Love, British actress Hermione Gingold once said, is a worn-out word.
In our culture, this single word is tasked with describing our attitudes towards everything from chocolate cake to our children and spouses.
The Greeks knew better than this. They had four words for love: eros, storgos, philia, and agape (as popularized in C.S. Lewis’ classic, The Four Loves.) Eros designates the whole sphere of sexual attraction and carnal desire. Storgos is the natural affection one might feel for his parents, his tribe, or his country. Philia is the love of friendship. Agape goes beyond these and is the supreme form of love. It is the love with which we love God, our children, and the homeless.
Eros and storgos are rooted in our nature. In a way, they are unchosen: we don’t get to pick our parents, the kind of persons we are attracted to, and the country of our birth. Philia, on the other hand, is more spiritual and volitional. This leaves agape, which, particularly in the context of the New Testament, is often defined as divine self-giving love. If philia is the love of our friends, agape is the love of our enemies.
These four loves are a program for our spiritual lives, a ladder of ascent to God, who is love.
Eros. That ascent would seem to begin with eros, the love of bodily desire. It is tempting to think of eros as simply a synonym for lust, but it is much more than that. In ancient Greek, Eros was viewed as a god—a testament to the uncontrollable passion it could generate between lovers. To us, Eros is more familiar under his Roman name, Cupid. He is often depicted as a youth or baby with a bow and arrow, which symbolize how such love is often involuntary, unexpected, and leaves us feeling vulnerable. (Vulnerable is from the Latin, vulnus, for wound.)
Eros appears nowhere in the New Testament, so it might seem like our ascent to God means leaving it behind. But, as Catholics we know that the body is good and sacred, so this does not seem quite right to us either. Pope Benedict XVI confirmed this in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, in which he tried to rehabilitate this love. Eros, he wrote, must be elevated and purified:
Eros, reduced to pure “sex,” has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man’s great “yes” to the body. … Christian faith, on the other hand, has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility. True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.
Anyone who thinks Christianity eschews passionate love—as Nietzsche did—hasn’t read Song of Songs or seen the Ecstasy of St. Teresa. A passionate desire for God is really the foundation of the devout life. Thus, far from leaving eros behind, the Christian life purifies it and orients it towards God.
Storgos. Perhaps we have two beginnings. One is eros. The other then would be storgos, which occurs infrequently in the New Testament. One synopsis defines it well: “It is a natural movement of the soul for husband, wife, child or dog. It is a quiet, abiding feeling within a man that rests on something close to him and that he feels good about.” Like eros, storgos arises from our natural desire for kinship with others, but it is less intense, less carnal, and broader in scope.
Christianity calls us to replace these natural ties with supernatural ones, earthly loves with heavenly ones. Our spiritual family consists of the brothers and sisters we have in Christ. Our heavenly Father is God. Our spiritual mother is Mary. And our true citizenship is in the City of God.
Philia. Here we cross from the carnal into the spiritual. As one writer puts it, “If Eros is the love of the body, Phileo is the love of the soul.” Philia is commonly associated with close friendship. This is how it appears to be used in the New Testament. For example, in John 16:27, Jesus says, “For the Father himself loves [philia] you, because you have loved [philia] me and have come to believe that I came from God.
Agape. But there is an even greater form of love to which we are called, and that is agape love, which permeates the New Testament. If eros desires in order to possess for oneself, agape so strongly desires the good of the other than it is willing to sacrifice itself.
In a final dialogue with Peter, before His ascension, Jesus makes it clear that we are to move from simple philia to agape love.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He then said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” [Jesus] said to him, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).
Our English text masks a deeper dynamic of love at work here. Each time Peter says love the Greek word is the verb form of philia. However, the first two times Jesus asks him, the word is the verb form of agape. Only in the last does Jesus meet Peter where he is: at philia.
Peter’s formation is not yet clear. He has yet to receive the Spirit and take command of the Church, which happens at Pentecost. Only later does he commend agape love to us, in 1 Peter 1:8, in discussing the faith of his readers in Jesus, “Although you have not seen him you love [agape] him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.”
Agape is the kind of love that Jesus commands us to show to our neighbor. It’s the love that never fails in 1 Corinthians 13. When 1 John 4:8 tells us God is love, he means agape.
We are called to ascend to agape love of God. But we must remember this is only possible because God first descended to us and first showed agape love towards as. This is how the Gospel of John introduces the word agape to us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16).