The Five Loves

(August 29, 2002)


It has been said that the Inuit have a dozen or so words for snow, depending on consistency, granularity, or the like. This is not just some kind of literary or rhetorical conceit. Rather, knowing just how one kind of snow differs from another, and being able to effectively communicate that difference, is vital information for those who live in the arctic. In that harsh environment, misjudge what is happening outside, and you might soon be dead.

Something of the same sort of vita! information is necessary for those who enter upon marriage. Misjudge what is meant by the term love in the context or environment of marriage and one could soon find oneself in big trouble. That we have only one word — "love" — to cover so many varieties of loving maybe shows that we 'are sadly lacking in experience or something or other. The ancient Greeks knew better. C. S. Lewis, the novelist, spiritual writer, and Oxford don, once outlined, in his insightful book The Four Loves, the vital differences the ancient Greeks so well understood and described with their more precise vocabulary.

First, there is storge, the kind of natural or familial love that binds husband and wife or parent and child together. Storge is also the attraction we have for things, activities, or persons who simply please us for the sense of fulfillment they give.

Second, there is eros, the word we usually associate with sexuality but which originally had a much broader meaning, applying to anything that is strongly self-satisfying. Where people may be drawn together through a mutual interest (by a storge for travel, or art, or skiing, or sailing) it is eros that propels them into an intimate relationship, into a pas­sion that bears fruit in family, and, we hope, bonds them together for life.

Next, or maybe alongside eros, there is philos or friendship, which is less passionate than eros, but ideally, just as long-lasting. And if it is to be long-lasting, it has to be generally more disinterested, and less self-serving than eros. Blessed and long-lasting is the marriage in which one's spouse is truly one's very best friend.

Finally, there is agape, the kind of self-sacrificing love that Paul speaks of in his famous thirteenth chapter of his First Epistle to the Corinthians. It is also the same kind of love described in John's Gospel, where Jesus tells us that there is no greater love shown than when a man (or woman) lays down his or her life for his or her friend. In other words, it is the kind of love that alone can guarantee that a marriage will last, through better or worse, in sickness and in health, through hell or high water, until death do them part.

Impossible? Yes, it probably is, so I think we have to invoke, a fifth kind of love, which is charis, a word which in Greek originally meant a "gift", but which is now usually translated to mean "grace" or sometimes more weakly spoken of as "charity." But it is something much more vitally necessary than is conveyed by these translations. The necessity of charis is rooted in the realization that agape, self-sacrificing, totally self-disinterested love is impossible without God's help. In other words, that such love is a gift, a "charism" — the result, St. John tells us, of God first loving us, thus is the loving, "saving grace," that alone enables our poor human efforts to bear everlasting fruit. Without it we can accomplish nothing that will last. Neither storge (attraction) nor eros (passion) nor philos (friendship) can last except through God's help, and as for agape (true self-sacrificing love) without God's charis, it is altogether impossible.