Love Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means
A brief introduction to the seven Greek loves
North Americans do horrible things to the English language.
Take the word freedom, for instance.
Hyper-individualist North Americans think it means “I can do whatever I want.”
But that’s not what freedom means.
That’s what autonomy means.
Imagine you live all alone on a desert island. You can eat all the coconuts, cut down the trees, fish out the pond, and spray the whole thing dead with seawater if you like.
But if there are two people on the island, suddenly, your rights get cut in half. But that’s not a bad thing. By surrendering some of your autonomy, you gain a co-laborer, a trading partner, someone to care for you when you are sick or injured, maybe even a friend. In other words, there is only one freedom. And it’s supposed to be shared equally.
Now pretend North America is an island with a few hundred million people. The social contract makes us all surrender some of our autonomy, but it’s traditionally been a pretty good deal — we can work together to improve standards of living, fill every role with the best person for the job, and collectively defend ourselves from foreign attacks. We also enjoy reciprocal legal benefits — when we surrender our right to murder, we receive the right not to be murdered.
The ancient Greeks (and Biblical writers) didn’t define freedom as autonomy. To them, freedom was the ability to do what is right regardless of circumstances.
In other words, modern “freedom” — autonomy — is actually a collective anti-freedom.
You think that’s bad?
Wait until you see what we did with love.
I love my baby Concord. He’s nearly five months old and every day is a miracle, pleasure, and joy. I love his smiles and giggles and coos and squeals. I even love his howls and screams and cries.
I also love burritos.
Specifically, burritos suizos from Zarape in Marlborough, Massachusetts.
I love my baby boy… and I love burritos.
How is this possible?
I love my father… but I also love The Godfather.
I love my wife… but I also love Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
Doesn’t this strike you as odd?
Doesn’t it make you wonder what in the world Western post-modernists did to the word love?
Like freedom, the ancient Greeks (and Romans, and Jews) didn’t see love the way we see it.
We see it mostly as a word and a feeling.
This is very stupid… and very sad.
In the ancient mind, love was primarily an action.
It was a verb, not a noun.
We understand this notion, at least in some shallow sense. You can’t tell your spouse you love them but then never lift a finger to help around the house. You aren’t really loving your friends if you don’t commit regular time to them.
But love was far more than just a word, feeling, and active pursuit for the ancient Greeks.
Love was so nuanced and multi-faceted that one word wasn’t enough.
Love was so meaningful that they gave it seven words.
Do you love yourself, my friend?
Do you realize how special and unique you are?
The odds of you existing are astounding.
You are fearfully and wonderfully made.
I appreciate you.
I hope you appreciate you.
Philautia is the first type of Greek love — the love of self. While it can easily stray into sociopathic narcissism (think: every politician and influencer ever), a healthy amount of love for yourself is vital to maintaining self-esteem, confidence, positivity, hope for the future, and a commitment to self-care.
This love of self must not be based on performance or what others think of you, otherwise, it is destined to fail. It has to come from the innate worth ascribe to all human beings — that you are stamped with the Imago Dei.
Don’t let philautia turn into selfishness. “Me time” can only go so far. Let your love of self be motived by a love of others — when you love yourself well (getting enough sleep, sun, nutrients, movement, meaning, etc) — it makes you a far better person for others, too.
Do you have a “fun friend” that’s good for sports or weekend trips and pretty much nothing else?
Or how about a flirtation in high school where you teased each other for years?
Or that time you gave yourself over to the whims and danced your heart out with a total stranger?
That’s ludus, from the same root as the word ludicrous.
Ludus isn’t long-lasting, and that’s the point. The shared goal is fun — we ludus stand-up comedians for this very reason. Ludus is all about levity.
We desperately need a greater sense of playfulness in our oh-so-serious world right now. (That’s why I try to drop at least one light-hearted line even in articles about hyper-serious topics.)
Pragma is the opposite of ludus.
It’s where we get the word pragmatic.
Pragma is wonderful and important because it fosters commitment and companionship and drives us to do the right thing even when we’d rather yield to an easier path.
While ludus can never last, pragma often finds a way.
Right now, people are giving up on each other far too easily. They block and ban each other online, or cancel each other in universities and the entertainment industry, or break up or divorce or unfriend. We need to fight better, and fight more. Because pragma sees the bigger picture — that there are benefits to commitment rather than the instant gratification of always walking away.
This is the one that everyone likes.
Eros is how babies get made.
This is the romantic, passionate, sexual word for love, from whence we get the word erotic.
This type of love can often spark a fling, but eros doesn’t have the fuel to maintain a committed relationship through work, commuting, deadlines, travel, weariness, pregnancy, postpartum, sickness, erectile dysfunction, menopause, injuries, disability, and old age.
Eros can also start a fire that burns your life to ash in a matter of minutes. Eros is the equivalent of Cupid in the Greek pantheon, and is often depicted blindfolded for a reason — he fires arrows to and fro without reason, maiming just as often as he strikes for good. We must shield ourselves from this oft-illogical form of love. Sadly, the media is absolutely obsessed with eros. From Netflix to porn and everything in between, addiction culture tries to twist all forms of love into mere sex, because it’s incredibly profitable to do so.
(I wish we still used all seven Greek loves if only to watch hormonal high school boys try to pressure girls into sex while saying, “Baby, I agape you!” only to get slapped upside the head by intelligent females who retort, “All you want is eros, you non-committal tool!”)
Only parents and guardians can ever experience storge in its fullest sense.
This is the overwhelming love that a parent feels for their newborn; that immediate and unconditional sense they would sacrifice anything and everything for this child without thinking twice. It is not a mutual exchange sort of love — it is entirely one-way, from the parent to the child, with all the responsibility on the former.
Storge generates an unlimited amount of patience, compassion, and forgiveness, and is probably the top reason why nearly everyone should have a kid. But not more than two. ;)
This is one of the most important and long-lasting loves.
Have you ever had an intimate, authentic, affection-filled friendship that was built on active mutual pursuit?
If we are brutally honest, most people have never had a classically true friend in their entire lives. It is the sort of friendship or brotherhood that philosophers like Cicero craved and raved about, writing entire books on the subject.
It’s the sort of love that siblings can also come to enjoy, particularly after they lose their parents and start to grow old themselves. It is a sweet, platonic, secure, enduring friendship.
While many marriages fade, many friendships hold fast.
In fact, many of the best marriages are filled to the brim with philia.
This is the motherlode, the pièce de résistance, the magnum opus, the gold standard, the veritable apotheosis of love.
Agape drives us to acts of selflessness great and small. It compels us to love unconditionally and to love in the fullest possible sense. It drives us to self-sacrifice.
In other words, it is the antithesis to our hyper-individualist consumerist age.
Agape awakens within us a definite universality — a strong feeling of connection to every living thing in existence—and with time, it becomes completely transcendent of circumstance.
Most people will never experience agape in their entire lives.
Is love just a word or a feeling for us?
How can we make it an action this week?
Of the seven types of love, at which do we excel the most?
Which ones need a bit of work?
Who can we show love to today?
There is an unfathomable amount of hate in this world right now. Banksters are debt-trapping homeowners. Land-lorders are rent-slaving tenants. Nike and Apple are literally enslaving Uyghurs. Corporations are dragging the working class into serfdom. Social media has rotted billions of brains and turned people against each other.
If we are going to survive tomorrow, we’re going to need a whole lot more of all seven types of love.
And we’re going to need to see them in action.