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Friday, April 19, 2024

Advice on love, courtesy of the Ancient Greeks

It’s important to recognize all the types of love in your life


By YASMEEN O’BRIEN — yjobrien@ucdavis.edu


I have always thought that the word “love” is not specific enough. There are too many kinds of love for there to be only one word for it. As a result of this language limitation, I have often struggled to express myself properly. For example, I am “in love” with my friends — I enjoy spending time with them, I am eager to learn more about them, I worry about them when they come home late and I want to grow old with them. However, I do not desire to have romantic relationships with them. The closest words to express how I feel are “in love,” but they have additional meaning that doesn’t apply. 

As a society, we put too much emphasis on romantic love. I believe we have developed something of an addiction to it. As a result, issues surrounding self-worth arise when we don’t have romantic love in our life. But romantic love is far from the only, or even most valuable, love we experience. We can learn something from the Greeks in this sense; they identified six kinds of love, along with a word for each of them.

  1. Eros

Eros, named after the Greek god of fertility, represents the idea of sexual passion and desire. As I learned more about this facet of love, I thought it was interesting that the Greeks didn’t always think of it as something positive, as we might now. It was regarded as dangerous and fiery, an irrational form of love that could take hold of you and possess you. It involved a frightening loss of control. As I compared these views to the widespread cultural beliefs surrounding romantic love in the modern age, I noticed the paradox that many people hope to fall “madly” in love, which, by definition, involves losing control.

2. Philia

Philia, or deep friendship, was valued by the Greeks far more than eros. It meant showing loyalty to your friends, sharing your emotions with them, and making sacrifices for them. It was described as a deep comradely friendship akin to the bond that develops between brothers who fight side by side on the battlefield. There is also another kind of philia, sometimes called storge, that represents the love between parent and child. 

3. Ludus

Ludus, or playful love, is a playful affection between friends, children or casual lovers. It embodies the flirting and teasing that comes with the early stages of a relationship, as well as sitting around laughing and bantering with friends or going out dancing. I think this one is especially important because of its prevalence in many people’s lives. I enjoy how simple it is; it’s just having fun with others. Sharing laughter is a wonderful kind of love.

4. Agape

Agape, or love for everyone, is a selfless love. It’s the love extended to all people, ranging from family members to distant strangers, and is associated with some religious traditions. C.S. Lewis, a British writer and Anglican lay theologian, referred to agape as “gift love,” similar to the views of Theravāda Buddhism, where it is described as “universal loving kindness.” I think this type of love is crucial. With empathy levels in the U.S. declining drastically over the past 40 years, and with the most substantial fall occurring in the last decade, reviving our capacity to care for fellow human beings is an urgent matter. It can bring love to our lives, as well as enrich the love in others’ lives.

5. Pragma

Pragma, or longstanding love, is a mature, realistic love that is most commonly found in long-established relationships. It’s about making compromises in order to help the relationship work over time. It’s about showing patience and tolerance. I think of it as a slow and rewarding love. There was an interesting idea I came across in my research by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, who said that we spend too much energy on “falling in love” and need to learn how to “stand in love.” It’s about making an effort to give love rather than just receive love, which I think is profoundly admirable and can be a difficult thing to do. 

6. Philautia

The last is philautia, or love of the self. I would argue this is the most important one. The Greeks recognized two types — the unhealthy version associated with narcissism, in which you become self-obsessed and focused on personal fortune, and a healthier version, which enhances your capacity to love in general. The main idea is that if you love and feel secure in yourself, you will have plenty of love to give to others. Not only does philautia enhance your relationships with others, it also enhances your relationship with yourself, which I believe is the most valuable one in your life.

Upon reflection, I’ve uncovered a few messages we can take away from the Greeks. It’s important to nurture all the varieties of love that are present in our lives and utilize the many sources of love we have. Love comes in all shapes and sizes. We shouldn’t create boundaries around what is most important because it restricts us from all the love we could be feeling. It’s valuable to recognize and appreciate all the varieties — it will probably help you discover that you have more love in your life than you think.


Written by: Yasmeen O’Brien — yjobrien@ucdavis.edu

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