What is Love?

Just what do we mean by the word "love"? For all our constant preoccupation with the subject (think of all the poems, songs and books on the subject) it seems that the human vocabulary, no matter how elaborate, is woefully inadequate to describe what is taking place.  

Like the Eskimos with their twenty some different words to describe different kinds of snow, the ancient Greeks had no less than five different root words (with thirteen variations) to describe different kinds of love. However, careful consideration of three of these ancient words might just help us unravel the mystery of love.

The first of these, common in pagan writings, was eros (as in "erotic") but which originally had a much wider meaning than the narrow meaning we now tend to give it. Eros meant any kind of attraction that aimed at one's own self-fulfillment, whether it be to the opposite sex, to beauty, to art, or to life itself.

Much more common was philos or philia. Used in combination with many other words, as seen in the name in Philadelphia -- "the City of Brotherly Love", this kind of love finds its highest expression in the love between true friends. It is the kind of love which aims not so much at pleasing oneself as pleasing another. It is an outgoing love that seeks harmony and community in the realization that it is in serving each other that we most benefit ourselves.

Finally, there is agape, a word which was almost non-existent among the ancient pagan authors, but which appears frequently in the New Testament. It is a self-sacrificial love, a love that is willing to forget about one's own self-satisfaction or self-fulfillment or even give up one's own life for another's sake.

Now these three are often described as entirely different "kinds" of love -- as if we had the option to pick and choose between them -- whatever suits our fancy. But I don't think this is entirely the case. Perhaps it is a more a question of growth or maturity of our love.

In fact, we might say that we are born "erotic" in the broad sense of the word. The infant or young child must naturally seek what is pleasing or satisfying to itself, otherwise it will have little chance of survival. It is only later, sometimes only after a lot of struggle, that the child begins to learn to share with others and begins to form real friendships. In much the same way, an attraction that is "erotic" in the narrow sense of the word will lead to a lasting marriage only if a true friendship, a real union of mind and heart -- much more than concern for one's own self-fulfillment -- results.

But, in the end, even that may be not enough. Perhaps it is only a self-sacrificing love that is able "to lay down one's life for friend" or which attempts to even convert one's enemy into a friend that can weather all adversity or to be faithful to each other "until death do them part". Only then do we have the highest degree of love.

Is such love impossible? Apparently it is for a lot of people. Maybe that's why the only special word we have for it in English ("charity") takes its origin from an altogether different Greek word -- charis - - which means God's special gift or "grace"

R W Kropf         May 29, 2000                                                                      Love.doc  00-05-29.html