What is Love? And From Where did it Come?
All the ways to say LOVE, according to the Greeks
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
You are cordially invited to join our mental, virtual symposium, dear reader. Feel free to don your finest robes (ideally purple), pour a libatious drop (mixed obviously with the appropriate amount of water), and find a thinking couch on which you can recline.
We are going to recreate Plato’s famed Symposium, just in time to celebrate the 3rd-century Roman saint who secretly married Christian couples during the Roman Empire. (Don’t you just love how everyone connects Valentine’s day to the Roman Empire? Oh wait...)
This week we’ll delve into that most powerful of emotions, feelings, actions and ask what exactly is it? How can we understand this essential and yet nebulous thing, a word we use everyday, but certainly not always in the same way: LOVE.
Fascinatingly, the ancient Greeks had about 30 different words for love... For a quick recap of those who love to delve into love (and who have the love of words), let us turn to Ben Potter:
Eros, is what we would most easily recognise as February 14th style love. Though it was possible for eros (named after the Greek equivalent of the Roman’s Cupid) to be a part of a holistic, romantic, spiritual and beautiful love between two twinned souls, it could not exist in isolation from (usually very strong) sexual desire.
Even if eros is the most common type of love to initiate a romantic relationship, many would agree with the Greeks’ assertion that pragma is what sustains one. Pragma was a love not of the loins, nor the heart, but of the head. It was the foundation block that we can recognise in the most successful of long-term relationships; a willingness for give-and-take, a tolerance, a mutual-understanding and, of course, a certain... pragmatism.
Philia (despite being a modern English suffix often denoting sexual desire) was what we would refer to as a platonic love shared between friends, comrades and even the community at large. The point of philia was not that it was less deep or less important than eros, quite the reverse; it was a love so special that one did not desire any sexual gratification out of it.
Meanwhile, love between family members, though in most respects similar to philia, was often classified separately as storge (pronounced store-gay) and assumed an element of instinctual, rather than acquired, affection.
Agape represented a selfless and universal love that could be felt for strangers or wider society. It was a love that required no acknowledgement or reward; it was a desire to do good, or see good done, to one’s fellow creatures. C.S. Lewis considered agape to be the purest and best of all types of love, being the optimum form for a good Christian to aspire to.
Ludus was a playful, free-spirited frivolousness; an almost child-like joy of easy-going and uninhibited fun – the easy bonhomie of when you’re had exactly the perfect amount to drink!
Much like eros, philautia was a double-edged kind of love; more specifically it was a double-edged kind of self-love. In true Aristotelian fashion, philautia was considered best when practiced in moderation. The story of Narcissus, the beautiful boy who fell in love with his own reflection and drowned/starved as a consequence, is a cautionary tale of this love’s destructive power.
However, for the plus side of what seems like an inherently selfish pursuit, we can again turn to Aristotle who said in his Ethics that “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feeling for himself. A man is his own best friend”. Here, Aristotle was defending the virtues of philautia against its detractors with what can be boiled down to a rather trite, but no less true for that, maxim:
“you must love yourself before you can love others”.
So there we have some, but by no means all, the language the Greeks used to express love…
Which brings us to today’s mailbag question. You can imagine, if you like, that you have just heard the above proffered by your fellow symposium truth seekers. They have rounded the room, and now it is your turn to add to the conversation. They ask:
What is love? Do these terms still hold up or do we need new ones to reflect our changing societal norms?
And what of the root causes? Where does love originally come from?
As always, please email me directly, reply to this email or comment below!
Classical Wisdom Members: You can enjoy the full Member’s in depth article on Ancient Amour as well as our “Eros Collection” - an anthology of love as written by both the poets and the philosophers - here:
Let us know your thoughts on all things LOVE for next week’s responses... and in the meantime, you can enjoy your fellow Classics lovers musings on a smattering of recent articles, delving into music, plagiarism and the importance of Dreams, including an excerpt kindly provided by Donald Robertson from his brand new book, “Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor”.
All the best,
Founder and Director
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Are you familiar with Prokofiev's ballet music that he arranged for concert use as the Scythian Suite? The ballet was called Ala & Lolli (I'm not sure of English spelling, but the original was in French as he wrote the ballet for the Ballet Russe's Paris season - an early work for him). When I saw this mention of the Scythians, Prokofiev's music popped into my head!
