Pitirim A. Sorokin’s
Practical Approach to Altruism
Carlos Cardoso Aveline
In modern societies, a large part of the population is addicted to short-term and shallow views of life. As a result, millions of people talk about love and listen to popular songs about emotions – without really trying to know what they are talking about.
Understanding the mystery of human affection is, of course, no easy task. Perhaps it is for this reason that many do not even try. The several meanings of the word “love” are often difficult to grasp. Love creates conflicts and harmony, happiness and desperation. It moves the Universe. And seeing the dynamic unity and harmony among different elements of life is the same as perceiving Life itself.
Whether we understand love or not, love implies a degree of altruism. Brazilian poet Mário Quintana wrote that friendship occurs when “one’s soul moves to another house”, or when one “feels at home” while looking at the life of some friendly soul. Human affinity is also multidimensional: it flows on the seven levels of consciousness.
According to Pitirim A. Sorokin, a pioneer of balanced research in altruism, the energy of love has at least five dimensions:
(4) Purity; and
(5) The adequacy of its manifestation in objective actions, in relation to its inner purpose. 
1. The Intensity
“In intensity”, says Sorokin, “love ranges between zero and the highest possible point, arbitrarily denoted as infinity.”
“The zero point is neither love nor hate. Below the zero point is hate (which has a similar intensity dimension). We all know this range of love intensity. When we observe a person who preaches love but does not practice it, we know that the intensity of his love is near the zero point; when the highfalutin preaching of love is used to mask selfish and hateful actions of hypocrites, their actions fall below the zero point and become hateful actions of various intensities.”
According to theosophy, the intensity of altruistic love depends on the level of consciousness from which it emerges. How intense is the contact between one’s personality and his own immortal soul?
“Such actions as giving a few cents to the hungry (from large possessions of the giver), or offering a seat to another person on a streetcar, are actions of love, though of low intensity. Actions by which a person freely gives to others his greatest values – health, life, ‘soul’ (…) – are love actions of the highest possible intensity. Between zero and the highest points of love intensity there are many intermediary degrees.”
By having self-respect, a citizen feels love and respect for others. How best to measure the weight and strength of actual kindness?
“As a whole, the range of love intensity is not scalar”, says Sorokin.
“In most cases we cannot say exactly how many times greater a given intensity is than another, or whether it is equal, or higher, or lower. Yet we can often see clearly which intensity is really high and which low, and sometimes even measure it in quantitative units. Thus, other conditions being equal, the act of merely offering the seat in a streetcar will be appraised by practically all normal beings as an action of much lower love intensity than the action of saving a life at the risk or sacrifice of one’s own.”
“…When the same person gives to others at one time 2 per cent of his wealth and at another 90 per cent of it, his second love action will be many times more intense than the first. When at one time he gives others one hour of his time and at another a week or a month, his second action will be many times higher in its love intensity than his first. To sum up: by and large love intensity is not scalar. This, however, does not hinder us from seeing the greatly different intensities of various love actions; nor even – here and there – from roughly measuring in numerical units these intensities. The same may be said of the scalar and nonscalar character of the four other dimensions of love.” 
2. The Extensity
Theosophy teaches an unlimited, impersonal love, and an unfathomable understanding of life as a whole. There is no separation between thought and emotion in esoteric philosophy, and its students must know what they love, and love what they know.
Pitirim Sorokin tries to approach love as a process in itself, with the help of methods borrowed from conventional science. He wrote about the narrowness or width of one’s affinities:
“The extensity of love ranges from the zero point of love of oneself only, up to the love of all mankind, all living creatures, and the whole universe. Between these minimal and maximal degrees lies a vast scale of extensities: love of one’s own family, or a few friends, or love of all the groups one belongs to – one’s clan, tribe, nationality, nation, religious, occupational, political, and other groups and associations.”
Universal or boundless love is also an actual fact in human life:
“The maximal point of extensity is the love of the whole universe (…). Like St. Francis, one can love ‘a dear brother – earth’, the moon, the wind, a river, a tree, and generally all animate and inanimate phenomena, and thus ‘reverently and lovingly walk the earth’. And one can ‘hate the whole world’ and view it as his enemy.” 
One can love all beings, or love none. In theory, one can love himself exclusively. In fact, this is impossible since there is no actual separation in the universe. Selfishness is but a form of blindness and the “personal self” a delusion. And yet, working on a rather superficial level, one might say that according to Sorokin’s system the “zero point” of love extensity is a love of oneself only.
Hate, on its turn, is a negative quantity of love. The aggressive rejection of another being is an “affinity below zero” and worse than useless except in cases of legitimate defense.
According to theosophy, the opposite of love constitutes a (karmic) debt to oneself and to others, and a debt to Life. The feeling of blind rejection needs to be understood before it can be eliminated, and replaced by a clear understanding of life’s unity and a sense of impersonal justice. Theosophical wisdom gives humans both good will and detachment. These two feelings liberate people from the neurotic alternation between “attachment” and “rejection”.
3. The Duration
“The duration of love may range from the shortest possible moment to years or throughout the whole life of an individual or of a group”, says Sorokin.
