically meaningful to use the concept of emerging property of Archer, that is, the fact that each dimension is able to self-produce its own characteristics and capacities ‘The emerging properties can regard entities of different natures. Emerging properties like capital, rental laws, inflation or the education system, for example, all have to do with the sphere of the social structure, since they essentially depend on concrete components. To emerging properties also belongs Buddhism, neo-liberalism... which are part of the cultural sphere’ (p.178). Agapic behaviour, by being at the crossroads of intimacy, being members and products of society, constitutes the structure and social agency and, therefore, is own social reality.  

Proposition 3: Agape and the tragedy inherent in its action and realization

But in order for love to assure the interpenetration of lives, in a context of personal freedom that produces emerging properties, it must contain within it a tragic aspect. Simmel once again indicates this suggestion to us. Agapic behaviour is founded on the contradiction between the sentiment of loving the other, with the goal of building a society that is interpenetrated, and embracing the other to the point of fusing and ‘losing’ oneself with him/her. But right in this moment, agape in generating the other from oneself (in loving him/her) accomplishes an act of creation which is foreign or even opposed to the reality of the one that generated him/her (the reality of non-love). The tragic aspect of love, besides, lies right in its law, which is accomplished in generating the other from oneself, that which is foreign to oneself or directly opposed, especially in relationship to the world in which oftentimes one finds no space, but from which one has all the same drawn strength for his/her birth and his/her survival.

The martyrs of love were often accused by the world of belonging to apostasy, of unfaithfulness and blasphemy, because their love is universal and not particular.   The particular world to which they belonged constituted ‘orthodox committees’ which in the course of history condemned the witnesses of agape in the name of the principles that those martyrs defended. Agape was destined to become a ‘subversive enemy’ and to be persecuted by those who love their own particular world  (Sorokin, 2005): Socrates (469 BC - 399 BC) was condemned to death by the patriotic tribal Athenians; Jesus was crucified by the patriotic tribal Jews; the Muslim prophet  Al Hallaj (850-922) was burned by patriotic Muslims;  Gandhi (1868-1948) was shot by orthodox Hindus for his non-violent actions; Isaac Rabin (1922-1995) was a martyr of peace for having held out his hand to the Palestinians.

Proposition 4: Agape transcends the life and action of he who produces it 

In addition to these frequent cases of heroism, agape produces a reality that transcends the life  that produced it, that is, it creates a reality that is different from the preceding one in which both the Alter and the Ego had emerged, before acting out of love for the other. The destiny of agapic behaviour is to tear down the bridges behind it, which it built for its journey, recognizing in this very break its most intimate need.

Peter Berger (1929-) in his Homo Ridens (another type that was added) described some sociological traits of transcendence that we can use for our concept of love. Agape transcends the reality of everyday existence because it postulates, even if temporarily and along with other modalities of action, a different reality in which the common principles and norms of life are suspended.  This too is an aspect of sociological transcendence, certainly with a minor tone in respect to the philosophical and theological questions on the subject. And yet, some manifestations of agapic behaviour of this ‘other’ reality has redemptive virtues that are not at all temporary but remind one of the ‘other world’ that is always possible. In the case of Homo Ridens, for example, mention is made of the ‘liberating laugh.’ Berger, in order to explain such a transcendence of the comic, in referring to Alfred Schutz, highlights how it breaks forth in the awareness of daily reality, which we share and thus imposes itself as real. Daily living is a burdensome reality, irresistible, that imposes itself. The funny side of it is subtle, at times shared and at times not. It is a ‘limited sphere of meaning,’ that is, it is like an island in the ocean of daily experience. There are a whole series of experiences similar to islands of the type: the world of dreams, theoretical reflection, an experience of beauty, of physical suffering, of an ecstatic experience, etc. All these islands of meaning have common characteristics: they have categories of distinct space and time, they have different aspects of reality, experiences of stepping in and back out of their confines, etc. (Berger, 1999, pp.293-308).

Agape leads us to the transcendence of daily reality, because it is not routine, it is not a typified behaviour: on the contrary, the subject is always ready to take off towards new horizons, new experiences that those who pass by him/her may ask, and he/she follows them up to where these other persons may lead. 

