Finding the True Meaning of Love

The true meaning of love has changed, due to both the passage of time and cultural forces.

True Meaning of Love

To the ancient Greeks, there was no true meaning of love. Rather, their idea of love consisted of six connected, yet independent, concepts.

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We can try to improve our lives with the help of philosophers, spiritual guides, or the advances of medical science, yet How Should We Live? (BlueBridge, 2011) poses a simple question: Why not look to history for inspiration? Roman Krznaric, a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, looks at twelve universal concerns—from love and empathy to work, time, and money—by looking back through the years and illuminating the wisdom that we've lost. In this excerpt from "Love," the author shows how the historical St. Valentine was very much different than the ideal that is celebrated today, and how the ancient Greeks had a very different concept when it came to the true meaning of love.

Tracing the True Meaning of Love Through the Ages

The man immortalized as St. Valentine would be shocked to discover that he has become the patron saint of romantic love. His story is obscure, but he appears to have been a priest near Rome who was executed for his Christian beliefs in the third century. A feast in his name was first held in 496, and for most of the next millennium he was venerated for having the power to heal the sick and crippled. By the late Middle Ages, his fame rested on being the patron saint of epileptics, especially in Germany and Central Europe, where artworks from the period depict him curing children of their seizures. He had nothing to do with romance until 1382, when Chaucer wrote a poem describing Val­entine’s Day, celebrated each February, as a time when birds—and people—would choose their mates. From that moment on, his reputation as a healer started to fade, and his annual feast day turned into an occasion for lovers to send each other amorous verses, and village youths to play frolicsome love games. Val­entine’s Day was transformed again in the nineteenth century, when it became a commercial extravaganza fueled by the birth of the greetings card industry and the arrival of mass marketing. A Valentine craze broke out in the United States in the 1840s: within just two decades retailers were annually selling close to 3 million cards, chapbooks and other love trinkets. Today, 141 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged worldwide each year, and 11 percent of courting couples in the U.S. choose to get engaged on February 14.

The way that St. Valentine has been converted from a herald of charitable Christian love into a symbol of romantic passion raises the larger question of how our attitudes towards love have changed over the centuries. What did love mean in the ancient world, or during the chivalrous age of Chaucer? How did the ideal of romantic love develop and shape what we now expect from a relationship? These are the kinds of questions which would have intrigued the French nobleman François de La Rochefoucauld, who in the seventeenth century proclaimed, ‘Few people would fall in love had they never heard about it.’ He understood that our ideas about love are, at least in part, inventions of culture and history.

Most of us have experienced both the pleasures and sorrows of love. We might remember the burning desire and shared rapture of a first affair, or have taken comfort in the security of a long-term relationship. Yet we may also have suffered from feel­ings of jealousy and the loneliness of rejection, or have struggled to make a marriage flourish and last.

We can navigate these difficulties of love—and enhance its joys—by grasping the significance of two great tragedies in the history of the emotions. The first is that we have lost knowledge of the different varieties of love that existed in the past, espe­cially those familiar to the ancient Greeks, who knew love could be discovered not just with a sexual partner, but also in friend­ships, amongst strangers, and with themselves. The second tragedy is that over the last thousand years, these varieties have been incorporated into a mythical notion of romantic love, which compels us to believe that they can all be found in one person, a unique soulmate. We can escape the confines of this inheritance by looking for love outside the realm of romantic attachments, and cultivating its many forms. So how should we begin our journey into the history to find a "true" meaning of love? With a cup of coffee, of course.

The Six Varieties of Love

Contemporary coffee culture has developed a sophisticated vocabulary to describe the many options for getting a daily caffeine fix—cappuccino, espresso, flat white, Americano, macchiato, mocha. The ancient Greeks were just as refined in the way they thought about love, distinguishing six different kinds. This is the opposite of our approach today, where under a single, vague term we bundle an enormous range of emotions, relation­ships and ideals. A teenage boy can declare ‘I am in love’, but he is unlikely to mean the same thing as a sixty-year-old who says he is still in love with his wife after all their years together. We utter ‘I love you’ during intense romantic moments, while being able to casually sign an email ‘lots of love’.

The inhabitants of classical Athens would have been surprised at the crudeness of our expression. Their approach to talking about love not only enlivened gossip in the market square, but allowed them to think about its place in their lives in ways that we can barely comprehend with our impoverished language of love, which in terms of coffee is the emotional equivalent of a mug of instant. We need to unveil the six types of love known to the Greeks and consider making them part of our everyday conversation. By doing so, we may be able to find relationships which better suit our personal tastes.

