Agapè in the market, civil society and politics

Agapè in the market, civil society and politics

Agapè is ancient Greek for the specific commitment of someone to the flourishing  of someone else on the way together towards shared joy (especially where this flourishment and joy are threatened). Often the word is translated as ‘love’. It is one of the most important inspirational concepts within Western society.

In this project, the actual meaning of this concept is explored, for all three major domains of contemporary society: the market, civil society (also known as non-profits and volunteer work) and the state. How can these domains, each in their own way, contribute to human dignity and human flourishing?

Today ‘love’ is above all a word that we place in the private sphere. Besides, to us it is strongly connected to – romantic – feelings. Therefore, in this project the original concept of agapè is used, because traditionally this concept has public significance and indicates what someone concretely undertakes with or for someone else – towards a new and common future – instead of what someone feels for another person.

Agapè is the specific commitment of someone to the flourishing  of someone else, towards shared joy

The most well-known elaboration of this basic principle has become known as the ‘Seven Works of Mercy’ that indicate directly how specific agapè is: feed the hungry, refresh the thirsty, visit the sick, shelter the homeless, etc. Via many different channels, in stories, in art, people have tried to communicate these principles and others have been inspired by them. Here is the foundation of today’s ‘civil society’, but also of our expectations of the free market and a well-functioning government.


werken van barmhartigheid
The Seven Works of Mercy’ (1504) by the ‘Meester van Alkmaar’ (Cornelis Buys?)

Inspired civil society

In recent years many social organisations fell prey to technocratic commercialization. Currently there is an opposite trend: a quest for moral inspiration and community involvement. The program ‘Agapè & civil society’ wants to stimulate this quest and help develop new forms of governance.

Free Market

It is becoming ever more clear that the real secret of a well-functioning market is not ‘self-interest’ but cooperation and morality. In the program ‘Agapè & civil society’ research focusses on why this is the case (and why we have thought the opposite for so long).

Politics: dignity

With the globalisation and individualisation of the 21st century, good governance requires a whole new mix of freedom, responsibility, flexibility and solidarity to enable people’s dignity and flourishing. The program ‘agapè and politics’ studies the role of the political order in the future ‘society of human dignity’.

Via the Latin translation of ‘caritas’ we have become  used to (or spoiled by?) an impressive tradition of mutual care since the early Middle Ages, in the form of sick care, orphanages and all sorts of charities. This tradition continues in contemporary non-profit and community volunteer initiatives, the area that we now often refer to as ‘civil society’. However, these initiatives easily lose their inspiration and come in a state of spiritual exhaustion and fall prey to functionalist efficiency.  In this study we look into the current sources of inspiration for community initiatives and appropriate organisational forms for this inspiration.

The focus is on collectively creating opportunities for mutual prosperity

The concept of ‘caritas’ was introduced into what we now call ‘the economy’ as early as the middle ages, particularly in the guilds, in which people stimulated each other to produce the best possible products and at the same time show solidarity towards each other in times of adversity and disease. More and more, labour and later also trade, were seen as ways to overcome poverty, create wealth and preserve peace. In Northwest Europe this has – alongside all sorts of other possibilities like capitalism and communism – resulted in the idea of a social market economy, also known as ‘Rhine capitalism’. Central to this is the simultaneous realisation of interests of all stakeholders, both within a company and society as a whole. The focus is on collectively creating opportunities for mutual prosperity. In this project, we will examine how moral inspiration works in people, in companies and in the economy as a whole.

Starting in Western Europe, a very remarkable global historical transformation has occurred from hierarchical power structures to democratic states in which everyone is equal before  the law. This ‘constitutional state’ aims to ensure human dignity for all. However, the state does this very differently from social organisations or companies. How to achieve this,  should be determined afresh in every new period and context. In an era of both individualisation and globalisation, government and politics should reinvent themselves in order to be able to guarantee the dignity of everyone.


de Goede overheid -Lorenzetti
Lorenzetti, The Allegory of Good Government (1340)

Prof. dr. Govert Buijs
Prof. dr. Govert Buijs VU-Amsterdam Extraordinary Professor of Political Philosophy and Religion