Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Law, Love and Freedom: An Introduction

Joshua Neoh

The Beatles tell us that: ‘All You Need Is Love.’ Is that right?

The inquiry into love has very deep roots in the Judeo–Christian tradition. Indeed, the divergent answers to this inquiry mark the transition from Judeo to Christian. My book on Law, Love and Freedom returns to those roots to trace the twists and turns that these ideas have taken as they move from the sacred to the secular. It relates our most important mode of social organization, law, to two of our most cherished values, love and freedom.

The book sketches the moral vision that underlies our modern legal order and traces our secular legal ideas (constitutionalism versus anarchism) to their theological origins (monasticism versus antinomianism). Law, Love and Freedom brings together a diverse cast of characters – including Paul and Luther, Augustine and Aquinas, monks and Gnostics, and constitutionalists and anarchists – to construct a political theology of the modern legal order.

The contestation over the values of law, love and freedom is as much a political concern as it is a religious concern. The concern revolves around the central question what it takes to create a people, whether the people of God or the people of a nation. The opening words of the American Constitution begin by proclaiming a trans-temporal and trans-generational subject called ‘We the People’. What is this thing called ‘the People’?

The People is singular and elastic: it extends back in time to the foundational moment, and it is projected into the indefinite future till the end of time. The People is the self in self-government. The constitutional project transforms individual selves into a collective self and disparate persons into a people. Without this affective and effective transformation, there is no self in self-government. For constitutionalism to work, the individual, ‘I’,  have to identify with the collective ‘We’. Accomplishing this feat is no easy task. What could transform persons into people?

On the religious front, the ancient Israelite answer is the covenant. The covenant creates the people of Israel as a people of God. Freedom is achieved through membership in the covenantal community; and membership in the covenantal community is achieved through the observance of the law. Standing at the cusp of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Paul proposed a different response, and thereby carved Christianity out of Judaism. Paul’s response marked the transition of the tradition. In contrast to the ancient Israelites, Paul posited a different answer: not law, but love. Instead of law, love would unite the new Christian community in freedom.

On the political front, one could see an analogous move. On the one hand, one could say that the constitution creates a people. The constitution founds a political community, invests it with authority, and creates its trans-temporality. On the other hand, like Paul, one could retort: not law, but love. That which ultimately sustains the nation and links the person to the nation is a love for the nation. A citizen needs to become one with the nation in the deep and affective way that only love can sustain.

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