Proposition 5: Agape as free behaviour breaks every rule, with all juridical formulas 

In this sense agape annuls the law. Kierkegaard (1813-1855), in fact, in his reflection on acts of love, highlights how the ‘need’ substitutes the ‘carrying out’ (Kierkegaard, 1983, pp.90-94). In fact, the law by its nature needs to be continually specified, interpreted and to have applicable mediations, because it is a recall to always new needs. Instead, love with its action and foundation does not generate disputes, but generates authority through its acts.  By freeing itself from any formalities, of the intentionality of judgement towards others, it is freed from any possibility of disagreements. Agape has a law that is interiorized and its validity is founded on the intentionality of loving and does not prescribe anything for others. This is why it does not seek to win the situation, it does not vaunt its recognition by the public or peoples, thus liberating the subject from the anguish that the other has to pay back all that he/she has received. This is why Agape is rooted in minimal gestures, in the most apparently insignificant acts, but is not less efficacious in building up society because of this: for example, to go and buy the milk in place of a younger sister who does not want to go out while it’s stormy. 

Proposition 6: Agape is rooted in daily life, its privileged seat

At the same time, agape is rooted in the daily life of each person and is its privileged place. Daily life, as defined by Gouldner (1997), contains in itself the idea that society is the product of the small collective realities of human existence. It produces social change starting from the subjects, refusing the idea that transformation is only exclusively brought about by leaders. The heroic culture, in fact, founding itself on the proof of its value, denies the recognition of the dignity of others: ‘daily life is a counter concept, which represents a criticism of a certain type of life, the heroic one in particular, aimed at fulfilling a life centered on a series of trials. Daily life affirmed itself as real in contrast to the heroic one and gave reason for its crisis’ (pp.39-40).

Instead agape, by rooting itself in daily living, freed one from the anguish of having to prove one’s heroism and, therefore, from desperation in expecting that the other does just as much. Anguish and desperation, the pain of living, are foreign to agape because the decision to love is not founded on the expectation of reciprocity, or the expectation of receiving something back from the other, or on the judgement that his/her behaviour may bring on. Acting out of love, notes Kierkegaard, does not depend on the love of the other, his/her interiority does not demand compensation (Ibid., p.120).      

Proposition 7: Agape as third, the way to building human institutions

In the end, this is the challenge implicit in the ambivalent (also ambiguous) denouncement present in the late-modern reflection, post-modern or of radical modernity, to use Gidden’s words.  
On one hand, this reflectivity appears to us like a realization of the dissolution of the subject, as well as the social bonds that he/she directly builds.

On the other hand, responsibility, respect, awareness of our common destiny, the recognition of the Other, are all indicative of an urgent need to (re)affirm the distinctive nature of the human in and of the social relationship.
A social relationship that cannot be abandoned to a socio-cultural order, notes Pier Paolo Donati, in which the institutions of society no longer direct one except to the idea that the person is an individual otherwise always possible.  
The disastrous polarity between individualism (methodological) and holism (especially in its positivist meanings, Parsons) or ultra-socializing (from Durkheim on) finally brought the death both of the individual (drowned in a narcissistic nihilism) and of society (conceived as a system of relationships with subjects – i.e. persons).

The alternative, to go back to Donati, is a “society no longer built on institutions that conclude in functional imperatives, but of a super-functional nature where its propium (that is, property and specific powers, because original and originating), allow it to express the generative capacity of human persons that tend to make a differentiated society emerge which responds to their needs, aspirations, fundamental concerns, that they hold deep inside.”

The problem that is posed, it is clear, is the journey made from interpersonal relationships to their constitutionalization within an institutional dimension, capable of characterizing in the name of the human person the complex norms that it expresses.
In this sense, an interesting itinerary is that proposed by Luigino Bruni (La ferita dell’Altro) that goes from the Aristotelian paradox of the need for the other and, at once, of the suffering that this very need risks producing in I who seeks a you.
In modernity this paradox has found partial but significant solutions in the market (as a place of freedom), the contract (as a place of equality), in the state not only in a Leviathan sense, able to dominate over conflict, or rather regulating in terms of social control, but also, positively, as a place of destination of the vital worlds that give meaning and, therefore, of values like solidarity.

