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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Yet who knows not, conscience is born of love

It’s a verse from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets: “Love is too young to know what conscience is; Yet who knows not, conscience is born of love?” Transcendent poetry has the power to offer us profound insights beyond the literal; it’s certainly true of these few words.

On the surface, the poet seems to be describing a state of innocence—the kind lovers enjoy in the first throes of passion. They are blind to the consequences of their feelings, blissfully unaware of the world around them and of the hurt, pain, and recrimination that may follow if their love should cease or turn aside. We might feel a little sorry for them even as they are lost in each other’s embrace, but, the poem goes on to say that love, whether sustained or not will give birth to conscience.

When I first read this sonnet over 50 years ago, I was able to decipher the literal meaning quite clearly. The brash lover entreating his lady, the allusions, the quandaries and the desire for forgiveness. You can Google the verse and find the scholarly explications that lacking such digital aids I had to winkle out myself for a sophomore term paper so many years ago. Sadly, I missed the deeper meaning. I simply lacked the life experience to understand. What is Shakespeare really saying here?

If we look at the definition of conscience—the ability to discern the difference between right and wrong, the poet seems to be saying that it arises from love. That appears to fly in the face of our human experience. Isn’t our conscience a product of societal norms, parentally instilled values and observed behavior? When people are amoral or without compassion, we might say they lack a conscience, but what does that have to do with love?

Let’s step back for a second and let the poet’s words marinate for a moment. Can it be that our ability to know right from wrong arises only once we experience love? It’s easy to see how compassion arises from love—in fact compassion itself is an action born out of love for another or for many others. Perhaps that is why we say that people who lack compassion are heartless.

But it is a bigger step to get from there to the absolutism Shakespeare suggests. I’ve thought about this a good deal over the years. I’ve written on the subject of love before and in one post I took up Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth in which he talks at length about the character of love, and why it has the power to move mountains, provide greater insight than any other knowledge, and ultimately immortal. According to Paul, love is the key to everything and he goes so far as to intimate that only through love can we know God, not as a reflection in a mirror, but face to face. In fact, Paul is describing the emotion of love as if it were a perfect, and immortal being.

Paul knew what Shakespeare suspected. Love is not just a feeling we have, it is something far greater. Love is God.

So, let me turn those words around the other way to show you what I mean. God is love. If you are a person of faith, regardless of your particular beliefs you are likely to embrace that thought fully. But what if I said it in a literal sense—that God is the very embodiment of love. That beyond all other human emotions, love is divine in nature and comes solely from its source, God. Let me take it further. What if I told you that to love—anyone, requires us to experience on some level what it is to be divine. The greater our love—even to the point of sacrifice for another, the greater our sense of the divine. How else do you explain what bids someone to lay down their life for another? How else do explain what a parent feels for the child?

As we approach that day invented by greeting card companies, florists and candy manufacturers, we might want to take this thought with us. To love is divine. It is the most genuine and selfless feeling we can express. To say I love you, in any language is to bless the recipient.

And on that note, love to you all.

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