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Correcting My Errant Interpretation of the Second Great Commandment

Michael Kaarhus
04:18 Wednesday, Aug. 12, AD 2020 GMT

Last January I wrote a piece in which I invoked Our Lord’s Second Great Commandment. I eventually took that article down, because I realized that I had errantly interpreted that Commandment. Here I share a more faithful interpretation.

My errant interpretation was that, since that Commandment says, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (from Matth. 22:39), it implies that we ought to love ourselves, that loving oneself is a foundation of that Commandment and that actions that reflect self-love are noble. I was correct to focus on the two words, as thyself. However, my interpretation was 180° in the wrong direction. Here I demonstrate that, by the Second Great Commandment, Jesus insists that we take a step above loving ourselves.

There is another Commandment to love “one another”, that does not say, “as thyself”:

A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. (John 13:34)

This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you. (John 15:12)

And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath delivered himself for us, an oblation and a sacrifice to God for an odour of sweetness. (Ephesians 5:2)

Jesus addresses His disciples at the Last Supper in John 13 through 17, not the general public. So I think that the scope of the above Commandment is the Church. The “as thyself” of the more general Commandment is there replaced by “as I have loved you”, which is a special, dedicated and unconditional love. Similarly in Ephesians, “as thyself” is replaced by, “as Christ also hath loved us...”. And the Church, I think, is all that follow Jesus, not just one denomination or another. Here is another Passage that counsels the love of neighbor, that does not say, “as thyself”:

If any man say, I love God, and hateth his brother; he is a liar. For he that loveth not his brother, whom he seeth, how can he love God, whom he seeth not?
And this commandment we have from God, that he, who loveth God, love also his brother. (First John 4: 20-21)

From the above, it is clear that we are to love others. And the two words, “as thyself”, in the Second Great Commandment, do not mean “Love thyself”, but indicate the extent to which we are to love others. “As thyself” indicates a lesser degree of commitment than, “as I have loved you.” We will see this purpose of the two words again, when considering the First Great Commandment.

The two words “as thyself” also hearken back to a condition common to human nature, and to a precept. They are simple to understand, but must be known, in order to understand the Second Great Commandment. St. Bernard wrote about them:

Chapter VIII.

Of the first degree of love: wherein man loves God for self’s sake

Love is one of the four natural affections, which it is needless to name since everyone knows them. And because love is natural, it is only right to love the Author of nature first of all. Hence comes the first and great commandment, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.’ But nature is so frail and weak that necessity compels her to love herself first; and this is carnal love, wherewith man loves himself first and selfishly, as it is written, ‘That was not first which is spiritual but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual’ (I Cor. 15.46). This is not as the precept ordains but as nature directs: ‘No man ever yet hated his own flesh’ (Eph. 5.29). But if, as is likely, this same love should grow excessive and, refusing to be contained within the restraining banks of necessity, should overflow into the fields of voluptuousness, then a command checks the flood, as if by a dike: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’. And this is right: for he who shares our nature should share our love, itself the fruit of nature. Wherefore if a man find it a burden, I will not say only to relieve his brother’s needs, but to minister to his brother’s pleasures, let him mortify those same affections in himself, lest he become a transgressor. He may cherish himself as tenderly as he chooses, if only he remembers to show the same indulgence to his neighbor. This is the curb of temperance imposed on thee, O man, by the law of life and conscience, lest thou shouldest follow thine own lusts to destruction, or become enslaved by those passions which are the enemies of thy true welfare. Far better divide thine enjoyments with thy neighbor than with these enemies. And if, after the counsel of the son of Sirach, thou goest not after thy desires but refrainest thyself from thine appetites (Ecclus. 18.30); if according to the apostolic precept having food and raiment thou art therewith content (I Tim. 6.8), then thou wilt find it easy to abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, and to divide with thy neighbors what thou hast refused to thine own desires. That is a temperate and righteous love which practices self-denial in order to minister to a brother’s necessity. So our selfish love grows truly social, when it includes our neighbors in its circle. (St. Bernard of Clairvaux)

The above excerpt is from a piece titled On Loving God. What the saint wrote about loving neighbor, he considered proper and necessary to the topic of loving God. So you can be sure that he was not over-elaborating on the subject of loving neighbors.

The precept that the saint points out is: ‘That was not first which is spiritual but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual’ (First Cor. 15:46). And the condition common to humans is, ‘No man ever yet hated his own flesh’ (Eph. 5:29).

The natural inclination of carnal man is to love himself—“his own flesh”. That is man’s default condition, “the natural” that “comes first”. Later comes “that which is spiritual”, and more advanced, which in this case is to love one’s neighbor. And the extent to which we are to love our neighbor is, “as thyself”.

