Ancient Greek conceptions of love

So while I plough on through Rousseau’s Social Contract (harder going than I remember… More evidence I need to kick my brain back into action) here are some quick thoughts on love.

In modern English, we have (roughly) one word for love. There are related-concept-words, like care, affection, desire, but still. In ancient Greek, there were four types of love recognised in language: eros, agape, philia and storge.

Eros is a familiar one; most people recognise the name of the god (aka Cupid). This is of course also the etymological root of ‘erotic’. So eros refers to romantic love and desire – often in the context of those first stages of falling in love. Current mainstream thinking often holds up falling in love as a wonderful thing, a thing to be greatly desired, and the phase of ‘can’t eat, can’t sleep, missing you’ is seen as deeply romantic and special. (And yes, I admit, the romantic in me agrees). But even the word ‘falling’ describes a dangerous thing to do, literally speaking, and the ancient Greeks recognised this danger – erotic love was seen not as a wonderful and essential state to be desired, but as a kind of madness. And this kind of passionate love was recognised as sometimes having terrible and destructive results – this is the love that drives the great stories of humanity, the love that inspires wars, suicides, murderous jealousy… Think of the stories of classical mythology, of Shakespearean tragedies.

It’s interesting, then, that poly communities recognise this amazing and beautiful but potentially destructive force as NRE – new relationship energy. Giving it a label makes it something that can be recognised and accounted for (like, don’t make any big decisions while you’re in the throes of NRE and decide that you want to move your shiny new lover into the family home because she is amazing and clearly there is nothing that can possibly go wrong). You do, I think, go temporarily mad when falling in love. But unlike when your friends fall in love (you lose them for a little while, and then they come back when they’ve returned to normal) in a poly relationship it’s essential not to neglect existing loves in favour of New Shiny. So it’s incredibly valuable to have a vocabulary with which to talk about this. Orwell recognised the power of words when he created Newspeak in 1984 – if you don’t have words for something, you can’t effectively acknowledge it, talk about it, criticise or debate it.

I haven’t talked about Plato’s specific take on eros – that is a whole topic in itself and can be saved for another post. But that is, of course, where we get the term ‘platonic love’. More soon. I ❤ Plato and want to give him lots of space.

Agape (pronounced a-gah-pay) usually refers to the deep, true, unconditional love felt by a parent for a child, or the love in a long-established marriage. It was also adopted by early Christians to refer to the unconditional love of God for humanity, and Christian love more generally. As an atheist, and someone who was a bookish child, I tend to associate CS Lewis with the Narnia books – but his extensive writings on Christianity after his conversion include The Four Loves, based in part on these four ancient Greek words, and holding up agape as the finest and truest form of love. Another one to add to the reading list, I think.

Agape seems to correspond well to the final stage of the five stages of love, as written about on BitchBuzz by Lori Smith. I suppose the particular relevance for polyamory is, looking at how eros and agape apply to specifically romantic/sexual relationships, how to balance those different forms of love without making unfair comparisons. You may not have the depth of understanding and trust with a new lover as you do with a long-established partner, but that’s ok; you may not be obsessively checking your phone for texts from your husband in the way you do with your girlfriend, but that’s ok too. Again, we’re back to this idea of the value of giving words to something; if we can happily recognise these as two different kinds of love, then perhaps it helps us celebrate and value them for what they are, not look for what they aren’t.

(Incidentally – I’d be really interested in reading some theological thoughts on non-monogamy. There was a recent piece on Polytical looking at the author’s personal take on Christianity and polyamory; does anyone know of anything more general? I’m insufficiently informed about theology to tackle it myself! Also there’s a great piece by Amanda Jones on the intersection of Buddhism and polyamory)

Philia is the root of all those words ending in -phile, and is of course also part of philosophy – literally, the love of wisdom (sophia). Philia is the most general kind of love; it’s often translated as friendship. Aristotle talks about philia a lot in the Nicomachean Ethics, his best known work on ethics which explores how men should live (it was originally based on notes from his lectures to young men destined for Big Things in Athens). I’ll give this a whole post (or more) in its own right, as the Nicomachean Ethics is one of the most influential ethical works in the history of European thought. Yeah baby, this is the big guns. (I am an Aristotle fangirl. I want that on a tshirt.)

Anyway. The Nicomachean Ethics has lots of examples of philia – like lifelong friends, political contacts, fellow travellers, members of the same religious society or tribe, even ‘a cobbler and the person who buys from him’. Interestingly he also lists parents and children, which might suggest that more than one kind of love can exist in the same relationship – the love of a parent for a child seems to crop up regularly in all the forms of love except (obviously) eros. Philia is characterised by, again, wanting the best for someone for their own sake, and wanting to do things for them as much as is possible/reasonable. Though in that qualifier is a big distinction from agape, which is a self-sacrificing love. Another distinction is that – not always, but often – philia is characterised by a sense of equality, of meeting as equals, in the very nature of the Iove itself, not merely in the persons of those sharing the love.