And theosophy adds:
“It also uses to endure a number of lifetimes, perhaps a few eternities.”
Solidary actions have many different timings. Sorokin writes:
“Not only love actions of low intensity, but many of the highest intensity may last but a short time, like the actions of a soldier on a battlefield who risks or sacrifices his life to save his comrade; having saved him, and having himself survived, a soldier may stop such activities and become a selfish, ordinary creature. On the other hand, love actions of low as well as high intensity may endure for a long period, perhaps throughout the life of an individual or group. A mother caring for her sick child through his and her life, a good neighbour for years giving financial or other help to this or that person, great apostles of love discharging their love mission for decades, even throughout life, are examples of enduring love.”
Deep altruistic action during one incarnation creates karmic trends which will emerge again as blissful facts in future lifetimes.
4. The Purity
Integrity is another dimension. Sorokin writes:
“The purity of love ranges from the love motivated by love alone – without the taint of a ‘soiling motive’ of utility, pleasure, advantage, or profit, down to the ‘soiled love’ where love is but a means to a utilitarian or hedonistic or other end, where love is only the thinnest trickle in a muddy current of selfish aspirations and purposes.” 
In fact, the concept of purity of love must be balanced with a knowledge of the fact that all levels of consciousness constantly interact. Purity does not mean an absence of communication between higher and lower levels of affection. It means that lower levels of love and affinity cannot unduly interfere with the impersonal, pure, elevated process of affinity. A notion of psychoanalytical factors will help preserving the right kind of devotion in one’s spiritual life seen as an impersonal matter. And that leads us to the next point.
5. The Adequacy of Love
Every honest person has an inclination to be a friend, to have compassion, to be helpful to others and live with good will regarding all life. The ability to do so in effective ways, however, is granted to no one. It all depends on the amount of discernment one has in looking at the way the Law of Karma works and the Consequences of his own actions.
Combined with naïve decisions, good intentions may cause havoc. Every day disastrous situations are provoked by the wrong use of love energy. The issue is easy to illustrate. Sorokin writes:
“We all know mothers who love their children intensely and want to make them ‘lovable’ – that is, honest, industrious, and good. With this purpose they frequently pamper them, satisfy all their fancies, and fail to discipline them when they need it. Through such love actions they often spoil their children, and make them capricious, irresponsible, weak, lazy, dishonest. These objective consequences of love differ radically from the mother’s goal of love. (…) The necessary wisdom lacking, blind love miscarries in its objective manifestations and destroys itself; instead of benefitting the beloved person, it often harms him. Here we have an inadequate love (…) as a dark passion moving to self-destruction.”
The same challenge occurs in all aspects of life.
Irresponsible love for the nation can lead to unfair war. Narrow-minded love for churches and sects produces fanaticism, oppression and intolerance. A selfish devotion to individual families may provoke an absence of ethics. Undue attachment to ideological groups can generate fierce class struggle and social disharmony in large scale.
Examples are many. Love without wisdom is blind and irresponsible; its result is self-destruction. Cicero is right in posing three preconditions to anyone who wishes to help another. First, the action must be just and cause no undue pain to third parties. Second, the action must be within our possibilities. And third, the recipient of the action must be worthy of it; he, or she, has to deserve it. 
Once the right amount of wisdom is there, altruistic love and friendship are real and prevail, side by side with justice and a sense of respect for all beings.
The first object of the modern theosophical movement is to slowly form an enduring nucleus of Universal Brotherhood, without distinction of race, nationality, creed, sex, ideology, caste or color. Such a sense of brotherliness includes all beings and flows in the unlimited context of eternal time and boundless space. A combination of noble intention and severe discernment leads every student of universal law to effectively learn the ancient art of right action.
 “The Ways and Power of Love”, Pitirim A. Sorokin, Templeton Foundation Press, Pennsylvania, USA, 2002, 552 pp., p. 15. On Sorokin’s five-dimension view of altruistic love, see the book “Unlimited Love”, Stephen G. Post, Templeton Foundation Press, Philadelphia and London, 2003, 232 pp., chapter 9, pp. 133-155. A fragment of Stephen Post’s book was published on pp. 1-2 of “The Aquarian Theosophist”, July 2015 edition.
 “The Ways and Power of Love”, Pitirim A. Sorokin, Templeton Foundation Press, Pennsylvania, USA, 2002, 552 pp., pp. 15-16.
 “The Ways and Power of Love”, Pitirim A. Sorokin, p. 16.
 “The Ways and Power of Love”, Pitirim A. Sorokin, same p. 16.
 “The Ways and Power of Love”, Pitirim A. Sorokin, p. 17.
 “The Ways and Power of Love”, Pitirim A. Sorokin, pp. 17-18.
 “De Officiis”, Cicero, with an English translation by Walter Miller, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 2005, 424 pp., see p. 47.
The above article first appeared in the June 2018 edition of “The Aquarian Theosophist”, with no indication as to the name of the author. “The Five Dimensions of Love” was published as an independent article in our associated websites on 26 March 2019.
See the article “Love Without Violence”, by Erich Fromm. Read the texts “Is Family Life a Duty?” and “Magnetic Circles of Universal Love”, both by Carlos Cardoso Aveline.