The Greek Approach to Love

In modern English, the word love almost exclusively invokes the image of romantic relationships that involve sexual and emotional intimacy. The ancient Greeks divided love into several categories, each pertaining to a wide range of individuals, relationships, or life stages. All were important to a well-rounded life. While, it is always tricky to translate complex concepts from one language to another, here is a rough – and I caution, layman – breakdown:

Eros (Sexual Passion) – Appropriately named after the Greek god of fertility, we might consider this to be lust, infatuation, or strong desire. Eros was seen as something primal and overpowering that could take hold of you and make you lose control. Thus, while the Greeks could certainly enjoy the experience (as do most people in most places) they recognized it as risky, irrational, and thus potentially damaging to both partners.

Philia (Close Friendship) – Various defined as “affectionate regard” or “love between equals”, philia goes beyond the base feeling of sexual desire and concerns a deep camaraderie. In the context of the ancient world, this was usually (though not exclusively) developed between men who fought together in war. It is thus characterized by loyalty, self-sacrifice for one’s comrades, and an openness to sharing one’s feelings.

Storge (Familial Bond) – Sometimes considered a subcategory of philia, this represents the instinctive, deep seated bond between family members, especially a parent to a child. It is a natural love that is based around loyalty, empathy, and commitment. Storge necessarily, if not ideally, required patience, tolerance, and acceptance.

Ludus (Playful Love) – The Greeks applied this to the affection one sees between children or young lovers, which is often naïve, innocent, and sometimes idealistic. It encompasses flirting, jokeful teasing, and the various other “games” we now associate with modern courtship. It is thus a fleeting and immature type of love, albeit not in a bad way: it was (and is) seen as something nearly everyone experiences and must learn from, including in the early stages of a romantic relationship.

Pragma (Long-Lasting Love) – This is the love we associate most with long-term relationships and married couples, especially older ones. It is a love centered not on sexual desire or even just friendship, but on a sense of commitment, dedication, and compromise that allow the love to move past the temporary pull of sexual attraction or playfulness. Pragma is thus sometimes interpreted as a practical, rational, and duty-bound love – though too much of it could turn one’s relationship into a more transactional experience.

Philautia (Self-Love) – The Greeks were pretty conflicted about this one, since it could come out in diametrically opposed ways. On the one hand, there is unhealthy self-love – what we might call narcissism – in which you became self-absorb, focused on material gain, and had an unrealistically high view of yourself. At the other end, there was the type of self-love that we might associate with self-confidence or self-esteem: recognizing your strengths and your potential and applying yourself accordingly.

Indeed, the Greeks (like the Buddhists) believed that if you loved yourself in a healthy way, you would become secure, well-adjusted, and thus able to give plenty of love to others. Basically, love for others begins with love for yourself. This can best be understood from a quote by Aristotle’s quote in the Nicomachean Ethics “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.”

Agape (Love for All / Charitable Love) – A fairly broad and complex type of love, agape could be directed to almost any class of persons from loves and relatives, to one’s whole community or distant strangers. Its key defining characteristic is that it is selfless: you get nothing out of it, and the recipient is not expected to give you anything in return (not even love). Hence why the origin of the word charity is agape’s Latin translation, caritas.

Early Christians – who emerged most strongly in the Greek speaking and Greek influenced part of Room – took the term as a description of God’s boundless, universal love for all creation.

To my mind, the lesson from the Greeks would be to recognize the existence of different types of love, realize their importance, and cultivate them as best we can.

What are your thoughts?

 

 

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