Lévinas and the wisdom of love: Breaking Gyges' secret

Corey W Beals, Fordham University


Lévinas and the Wisdom of Love: Breaking Gyges' Secret is an essay on the ways in which wisdom can be used to make one invisible to the other. I also show how a wisdom of love, as Lévinas describes it, can make one visible to the Other, and thereby more human. In analyzing Lévinas' wisdom of love and how it is different from other types of wisdom, I focus on Lévinas' saying that “philosophy is the wisdom of love at the service of love.” This study examines, in turn, Lévinas' understanding of love, which I defend as irreducibly distinct from self-love, but compatible with it. Unlike some other compatibilist interpretations of Lévinas, I maintain that this view is consistent with a strongly asymmetrical view of neighbor love. This is possible since Lévinas' asymmetry is not properly understood as the absence of return, but by the absence of speech which demands reciprocity. In asking what sort of priority love is to have over wisdom (compare to the priority of ethics over ontology), I raise the possibilities of ‘chronological priority,’ ‘logical priority,’ and ‘hierarchical priority,’ while dismissing all but the last type. Then I argue that even the altering of hierarchical priority Lévinas suggests is not a mere reversal where now the ethical relation—rather than ontology—has a dominating priority. Instead, I suggest a type of hierarchical inversion of priority which I call a ‘pacific priority’ and show how this priority seems impossible unless one recognizes the distinction between power and authority. After analyzing Lévinas' understanding of love and priority, I turn to the question of wisdom and ask how Lévinas' ‘wisdom of love,’—understood as a real possibility and not just an impossible ideal—is any different than the types of wisdom he critiques. The central difference is how one traces the origin of wisdom, and this allows one to give a different answer to Gyges' veiling question of whether it is better to suffer or inflict injustice. I argue that this question lies at the heart of Lévinas' project and suggest ways for becoming visible, which is, according to Lévinas, to become human.

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Recommended Citation

Beals, Corey W, "Lévinas and the wisdom of love: Breaking Gyges' secret" (2004). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3125002.