Love is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. When people are incapable of it we think there is something seriously wrong with them, something that makes them almost inhuman. And yet there are many different types of love, for one’s partner, one’s children, one’s parents, even one’s nation or God. Each carries with it its own version of pains and pleasures. Yet, our vocabulary may not be well suited to such an important phenomenon. When I first came to the United States I was struck by the fact that the English language, the tongue of Shakespeare, has only one word for the notion. In Italian, for instance, I would never say to my daughter “I love you,” it would sound weird and incestuous. And that’s only one problem.
Even if we limit ourselves to “romantic” love, i.e., to love for one’s partner or spouse, the modern notion is confused compared to both what sound psychology and modern neuroscience tell us. A classical study on the progression of love in human beings found major differences between the neural underpinnings of intense romantic love (see also this, more recent, study), of the type we feel at the beginning of a relationship, and what scientists call limerence, the more subdued, but deeper attachment we may or may not develop for a partner with whom we were initially “in love.” (If you are curious about the details, the first phase activates mostly the striatum, part of the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure center of the brain; the second one activates also the insula, which the brain uses to assign value to our activities so that we continue to engage in them.)
Insisting in using the same word to describe these two conditions confuses two very different biological and psychological (and hence also social and cultural) phenomena. More crucially, expecting — both individually and as a society — that once two people embark on the first phase they will necessarily move to the second, which will itself automatically last a life time (the famous “and they lived happily ever after” of Disney-style tales) is absurd and arguably the cause of a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering.
The modern idea of romantic love probably traces back to the medieval concept of chivalry, made popular as well as more specific by French, Italian and Spanish troubadours, and finally canonized for Western audiences during the Romantic era that followed, as a backlash, the Enlightenment. However, it is arguably the Ancient Greeks and Romans that got it right, or at least closer to the mark. Interestingly, they used three different words that translate to “love,” none of which actually corresponds to our (confused) conception of romantic love. (A good and short introduction can be found in this video.)
To begin with, there is agápē, which means love that comes with an aspect of charity, in the sense of benevolence, embedded into it. This is the sort of love we have for our children, but also for our spouse or partner. Early Christians adopted the term to mean the unconditional love that God has for his children. As Thomas Aquinas put it, agápē means “to will the good of another” (in Summa Theologiae I-II, 26, 4).
Second, we have érōs, which in part does mean, as the modern word “erotic” indicates, sexual attraction for someone (the sort of stuff that stimulated the striatum in the neuro-studies linked above). However, Plato for one expanded the concept to indicate, after maturation and contemplation, love for beauty itself. This is the origin of the phrase “Platonic love,” which does not mean love without sex, necessarily, but rather love of the ideal Form of Beauty itself. This may begin with erotic attraction, but eventually transcends it.
In the Symposium we are treated by a lesson on love by none other than Socrates, who says that érōs allows the soul to recall knowledge of beauty and thus to arrive at an understanding of spiritual truth. In this sense, then, both lovers and philosophers are inspired by érōs.
Finally, we have philía, which describes a sense of affection and regard among equals. Aristotle uses this word to characterize love between friends, for family members, or of community. It is a virtuous type of love, often cast as of a brotherly sort, but with a component of enjoyment.
Notice that what distinguishes the three types of love recognized by the Greeks is not the object of love, but rather the modality of the sentiment. Take the specific instance of a long-term “romantic” relationship. Ideally, what one wants in that case is a particular combination of the three modes: we unconditionally (i.e., not because it is to our advantage) want the good of the other person (agápē); we want not just physical attraction, but a deeper appreciation of the “beauty” of our partner, in terms of his or her character traits (érōs); and we want to be their friends and to enjoy their company for its own sake (philía).
What distinguishes love of a partner from love of our children, friends, country or God, then, is the specific modulation of all three types of Greek “love.” Notice that none of them obviously maps to the initial phase of romantic love in the modern conception. That’s because, arguably, that phase is not, in fact, love itself, but (potentially) preliminary to love. If it lasts, and if it matures, then it becomes love. If this is even approximately correct, than a lot of what our literature, movies and advertisements describe as love is — rightly conceived — no such thing.
Postscriptum: various readers have commented on the fact that I have left out a fourth Greek word for love, storgē. That’s because it was actually rarely used in ancient texts, but still, it does help add even more nuance to the concept. Storgē means affection, especially (but not only) of the kind one has toward parents and children, and includes a component of empathy of the type felt naturally toward one’s children. Storgē was also used to indicate love for a country, or even a sports team, and — interestingly — in situations when one has to put up with unpleasant things, as in the oxymoronic phrase “love for a tyrant.”