By: Paul Murano – January, 2014
February is St. Valentine’s month. In the middle of the winter when many spirits are down due to mid-winter cold and darkness, February 14th reminds us of the warmth of love. But what is love?
Love a word that is overused and abused in our culture. This has led to mass confusion and broken hearts and lives. There are two core underlying factors to this mis-use. The first problem is that love means many things in English: You can love your wife, your dog, your car, chocolate, oak trees, the color red, or your favorite shoes.
One word encompasses all this. The second problem is that we live in an era of subjectivism when love can mean whatever we want it to mean. One can practice almost any behavior and call it love; and in a society that exclusively equates love with subjective feelings we can even redefine the institution of marriage, which is supposedly grounded in love. In order to rediscover an accurate understanding of love, these two factors must be explored: the different kinds of love, and whether love has objective meaning and expression.
To begin, we go back to the origin of the word itself. In ancient Greek there were three words for love: philia, eros, and agape. Philia is a friendship-love. Eros is of attraction-love, a need-love born out of desire. Agape goes further than each of these: It refers to a selfless sacrificial love. Agape, therefore, is not a movement of the passions, such as in eros, but a choice of the will, to will the good for another. Agape commits to the other regardless of how unpleasant it may be at times. While eros says “I love you because of…”, agape says “I love you in spite of…” Eros primarily focuses on what you can get and agape on what you can give.
Overtime, eros seems to have become dominate in our culture. Yet, isn’t it curious that St. Valentine’s Day, named after a 4th century martyr of the Church, is now associated with the emotional dimension of eros – what our culture calls “being in love”. But, as alluded to above, this kind of love is incomplete. Eros without agape treats the desired one as an object rather than a person. It focuses squarely on the self rather than the other. It is what today’s “relationships” are based on, and why so many people are choosing not to marry. A relationship based on eros without agape becomes pure selfishness leading to the real possibility that if a more attractive or desirable alternative comes along, it would be time to change one’s object of desire. Delving further beneath the surface on this topic, there are two other words in Greek that have an English equivalent, storge and pornea. Storge is an affection kind of love, and pornea represents sexual sin and the disordered desire of lust.
To recap, philia and eros are to a certain degree conditional. If a friend (philia) deliberately and unrepentantly brings you serious harm, he or she may not remain your friend. If someone you are “head-over-heels in love” with (eros) reveals their dark side, becomes big, bald, or boring, eros may quickly dissipate. On the other hand agape, which is the choice to will the good of another remains “for better or for worse”. For this reason, and because it is an act of our higher spiritual nature rather than of physiological passion, agape is the essence of love. It is truly personal and mutually good. Passion is passive, love is active. Passion responds, agape chooses. Passion points to satisfaction of self, love to the good of another. Physical attraction and emotional desire are good as stepping stones to agape, but if they are ends in themselves it is transformed into selfishness. Eventually eros either transcends into agape or descends into pornea. On the other hand, if attraction and desire are a means to a total and permanent commitment, they then serve as proper pleasurable benefits of love.
The second consideration regarding the nature of love relates to objective meaning and expression. Can someone harm another and properly call it love? What if he has all the emotional and passionate feelings of eros? Can unnatural acts be morally justified, as many claim today, if attraction and tenderness are present? Objectively and experientially, one can discover that feelings and desires can be easily disordered. Although disordered eros is a cross that can be very challenging for some, acting on such desires can never be condoned. For example, the subjective eros that some may have relating to incest, infidelity, pedophilia, bestiality, autoeroticism, and homosexuality, if acted upon, would violate the objective criteria of love. They never can be properly called love. Acts that violate human nature are dehumanizing, always wrong, and can never agape despite a sincere but disordered eros.
St. Valentine is said to be a 3rd century Christian martyr who died in a Roman prison upholding the truth about love. Let us celebrate Valentine’s Day with humility and will the objective good for others. Until we uphold love and condemn all its counterfeits we do not love as St. Valentine did and we dishonor the true meaning of Valentine’s Day.