I buried my little female cat Caissa at sunrise this morning in a beautiful spot in the Superstition Mountains in the same place where I buried my male cat Zeno in October of 2002. When I buried Zeno, just before leaving the burial site, I prayed, "May we love the perishable as perishable and not idolatrously, as if it were imperishable." I recalled and repeated the thought this morning. I think it is important to reflect on the moral and spiritual dubiousness of any excessive love of the finite and transient, especially if the object of one's love cannot reciprocate it except in a highly attenuated and analogous manner.
Related to the idolatry question is the question of attachment. Attachment breeds suffering. This is not an argument against any and all attachment, but it is an argument against excessive attachment. One must keep within bounds one's attachment to what must perish. A whole-hearted love of what barely exists is surely a mistake. There is such a thing as inordinate attachment. Compare Simone Weil: "The objects of our love barely exist." She's a Platonist, of course, and so if you do not share the Platonic sense of the relative unreality of the transient you are not likely to accept her or my line of thought.
How can attachment to something be inordinate? It is in ordinate when it is out of proportion to the reality/value of the object of attachment. My cat, for example. I would not be grieving now if I were not attached to my cat, and the question arises whether my attachment is within proper bounds. If the attachment is within proper bounds, then the grief will be as well.
To hazard a definition of grief: Grief is a mental state of intense sadness brought about by the death or absence of something, typically animate, to which one has become strongly attached. In typical cases, grief arises from a physical separation, often abrupt, from an object to which one is mentally attached. But if the beloved withdraws her love, while remaining physically near, can the lover be said to experience grief? Or is it a necessary condition of grief that the beloved dies? Can one experience grief at a state of affairs that does not involve the death or destruction of a particular sentient being such as a pet or a child or a spouse? "I am grieved at the transitoriness of things," Nietzsche complained in a letter to Franz Overbeck. Can a fundamental metaphysical structure of the phenomenal world be an object of grief? Yes, insofar as the transitoriness of things entails the death of sentient beings including those sentient beings to which one becomes attached. But something less grand than a fundamental metaphysical structure of the phenomenal world could be the object of grief, e.g., a state of war at a given time and place. So perhaps we should say this:
Grief is a mental state of intense sadness brought about by (i) the death or absence of some particular thing, typically animate, to which one has become strongly attached; or (ii) the unrequiting or withdrawal of the love of the beloved; or (iii) some general circumstance that entails the death or destruction or emotional withdrawal of beings, typically sentient, to which one has become strongly attached.
I began by speaking of attachment to pets and how it ought to be kept within bounds. But attachment to persons must also be kept within bounds. There is an old song by the 'British invasion' artist, Cilla Black, You're My World. "You're my world, you're every move I make; you're my world, you're every breath I take." This is romantic nonsense whether or not God exists. The nonexistence of an infinite good could not possibly justify loving a finite good infinitely. If another human being is your very world, then I say you are succumbing to idolatry even if there is nothing genuinely worthy of worship.
For characterizations of idolatry, see the Idolatry category.
It is true that that to live is is to be attached: there is no (normatively) human life without attachment. There are forms of asceticism which seek to sever the root of all attachment, but such a radical withdrawal from life amounts to a refusal to learn its lessons, lessons it can teach only to those who participate in it. So just as there can be inordinate attachment, there can be inordinate nonattachment. Nevertheless, no one can live wisely who gives free rein to his attachment, investing the loved object with properties it cannot possess.
We try to be satisfied with finite objects, but we cannot be, at least not completely or in the long run. (I should argue that we could not be satisfied even by an unending series of finite goods.) Can we adjust our desire so that it will be satisfied by the finite? Can we learn to accept the finite and not hanker after something more? Can we scale back or moderate desire? Not if it is the nature of desire to desire the infinite. If this is the nature of desire, then it must always and everywhere fall into idolatry in the absence of an infinite object. The only complete solution to the problem of the insatiability of desire by the finite, given the nonexistence or inaccessibility of an infinite object, would then be the extinction of desire. See Buddhism category.
But one could also take the insatiability of desire by the finite as a premise in an Argument from Desire for the existence of God or the Absolute Good. Schematically: (i) The nature of desire as we humans experience it in ourselves is such that, ultimately, nothing finite can satisfy it completely; (ii) even though the fact of a particular desire by X for Y is no guarantee of the availability of Y to X (Stranded Sam's need/desire for water is no guarantee that he will receive the water he needs/desires), the general fact that there are desires of a specified sort is good evidence of the existence and availability of objects what will satisfy the desires. Therefore, (iii) there exists and is available an Object that will satisfy the desire that is insatiable by any finite object.
That desire is ultimately desire for something beyond the finite is indicated by the fact that when a beloved animal or person dies, the void one experiences seems infinite or indefinite: it is not the mere absence of that particular animal or person. It is more than a specific absence one experiences in grief, but an absence that is 'wider' than the absence of a particular cat or woman, a sort of general emptiness. It is the nullity of all things that one experiences in intense grief over the absence of one particular thing. When a parent loses a child, it is not merely the son or daughter that he loses, but the significance and value of everything.
This suggests that love of a finite object is at bottom love a of an Infinite Good, but a love that is not aware of itself as a love of such a good, but misconstrues itself as a love wholly directed to a finite object and satisfiable by such an object. Otherwise, why would the void that is experienced when a finite object is taken away be experienced as a general void as opposed to the specific absence of a particular person, say? One invests a finite object with more reality and importance than it can carry, which fact is made evident when the object is removed: the 'hole in one's soul' that it leaves is much bigger than it.
These ruminations are of course Augustinian in tenor. See his Confessions, Book IV: "For whence had that former grief [the one concerning his friend who had died] so easily reached my inmost soul, but that I had poured out my soul upon the dust, in loving one who must die, as if he would never die?"
The inordinate love of the finite leads to inordinate attachment which then issues in inordinate grief when the object of attachment is removed, as every finite object (including one's own body) must eventually be removed. We fill our inner emptiness by becoming inordinately attached to objects that must pass away. When such an objectof inordinate love is taken away, our inner emptiness is brought out of its concealment. Augustine again: ". . . unjustly is anything loved which is from Him, if He be forsaken for it." (Pusey tr. 57-58)
We ought to love the finite as finite, without investing it with more reality and importance than it can bear. We ought to love the finite in God, but not as God. Trouble is, the the finite is all too available for our love and soon elicits an illicit and inordinate love, whereas God or the Good is largely absent and all too easy to doubt or deny.
That's our predicament.