“An entire army made of lovers would be invincible.”
— Plato, Symposium
It is said the Eskimos in North America have 50-100 unique words for snow.
Countless Native tribes have incredibly nuanced terms for plants, ground, and jungle structure. This gives their societies a better understanding of their environment and informs their knowledge of how best to move forward and address the situations in which they find themselves.
More detailed descriptions of your surroundings allow you to better understand the world you live in.
Why is it then, that we have only one word to express our most intimate feeling?
Do you really feel the same way about the latest Avengers’ movie as you do about your partner of 5 years?
Does your breakfast hold the same standing in your heart as your mother?
Most likely not.
We need a more comprehensive description of love, to focus our definitions so that we more accurately describe our emotions and intensify our understanding of the world we inhabit.
Fortunately, we do have these descriptions.
They have been lost; sacred knowledge sacrificed to the relentless progression of time, society, and culture.
Both the ancient Greeks and modern psychologists have already helped us on our quest to dissect the divisions of love and understand it as a concept. With their insight, we can apply a more nuanced understanding of love to our daily lives and relationships and in doing so, come closer to our loved ones, peers, and neighbors.
Intuitively, we know that not all love is the same.
This is why the concept of a ‘soulmate’ still resonates in many love stories. This is why some love purists shun the idea of casual hookups, as it somehow ‘tarnishes’ the delicate nature of true love.
We deeply understand that love has different levels, that it manifests itself in different ways; yet we only describe it with one overarching umbrella term?
It seems about time to update our emotional dialect.
4 Ancient Philosophical Conceptions of Love
The ancient Greeks had 4 common denominations of love: eros, philia, storge, and agape.
Some philosophical circles prefer to condense philia and storge into one category. As you will see, these can be considered quite separate definitions of love. I digress.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll continue to separate love into the four aforementioned categories.
1. Eros (Passionate/Intimate Love)
Eros, when translated, means sexual, or romantic love. The Greek word erotas means ‘intimate love’. You can see where we derive the modern-day term ‘erotic’.
In modern society, this is the sexual or intimate passion you feel for a lover. The alluring pull of a well-dressed woman, or the irresistible air of a fashionable gent.
Eros is raw attraction to the beauty of the individual.
This is a love normally felt between romantic partners, by you for your crush, or by a population for the ‘ideal standard of beauty’ being constructed and promoted. Eros is fluid. Ever-changing.
With time and increased exposure to your partner, eros evolves. Though initially felt for a person’s beauty, eros can be the feeling of love for the beauty of the individual, beyond their physical appeal.
In his acclaimed work Symposium, Plato argues that eros helps us understand beauty in its truest form. Noting that love does not require physical attraction — that beauty can be found in all people — we derive the idea of ‘Platonic love’, referring to love without physical attraction.
“He whom love touches not walks in darkness”
— Plato, Symposium
Plato is renowned for his ‘theory of forms’ — the idea that the physical manifestations of a concept are never as ‘real’ as the intangible form or theory of the concept. This idea is reflected in Plato’s conception of eros, in that the truest beauty is not that which is immediately visible on the surface.
This passionate feeling of eros is a precursor to entering a relationship. You must be attracted to the other person. You must notice beauty in them.
Tread carefully, however.
Relationships built solely on the basis of eros will fail, as the deeper substance of love is ignored or overlooked.
Have you ever known a couple who were only together for their looks? Yeah.
Are they still together today? Exactly.
Eros draws us in through the gravitational pull of romantic attraction, and with continual meditation on the beauty of the individual, pushes us along the path to understand the true nature of beauty as it is, limitless and unconditional.
2. Philia (Friendly/Brotherly Love)
Philia is a friendly, or brotherly, love. The love felt between close friends, mentors, teams, and close communities.
The important difference between eros and philia is that philia is a dispassionate, virtuous love. Dispassionate in that there is not a romantic side to this relationship.
Philia is a love built on respect, equality, familiarity, and understanding.
“The deepest need of man, then, is to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness.”
— Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving
This is the feeling that arises when your friend confesses something of grave personal importance to them, and you are drawn closer to them. A profound sense of respect surfaces and you find yourself wanting to lessen their pain, to understand the root of their suffering.
Philia, specifically defined as a dispassionate, virtuous love, was popularized by Aristotle in his esteemed work, Nicomachean Ethics. In this publication, Aristotle presents a split definition of philia.
On one hand, he notes philia, previously described as a deep loyalty and connection to friends. On the other hand, he introduces philos, a general manifestation of love for peers, community, or the deep enjoyment of an activity.
Philos describes the rush of pleasure you have while playing a sport you love, the respect you share with your classmates, or the serene bliss that arrives after a quaint walk in the park.
Philia is a captivating concept because it is the least natural love of all the forms. The biological necessity of philia or friendly love is still hidden from the contemporary sciences. As it is the least natural, it is viewed as one of the higher levels of love — as it is freely chosen.
This is why for many of us, you can be closer with — or feel more attached to — your friends than you do your family. A common saying is “friends are the family that you choose.” The act of free selection, to invite someone into this level of your life, is a sign of deep trust and compassion, and philia describes this.
C.S. Lewis, writing on these 4 loves, notes: “[…] to the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”
Damn. Do you ever take your friendships for granted?
Though this concept of philia can be translated to family relations (and commonly is), another term is better suited to describe this. This is our third form of love, storge.
3. Storge (Familial/Affectionate Love)
Storge is familial love, the affectionate love you have for your family, whether that be your son, daughter, mother, father, or immediate/extended family.
Storge is considered to be the most natural, or common, manifestation of love that we know.