We have all seen those Valentine’s cards with chubby little cupids fluttering around, shooting their arrows of love at unsus­pecting people who instantly fall for one another. Cupid is the Roman version of Eros, the Greek god of love and fertility. For the ancient Greeks, eros was the idea of sexual passion and desire, and represented one of their most important varieties of love. But eros was far from the playful rascal we think of today. It was viewed as a dangerous, fiery and irrational form of love that could take hold of you and possess you. ‘Desire doubled is love, love doubled is madness,’ said Prodicus, a philosopher from the fifth century BCE. Eros involved a loss of control that frightened the Greeks, although losing control is precisely what many of us now seek in our relationships, believing that falling ‘madly in love’ is the hallmark of an ideal match.

In ancient texts eros is often associated with homosexual­ity, especially the love of older men for adolescents, a practice prevalent in fifth- and sixth-century Athens amongst the aristoc­racy. This was known as paiderastia, which in turn yielded one of the most exotic Greek verbs, katapepaiderastekenai—‘to have squandered an estate through hopeless devotion to boys’. Yet eros was not monopolized by all-male relationships. The Athenian statesman Pericles was compelled by eros to leave his wife in favor of the beautiful and brilliant Aspasia, who became his live-in mistress, while the poetess Sappho was renowned for her erotic odes to women, including those from her native island of Lesbos (hence our word ‘lesbian’). The power of eros also appeared in Greek myths, in which the exploits of the pro­miscuous gods—notably the males—are revealing of the cul­tural norms of classical society. Zeus made a concerted effort to satisfy his sexual passions, transforming himself into a swan to seduce Leda, into a snow-white bull to rape Europa, and into a cloud to have his way with Io. Even Polyphemus, the bestial Cyclops in the Odyssey, suffered from his unrequited eros for the sea-nymph Galatea, although his choice of chat-up lines hardly helped matters: ‘White Galatea, why dost thou repulse my love? Oh, thou art whiter to see than curdled milk … brighter than a green grape!’ The most visually striking evidence of eros in daily life appeared in the bawdy ‘satyr plays’ that followed the performance of tragedies during the springtime theatrical fes­tivals in Athens. The half-men half-goats romped around with enormous erect phalluses strapped to their waists, peppering their talk with lewd jokes. The pains associated with eros could be partially quelled with light comic relief.

Everyone can recount stories of having their soul pierced by eros. Whether our memories of eros are full of sensual beauty or touched by tragedy, we can hardly imagine love without a strong dose of erotic passion and desire.

A second variety of love, philia—usually translated as ‘friend­ship’—was considered far more virtuous than the base sexuality of eros. Philosophers such as Aristotle dedicated considerable brainpower to dissecting the different forms of philia. There was the philia that existed within the family unit, for instance the closeness and affection displayed between a parent and a child, or the deep but nonsexual intimacy that could be felt between siblings or cousins tied together by the bond of blood. A utilitarian version of philia existed between people in relationships of mutual dependence such as business partners or political allies. If one person ceased being useful to the other, the philia could easily break down. We recognize such instrumental friendships in contemporary life, for example when people befriend influ­ential work colleagues because it will aid their travels up the company ladder.

The philia most prized by the Greeks, however, was the pro­found friendship that developed between comrades who had fought side by side on the battlefield. These brothers-in-arms had seen one another suffer and often risked their lives to save their companions from being impaled by a Persian spear. They considered themselves as equals, and would not only share their personal worries but also display extreme loyalty, helping one another in times of need without expecting anything in return. The model for this form of philia was the friendship between Achilles and Patroclus—who were allegedly also lovers—which is central to the story in Homer’s Iliad. When Patroclus dies in combat, Achilles agonizes over his body, smearing himself with ash and fasting, then returns to the battlefront to avenge the death of his comrade.

How much philial love do we have in our lives? That is an important question today, when so many people are proud of having hundreds of ‘friends’ on Facebook or ‘followers’ on Twitter, achievements that I doubt would have impressed the Greeks.

While philia could be a matter of great seriousness, there was a third type of love valued by the ancient Greeks, which was playful love. Following the Roman poet Ovid, scholars com­monly use the Latin word ludus to describe this form of love, which concerns the playful affection between children or casual lovers. We tend to associate playfulness with the early stages of a relationship, in which flirtation, teasing and lighthearted joking are ritualistic aspects of courtship. This ludic approach to love was developed into an art form amongst the aristoc­racy in eighteenth-century France. Love was a game, full of secret letters, titillating risqué humor and risky rendezvous at midnight. We see ludus today when youngsters play ‘spin the bottle’, which provides the prospect of a first, nerve-wracking kiss. Our most exuberant ludic moments often take place on the dance floor, where physical proximity to others—often strangers—offers a playful sexualized encounter that acts as a substitute for sex itself. One of the reasons Latin American dances such as salsa and tango have become so popular in Europe and North America is that they are suffused with this ludic quality that many people feel lacking in their lives.

