Is not Man’s faculty for transcending the limits of his self, truly human! No living being but Man has this faculty. Is not transcending ourselves the very essence of love? Love is not sentiment…. True love is an act of swinging outwards, swinging away from the lover and reaching his fellowman, where it remains and does not return. Is there not at the very heart of revolutionary unrest this urge to transcend!
Consider this statement by 20th century philosopher Eric Gutkind. What is unique about human beings is our capacity to transcend the limits of ourselves. We swing outwards toward the others, toward all others in “revolutionary unrest,” this urge to transcend. We swing outward in love toward nature, toward the entire Cosmos, and God! We swing outward with our reason, our desires, and our intuition, the nisus within us for unity, harmony, and connection. The cosmos, humanity, and God comprise the three great dimensions of existence that spiritual thinker Ramon Panikkar has pointed out constitute an interrelated, dynamic trinity in all of the world’s great religions.
Of all creatures that we know of in the vast panorama of life on Earth, only human beings by nature are capable of self-transcendence, swinging outwards, love. Mahatma Gandhi declared that the essence of love is nonviolence, ahimsa. Indeed, his life was a swinging outward toward both God and all human beings, and toward the sacredness of all life.
We swing outward also in the process of knowing. As human beings we long to understand, to know the truth of ourselves, nature, and even God. “God is Truth” the religions have proclaimed. The Buddha declared, however, that we do not need to know the metaphysical truth of our world in order to seek and find nirvana. Buddha provided for human beings a path of self-transcendence, an eight-fold path that lived the unsayable truth of sunyata, emptiness, the ultimate self-transcendence. Love is not metaphysics. Love is self-transcendence.
The great Indian sage Rabindranath Tagore declared something very similar: “Love is an end in itself. Everything else raises the question ‘Why?’” In our mind, we require a reason for it. But when we say, “I love,” then there is no room for the “why”; it is the final answer in itself.” Why do I love?—because love is self-transcendence. It is the urge to unite with the other, to express our essential human capacity. Why do we need self-transcendence? We do not need metaphysical answers to address this question? Love is its own reason. It is what we do; it is who we are in our most fundamental humanity.
The scholar in his or her study, the immigrant seeking a better life, the drug-user seeking a high, the mother caring for her child, the soldier believing he is protecting something greater than himself—all of these are lovers, participating in self-transcendence. However, if all of us are lovers, if all of us are self-transcenders, why is human life such chaos?
Why the wars, the hatred, the greed, the lies, and corruption, the nihilism and dissolution? This must be because our self-transcendence and our love have not become properly focused, not properly self-aware. We have not understood our loving in this universal way. We have not been sufficiently self-aware of our loving and its goals. We love blindly, instinctively, and hence badly. We remain piecemeal, fragmented, isolated, conflicted and confused in our loving.
We have not yet focused our loving on the three great dimensions of existence that serve as the objects of human self-transcendence: God, Humanity, and Nature. We have not focused on the Truth of the whole as Gandhi often declared with his imperative to satyagraha, clinging to truth.
21st century critical social thinker Henry A. Giroux describes the ways neoliberal capitalism and its complement in the militarized neofascist nation-state have for the past half-century worked to dismantle human self-transcendence. The momentum of love of swinging-out to others through an economy of mutual equality and a society of mutual cooperation and affirmation has been torn asunder. The super-rich, many followers of the psychopathic pundit Ayn Rand, repudiate love for atomized self-interest and repudiate democratic social solidarity for dog-eat-dog social Darwinism. The result is a dominant culture of corruption, immorality, and naked power.
The great Western thinker Immanuel Kant declared that we swing out of ourselves through using our reason to legislate moral laws. He declared that reason includes our capacity to universalize our situation. It is not just me with my impulses or inclinations. The question asked by my reason: “Can I universalize this?” shows that it involves all of us. “Can I make it a universal law that everyone behave this way?” To place oneself under universal laws is to transcend my own selfish impulses, my egoism, my inclinations.
