The most fundamental unit of life is a cell and we all have them. If you find nothing else in common with your fellow man, find that. Her cells, like yours, from two into multiple trillions. Cleaving and heaving and belching their way to tissue and organs and eyes and you and me.
But there is something more that connects us, isn’t there?
Before humans understood the concepts of atoms, or species or a cellular interconnectedness or anything else that connects us, they had a concept of brotherly love and used surprisingly familiar words that we use today. Former Emperor and late-in-life Stoic Marcus Aurelius wrote about a “nature akin to my own…”
Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own – not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.
From Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations
Marcus Aurelius’ concept of brotherhood, echoed in in his fellow Stoic Seneca’s pithy “if you wish to be loved, love,” was rooted in a fierce belief in the whole of things, a unity of which we are all part.
Is it our shared fragments of divinity? Our unknowable real mortality? We were born for cooperation? Are those the feelings of brotherly love?
“The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love.” argued Erich Fromm in his sublime tract on the mellifluous shapes of love.
The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love. By this I mean the sense of responsibility, care, respect, knowledge of any other human being, the wish to further his life. This is the kind of love the Bible speaks of when it says: love thy neighbour as thyself. Brotherly love is love for all human beings; it is characterized by its very lack of exclusiveness. If I have developed the capacity for love, then I cannot help loving my brothers.
From Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving
This unity, this feeling, is it something into which society can ebb and flow? Do we expand and contract our ability to love one another?
And if so, where are we now?
In Robert Putnam’s ground-bulldozing book from 2001, Bowling Alone, the Harvard sociologist studied civic engagement and social bonds relative to the erosion of social trust.
One of the central arguments of the book is that both civic engagement and organizational involvement experienced marked declines during the second half of the twentieth century. According to the best available evidence, these declines have continued uninterrupted. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, fewer and fewer Americans are socializing through membership organizations.
[S]ocial trust has deteriorated further over the past twenty years as well. This continues to be explained in part by generational replacement […]. As more trusting generations have died out, they have been succeeded by less trusting youth cohorts, leaving America a less trusting society, year after year.
From Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone
If social capital is an uninvested asset, then not only do you not know your brother, but you also do not trust your brother.
In recent years social scientists have framed concerns about the changing character of American society in terms of the concept of ‘social capital.’ By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital – tools and training that enhance individual productivity – the core idea of social capital theory is that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups.[…]Social capital refers to connects among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.
From Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone
It is this reciprocity and trustworthiness that James Baldwin summons in his 1964 essays calling for an awakening to the racial crisis besieging America: “If the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”
The same themes course through Baldwin’s earlier brilliance, Notes of a Native Son, which argued that we are bonded by even the darkest side of our nature:
It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality. Within this cage it is romantic, more, meaningless, to speak of a ‘new’ society as the desire of the oppressed, for that shivering dependence on the props of reality which he shares with the Herrenvolk makes a truly ‘new’ society impossible to conceive.
From James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son
If we are bonded by our mutually endured and perpetuated horrors, we must, must, be part of their absolution.
In the early 20th century the War-torn French government called on philosopher Simone Weil to expound on what was needed to rebuild a tattered society. “Every human being needs to have multiple roots,” argued Weil resolutely, “It is necessary for him to draw wellnigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.”
To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings.
From Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots
The lack of roots, a society bifurcated by the ostensible differences of morality, leads not only to lack of integration but also to the further breakdown of society.
The antithesis of brotherly love.
In brotherly love there is the experience of union with all men, of human solidarity, of human oneness. Brotherly love is based on the experience that we all are one. The differences in talents, intelligence, knowledge are negligible in comparison with the identity of the human core common to all men. In order to experience this identity it is necessary to penetrate from the periphery to the core.
From Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving
Then, how do we get back to this? How do we burrow to the core of who we are to find that commonality of being?
According to the watchful eye of Rebecca Solnit, a chaser of narratives on the human social condition, humans do a unique thing in moments of disaster. “When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers,” Solnit admits in her touching work on humanity in times of disaster.1
The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones.
From Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell
The breakdown of separating structures allows some miasma of binding substance to flow and fill the cracks.
“We don’t even have a language for this emotion,” bemuses Solnit, “in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear.
Could that emotion be the seed of brotherly love?
Solnit’s writing abounds with examples of care, protection and the kind of unadulterated generosity of which we imagine but never see.
Whatever that emotion is, joy in sorrow, a feeling of open-heartedness, however you feel it when our society breaks down and flows apart, hold it tight. Or when anything falls apart, atomizes into bits. Hold it safe.
As my voice reaches your inner ear over the internet and warms your cheeks let’s imagine together a human at-oneness.