The saint wrote: “...I will not say only to relieve his brother’s needs, but to minister to his brother’s pleasures...”, because he knew that we all tend to minister to our own pleasures. And similarly, “He may cherish himself as tenderly as he chooses, if only he remembers to show the same indulgence to his neighbor.” So, loving oneself does not break the Second Great Commandment. But when we fail to also love our neighbor to the same extent, that breaks the Commandment. This is consistent with Jesus’ Counsel concerning feasts:

And he said to him also that had invited him: When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, nor thy kinsmen, nor thy neighbours who are rich; lest perhaps they also invite thee again, and a recompense be made to thee.
But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind;
And thou shalt be blessed, because they have not wherewith to make thee recompense: for recompense shall be made thee at the resurrection of the just. (Luke 14: 12-14)

The one that throws a feast comme il faut is loving himself. If he invites the poor and disabled, then he loves them as himself. Thus he keeps the Second Great Commandment, and will be rewarded “at the resurrection of the just”, perhaps by the same poor and disabled, who were unable to return the favor during their Earthly lives, but now are able to, out of the abundance of their heavenly wealth. What an easy way, if one has wealth, to become “blessed”!

It is not responsible to preach, “Love yourself”, because it suggests that people revert to their natural, carnal state, wherein they loved themselves, but not their neighbor. It also wrests the Commandment. Christ insists that we take a step above self-love.

In On Loving God, St. Bernard now begins to bring God into the mix. He preaches that, to love our neighbors “aright”, we need to love God. And this is the “first degree” of loving God:

But if we are to love our neighbors as we ought, we must have regard to God also: for it is only in God that we can pay that debt of love aright. Now a man cannot love his neighbor in God, except he love God Himself; wherefore we must love God first, in order to love our neighbors in Him. This too, like all good things, is the Lord’s doing, that we should love Him, for He hath endowed us with the possibility of love. He who created nature sustains it; nature is so constituted that its Maker is its protector for ever. Without Him nature could not have begun to be; without Him it could not subsist at all. That we might not be ignorant of this, or vainly attribute to ourselves the beneficence of our Creator, God has determined in the depths of His wise counsel that we should be subject to tribulations. So when man’s strength fails and God comes to his aid, it is meet and right that man, rescued by God’s hand, should glorify Him, as it is written, ‘Call upon Me in the time of trouble; so will I hear thee, and thou shalt praise Me’ (Ps. 50.15). In such wise man, animal and carnal by nature, and loving only himself, begins to love God by reason of that very self-love; since he learns that in God he can accomplish all things that are good, and that without God he can do nothing.

Again in the second and third degrees, the saint preaches that, the more perfectly we love God, the easier it becomes to love not only neighbors, but “all God’s creatures”:

Chapter IX.

Of the second and third degrees of love

... Our temporal wants have a speech of their own, proclaiming the benefits they have received from God’s favor. Once this is recognized it will not be hard to fulfill the commandment touching love to our neighbors; for whosoever loves God aright loves all God’s creatures. Such love is pure, and finds no burden in the precept bidding us purify our souls, in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren (I Peter 1.22). (St. Bernard of Clairvaux)

Only when he writes on the fourth degree of loving God, does St. Bernard not consider the love of neighbor.

In a roundabout way, the two words as thyself actually tie the love of neighbor to the love of God, just as St. Bernard suggests. The saint does not say this, but as I see it, those two words limit the extent to which we are to love our neighbor. To understand this, we must first understand the extent to which we are to love God:

You want me to tell you why God is to be loved and how much. I answer, the reason for loving God is God Himself; and the measure of love due to Him is immeasurable love. (St. Bernard of Clairvaux)

In the Two Great Commandments, then, we see that God rightly demands of us our unreserved love, a love on which we are to place no limit, condition or measure. We are not to say, “God, I will love You if...”, or, “God, I would love You more if...”, or, “God, I don’t feel like loving You today. Maybe tomorrow.” We are to love God without measure in every case, regardless of how we feel. However, we have a duty to love our neighbor only as ourselves—unconditionally, because we naturally love ourselves without condition—but not without limit or measure. We do not owe to our neighbor the immeasurable love that we owe to God.

So, if you think of the Second Great Commandment as an excessive burden, it might help to realize that it can actually disabuse you of the false belief that some humans merit immeasurable love.

