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Relationships • Romanticism

Why We Need the Ancient Greek Vocabulary of Love

Love is our highest value, what we all crave and what we believe makes us fundamentally human, but it is also the source of considerable anxiety. Chiefly, we worry whether we are entirely normal because it frequently feels as if we are not experiencing love the way we should be.

Society is subtly highly prescriptive in this regard. It suggests that to be a decent person, we should all be within sexual relationships and furthermore, that within these, we should ‘love’ in a very particular way: we should be constantly thrilled by our partner’s presence, we should long to see them after every absence, we should crave to hold them in our arms, to kiss and be kissed by them and – most of all – want to have sex with them every day or so. In other words, we should follow the script of Romantic ecstasy throughout our lives.

This is beautiful in theory and hugely punitive in practice. If we’re going to define love like this and peg the idea of normality accordingly, then most of us will have to admit to ourselves (with considerable embarrassment) that we don’t know much about love – and therefore don’t qualify as decent, sane, or normal people. We’ve created a cult of love radically out of line with most of our real experiences of relationships.

This is where the Ancient Greeks can help. They realised early on that there are many kinds of love, each with their respective virtues and seasons – and that a good society requires us to append a correct vocabulary to these different states of the heart, lending each one legitimacy in the process.

The Greeks anointed the powerful physical feelings we often experience at the start of a relationship with the word ‘eros’ (ἔρως) . But they knew that love is not necessarily over when this sexual intensity wanes, as it almost always does after a year or so in a relationship.

Our feelings can then evolve into another sort of love they captured with the word ‘philia’ (φιλία) normally translated as ‘friendship’ though the Greek word is far warmer, more loyal and more touching than its English counterpart; one might be willing to die for ‘philia’. Aristotle recommended that we outgrow eros in youth, and then base our relationships – especially our marriages – on a philosophy of philia. The word adds an important nuance to our understanding of a viable union. It allows us to see that we may still love even when we are in a phase that our own, more one-sided vocabulary fails to value.

The Greeks had a third word for love: agape (ἀγάπη). This can be best translated as a charitable love. It’s what we might feel towards someone who has behaved rather badly or come to grief through flaws of character – but for whom we still feel compassion. It’s what a God might feel for his or her people, or what an audience might feel for a tragic character in a play. It’s the kind of love that we experience in relation to someone’s weakness rather than their strength. It reminds us that love isn’t just about admiration for virtues, it’s also about sympathy and generosity towards what is fragile and imperfect in us.

Having these three words to hand – eros, philia and agape – powerfully extends our sense of what love really is. The Ancient Greeks were wise in dividing the blinding monolith of love into its constituent parts.

Under their tutelage, we can see that we probably have far more love in our lives than our current vocabulary knows how to recognise.

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