Pragmatism 4: Agapism and Political Thought

This week we take a final look at the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Peirce’s life was something of a tragedy. He was a prodigy, reading Kant as a youth, studying under his famous father, a professor of mathematics at Harvard, and acknowledged to be one of the greatest and broadest minds of his day. He divorced his first wife and lived with his second wife before marriage. He lacked social skills and good political instincts. As a result, he was exiled from the most prestigious academic posts in America. He made a bare living writing articles for journals, lecturing and teaching where he could. For a time, he worked as a practicing scientist for the United States Coastal and Geodetic Survey, which is where he developed his theories of verification and his dislike of a kind of speculative philosophy he regarded as untrue to how human beings actually think. In the end, his suffering produced a rare, lovely, and brilliant character.

A Guess at the Riddle

If political life is to be essentially communal, and characterized by a communal search for a just social order, then some kind of unselfish, community-creating and community-sustaining ethic must be present. Peirce held that the evolution of the universe, and therefore of every society, involves a kind of love that expresses itself in a devotion to cherishing and tending to people or things other than oneself, as parent may do for offspring.

During the period from 1891 to 1893 Peirce wrote a series of articles collectively known as “A Guess at the Riddle.” [1] In these articles, Peirce sets out a system of understanding the world based on Chance, Necessity, and Love. This is to say that the process of evolution, which lies at the basis of much of his thought, involves, among other things, the response of the creature to the circumstances of existence, the orderly evolution by natural law, and the impact of love. Here is how Peirce describes these three modes of evolution:

Three modes of evolution have thus been brought before us: evolution by fortuitous variation, evolution by mechanical necessity, and evolution by creative love. We may term them tychastic evolution, or tychasm,anancastic evolution, or anancasm, and agapastic evolution, or agapasm. The doctrines which represent these as severally of principal importance we may term tychasticism, anancasticism, and agapasticism. On the other hand the mere propositions that absolute chance, mechanical necessity, and the law of love are severally operative in the cosmos may receive the names of tychism, anancism, and agapism. [2]

The term “Agapism” is the term Peirce uses for that cherishing or self-giving, sacrificial love that is at work in creation and in all human endeavors.

In Peirce’s view, all order emerges from chaos or what we might call in today’s quantum language, “pure potentiality.” This potentiality exists before the laws of nature and is the source and ground of whatever is. [3] In “A Guess at the Riddle,” written in the late 19th Century, Peirce expounds a theory of creation that anticipates modern “Big Bang” cosmology, and in which he sets out his view that there is at work in creation an evolutionary principle that we can call love.

As one author puts it

“Evolutionary Love” is one of Peirce’s most fascinating philosophical writings. It describes the existence of a cosmic principle of love throughout the universe creatively supporting the formation of new evolutionary forms. This love is a cherishing form of love, because it recognizes that which is lovely in another being and sympathetically supports its existence. Peirce calls his new theory “agapism,” and he contrasts it with evolutionary theories that are based on a selfish form of love; these preach “the Gospel of Greed.” Peirce points out the occurrence of such selfish, greed-based thinking in the modern politico-economical structures, and in Darwin’s biological principle of natural selection based on the competition of private interests. On the other hand, agapism promotes a devotion to helping one’s neighbors, and is a true doctrine of Christian ethics. [4]

This quotation by Nicholas Guardiano sets out the reason which Peirce’s Agapism is important for this blog: Peirce is partially motivated by a desire to overcome a kind of excessive laisse faire capitalism prominent at the time by setting out his own, Christian view of the role of love in society. However, underlying this position is the notion that the universe itself is characterized not just by competition, but also by love.


For Peirce, the evolution of human society, like the evolution of the world, is characterized by chance, deterministic features, and love. In order to understand what Peirce is trying to say, it is important to understand what he means by the term “Agapism.” In his “A Guess at the Riddle,” Peirce defines this love as (i) an active bestowal of energy by the lover to the beloved, (ii) a cherishing of the beloved by the lover, (iii) and a positive sympathy on the part of the lover for the benefit of the beloved. [5]

According to Peirce, Agapistic Love manifests itself in three specific ways:

  1. Agapistic Love may affect a people or a community and its collective personality as an idea or experience is communicated to individuals who in sympathy with the common connection of the collective mind of the group.
  2. Agapistic Love may affect an individual enabling that individual to apprehend an idea or appreciate the attractiveness of an idea due to an increase in sympathy with his community under the influence of a striking experience or development of thought.
  3. Agapistic Love may impact and individual independently of a human affection by virtue of an attraction exercise directly upon the mind prior to comprehension. [6]

As examples of the three kinds of experience of which Peirce is speaking, consider the appearance of Christ to his disciples after the crucifixion. This was a striking appearance to a group in sympathy with one another such that the group as a whole was enlightened and changed. Secondly, and an example Peirce uses, consider the experience of Paul on the Road to Damascus, a striking event that brought Paul into sympathy with the Christian movement. Peirce calls the third kind of example, “the divination of genius” by which a single individual is struck by an idea that immediately attracts the individual. Perhaps the famous incident of an apple falling at Isaac Newton’s feet, which gave him the immediate notion of gravity is an example.

From the perspective of political thought, all three characteristics of agapistic love are important. First, there are incidental moments of genius by which political thought is moved forward. This might for example, be seen in some of the great philosophers this blog has studied. Second, there are times in which an individual who is not in sympathy with a society or political system is struck by some virtue in that system and immediately grasps its importance. This might be seen in, for example, some of those who were in favor of communism but whose faith in freedom was kindled by contact with democracies. Finally, there are times when an idea impacts an entire society, as perhaps when the ideals of the Enlightenment impacted the American nation leading to the American revolution and national freedom.

