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.


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. Massimo Post author


    I’m not sure where this obsession with stalking comes from, and I don’t give a hoot about Google searches. I defined terms as they are understood in philosophy and psychology. Those are the parameters of this discussion. It is about love, not obsession. You are, of course, right that similar human emotions may play in both cases, but that’s entirely unhelpful. One can also be angry at injustice or because someone else stepped on his foot. That doesn’t mean the two phenomena have much in common…


  2. wtc48

    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.””

    Some Dante scholars have conceived the Divine Comedy as an account of Love in various stages: Love misbegotten, warped, perverted or misconstrued (Hell, e.g. Heloise and Abelard); Love corrected or redirected (Purgatory, e.g. Cato, Manfred); and transcendent and perfect Love (Beatrice). This seems to extend the context of love to all aspects of life, by using it to frame every human activity as an expression of love.

    With this in mind, love could be seen as primal and universal in human nature, and expressible in some way in all languages, without being absolutely definable in any.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. labnut

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

    Human behaviour and emotions are subject to considerable variation. The extremes we often consider to be pathological and indicative of an underlying disorder. Stalking belongs to this category and says little about limerence and much more about an underlying disorder.

    You may disagree that it is a pathological disorder but from the reaction of society in general we can see it is regarded as such. It evokes a feeling of revulsion or fear and it is often regarded as criminal.

    Why should this be so? We fear predators and we fear predators of our own kind the most. Consequently we have finely tuned mechanisms to build and maintain trust. Stalking is a deep violation of trust that arouses our fear of predation.


  4. Thomas Jones

    I must apologize to both Massimo and Synred for suggesting that stalking, at least in part, meets the definition of limerence. The point, I suppose, is whether in such matters, the philosophic approach that Massimo explores here is more helpful than others in such matters, or whether by fiat conveys a idealized strangle hold on the subject, thus leading to the postscript on storge and so on or is quickly dismissive of stalking as simply perverse.

    In this regard, I find observations such as Pope’s in “The Rape of the Lock” both more helpful and humorous:

    Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,
    Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.

    Many scholars have posited the notion of “romantic” love as a byproduct of the West’s renaissance while ignoring the evidence of earlier history. But these suppositions seem misguided and academic.

    Given my druthers, I’ll take Shakespeare’s “hamstrung” explorations of the subject in, say, “King Lear” or “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” as more prescient than Plato’s or Aristotle’s ruminations.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. labnut

    This is fascinating stuff. One article gives seven categories of love eros, philia, storge, agape, ludus, pragma and philaudia.

    I prefer another way to look at the subject of love, in four broad categories, which represent the four main stages in our personal growth:

    1) Love of self.
    A healthy love of the self in the mature is the outcome of realising the remaining three kinds of love, below. That is love of other, excellence and the transcendentals. Unfortunately it mostly manifests as pride, vanity, narcissism and hedonism(love of one’s own pleasure).

    2) Love directed at the other.
    This is mostly what Massimo discusses and this is commonly how we understand it.

    3) Love of excellence.
    We have a deep and innate drive to achieve excellence and we love achieving it.

    4) Love of the transcendentals.
    We love the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

    I suggest that we grow towards maturity through these four stages of love. We start with love of self in its most immature form. Through bonding and socialisation we progress towards love of the other and decreased love of self. As we learn to assume useful roles in life we develop a love of excellence in the way we perform these roles. In the final stage of maturity we learn to deeply value and love the transcendentals, that is the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

    Once we reach this stage of maturity we close the circle and discover a healthy love of the self which is grounded in the inner satisfaction of loving the other, loving excellence and loving the transcendentals. This I call eudaimonia. You may define it differently.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. brodix

    Then there are the warm fuzzies.

    English does well enough. There is friendship, comradeship, empathy, sympathy, respect, etc, as the swarm of emotions around some core connectivity to other persons, places, things, etc.

    “No sex please. We’re British.”

    A stoic should understand that, even a philosopher.


