‘Agape’ Love

By Bedah Ouma

While Pictet argues that he refers to a Greek tradition, he is more likely
referring to Christian thinkers; Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle were
mostly interested in eros and philia. Agape received much broader usage among
later Christian writers. In The Good Samaritan, Max Huber also argues that agape is
developed within Christian virtue ethics: ‘Agape, Christian love, seeks nothing for
itself, for though bestowed by men on men, it is only the response to the love of
God, which has stooped to make its dwelling in human hearts’. Charity, he writes,
is ‘the entire attitude of a soul towards the other members of creation, after it has
been taken possession of and made new by faith’
In his Summa Theologica, Thomas of Aquinas, influenced by Aristotle,
argues that charity, or agape, is divinely infused practical wisdom. According to
Aquinas, a man is virtuous because his actions correspond to an objective norm.
For Aristotle this was reason and for Aquinas, reason and faith.
Virtue ethics was the prevailing approach to ethics in the ancient and
medieval periods, which strongly influenced many Christian writers. It emphasized
character, rather than rules or consequences, as the key element of ethical thinking.
Agape was one of the theological virtues mentioned by the Apostle Paul in I
Corinthians 13: faith, hope and love (charity or agape).
Ibid., p. 14. It is interesting that Pictet describes humanity, in the sense of charity, as a
(universal) encounter It is worthwhile comparing this to what the German
philosopher Marin Buber argues about an encounter in I and Thou: that in a
genuine encounter, the receiver must also be viewed as worthy by the giver.If not,
the encounter is fundamentally instrumental in nature: such ‘I–it’ relations are
oriented toward domination because they are relations in which the subject (the
‘I’) takes its partner (the ‘it’) as an object.
If this is what is implied, it should be impossible to speak of humanitarian
aid, and the value of humanity, in instrumental terms. In fact, in this encounter
with the Other it is very likely that one becomes concerned and involved with the
situation of the Other. As a result, if injustice is being done, the urge is to act for the
‘good’ of one’s fellow human beings.
What exactly this ‘good’ for one’s fellow man consists of is a question that,
for Pictet, was one that ‘hardly arises … in connection with the Red Cross’ and,
according to him, was not relevant. However, from the events discussed below it
is obvious that this has become an elementary question: what exactly was the ‘good’
for Jews in Nazi Germany, Ibos in Nigeria or Rwandan Hutu refugees in Zaire? In
these cases, for many humanitarians the ‘good’ is related to the ideal, or value, of
When this value of justice implies that some deserve aid more than others,
there could be a tension within the definition of humanity itself.


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