The Greeks were right about love

An Ancient Greek symposium

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.

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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.”

65 thoughts on “The Greeks were right about love

  1. garthdaisy

    This is an excelent illumination of why the “All you need is love” mantra is so confused and inept as a socio-political philosophy.

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  2. synred

    In high school a belonged to a protestant ‘study’ group called Agape. My role was the group Catholic. I was already pretty skeptical and would argue the same side as my friend Wayne (who was the ‘atheist’)

    The name was Agape, but the point of the group was eros.

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  3. Daniel Kaufman

    If the English word ‘love’ is problematic because it makes it difficult to make essential category distinctions, I would maintain that the word ‘partner’ being used now as a replacement for terms like ‘husband’ ‘wife’ and the like is similarly awful: in part because its primary uses are so far off from the newly assigned use (one thinks of business partners and the like), but because it potentially glosses over the intertwining of familial and romantic love that has across human civilization and history defined these relationships that are distinctive from adult coupling/romance.

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  4. couvent2104

    I would maintain that the word ‘partner’ being used now as a replacement for terms like ‘husband’ ‘wife’ and the like is similarly awful

    Totally agree, I hate the expression. When I want to introduce my Other Half to someone in French, I sometimes say she’s “ma femme–copine–épouse–maîtresse–partenaire–amie”. Individually, these words don’t suffice, together they start to cover what I actually want to say.

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  5. jbonnicerenoreg

    Not one mention of philosophy–love of wisdom. The Greek word ‘philia’ is the friendly type of love. It can’t be the caring love of agape since Sophia is self sufficient. It could be Eros but would a Stoic want to be wildly passionate about Sophia. So how are we a friend of Sophia?

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  6. Daniel Kaufman

    couvent: Yes. As an adult to have a lover — even longstanding — is very different from being married, in which case you have also joined the family of the other person and taken on all sorts of familial relationships with the corresponding loves that follow.

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  7. N Ferrin

    This seems like rather important and consequential information, no?! I wonder how a mass-general understanding of this concept, that the notion of “falling in love”(striatum activity) isn’t actually falling in love at all, according to the Greek types of love, but something else, might affect the longevity of relationships, or even the decisions we make in the throes of the “falling”/preliminary love?

    May we all hope for (and have the temperance for) limerence!

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  8. brodix

    Quantifying love does pose problems, because love is about the connections and the flow, rather than description and structure. Those elements welling up from the depths don’t often cooperate with the tags we try to assign them.

    If I was to categorize love, it would be first as the attraction/rejection of the moment, then as the feedback of these forces over time. Where and who we become rooted in and where and who we avoid, along with all that is the general ebb and flow, that is our life.

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  9. Massimo Post author

    Jbonni,

    “The Greek word ‘philia’ is the friendly type of love. It can’t be the caring love of agape since Sophia is self sufficient. It could be Eros but would a Stoic want to be wildly passionate about Sophia. So how are we a friend of Sophia?”

    Good question. And yes, I would say that philia does indeed fit well the “love” for wisdom. It also refers to desire and enjoyment for an activity, as well as between lovers.

    N Ferrin,

    Yes, it is important and consequential! Just like a lot of other insights from the Greco-Romans. That’s why I’m now devoting a significant chunk of my efforts to help revitalize useful aspects of that worldview. Are you familiar with my other blog, howtobeastoic.org? That’s where I usually address these issues.

    And indeed, may we all hope for limerence!

    Thomas,

    “Wouldn’t “stalking” fall within the purview of limerence?”

    What? No.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. synred

    the modern idea of love probably traces back to the medieval concept.

    1] I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.
    [2] As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.
    [3] As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
    [4] He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.
    [5] Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.
    [6] His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.
    [7] I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please.
    [8] The voice of my beloved! behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills.
    [9] My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice.
    [10] My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
    [11] For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
    [12] The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;
    [13] The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
    [14] O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.
    [15] Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.
    [16] My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.
    [17] Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether.

    OK, it is a translation from 15th century … but still likely reflects some feeling from earlier times.

    It does not seem to be about God, though there are some problems with poorly defined antecedents.

        .

    Liked by 1 person

  11. labnut

    Synred,
    OK, it is a translation from 15th century … but still likely reflects some feeling from earlier times.

