Love is a special and complicated emotion, one which is hard to define, and even more complex to understand. In the modern day, the simple phrase “I love you” connotates hundreds of meanings, but generally reflects the romantic. Although it may seem ordinary to us, the Ancient Greeks would be appalled by the simplicity of such a plain phrase, for they were far more sophisticated than us in their concept of love.
So, what were the Ancient Greek conceptual forms of love? How do they express attitudes to a variety of human relationships? And how can they inspire us to move beyond our present obsession with romantic love and the belief that personal happiness relies on the pursuit and acquisition of romantic love?
What we may place under a large umbrella of ‘love’, Ancient Greek philosophy distinguished between 7 distinctive words: Érōs, Agápe, Philía, Storgí, Ludus, Prágma and Philautía, a generally summary is as follows:
Érōs (Romantic Love)
“My only love sprung from my only hate; too early unknown and known too late”. (Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Act 1, Scene 5, line 139).
Eros, named after the Greek God of Love, and son of Aphrodite (the Goddess of Love), is a powerful and passionate kind of love, one that arouses extreme romantic and sexual feelings. Juliet, for example, embodies the very definition of Eros love as she is consumed by a longing desire to be by the side of her one true love, Romeo. Infatuated with man she loves; Juliet finds herself to be consumed by romance and obsession, and the two of them will go to any length to be with one another.
Albeit a passionate love, the primal impulse to procreate, and the ability of Eros to control the human mind, caused the Ancient Greeks to consider it a potentially de-stabilising, dangerous and frightening kind of love. In the modern era, this kind of love is not necessarily long-lasting, but has the potential to evolve into a lifelong, compassionate love.
Agápe (Selfless Love)
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality”. (Martin Luther King, Jr, 1964).
The Ancient Greek population regarded Agape as the highest form of love, a feeling embracing deep and profound sacrifice, whilst also transcending and persisting irrespective of circumstances. This form of love draws parallels to what Buddhists describe as “metta”/ “universal loving kindness”, a selfless, spiritual, and unconditional love. Agape is the purest form of love, free from lust and expectations, and absent of any shortcomings one may possess. Most importantly it accepts imperfection, forgives mistakes, and believes in the power of the greater good.
Philía (Deep Friendship)
“If you offend him, I defy you”. (Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 4).
Philia portrays love without romantic attraction, that which exists between friends and family members. This sentiment is depicted by Antonio in Twelfth Night as he puts his life on the line to protect his dear friend Sebastian. Delving a little deeper, the Ancient Greeks considered Philia to be a love between equals, connected through the mind, and through shared past experiences.
As Aristotle states, Philia is a “dispassionate, virtuous love” free from of the intensity of physical and romantic attraction, of which loyalty, companionship, and sacrifice are pivotal.
Storgí (Familiar Love)
“Could we but learn from whence his sorrow grows, We would as willingly give cure as know.” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 1, Line 149).
Storge, in the way that Lord Montague worries for the wellbeing of his son, refers to the natural bond between family members and within powerful friendships. It is an instinctual and powerful form of affection, demonstrated, for example, through the love of a parent towards their offspring, and is generally built upon acceptance and deep emotional connection. However, it can become an obstacle and cause friction between individuals when disagreements occur. Alternatively, it can also be used to express allegiance or patriotism to a particular team or country.
Ludus (Playful Love)
“Ludus is that playful love as flowed through Byron’s ink”. (Steve Nimmons).
Known as Erototropia in Ancient Greek, Ludus is a playful and affectionate form of love, the type which gives you butterflies and makes your stomach church, often experienced during the initial stages of a classroom crush, or at the beginning of a relationship. On the other hand, it can represent a non-committal type of love, or the playful friendship which exists between friends. What is crucial, however, is that playfulness is a characteristic vital to the survival of a long-term relationship and key to keeping childhood innocence alive.
Prágma (Enduring Love)
“I am not romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr Collin’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is fair…” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice).
Pragma is the most practical, convenient form of love, often manifested through a rational and realistic perspective. It is a love built upon boundaries, commitment, empathy, and similar long-term interests. Pragmatic lovers are driven by their headfirst, and their heart second. They search for a partner who is valuable, able to compromise, patient and tolerable. If successful at this, they are more likely to develop a deeper connection and achieve a long-term relationship.
Philautía (Self Love)
“I am what I am, an’ I’m not ashamed”. (Hagrid, J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).
In modern days, Philautia, a form of self-love, has been conceptualised and encouraged as a human necessity, but also as a moral flaw akin to egotism. As Aristotle allegedly once stated, “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself”, and therefore, as Ancient Greeks were fundamentally aware, self-compassion is essential to one’s capacity to love others. Nonetheless, they were also fully aware of its potentially devastating impacts and narcissistic tendencies.
To conclude, in a world that can often seem lonely and loveless, and without the physical presence of a lover, the distinct system of Greek loves can help to alleviate our sorrows, whilst providing comfort and solace. Through exploring each kind of love and recognising how it may be embedded in our lives, you may discover that you possess a lot more love than you ever imagined. And so, it is time that we introduce the Greek variety of love into our everyday meaning of the world and articulate more precisely the unique shade of love that we may feel towards someone.
Featured image by Helena Jankovičová Kováčová via Pexels.