In his 1930s book Homo Ludens, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga suggested that the instinct for play was a natural human trait evident in all cultures. The implication of his thesis, which is reinforced by the growing psychology litera­ture on the importance of play for personal wellbeing, is that we should seek to nurture ludus in a range of our relationships, not just with our lovers or on the dance floor, but also with friends, family and colleagues. Simply sitting around in the bar banter­ing and laughing with friends is a way to cultivate ludus. Social norms that frown upon adult frivolity have allowed few of us to retain the playfulness we had as children, but it may be just what we need in our relationships to escape our everyday worries, nurture our creative selves and live with a greater lightness of being. Let ludus become part of our language of love.

Marriages in ancient Greece were rarely ludic. They were generally arranged by parents, and the wife was subordinate to her husband’s wishes and expected to stay confined indoors. Nevertheless, the Greeks managed to invent a fourth variety of love called pragma, or mature love, which referred to the deep understanding that could develop between long-married couples. Pragma is about making a relationship work over time, compromising when necessary, showing patience and tolerance, and being realistic about what you should expect from your partner. It involves being supportive of each other’s differing needs, and maintaining domestic stability so that your children have a nurturing atmosphere in which to grow up and the fam­ily’s financial affairs are secure. Above all, pragma is about being committed to the other person and making an effort in your relationship on their behalf, turning love into an act of mutual reciprocity. In the 1950s, the psychologist Erich Fromm made a distinction between ‘falling in love’ and ‘standing in love’: he said we expend too much energy on the falling and should focus more on the standing, which is primarily about giving love rather than receiving it. Pragma is at the core of this idea of standing in love. With around half of U.S. and British marriages today ending in divorce, the ancient Greek notion of mature love is one we urgently need in order to revive our vision of lifelong relationships.

While pragma required giving to your partner, agape, or self­less love, was a much more radical ideal. This was an ancient Greek love defined by its lack of exclusiveness: it was to be extended altruistically to all human beings, whether they were a member of your family or a stranger from a distant city-state. It was a love offered without obligation or expectation of return—a transcendent love based on human solidarity. Agape became one of the central concepts in Christian thought, and was the word used by early Christians to describe the divine love of God for humans, a love which believers were expected to return to both God and other people. It can be found through­out the Gospels, for instance in Jesus’ commandment to ‘Love [agape] thy neighbor as thyself’. Agape was later translated into the Latin caritas, which is the basis for our word ‘charity’; in the writings of the twentieth-century spiritual thinker and children’s author C. S. Lewis, agape, or charity—which he also called ‘gift love’—was upheld as the highest form of Christian love.

The idea of an unlimited and selfless love did not arise in ancient Greece alone, and possesses a global resonance. Theravada Buddhism advocates the cultivation of metta, or ‘universal loving kindness’, which goes beyond humankind to embrace love and compassion for all sentient beings, and even sometimes plant life. In Confucian thought, the concept of ren, or ‘benevolence’, also refers to an all-encompassing selfless form of love. Yet while agape and metta are undiscriminating, ren is a graduated love extending out from oneself in concentric circles, with the strongest love reserved for the inner circle of one’s immediate family, and then progressively expanding to friends, the local community and humanity as a whole. The power and beauty of inclusive loves such as agape is that they help balance our overwhelming desire to be loved, and instead ask us to engage in a life-affirming generosity of spirit. Unfortu­nately nobody has yet invented agape speed dating to help create a random kindness movement, nor can we find agape personal ads in the newspapers. Still, we can all easily perform acts of agape in our daily lives.

A final love known to the Greeks was philautia, or self-love, which at first glance seems the opposite of agape—a rival that would destroy it. The wise Greeks, however, noticed that it came in two forms. There was a negative kind of self-love, which was a selfish hunger to gain personal pleasures, money and public honors, far beyond your fair share. Its dangers were revealed in the myth of Narcissus, the irresistible youth who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool and, unable to draw himself away, perished there from starvation. The bad reputation of self-love has persisted in Western thought: in the sixteenth century the French theologian John Calvin described it as a ‘pest’ (by which he meant a plague), while Freud saw self-love as an unhealthy turning of the libido towards oneself, making us incapable of loving others.

Luckily Aristotle had spotted a more positive version of self-love, one that enhanced our wider capacity to love. ‘All friendly feelings for others,’ he wrote, ‘are extensions of a man’s feelings for himself.’ The message was that when you like yourself and feel secure in yourself, then you will have plenty of love to give. Similarly, if you know what makes you happy, then you will be in a stronger position to find a way of extending that happiness to those around you. If, on the other hand, you are uncomfortable with who you are, or harbor some self-loathing, then you will have little love to offer others. It seems we should learn to love ourselves in a way that does not transform into an entrancing gaze of self-obsession. That means, at the very least, accepting our imperfections and humbly acknowledging our individual gifts, rather than con­stantly looking at our failures and inadequacies.

Reprinted with permission from How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life by Roman Krznaric and published by Blue Bridge, 2011.