  7. Massimo Post author


    Well, this philosopher certainly understands the quip, but I have it on good authority that even the Brits actually do have sex, at least once in a while…


  8. brodix

    Nah. It’s all just staring across the downs.

    Actually the stoic reference was to a focus on the meaning of terms over time(obsess?), might be fitting for a philosopher, but a stoic would reasonably be more reasonable. If even math can be a little fuzzy at times, so can language.


  9. brodix

    I guess my point has been that as a state of interpersonal entanglement, love is inherently fuzzy. Which is why the artists seem to be more effective in describing it, than the philosophers.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. SocraticGadfly

    “Limerence” is no laughing matter, even at a Las Vegas piano? More seriously, if not stalking, Ternov clearly appeared for it to include more “negative” as well as “positive” elements, and further work seems to have gone that way.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. SocraticGadfly

    And, if we’re going to refer back to the language of Hellas, by Koine times, ἀγάπη and φιλία were largely synonymous. Witness John 21, where verbal forms φιλεω and ἀγαπάω are used interchangably in the “Do you love me, Peter?” interrogation.

    Wiki notes that determining meaning outside of context is a bit of a mug’s game.

    And Sojourners magazine (original source of the link) suggest six ancient Greek words that could be translated as “love.”

    And yet another source says επιθυμία is not always “lust,” and cites New Testament passages. And that one notes that more than one of those has carried into modern Greek. It specifically cites στοργή.

    So, besides the “context matters” point, one other thing to note is that words aren’t the masters, and definitely, words aren’t Platonic. Sorry, evangelical Christians, but per the above, there’s nothing special about the word ἀγάπη. Maybe about the idea behind it, but, not the word, which is perhaps why Plato himself wasn’t always fond of written language — and the pre-Hindu Brahmans even less so.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. SocraticGadfly

    Ultimately, this is getting into linguistics, and into ideas that at least approach Sapir-Whorf. Does environment influence language development? Sure. Does environment, directly, or via language indirectly, change thought, at least in a permanent way? No.

    Chomsky’s overclaims aside, there surely are some “deep structures” of linguistically organized thought.

    On the surface? We’ve likely all heard of Stone Age tribes whose cardinal numbers are “one,” “two,” “three,” then “more.” But, you put a stack of four items, and a second stack of six items, in front of them, they’ll distinguish them — and distinguish their descriptions.

    They may not do that for stacks of 104 vs. 106 items, But neither do we. That said, they may be less inclined to try to enumerate larger amounts, because their environments don’t require it. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t get better, with sufficient usage and challenge.


  13. wtc48

    Shakespeare’s distillation of romantic love — “Whoever loved, that loved not at first sight” — is ironic on many levels: Phebe the shepherdess says it about her feeling for Ganymede/Rosalind, being a boy pretending to be a girl, referring to a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy, a very multifaceted illusion. It’s a profound statement, in that almost everyone recognizes some truth in it, even though it’s notoriously inaccurate. However, I can vouch for its validity in at least one case, being in the 42nd year of marriage to a person who I recognized as the love of my life within a few seconds of first encountering her at the other end of a piece of scenery we were removing from a stage set. But I think in this case, as in most others, many aspects of love appear in time to color the relationship.


  14. labnut

    Let me expand on my four categories of love that represent our four stages of growth, 1) love of self, 2) love of the other, 3) love of excellence and 4) love of the transcendentals.

    There is an orthogonal dimension that I call the glowing spirit, a term I borrow from Carlin Barton in her description of Roman culture. The glowing spirit is recognisable by the intensity, depth and range of the way it manifests love. We can love greatly, deeply and much. Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it best

    How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
    I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
    My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
    For the ends of being and ideal grace.
    I love thee to the level of every day’s
    Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
    I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
    I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
    I love thee with the passion put to use
    In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
    I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
    With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
    Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
    I shall but love thee better after death.

    The glowing spirit touches, warms, illuminates and reveals the best in ourselves. It is the energy that illuminates life with love. The glowing spirit of love is the light that gives meaning to life.


