Finding the True Meaning of Love

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


| February 2014



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.

Photo by Fotolia/srekap

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’.