Just a quick addition to the plagiarism discussion: This, in regard to music. I'm not thinking of famous court cases such as George Harrison' "My Sweet Lord," but back in the 18th century, when famous composers often "borrowed" from others. George Friedrich Handel, in particular, often used cadences and entire passages from earlier composers in his works. So much so that modern historians/musicologists have been criticized for an obsessive concern.
A good discussion of this is Ellen Harris.
Actually, composition was taught in the 17th and 18th centuries, not as divine inspiration, but as craft, a continuous culture. Students, for example, were given an opening phrase of an earlier work and told to just continue in the same style, learning dance forms and "symphonies" which were most often short introductory works. Today, such practices have not entirely disappeared.
My father was an English professor, back in the 1950's - 1980's. He might suggest a project for creative writing students of "inventing or rewriting chapters" for famous works, such as Huckleberry Finn.
I believe that modern scholarship is rightfully concerned with the "lifting" as Twain might say, of others' work in an academic setting. Stealing ideas from others in academia is serious and disreputable, simply dishonest. However, in creative writing, "allusions" often add color and can create an emotional reference. I use them all the time. Surely it would be pedantry to create a plagiaristic fetish by demonizing all that is our shared inheritance.
Thanks so much for the discussion. I enjoyed the zoom presentation.
The Bible imparts great importance to dreams before the coming of Jesus but rarely after his death until the end times are upon us. Then old people will dream dreams. I qualify as old, and I can relay that my personal dream activity is off the charts but one such example is insufficient proof for the rest.
In the secular world dreams can be the personification of vision. Vision is a requirement for effective leadership and empowering others to embrace the vision of the leader is the key to success.
This can be good or bad. The American Revolution against English tyranny is a shining example of a good dream turned into a vision. Lincoln’s genocidal war on the South or Hitler’s final solution or Mao’s Great Leap forward are dream nightmares called into being by vision that result inevitably in atrocities and tragedy.
Dreams are imagination released. Vision is the articulation of the dream so created. Both are critical to the survival and wellbeing of man.
The attached YouTube clip titled the “Science of Dreams” may interest you?
If you find your dreams meaningful, then they have value to you.
The Dream of Marcus Aurelius
By Donald Robertson
In this excerpt from Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor, I offer an interpretation of the dream that we are told Marcus Aurelius experienced after being told he was to be adopted by Antoninus, and to thereby become the adoptive grandson of Emperor Hadrian, placing him in line to the imperial throne. This occurred in 138 CE, when Marcus was aged around seventeen.]
The night he received the news of his adoption, Marcus had a vivid dream in which he discovered that his arms and shoulders were made of ivory. Worried that they might have lost their strength, he attempted to lift a heavy object. [Our sources do not tell us what the object was.] However, to his great surprise, his arms proved even stronger than before.
Neither of the two ancient sources that mention this dream offers an interpretation of its meaning. Perhaps it was a symptom of Marcus’s anxiety about the prospect of becoming emperor. Yet this strange vision inspired him to feel more confident about his future role. One thing is clear: what appeared at first to be a weakness in the dream turned out to be a strength.
As with all dreams, many different interpretations are possible. I believe, though, that the arms of ivory symbolize the training in Stoic philosophy that Marcus was receiving in his mother’s household. Epictetus, for example, often used the strong shoulders of athletes, such as wrestlers in the Olympic games, as a metaphor for philosophy. He exhorted his students to exhibit their Stoic training not by using clever words but through strength of character and virtuous actions.
“Do you then show me your improvement in [philosophy]? If I were talking to an athlete, I should say: ‘Show me your shoulders!’”
In his youth, Marcus saw his role in life as that of a philosopher, not a future emperor, and had no faith that the two could be reconciled. His love of philosophy was considered a weakness—it was more Grecian than Roman and perceived by some as effeminate. (He was later insulted as a “philosophical old woman.”) Fortunately, Marcus was about to realize that his training in philosophy could become his greatest asset by preparing him to endure the challenges he would one day have to face.