But we are well aware of the deterioration that has marked these points of mediation (third ?) for both interpersonal, but above all social and political relationships.

The market risks colonizing, commercializing (as Habermas had predicted) these very vital worlds, the contract does not make it to reduce inequalities. In fact, today it risks reproducing them by increasing them: the state, delegitimized by the many factors explored by a powerless literature, does not know how to translate into shared values what on the other hand the very system of the commercialized vital worlds now struggles to reproduce into terms of gratuity and reciprocity. The Aristotelian paradox mentioned above appears irreducible and the “wounds of the other” incapable of healing.
The defining and normative capacity of homo agapicus, even though convincing for what is empirically evident in his interpersonal relationships, does not seem to find a correspondence in his way of being and functioning in society, to the point of provoking fear that his presence will be reduced to mere witness.

But the agapic paradigm can perhaps be sought otherwise, in fact, it can be, at least hypothetically, assumed (this is what in the end Sorokin did in his book “The power of Love,” already fore-mentioned) as a new “third,” or if one wants, a cause for social institutions where one can imagine a re-composition able to go beyond the market, the contract and the state, without necessarily negating their existence, but rather contextualizing them in a different and cogent cultural and normative framework.

On the other hand, the construction of this framework is the object of that reflectivity displayed by the social sciences (beyond every attempt of qualifying, for example, between post-neo modernity) that has as protagonists authors such as Archer and Donati, to which we credit one of today’s most successful attempts to come up with a systemic approach to the posed problem. 

Another way (not necessarily alternative) can be that of discerning traces of agape as they are expressed in social processes and to re-read, with the ambition to verify correspondences and connections in respect to their constituting themselves as social institutions capable at least of expressing themselves in terms of  nearness to the person).
Institutions of this type are present in the directives of community building that, as well known, has for some time characterized the debate in social sciences, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, just as the same neo-institutionalism can be assumed as an attempt to confer transversally to civil society, but also to the world of economy and politics, characteristics deriving from a common responsibility towards the common good.

With major historical-social density, the civil economy of Stefano Zamagni and the third sector of Pier Paolo Donati want to witness that:

a) The capacity of a way of being of the market that belongs to a “long period” grounded in the  homo civicus of the early humanism and that is capable of efficiency in the age of relational goods, besides the traditional ones presupposed by the economic order;

b) A way of being of society that pretends to be itself third but in respect to the pervasiveness of agape, not in respect to the market and the state, not therefore marginally, a colony that lives in its own space, reclusive and protected, deprived of propulsive forces.

The social responsibilities of a business, if not solely aimed at saving its reputation, become criteria for business management itself, making them places that support the common good.
More prophetically, but not destined to remain alone because of this, is the economy of communion, which constitutes itself as an experience of  productive nature that intentionally wants to be at the service of the human person.  
The widespread system of microcredit, which does not come by chance from the poorest regions of the world and in which we are discovering an unexpected efficaciousness and efficiency, leads to a noble attempt, perhaps more circumscribed and voluntary, to reconstruct the reasons for international exchange through fair trade markets of solidarity.  
In addition, it is a matter of experiences, especially those linked to credit, that are found in Europe in ethical banks and in the credit unions present in Northern Europe.

The down trend of markets, an inverse reading of the “natural” dynamic of economic laws; the radical criticism by Amartya Sen of the fundamental notions of the GDP and income; the role of human capital in its re-interpretation in terms of capacity, are other attempts to redefine the economic, social and political institutions through their humanization.
These signals together, at times weak but some decisively strong, are not  the answer to the basic question that we asked ourselves on the legitimacy of historically thinking out homo agapicus, a question that in turn cannot in any case support a general theory of society.

But it certainly allows us to retain as acceptable the hypothesis of a cultural framework that presents the need to re-propose social relationships as human relationships, even while utilizing indicators of closeness to persons, rather than (but this remains ambition) real survival of an agapic behaviour.

The game has in a certain sense begun, even though it is all still to be played. In any case, we feel that we can say that the players who wish to take on the challenge have a somewhat levelled playing field: the strength of empirical evidence not yet fully explored; and a proper reflection on that part of social sciences that does not accept to resort only to criticism and denouncements.