    You have course quoted from the Song of Solomon(KJV) which reflects the feelings some 3000 years earlier. It nicely illustrates the timeless nature of love.

    Shakespeare makes this point in Sonnet 116:

    Let me not to the marriage of true minds
    Admit impediments. Love is not love
    Which alters when it alteration finds,
    Or bends with the remover to remove:
    O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
    That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
    It is the star to every wandering bark,
    Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
    Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
    Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
    Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
    But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
    If this be error and upon me proved,
    I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

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  12. synred

    “Wouldn’t “stalking” fall within the purview of limerence?”

    What? No.

    Certainly, some of the feelings that underlay stalking are common to lemerence, but taken to an extreme and combined with power issues (control freaks).

    https://goo.gl/h0NTh9

    Is Freddy a stalker? A potential stalker? (It is only fiction…)

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  13. Thomas Jones

    Massimo, I was half-jesting. As Dan K suggests above, if there is a problem per se in English with usage of the word “love” and an apparent lack of categorical distinctions in everyday usage, it resides in its overuse to the point it becomes lazy or euphemistic and context dependent, for better or worse. But so far as I know, despite your fine discussion of the tripartite distinctions made by the early Greek philosophers, most Greeks use agape in everyday language. More than a matter of being “right,” it seems a matter of the aesthetic use of language. If I say I love my dog or daughter, most will grasp my meaning without feeling a need to ponder such distinctions.

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  14. Massimo Post author

    Thomas,

    I did surmise you made the comment half in jest. And yes, modern Greeks only use agape, it seems. And you are correct, context usually makes things sufficiently clear. But I still don’t think this is just a matter of aesthetics. It’s the philosopher in me talking: fine distinctions of language reflect finer thinking about an issue, which I find useful, unless it is pushed to the level of sophistry.

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  15. valariansteel

    Hi synred,

    On the 17 lines you cite, in support of modern concept of love tracing back to the medieval concept, that poem didn’t originate in the medieval period.

    It may have been repeated by a medieval poet, but some of it clearly goes back much further in history. E.g., the expression “mountains of Bether” comes straight from the Song of Songs, better known by its English title, the Song of Solomon. Note also the references to the “daughters of Jerusalem.” The love poetry in the song of Songs belongs to the genre of ancient love poetry — IIRC, ancient Egypt (among other nations) had a well developed genre of love poetry (and comparisons have been made the two bodies of literature). I haven’t got my Hebrew text with me, but Song of Songs (i.e., a superlative expression for the Great Song”) is full of beautiful metaphors . . . and definitely dates to sometime in the BCE period.

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  16. labnut

    It’s the philosopher in me talking: fine distinctions of language reflect finer thinking about an issue,

    Exactly.

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  17. synred

    “>No, just no. To say that stalking has anything to do with limerence is a perversion of the latter.

    I doubt that. Emotions are tangled in humans and can become warped.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limerence

    Limerence (also infatuated love) is a state of mind which results from a romantic attraction to another person and typically includes obsessive thoughts and fantasies and a desire to form or maintain a relationship with the object of love and have one’s feelings reciprocated.

    Freddy has ‘obsessive thoughts’ about Eliza. This is pretty common in life, but doesn’t usually cross into stalking, but the hanging about is pretty common,

    I remember having a crush on a girl and riding my bike up and down her street in hopes of meeting her.It passed pretty quickly.

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  18. synred

    On the 17 lines you cite, in support of modern concept of love tracing back to the medieval concept, that poem didn’t originate in the medieval period.

    Of course it doesn’t. That was the point.

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  19. synred

    http://victimsofcrime.org/our-programs/stalking-resource-center/stalking-information

    7.5 million people are stalked in one year in the United States.
    Over 85% of stalking victims are stalked by someone they know.
    61% of female victims and 44% of male victims of stalking are stalked by a current or former intimate partner.
    25% of female victims and 32% of male victims of stalking are stalked by an acquaintance.
    About 1 in 5 of stalking victims are stalked by a stranger.
    Persons aged 18-24 years experience the highest rate of stalking.
    11% of stalking victims have been stalked for 5 years or more.
    46% of stalking victims experience at least one unwanted contact per week.

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