“Can I treat everyone as an end in themselves, never merely as a means?” The essence of morality, Kant declared, lies in our ability to legislate these universal laws. As philosopher Jürgen Habermas explains: “The concept of humanity obliges us to take up the “we”-perspective from which we perceive one another as members of an inclusive community no person is excluded from.” He compares this rational ability with the agape (love) of Jesus—to treat everyone, including myself, as an end in themselves, as having dignity, is identical with the command of Jesus to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
Human beings are characterized by these two great, intertwined, united powers: the power of reason and the power of love. These are inseparable and both part of self-transcendence. This is our cosmic inheritance. As 20th century philosopher Errol E. Harris declares: “There is a sense in which love pervades the entire universe” as a “universal tendency towards unity and coherent harmony.” In the very act of self-consciousness, of being aware of myself as having thoughts, knowledge, experiences, impulses, reason, hope, or fear, any self-conscious awareness at all, I transcend. My process of self-transcendence begins here, Harris states, with reason and love carrying me inevitably in the direction of the whole.
Both reason and love intertwine in the “revolutionary unrest” of self-transcendence. When a self-aware being knows something about itself or the world, whatever that something is, he or she is already self-transcending, moving beyond himself or herself toward the truth, a truth that necessarily presupposes, as Kant understood, the truth of the whole.
Errol E. Harris calls this “rational love.” The process of self-transcendence brings us out of ourselves toward the other, toward the whole, toward humanity, cosmos, and God (or whatever we wish to name the whole: Tao, Dharmakaya, Brahman, Allah, Yahweh, or Ground of Being). “Genuine rational love,” Harris declares, “must extend to the entire human race…. As human rational activity is socially organized and embodied in political institutions, love comprehends and transcends all political and social virtues. It is the…expression of the perfected human community.”
Psychologist Eric Fromm sees the capacity for self-transcendence in love as having the unique feature of allowing me to unite with the other that I love without submerging my own authentic individuality:
Love is union with somebody, or something outside oneself under the condition of retaining the separateness and integrity of one’s own self. It is the experience of sharing, of communion, which permits the full unfolding of one’s own inner activity. The experience of love does away with the necessity of illusions. There is no need to inflate the image of the other person, or of myself, since the reality of active sharing and loving permits me to transcend my individualized existence and at the same time to experience myself as the bearer of the active powers which constitute the act of loving.
Kant sees love in a similar way. The self-transcendence of love comes through reason being able to place itself under universal laws. It is able to say “everyone, all, the whole.” This is fundamental to our active human powers. The law of reason declares that I must transcend myself and treat everyone as an end in themselves, including myself.
My unique dignity is retained and confirmed in the very act of universalizing. When socially and politically organized in complex societies, reason demands, Kant affirms, a social contract that guarantees the freedom, equality, and independence of each person before the law. The independence of each person is correlative with the universality of the social contract.
Under a binding social contract of the whole we have: Freedom—protected by the reason and love of the whole. Equality—before a common legislation to which no one is superior. Independence—in our freedom of thought, speech, vision, and action toward an ideal world, toward a “kingdom of ends in themselves.” Reason and love at the heart of self-transcendence envision a perfected human community, a common union of freedom, justice, and equality.
Without that contract there is no true freedom, only the lawless anarchy of “senseless freedom.” Our self-transcendence through rational love impels us to see the totality of humanity united under a social contract that empowers the freedom and independence of each. In this very process we move from a chaos of inadequate loving and partial attempts at self-transcendence to the whole of humanity. Our rational love becomes universal, as the saints of all the great religions have proclaimed. We have formed a binding contract with all the others to respect the individuality of each within the context of the freedom and equality of all.
20th century philosopher John Finnis points out that it is important not to be seduced by language. When we say that our lives are animated by the “love of truth” or the “love of justice” or the “love of freedom,” this does not mean that truth, justice, or freedom are valuable because I love them. Reason can discern the objective value in the objects of rational love. These objects, whether justice, friendship, moral action, truth, courage, or the rule of law for humanity, have objective value precisely because they are part of the truth of the whole. Human self-transcendence swings outward toward the truth, toward what has objective value.
When rational love discerns human beings as a whole, as a self-transcending phenomenon emerging from the cosmic evolutionary process, it envisions this wholeness under the rule of universal democratic laws protecting the freedom, equality, and independence of each. Rational love recognizes the absolute need for a social contract of the whole in which the united force of that whole (satyagraha, “soul force,” the nonviolent clinging to the truth of the whole) protects the freedom, equality, and independence of each.
