Many of us are at a disadvantage when it comes to defining what love means, for many modern languages only have one word whose context determines the appropriate meaning.
The Greeks were better off in this regard, for they had at least four words to describe different types of love. They had:
- Storge (Affection) – the love a parent has for a child or a sibling to another sibling
- Philia (Friendship) – the way we love our true friends
- Eros (Sexual love) – the way we love our lovers
- Agape (Selfless love) – unattached, pure, and compassionate love. In the Christian tradition, this is the type of love God has for his children, but many other religious share this concept but have a different word for it.
Each of the first three loves is corruptible. A mother’s love for her child can become martyrdom too easily, our love for our friends can make us xenophobic and close-minded, and our erotic love for our lovers can corrupt us emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The very nature of agape is such that it remains pure – at least, so the story goes.*
It’s also possible to feel multiple types of love at once. Someone who has become great friends with a family member can feel storge, philia, and agape all at once. She might also feel torn because her role as sister is at tension with her role as friend.
We’ll explore agape since it’s probably the least familiar in concept, but, like jazz, you know it when you feel it.
In some ways, the actions of those who proclaimed agape has tainted the connotation of the word, if not its meaning. We’ve come to relate it with charitas – charity – but we all know many people who are charitable in deed but not in essence. And the religious viewpoint that only certain people can ever attain agape – or that we can’t attain it at all because of our dual nature as spiritual and physical beings – has made it such that it’s a word either without meaning or with too narrow of a meaning to be of use.
Language is funny that way.
The truth of the matter is that agape is the most human of loves. To truly cultivate agape, we have to set aside our needs to be seen, wanted, valued, and remembered in the future. We have to understand that another person’s flourishing is something inherently important and that it’s separate from our own ends. We understand agape not despite our humanity, but because of it; our complexity is what makes the unity of agape so wonderful.
And, though it may be challenging to get there, it’s open to us all, regardless of religious affiliation or metaphysical beliefs. Certain mindsets and communities may make it easier to attain, but that’s no different from any of our other virtues.
The power of a word like agape is that we can use it without getting lost either in confusion or a world full of rainbows, butterflies, and unicorns. Two men can share agape without (socialized) weirdness and the different sexes can share it without confusion, jealousy, and misunderstanding. Sure, you may not be able to actually use the word often, but being able to put your finger on a virtue often makes it easier to cultivate.
You may not have a chance for eros tonight or you may be separated from your friends and family. For whatever reason, storge, philia, and eros may not feel available to you. Agape always is.
The secret of agape is that the more of it you share, the more you get. Who will you share it with today?
P.S. Agape. 🙂
*Probably the most accessible discussion of this is C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. It’s surprisingly sexist, bigoted, and exclusivist in places, but it’s insightful nonetheless.