To be clear, if you love yourself with immeasurable love, then the Second Great Commandment obligates you to love your neighbor with immeasurable love. However, it is not wise to love oneself with immeasurable love. Even Epicurus recognized a need to deny some pleasures and indulge others:

When, therefore, we maintain that pleasure is the end, we do not mean the pleasures of profligates and those that consist in sensuality, as is supposed by some who are either ignorant or disagree with us or do not understand, but freedom from pain in the body and from trouble in the mind. For it is not continuous drinkings and revellings, nor the satisfaction of lusts, nor the enjoyment of fish and other luxuries of the wealthy table, which produce a pleasant life, but sober reasoning, searching out the motives for all choice and avoidance, and banishing mere opinions, to which are due the greatest disturbance of the spirit. (Epicurus)

Epicureans are not profligate maniacs, but that does not mean that there are none. If someone loves himself without measure, one might think that he could in theory be happy, so long as he also loves his neighbor without measure. However, without measure means that nothing is to be spared. What love, then, has the maniac left for God, Whom he is to first love without measure?


So, I am of the opinion that a man cannot be happy loving himself without measure, even if he also loves his neighbor without measure, because he neglects his first obligation, which is to love God without measure. Since we are to so love God, He requires that we love our neighbor only “as thyself”. Today we observe, however, some that expect us to love them immeasurably.

This is from an error that can be called darkness shining as light, just as Jesus preached about in His Sermon on the Mount (Cf. Luke 11:35). Our culture acquires it inasmuch as it accepts Marxism as light.

Here are some words and names that do not appear in Marx’s Communist Manifesto: angel, Bible, bless, blessed, Christ, Creator, dignity, faith, father, God, goodness, grace, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Holy Ghost, Maker, Mary, peace, sacred, Sacrament, Scripture, Trinity, thought. The words love, peaceful and women appear only once, and reason only twice. And we are supposed to believe that its 11,548 words are the founding philosophy for a better and progressive world. The godlessness of the Manifesto and its popularity at the academy are, in my opinion, chief reasons why most of the doctrinal light that our culture shines is darkness.

St. Bernard wrote in the twelfth century, when Western Civilization was just beginning to emerge from the dark ages. They were dark in the sense that the light was mainly in the Priesthood and the religious Life; it did not shine very comprehensively from the monastery and the basilica down to the people, only to some. But the light of twelfth century Saints was light. The light of our age shines comprehensively “down” to the people, for which reason we think our era brighter than the twelfth century. However, much of our light today is the darkness of Marxism that the academy teaches as light. Since the academy is thought of as authoritative concerning all things, even moral theology, We the People are thought to be lower than the academy in all things. Hence, it is thought that the light of the academy shines “down” to us, as if the academy were a holy city on a hill, with the Manifesto as the filament of the light in its lighthouse, its dark lens fashioned after the visage of Karl Marx on one side and Frederick Engels on the other. The reality is that, in matters of spiritual or moral doctrine, all of the light from the academy is darkness. And to the extent that anyone preaches spiritual or moral doctrine from the academy, they preach darkness. Our era shines forth both darkness and light—more of the former than the latter in my opinion—for which reason I prefer light from that time that historians refer to as dark. That is why I regale you with the work of St. Bernard.

Today’s culture shines the darkness of godlessness, for which reason the generality of the culture just doesn’t care about the solid points that St. Bernard makes on loving God and neighbor. The points are too Godly. Or more correctly, the culture is too godless. Consequently, we tend to lose the distinctions implied by “as thyself”; we tend to love our neighbor either not at all, as if we had no obligation toward him, or overly much, as if he were God. Not only that, but errors arising from the loss of such distinctions tend to become cultural norms. Hence there is a normalcy in the culture that neglects the love of neighbor, another wherein the neighbor internalizes that neglect and believes that he ought not be loved by others, another that loves neighbor too much, and another wherein the neighbor internalizes the over-attentiveness and believes that others ought to love him without measure.

These norms are difficult to rise above, both because they are not considered errant, and because they are thought to be progressive. The latter is a fallacy that might be called Later, therefore more advanced; I am not sure how to say that in Latin. I think that it is a type of continuum fallacy:

The thirteenth century was more advanced than the dark ages.
The Enlightenment was more advanced than the thirteenth century.
Therefore, Marxism is more advanced than the Enlightenment.

Among the significant cultural problems that arise from the acceptance of Marxism and godlessness are:

  1. A general coldness and lack of love, wherein people love neither neighbor nor God (Cf. Matth. 24:12); and
  2. Internalizations that result from that error:
  1. Some believe that they should not be loved, and hence acquire an inferiority complex;
  2. Others believe that they merit measureless love, become conceited and expect of others a degree of love that no human merits, only God.


Epicurus. Letter to Menoeceus. 341-271 BC. Translated by Cyril Bailey, 1926. Oxford University Press. Republished in Ethics: History, Theory and Contemporary Issues. 2009. Cahn and Markie. Oxford University Press.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux. On Loving God. From Chapters VIII, IX and I. Twelfth century. The Christian Classics Ethereal Library

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