In our day the gold standard for all planetary civil constitutions is the Constitution for the Federation of Earth (www.earthconstitution.world). It rises above the chaos of well-intentioned lovers who work for peace on the Earth, or brotherhood, or human rights, or religious toleration, or environmental sustainability. The Earth Constitution unites them all under the principle of rational love, that is, under the principle of self-transcendence in which the lover and the beloved are lifted together in their unity in diversity, in their mutual interdependence (unity) as well as independence (integrity and diversity).
Self-transcendence with respect to the three principles of existence (Humanity, God, and Nature) is then empowered and made possible for all of humanity. Our global social contract under the Earth Constitution constitutes ascent to a higher level of maturity, rising above the immense immaturity of clinging to a fragmented world of militarized sovereign nation-states. It satisfies what spiritual thinker Paulo Friere calls our “ontological vocation to become more fully human.”
Philosopher Frederick Ferré speaks of “liberation…from the parochialism of association and imagination that ties us to the mythos of a single community.” Through self-transcendence, he declares, we can achieve “a wholeness that is always open, a unity that, by its very nature, is hospitable to growth.” Placing humanity under the social contract of the Earth Constitution is at once ascent to a higher stage of maturity and an opening to further spiritual growth. Self-transcendence frees us from “the mythos of a single community.”
At this lethal turning point of history, when a pandemic is devastating our planet, when nuclear holocaust threatens our existence, when climate collapse is wreaking devastation across the planet, we have before us a choice: either the rational love of self-transcendence or perdition, business as usual, endless chaos, and decline into the likely extinction of our human project.
Only through uniting in a global social contract as demanded by rational love can human beings end war, transcend international chaos, eliminate the corruptions of extreme wealth and systems of exploitation, and protect our planetary biosphere. A social contract, Habermas writes, establishes “the reciprocal and symmetrical relations of mutual recognition proper to a moral and legal community of free and equal persons.”
We are raised to a level in which the dignity of each and every person is, for the first time in history, recognized by law. Citizenship is not fractured among some 200 competing sovereignties. The truth of the whole of humanity, “planethood,” the sovereignty of the people of Earth, demands the rule of democratic world law.
At this turning point in history, human self-transcendence understands that Democratic World Law is the 21st century form of love.
Buddha, Gautama. In John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, 2004,pp. 343-47.
Constitution for the Federation of Earth, on-line at www.earthconstitution.world.
Ferré, Friedrich. The Challenge of Religion, 1982, pp. 345 & 351
Finnis, John. Fundamentals of Ethics, 1983.
Friere, Paulo. Pedagogy of Freedom, 1998, p. 25.
Fromm, Eric. On Disobedience and Other Essays, 1981, p. 3.
Gandhi, Mahatma. In Krishna Kripalani, ed. All Men Are Brothers: Life and Thought of Mahatma Gandhi as Told In His Own Words, 1969, pp. 57, 64, & 72.
Giroux, Henry A. “Dystopian plagues and fascist politics in the age of Trump: Finding hope in the darkness,” article published at Salon, November 2020: https://www.salon.com/2020/10/04/dystopian-plagues-and-fascist-politics-in-the-age-of-trump-finding-hope-in-the-darkness/
Gutkind, Eric. Chose Life, 1952, p. 18.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Future of Human Nature, 2003, pp. 56 & 65.
Harris, Errol E. The Reality of Time, 1988, (rational love: pp. 162-63). Atheism and Theism, 1993 (self-transcendence toward the whole, pp. 51-66).
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason, 1965  (reason presupposes the whole, p. 538). Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals, 1964 (reason as universalizing and persons as ends in themselves). Perpetual Peace, 1957 , (senseless freedom versus rational freedom, p. 16).
Martin, Glen T. Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence. Chapter 5 on “Love, Cosmic Holism, and Democratic World Law.”
Panikkar, Raimon. The Cosmotheandric Experience: Emerging Religious Consciousness, 1993, pp. 59-66.
Rand, Ayn. See analysis of this phenomenon in Bill McKibben, Falter: Is the Human Game Beginning to Play itself Out?, 2019.
Tagore, Rabindranath. The Essential Tagore, Eds. Fakrul Alam & Radha Chakravarty, 2011, pp. 161-62.
(Glen T. Martin is Professor of Philosophy at Radford University in Virginia, Executive Director of the Earth Constitution Institute (ECI) and President of the World Constitution and Parliament Association (WCPA). He is author of 11 books and hundreds of articles about human transformation and liberation. His website can be found at www.oneworldrenaissance.com.)