The ancient Greeks had 4 different words for love. I think this is something we could all do with reminding ourselves of as it helps us understand the modern world view of “love” and how far away this has become from the Christian understanding of the same word. I actually think only having one word for love in the English language is a major source of confusion – especially when we begin to speak about Marriage.
The ancient Greek language has four distinct words for love: agápe, éros, philía, and storgē. However, as with other languages, it has been historically difficult to separate the meanings of these words when used outside of their respective contexts. Nonetheless, the senses in which these words were generally used are as follows:
Agápe (ἀγάπη agápē) means “love: esp. brotherly love, charity; the love of God for man and of man for God.” Agape is used in ancient texts to denote feelings for one’s children and the feelings for a spouse, and it was also used to refer to a love feast: (The term Agape or Love feast was used for certain religious meals among early Christians that seem to have been originally closely related to the Eucharist.) Agape is used by Christians to express the unconditional love of God for his children. This type of love was further explained by Thomas Aquinas as “to will the good of another.”
Éros (ἔρως érōs) means “love, mostly of the sexual passion.” Plato refined his own definition: Although eros is initially felt for a person, with contemplation it becomes an appreciation of the beauty within that person, or even becomes appreciation of beauty itself. Plato does not talk of physical attraction as a necessary part of love, hence the use of the word platonic to mean, “without physical attraction.” In the Symposium, the most famous ancient work on the subject, Plato has Socrates argue that eros helps the soul recall knowledge of beauty, and contributes to an understanding of spiritual truth, the ideal “Form” of youthful beauty that leads us humans to feel erotic desire – thus suggesting that even that sensually based love aspires to the non-corporeal, spiritual plane of existence; that is, finding its truth, just like finding any truth, leads to transcendence. Lovers and philosophers are all inspired to seek truth through the means of eros.
Philia (φιλία philía) means “affectionate regard, friendship,” usually “between equals.” It is a dispassionate virtuous love, a concept developed by Aristotle. In his best-known work on ethics, Nicomachean Ethics, philia is expressed variously as loyalty to friends, family, and community, and requires virtue, equality, and familiarity. Furthermore, in the same text philos denotes a general type of love, used for love between family, between friends, a desire or enjoyment of an activity, as well as between lovers.
Storge (στοργή storgē) means “love, affection” and “especially of parents and children”] It’s the common or natural empathy, like that felt by parents for offspring. Rarely used in ancient works, and then almost exclusively as a descriptor of relationships within the family. It is also known to express mere acceptance or putting up with situations, as in “loving” the tyrant.
It is helpful to know these separate definitions of love when discussing marriage in the modern world. Contemporary modern culture bases its definition of marriage and relationships almost entirely on Éros. In fact I would go as far as to say that our society elevates Éros artificially higher than any other form of love. Éros has become the ideal. And when these powerful exciting feelings of lust and romance fade – then what is the point of carrying on the relationship? Éros is a feeling.
The Catholic view of marriage however is based on Agápe. It is a reflection of the unconditional self sacrificing love that Christ expressed for humanity on the cross. Agápe loves when it doesn’t feel good to love. Agápe loves because of what it gives, not because of what it gets. Agápe is unconditional and unbreakable. Agápe is a choice.
This is of course not to say that love itself as we know it is an extremely messy and complicated set of emotions and most probably incorporates all the ancient Greek definitions of love. The important point is to recognise which is the strongest in our relationship and then to ask ourselves “What is our relationship based on?”.
1 John 4:8 simply tells us “ho Theos agape estin” (God is Love). St Paul gives us the perfect test of what kind of love we have in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. If we substitute the word love for the name of our beloved – or even our own name, then we begin to get an idea of how true our love really is:
………. is patient and kind
………. is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
………. does not insist on his/her own way.
………. is not irritable or resentful.
……… does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
……… bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
……… love never ends.