As this refers to a much wider sense of friendship-love, there’s nothing – to me – that seems any more relevant to non-monogamous people than everyone else. We all need friends, and that comfortable companionable love of an old friendship is wonderful. I suppose the only thought here would be, even if you are conducting twenty romantic relationships at once, don’t neglect your friendships. Make the time for them too; don’t just fill up your Google Calendar with lovers.

I am so keen to wander off into an exploration of how Aristotle defined friendship-love and why it’s so important to living a good life, but we’d be here all week. Another time. On to the last form of love.

Storge is much less commonly used in classical writings than the others. It’s the kind of affection that comes through familiarity; it can explain the love-bonds of wider family members and is generally only used to describe family love. It is often described as a natural or instinctive affection; similar to agape, it is unconditional in that it doesn’t depend on any characteristics in the loved one to make them ‘worthy’ of love, it’s simply because they are there. But storge does not have the self-sacrificing and altruistic aspects of agape.

Interestingly, a less widely-used meaning of storge can be found in political thought, especially Renaissance-era. I don’t want to say too much about this as I’m not that well-read in it (yet… *adds to reading list*) but: some thinkers claimed that the State can in fact be made to wither away by the subjects believing themselves to be ruled over by a benevolent father-like figure, and loving the state (ie storge), and the king or tyrant in return believing himself to be like a loving parent. If I find more resources on this I’ll post them here; I’ve come across snatches of references to this form of storge but am very under-informed.

But storge is primarily used to describe familiar familial love. As ethical non-monogamy becomes more visible, it’s likely that more and more people will incorporate – somehow – multiple partners into their family life, which no doubt brings all sorts of challenges of its own. But as this isn’t something I’ve yet had to deal with, I’ll leave it to those with more experience to comment on that balancing act.

Storge might also be used to describe the love for a metamour – your partner’s partner. If you’re lucky and they are awesome, it may become philia, a deeper friendship in its own right and truly wanting the best for each other, but at the very least you’ll need storge, giving them love and affection not because of who they are or any of their characteristics, but because of the place they hold in your partner’s heart and in your personal constellation of people.

If you don’t have words for something, you can’t talk about it. Why else do subcultures come up with new words like polyamory, metamour, compersion? Perhaps identifying different forms of love as genuinely different feelings, different things, not just different stages of love, would help us talk about them better. And perhaps it would help us all tell our friends more often that we love them. More love in the world – whatever name you give it – can only be a good thing, right?

Would you separate out any other kinds of love from these four? Is there something from your experience that you think is missing?

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10 responses to “Ancient Greek conceptions of love

  1. Fascinating. I’ve often complained in the past (usually to myself, occasionally to others) that “love” in English has so many different meanings that it can become almost meaning*less* as a word. Looks like the ancient Greeks had things sorted a little better 🙂

    • Ooh – I wonder how useful it would be for that milestone ‘I love you’ moment to be able to say ‘I love you – like eros’ or ‘I love you, friend-with-benefits – like philia’ or eventually ‘I Iove you – like agape’.

      That would be a very different thing.

  2. Thanks so much for this fascinating potted history! Sadly, I no longer have the attention span needed to read the sorts of books you mention, so I am now relying on you to post a nice straightforward summary of important topics like this 🙂

    I have had many conversations with friends and partners about how English needs more words for love. Perhaps I can convince people to use an Ancient Greek inspired qualifier alongside the word love?

  3. Devil's Avocado

    I love this piece! More please. The word ‘agape’ should be used more frequently when appropriate and it does indeed describe parental love. This is a love which need not be reciprocal, there are no conditions, and though it may go hand-in-hand with anxiety and sometimes pain, it is truly never-ending and indestructible!

  4. Pingback: Agape Love « A Kiss Of Bliss

  5. Pingback: Philia Love « A Kiss Of Bliss

  6. Pingback: Poly Means Many: Non-lovers « Musings on fringe lifestyles

  7. Lover this! Especially storge, really needed a word for that, didn’t even have clear concept in my mind for it. My gut tells me it’s something easily lost in individualistic lifestyles… Want to read more about it.
    My gut also talks about my little pony as storge school. Not sure about that one.

  8. The words agape and philia are actually quite mixed up in John 21 from verse 15 on. Unfortunately, King James translated them both as love, so the difference is lost in the English translation. There is a very good book on the subject of love in the Bible, by Christian Adam, called ‘Greetings from Paradise.

  9. Merely a smiling visitor here to share the adore , btw outstanding style. Audacity, more audacity and always audacity. by Georges Jacques Danton. dadcaedgaffb

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