Agapism and Politics and Morals

It is important to note that Peirce believes that Agapism is central to the evolution of the universe and human society, and the other features of evolutionary growth, chance and necessity, are derived from this primordial love. In other words, love is a central characteristic for the creation of the world and of human societies. It is not an “add on” or a psychological reaction of certain individuals to harmonies in the world or society. It is a feature of reality itself. In another context I have called the kind of love to which Peirce is referring, “Deep Love” or “Deep Relationality.” [7]

Peirce begins his analysis of agapism with with quotations from the letters of John in which he says that “God is love” (I John 4:8,16). He then proceeds to a discussion of the nature of that kind of love we see reflected in the life of Christ and to which John refers, as well as critiquing John’s supposed deviations from the pure gospel of love. After introducing this theme, Peirce proceeds to a discussion of the nature of that kind of love we see reflected in the life of Christ. He then begins to discuss its application to evolutionarily theory.  What is important in Peirce’s approach is that he gives an ontological basis for morality and politics: It is built into the nature of creation.

I, however, would like to approach agapism from a different point of view. Peirce wrote before modern relativity and quantum theory and before the abundant proofs in science that relationality is built into the universe. Beginning with Einstein’s insights, the notion of the world as built upon independent unites of matter related only by forces acting upon them was undermined. Time and Space are relational phenomena. According to the best science available, particles are waves or “excitements” in a universal field that permeates the universe. Both the quantum phenomenon of “Entanglement” and Chaos theory point towards a relationality of creation embedded in the universe, whatever one’s theory of creation may be. [8] The physicist Argyris Nicolaidis puts it this way:

In conclusion, a mode of thinking has been reached where the primacy focuses on an “interactive being,” a being constant in relation to the other and being in continuous ex-stasis to reach the other.  This relational mode of existence, which has been associated with creative growth, novelty, and free development is qualified as agape. Agape then is something more than an emotional state or sentimental experience it is a very principle of existence…. [9]

In defending an agapistic ethic, I would move from the phenomena of relationality within the creative order, a kind of Deep Relationality, to the emergence of the various kinds of love best captured from their Greek forms as a part of the process of the gradual evolution of the human race and human society:

  • “eros” or romantic love evoked by desire (ἔρως),
  • “storge” or affection ( στοργή),
  • “philia” or brotherly love ( φιλία),
  • “pragma” or practical love (πράγμα).
  • “agape” or self-giving love ( αγάπη),

These loves emerge out of a loving relationality at the root of creation. This loving relationality has evolved as human consciousness and human society evolved into new forms, forms that are not possible without the existence of the human race, for in the human race the inherent capacity for these loves has evolved in new and wonderful ways. From a Christian point of view, the created loves described above are derivative from and point to the uncreated love of God, reflected in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

The Politics of Agapism

For political purposes, all the loves have some meaning, but three perhaps are important to any well-functioning society:

  • Philia, which considers the beloved part of a family or common community;
  • Pragma, which compromises to help the relationship work over time, showing patience and tolerance in sustaining and building a relationship; and
  • Agape, which remains committed, sacrifices, and cherishes even when the beloved, in the case of political love, a society, is unworthy. It is a commitment over time to the other.

Love and the Gospel of Greed

Although this blog is getting long, I would be untrue to Peirce if I were not to return to his original thought that his theory of “Agapism” can be contrasted to the “Gospel of Greed” that he found present in American society, and which he thought unworthy of human society. Peirce was appalled at the way in which Social Darwinism had used the scientific principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest to justify a social organization and social policy based upon unlimited, selfish striving for power and position, which he called “the Gospel of Greed.” He felt that the kind of political and economic structures that this way of thinking promoted were immoral. This does not mean that Peirce opposed free enterprise, just a particular form of free enterprise that operated without an underlying morality based on love.

Against this “Gospel of Greed,” Peirce posited his own “Agapism” as involving devotion to other people and a personal and social ethics built upon a personal and communal ethic of love. Human beings do not find their fulfillment in unlimited self-promotion, but in as participants in a community of persons who are engaged in a common endeavor. In the case of American democracy, the creation of a society based on freedom, equality, and a search for the common good.


This is Easter Week, and it is appropriate that I deal with Agapism on the week when Christians celebrate the death of Christ on the cross for the sins of the world and his resurrection as the assurance of his victory over sin and death. I will give the last word to the Apostle whom Peirce refers in his work:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (I John 4:7-12).

Copyright, 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Happy Easter

[1] C. S. Peirce, “A Guess at the Riddle” in Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings Edward C. Moore, ed. (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1972), pp158-360, hereinafter “Guess,” at and page number.

[2] Id, at 245. These three terms are derived from Greek terms meaning chance or fortune (τύχη), Greek (ἀνάγκη) necessity, and agape, or love (ηγαπ).

[3] At the moment of creation, this “first” was followed by a “second” in which a kind of mediated habit begins to be formed due to reaction to the first, this is followed then by a third, involves reflection, reaction, and the beginning of cause and effect which forms a habit, law, convention, or rule of action.

[4] See, “Evolutionary Love” in “ Nicholas Guardino, Charles . Pierce and the open Court, 1890=1893:  Promoting an American Metaphysician at (downloaded April 11, 2022).

[5] Guess, at 249-250.

[6] Id, at 251-252,

[7] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Tao Te Ching Adapted for Christ-Followers rev. ed. (Permisio Por Favor/BookSurge, 2016).

[8] See, John Polkinghorne, ed, The Trinity and an Entangled world: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010). This volume, in which Polkinghorne is a contributor and editor, contains a variety of articles by scientists and others on the theme of relationality in the universe.

[9] Argyris Nicolaidis, “Relational Nature” in The Trinity and an Entangled world: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology, at 106.