Chicago Studies Fall/Winter 2023

Page 13

Breaking through the Buffered Self: Turning to the Good and the Beautiful By Most Rev. Robert Barron, S.T.D. The Good I want now to turn to the second great transcendental property of being, namely the good. Like the true, the good is, in our highly relativistic time, a problematic notion, for it appears as an imposition on one’s freedom and capacity to decide for oneself the meaning of his life. This is precisely why, as we saw, the notion of the good is so central to Iris Murdoch’s strategy of decentering the ego. I should like to commence my analysis by drawing a distinction parallel to the one I made in the last lecture between gathering information and true knowing. Just as the assembling and sharing of data is central to the digital culture, so is the gesture of liking or unliking. We might be tempted to appreciate liking as a perhaps less intense form of loving, since both involve the signaling of a positive attitude toward someone or something. But this is to miss the crucial difference. When one “likes” another, she is expressing only the most superficial kind of approbation. This approval does not reach deeply into the other, nor does it come from a profound place in the interiority of the one who grants it. This very ephemerality and superficiality are what has made the term so appropriate to the digital space, in which one can casually “like” a posting or a picture or a story and promptly move on to something more interesting, and where one can garner hundreds of thousands of “likes” without ever establishing anything even close to a relationship with those who bestow the designation. And again, very much like information, “likes” are utterly under the control of the self, since they involve no real commitment to the other and are bestowed from the safe and antiseptic distance of a computer keyboard. In sharp contrast to liking is loving which, in the definition offered by Iris Murdoch, is “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” 1 How reminiscent the Murdochian formulation is of Aquinas’s characterization of love as “willing the good of the other.” 2 To love is to break free of the gravitational pull of the ego and its interests, to relocate the self, as it were, in the other. When I like you, I am in control; when I love you, I have given myself to you in such a way that I am no longer in control of our relationship. When I like you, you move within the ambit of my desires and preoccupations; when I love you, my life is no longer about me, but rather about you. The novelist Jonathan Franzen puts it this way: “To love a specific person, and to identify with their struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.” 3 Karol Wojtyła catches the rarity and strangeness of love by distinguishing it from any sort of selfish desire: “Goodwill is quite free of self-interest, the traces of which are conspicuous in love as desire. Goodwill is the same as selflessness in love: not ‘I long for you as a good’ but ‘I long for your good,’ ‘I long for that which is good for you.’” 4 In his commentary on Love and Responsibility, the Wojtyła expert Rocco Buttiglione observes, “The desire for the other as an answer to one’s own ontological insufficiency and as the completion and the company of one’s own person no longer comes first. Something else comes first: the wonder aroused by the other’s beauty and the will that that interior beauty of the person which is perceived in the lover’s glance should realize itself.” 5 Though the other’s loveliness first attracted me, I no longer want it for me, but for her, her reality mattering more for me than my own.


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