6 Conclusions

Homo Agapicus is therefore a person who acts by renouncing to measure, who manifests him7herself through concrete action, in social acts of agapic love, immersed in present time, careless of the past and of the future. Agape is a primary action that is not found on the axis of egoism-altruism significance. It has its own ‘emerging properties,’ that is, it creates a unique society (sui generis): the interpenetration of the subjects. But this society has a price: the tragic aspect of agape lies in the conflict between the life that generated it and the forms that it creates, but for this reason we do not recognize agape as a ‘state’ but as a ‘process,’ in constant evolution (becoming).  Agape is ambivalent because it transcends the social reality as we know it, but is rooted in minimal daily gestures, and therefore has a calling to commitment and, in some instances, even to heroism: it possesses energies and creative imagination capable of transforming personal relationships and social structures. Agape, therefore, can formalize itself, creating institutions that, by removing themselves from functional imperatives, can become always more human.

Whether these theoretical elements are useful to the analysis of reality can only be determined if, after a work of operationalizing the concept, we can approach the analysis of the real social configurations. But this belongs to the realm of our work in common,  which we look forward to from here on in.

Bibliographic  References

Archer M., 2006, La conversazione interiore, Erickson, Trento.
Arendt H., 1994, Vita activa. La condizione umana, Bompiani, Milano.
Bauman Z., 2004, Amore liquido. Sulla fragilità dei legami affettivi, Laterza, Bari-Roma.
Berger P.L., 1999, Homo Ridens. La dimensione comica dell’esperienza umana, Il Mulino, Bologna
Beck U. e Beck E., 1996, Il normale caos dell’amore, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino.
Cesareo V. e Vaccarini I., 2007, La libertà responsabile, Vita e Pensiero, Milano.
Collins R., 2004, Interaction Ritual Chains, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.
Elias N., 1988, Il processo di civilizzazione, Il Mulino, Bologna.
Foucault, M., 1978, La volontà di sapere, Feltrinelli, Milano.
Giddens A., 1995, La trasformazione dell’intimità, Il Mulino, Bologna.
Gouldner A., 1997, La sociologia e la vita quotidiana, a cura e con introduzione di Rauty R., Armando editore, Roma.
Habermas J.,  1981,  Teoria dell’agire comunicativo, 2 voll., Il Mulino, Bologna.
Kierkegaard S., 1983, Gli atti dell’amore, Rusconi, Milano.
Luhmann N., 1987, Amore come passione, Laterza, Bari-Roma.
Nietzsche F., 1986, Così parlò Zarathustra, CDE, Milano.
Parsons T., 2005, ‘La religione nell’America postindustriale: il problema della secolarizzazione’, in Bartolini M. e Prandini P., Cristianesimo e Modernità, Gentile, Salerno; ed. or. 1974.
Schutz A., 1979, Saggi sociologici, Utet, Torino.
Simmel G., 1989, Sociologia, Edizioni Comunità, Milano.
2001, Filosofia dell’amore, Donzelli, Roma.
Sorokin P. A., 2005, Il potere e i modi dell’amore, Città Nuova editrice, Roma.
Weber M.,  1948, Il lavoro intellettuale come professione, Einaudi, Torino.
1999, ‘Concetti sociologici fondamentali’, in Economia e Società, Vol. I, Edizioni di Comunità, Torino, ed. or. 1922.
Wright Mills C., 1973, Immagini dell’uomo. La tradizione classica della sociologia, Mondadori, Milano.


Chiara Lubich

Brotherly love establishes positive social relationships everywhere, capable of rendering our human consortium more cohesive, more just, and happier...

-Chiara Lubich



Social-One  International Secretariat
Social-One International Secretariat
Via Piave, 15
Via Piave, 15
00046 Grottaferrata (Rome), Italy
00046 Grottaferrata (Rome), Italy

This website uses “technical cookies”, including third parties cookies, which are necessary to optimise your browsing experience. By closing this banner, or by continuing to navigate this site, you are agreeing to our cookies policy. The further information document describes how to deactivate the cookies.