The ancient Greeks, whose developments and discoveries in mathematics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, and many other subjects continue to exert primary influence on Western civilization, and therefore also on the global village, were vitally interested in love and its relation to the human soul. In this pre-Christian period, the Greeks were pagans, and their view of the soul was not a religious one involving spirits or ghosts. Plato and others conceived of love as residing in the soul, and the soul it-self (and therefore love) as having three parts or dimensions. These dimensions correspond to the gut, the mind, and the heart. The Greeks labeled these three distinct types of love eros, philos, and agape.

Although today we use the word “erotic” to mean sexual, the Greek conception of eros actually referred to all human physical appetites. The appetite for food and drink were erotic (belonging to the domain of the gut) as much as the appetite for sex. In this view, sex is just another appetite, with no more value judgment connected to it than to food. It is only when religions started controlling human social conduct that we saw sexuality treated as something different from other bodily appetites, which led to the narrowed (and current) meaning of eros. “Erotic love,” then, in today’s parlance, means sexual love, and carries with it connotations of at- traction, allure, mystique, chemistry, and animal magnetism. We cannot deny its importance, but we must also affirm love’s higher aspects.

“Philos” means an intellectual attraction to someone or something that develops into a kind of love. Philosophy itself, meaning “love of wisdom,” happens to be good example.

Philos means loving people, things, or ideas in nonsexual ways. The relationship between a student and a teacher can be philial love, as can the at- traction to a friend, poem, landscape, mathematical theorem, moral theory, subject of study, professional practice, or social cause. People who love their work have philial relationships with their careers. Do you love and celebrate life itself? This too is philos. One of the most powerful expressions of philos is friendship.

In friendship the ego is not dissolved in the other; on the contrary, it blossoms. Unlike love, friendship does not declare that one plus one makes one; rather, that one plus one makes two. Each of the two is enriched by and for the other. – Elie Wiesel

The Greeks’ third and highest form of love is agape (pronounced ah-GAH-pay) – love which seeks nothing in return.

It is the rarest and most valuable kind of love. Those who manifest agape act beyond purely personal motives: The world is full of beings needing to be loved by a great heart, and agape is love that emanates from such a heart. Agape enables individuals to experience divine love them- selves, and to manifest compassion for others. Because agape is unselfish, its expression always helps and never harms another. Where eros makes courtship and family possible and philos makes friendship and society possible, agape makes worship and humanity possible. Agape can also sanction and strengthen eros and philos alike.

What makes agape different from eros and philos is its selflessness. Eros makes people strive to find or lose themselves in another. Philos makes them want to identify themselves with another. Agape manifests without selves and their motives getting in its way. Receiving agape is like feeling the radiant sun shining on you. You do not mind that it shines on others as well; on the contrary, you want others to feel it too. Giving agapean love is like generating the radiant sunlight itself.

There are many ways to experience agape as a beneficiary and then to bestow it on others. Some do so through prayer; some through meditation; others, through hard lessons of life and gradual acquiescence in wisdom; still others, though mystical quests. However it comes into your life, the key is to take the self out of the equation.

This was a problem for Freud – and a weakness in his theories on love. Freud had read a bit about “mysticism,” and the states of being that can be attained through practices of bringing the appetitive, erotic soul to rest. He had heard accounts by people who experienced one- ness with the universe, or unity with things, during which time the ego is temporarily dis- solved. People consistently liken this experience to the feeling of a drop returning to the ocean, often accompanied by visual sensations of divine light, or auditory sensations of divine music, or gustatory sensations of divine nectar, or tactile sensations of being bathed in divine love. “I am unable to discover that Oceanic feeling in myself,” confessed Freud, with some bitterness.

And he was right, for agape does not reside in or emanate from the self, or any “parts” of the self on his psychoanalytic map. Neither the ego nor the superego nor the id can give or receive agape, any more than they can get a suntan.

It is undoubtedly a good thing to experience both eros and philos, for then you will discover their benefits, detriments, and limitations for yourself. And when you are ready for it, agape will be there for you.




The Big Questions: How Philosophy Can Change Your Life
Lou Marinoff



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