I don’t know who first said that we like people for their virtues, but love them for their faults. It used to make sense to me, but I don’t think I believe it anymore. Certainly I love people for their eccentricities–for their little quirks of behavior, for their strange obsessions, for the unfathomable things that make them tic. The strangeness of other people makes them fascinating and unique, and hammers home their essential reality. I don’t think you can love anyone until they’ve become so vividly weird in your eyes that you cannot help seeing them as something distinct from the background pattern of everyday humanity; until they are strange, we reduce them to symbols or types.
But their faults? There are certain feelings we feel when we see other people’s faults, and these feelings are often pleasant to us, but I don’t think you can accurately describe them as love. The best they can do is enable love indirectly, by overcoming our own insecurities. The presence of a genuinely perfect man or woman would be deeply unsettling, if not humiliating. Who could be happy in the presence of such a completely superior person? At best, we would feel uncomfortable. At worst, we would fear and resent their perfection. Think Sir Galahad from the Arthurian legends–the perfect knight comes across as an insufferable prig.
Luckily (in this one very limited sense–tragically in all others), we are all broken, just in different ways. My sloth, your lust, his greed, they make us equals. We can accept each other this way. This is all more than a little grotesque: love as defined by the limits of envy. But it gets worse. There is also an unhealthy kind of liking you can feel for someone you perceive as your actual inferior–a predatory and dependent liking. I don’t know how many people feel it, but I think it’s disturbingly common (cf. “The Publican and the Pharisee”, except among nominal friends). I’m sure I’ve done it more than once. One person, or sometimes a group of people, fastens onto another with the intention, perhaps not even consciously realized, of glutting its pride on the other’s inferiority under the guise of friendship.
Sometimes this feeling can coexist with genuine goodwill and affection, though it will always undermine them to some extent if they exist. Because no matter how hard you consciously try to lift up and help your weak and hapless friend, you will always on some level want him to remain weak and hapless, to make you feel better by comparison. Or perhaps so you can “jovially” poke fun at his failings. Either way, if the drunk got sober–if the miser learned generosity–if the bum got a job–it would be really intolerable. In the meantime, you can feel an almost parental fondness for the person, purely because of the good feelings their weakness excites in you.
An extreme example of this would be the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. If you haven’t read it, The Grand Inquisitor is a story within the book, told by one of the titular brothers to another. It describes Christ coming down to Spain under the reign of the Inquisition, who arrest him. The Grand Inquisitor, a ghoulish old man, then rants at Christ for pages and pages, telling him He has no right to return, that the Church was doing quite all right without Him, because they have loved mankind better than He did. After all, He makes impossible demands of mankind, trying to force us into an uncomfortable and radical freedom we don’t want, and which most of us aren’t strong enough to handle. The Medieval Church, by comparison, has given human beings a comfortable cage of empty superstition and ritual, relieving us of all difficulties. Therefore Christ is cruel and the Church, even at the height of its corrupted barbarity, is kind. The story ends with the old man promising to burn Christ alive–but the latter, who has listened in silence the whole time, kisses the Grand Inquisitor, who then feels compelled to free him. But he holds fast in his beliefs.
I’ve read this story three or four times now (the novel itself is far more arduous going, and I don’t believe I’ve ever managed a totally complete reading; I always skim some of the more repetitive bits). To me, the odd thing about it is the way that, at the end, both brothers seem to accept at least part of the Inquisitor’s reasoning: that he and his Church have enslaved humanity out of some genuinely decent feelings towards them. Most of us aren’t strong enough to be genuinely Christlike, the reasoning goes, so a small collection of gargoyles has lovingly created an idol we can obey in perfect sincerity, thereby giving us peace and contentment along with the illusion of Christian duty. But it’s perfectly obvious that the Inquisitor hates and despises the human race (and probably himself too). He does not love humanity, only human weakness. The whole thing is plainly a convoluted excuse for the old man’s lust for power and cruelty.
The love of Christ, on the other hand, is often hateful to us because it sees, and understands clearly, our weakness, but refuses to accept it. Possibly (I’m going out on a limb here) you might say that God loves us not for what we are, but for what we could be. God’s love is not as meek and sweet as God would ask us to be; on the contrary, it is a demanding and overpowering force which simultaneously requires of us both subservience and freedom, in the form of absolute obedience freely chosen. The Inquisitor is right that we are weak–but Christ never denied that. The Inquisitor sees us right. But he never loved us.