  15. labnut

    St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians(NIV) expresses the importance of love in another way:

    (1.13) If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. [2] If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. [3] If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

    [4] Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. [5] It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. [6] Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. [7] It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

    [8] Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. [9] For we know in part and we prophesy in part, [10] but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. [11] When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. [12] For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

    [13] And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.


  16. synred

    He could write up a storm, could old St Paul.

    When my wife mother Helen died, we asked the Congregational in Long Beach (were Helen’s father had been the minister in the 1930s and 40s) to read St. Paul’s Charity (Love) at the memorial.. We told them we’d like them to use the King James version her mother liked and that besides as atheist we only got something out of the poetry.

    They read from some horrible modern translation which though likely more accurate, missed the point.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. labnut

    We told them we’d like them to use the King James version

    I agree with you on that point. The King James version is a literary masterpiece and I should have quoted from that.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. SocraticGadfly

    On ἀγάπη, not only does the word not have any Platonic embedded meaning, it also does not have its value squared, put on steroids or whatever by its use in one religious tradition.

    And, I fear that’s a bit of a problem with the piece.

    This kind of parallels “free will” vs “volition.” I used to think that Massimo viewed this issue, no matter what term or word was being used, somewhat through the lens of Christian theological sin, guilt and responsibility. Through conversations here, on Twitter and emails and elsewhere, I realize that’s not true. (Though, contra the plea of Walter Kaufmann, Massimo may still hold to a secular, or secularized, sense of “responsibility.”)

    Anyway, I think this whole idea of ἀγάπη is being seen through Christian, or at least Christianized, filters.

    We know all the different ideas of love that different Greek words present, even if we only have one word “love.”

    That ties back to linguistics in general. If we didn’t have even the idea behind ἀγάπη, we couldn’t even think about whether it was a special word or not.

    And, this connects to that good old modern English word “schadenfreude.”

    We have the concept behind that German word readily known to millions of English language users. If we didn’t, we couldn’t have adopted the word “schadenfreude,” and Merriam-Webster et al couldn’t define it in their dictionaries.


  19. brodix

    “but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. [11] When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. [12] For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

    I think this is where monotheism oversteps. Connectivity is not completion. Oneness is not one. Unity is not a unit.
    We are all parts of something larger, yet what we are part of is itself only part of something even larger, or broader. Turtles all the way down.
    When there is the assumption of some definable unit, of which everyone is part, it becomes a tool of political control. And naturally this singular entity is modeled on a father/authority figure.
    An absolute, as a universal state, can have no distinctions, no parts. Thus any features, characteristics, individuality, contrasts, tensions, etc, as measures of this world we inhabit, is suspect and subject to rejection by those who must police the world in the name of religious purity.
    The ideal is not an absolute. The ideal is the preferred, while the absolute is the only. As such, the absolute can’t even be good/bad, as that is a distinction. We rise from the absolute. It is more the new born baby, than the wise old man. As we grow, we become more distinct and different, as often will our ideals.
    When we die, our form fades and only those lessons we imparted remain.
    Life is like a sentence. The ends is just punctuation. What matters is how well we carried the narrative and connected what came before with what comes after.


  20. synred

    Although all the reallt great passages from Paul’s Epistles seem to be in te genuine ones.

    Are the infamous Misogynistic comments by the real Paul? I read they weren’t somewhere, but don’t know.


  21. synred

    ..>As my Dad said, the English language must have been in really great shape in KJII’s time that even a committee could produce writing like that

    I blame Dick and Jane (in USA). Even in the 50’s people wrote better.

    See Spot. See Spot run. See Spot run and and run. See Spot run in the house. See Spot we the rug. See Spot wet and wet.

    Out damned Spot, out.


  22. SocraticGadfly

    Cousin: The Pastoral Epistles are all pseudopigraphal, so the “man having authority” is not Pauline.


    All: King James VI/I was gay as a blade, too, which makes for irony with fundamentalists using the KJV to gay-bash. (Unknown how devout Christians of that time, including James himself, handled said passages.)

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