What is love?

From family ties and friendship to passion and philanthropy, Annabel Harrison explores ancient variations of the word ‘love’

Love’ is a weighty word, with huge emotional, physical and psychological breadth. As lexicographer Susie Dent points out, we don’t have a truly apt synonym for it, but the ancient Greeks had several, and understood love in a nuanced way.

In his work Symposium, Greek philosopher Plato used the image of a ladder to describe various stages of love: starting with physical attraction and moving up to the highest form – which was, for him, spiritual and intellectual.
The Greek word for romantic or sexual love, eros, came from the name of the mischievous and unpredictable son of Aphrodite, goddess of love, beauty and desire. It was seen as a powerful force that could drive people to both great and terrible actions, and lives on in words we use today such as ‘erotic’ and ‘erogenous’. And it enticed millions to cinemas for compelling, often heart-rending depictions, such as The Notebook and Titanic.

Eros, says classical historian and author Mary Beard, was considered ‘the most dangerous and intense form of love, often involving a sense of madness or obsession’. In contrast, ‘Philia was valued as a cornerstone of Greek society, a deep friendship between individuals based on shared values and experiences.’

This affectionate, virtuous form – developed by philosopher and polymath Aristotle in his work on ethics – was considered by Plato to be even greater than eros; hence the concept of platonic love that endures today. Tolkien brought to life one of literature’s best known examples of this form in The Lord of the Rings: Frodo and Sam are bonded
by mutual admiration, respect and a shared sense of loyalty.

The same text by Aristotle identifies philautia: a positive interpretation of self-love. Today, self-love is a somewhat loaded phrase: seen on the one hand as an appreciation of one’s worth, and denoting proper regard for, and attention to, one’s own happiness or wellbeing; but seen on the other as an inflated love of,
or pride in, oneself.

But to the ancient Greeks, philautia was a necessary component of a virtuous life and essential for a well-rounded person, providing balance between vanity and self-deprecation. They did agree that philautia is a double-edged sword: too much could be harmful, characterised by vanity and embodied by the myth of the beautiful and self-obsessed Narcissus, from whom we get the word ‘narcissist’.

Agape was a more spiritual type of love, Beard explains, ‘characterised by selflessness and a devotion to a higher cause.’ In ancient Greece, it was associated with the divine and seen as the highest form of love.

The teachings of Siddhartha Gautama – The Buddha, who is said to have died before Plato was born – also emphasised the importance of compassion and selfless love, which have the power to transform individuals and societies. Mother Teresa is an example of agape in action, as is Malala Yousafzai, who advocates for education and the rights of women and girls, despite the danger she faces for doing so. We can practice agape through selfless acts of kindness, such as volunteering, donating to charity, or being there for someone in need.

That ‘someone’ might be a family member or close friend. The Greeks defined this love as storge, although the word does not appear often in literature. A source of comfort and security, storge is nurturing and unconditional; a love that is innate and unbreakable, like the bond between a parent and child. It is an essential part of strong, healthy families and communities, as illustrated by six series of the TV hit This Is Us. That followed multiple generations of a family, illustrating the enduring, instinctive and complex bonds that connect parents, children, siblings and relatives.

We remain as captivated by the power of love as the ancient Greeks were. Our cultural landscape reflects that, just as theirs did. ‘All You Need Is Love’ sang The Beatles: five simple syllables echoed ever since by millions all over the world.

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