“Love, and do what thou wilt.” It is a saying that I am familiar with from Aleister Crowley, the famous occultist. But it turns out the saying has a much more ancient and surprising origin. It comes from Saint Augustine in fact, from his Seventh Homily on the Letter of John. Here is the context:

“The deeds of men are only discerned by the root of charity. For many things may be done that have a good appearance, and yet proceed not from the root of charity. For thorns also have flowers: some actions truly seem rough, seem savage; howbeit they are done for discipline at the bidding of charity. Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether thou spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.”

In this homily Augustine observes that if a boy had to choose between being treated harshly and being treated affectionately, no doubt he would choose the latter. Nevertheless, suppose the punishment came from his father and the caress came from his kidnapper. “In that case,” he says, “it is love which disciplines and iniquity which caresses.” Love does not necessarily mean that you make the other person feel good. First and foremost, it requires that your actions flow from a right relationship with that person and with God. That being so, says Augustine, “Love and do what you will.”

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