Did you ever have to earn your mother’s love? Did you ever ‘realize’ that you loved your brother?
It was natural. Pervasive. Ever-present.
It is a natural, emotive empathy for the tribe, seemingly programmed into parents and family. To share traits as personal as a bloodline creates a natural tendency towards acceptance and openness to those with whom you share these commonalities.
Storge is natural because it is present without coercion or force. You are innately loving towards your children.
Storge is emotive or emotional because of the deeply rooted traits you share, and the familiarity that comes from shared traits.
Finally, storge is common because it does not need to be won. It is the least discriminating of all the definitions of love, as the individual does not need to have traits you deem ‘worthy of love.’ It is merely their mutual affiliation to your similarities that creates this sense of love. Storge transcends the filters or criteria present in both eros and philia, making it the easiest to attain, but also the most fragile.
Why is storge fragile?
For the exact reason that makes storge so commonplace, the natural tendency or default expectation of it.
Let’s use the example of “respect your elders.”
Often the underlying rationale for respecting one’s elders is simply storge — the idea that you ought to love your family. So the argument goes: you must love and respect your family because you must love and respect your family. This is circular argumentation at its finest.
This removes the responsibility to act in a way that is deserving of love.
The love/respect is expected regardless of the virtue or acts of the individual. It is viewed as a ‘default’ or ‘given’ and should be received regardless of the individual’s behavior.
I remember this concept used to infuriate me growing up, I just couldn’t name the feeling. My grandparents were often condescending toward my personal interests and would act rudely if I behaved in a manner they didn’t approve of. My love for them was expected, never earned. It bothered me, the feeling that I did not choose this relationship, I was born into it, and yet my most important offering, respect, had to be given without being earned.
Though the familial love is ever-present and underlying, it should find its way to the surface through words, actions, and understanding.
Storge is the yang to the yin of philia. Philia is a high-level love specifically because it is chosen: it is selected by us.
We work for it.
In historical contexts, storge is used almost exclusively for describing familial love, and is not commonly used outside of this context.
It is the natural, relentless compassion and empathy of parents for their children, and is the bedrock foundation that the other loves, eros, philia, agape, are built upon.
Storge is our first understanding of conditional and unconditional love, and provides the vital life force that allows all other manifestations of love to thrive.
4. Agape (Unconditional Love)
Agape is the highest form of love, for it is unconditional love. This is commonly referred to as God’s love for man, and of man’s love for God.
Agape is an all-consuming love.
Regardless of context, external conditions, extraneous factors, or feelings, agape is expressed without hesitation by those who feel it. Agape is commonly known as the love we ascribe to ‘enlightened’ individuals — individuals who offer respect, understanding, and compassion to all beings without hesitation, judgment, or condition.
Agape is unconditional love for oneself and for all others.
Taking this further than the familial bond of storge, agape is the relentless, unconditional love a mother feels for her child. It is the love that makes you suffer for your loved ones. It is a love so pure, so powerful, so consuming that it is understood by only a few.
Contemporary and ancient scholars and writers alike have touched on this before. If your love doesn’t extend to the whole of humanity, unconditionally, then you don’t really know what love is yet.
Agape is considered the greatest of the four loves, as it is not contextual; changing circumstances or the changing of individuals does not impact agape.
Agape also translates beautifully to the ‘Golden Rule’ that is expressed by the world’s’ various religious scriptures — “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
To treat all beings with kindness, not because they have treated you with kindness first, but because you are a kind person.
Agape is what we strive for in life. Agape is to be free.
This is the goal of all relationships. To feel fully accepted by your partner, despite your flaws, weakness, blemishes, and bruises. This is the goal of social interactions. To accept everyone, from prince to pauper, without hesitation or judgment.
Modern Psychological Approaches to Modern Love
Though contemporary society has drifted from our understanding and embodiment of the four flavors of love listed above, traditional psychology has not. In fact, contemporary psychological understandings of love relate directly to the definitions of eros, philia, storge, and agape.
The modern psychological definitions of love are fatuous, romantic, companionate, and consummate love.
1. Fatuous Love
Fatuous love is a sexual attraction and commitment to the other, without significant emotional closeness. It is a purely sexual, physical love.
Though we have divided our definitions of love, this is not to say that this love is ‘inferior’; it is merely a different manifestation of love. Fatuous love is necessary for the continuation of our species.
We explored eros as an ‘evolving’ concept of love. Initially captured by the physical beauty of an individual, eros then grows into a longing to understand the true nature of beauty, to explore the love of the individual regardless of their physical beauty.
Fatuous love, it seems, translates very well to the early stages of eros. As eros evolves from fatuous love, and you become more drawn to the inner beauty of your partner, we move on to the next psychological definition of love: romantic love.
2. Romantic Love
If the respect, attachment, and interest you feel deepens beyond fatuous love, we say you are experiencing romantic love. Romantic love is a love bred over time, with the accruement of respect. Romantic love is all-consuming sexual arousal (eros), paired with comfort, security, and respect for the other.
This is where most modern relationships are; somewhere on the spectrum between fatuous love and romantic love.
This is also where much stress is found.
If your partner is more attracted to the ‘idea’ of you, or simply attracted to your more physical attributes, but you are deep into romantic love, you may feel that they are ‘not on the same page’ in the relationship. These differences of inner feelings strain a relationship. Be mindful of this, and use it to deepen your relationships and understand your partner more. This is an excellent way to gauge potential partners in your life.
How do you feel about each other? Is it romantic? Or is it the love you feel for a friend? This is where we find our next definition, companionate love.
3. Companionate Love
The third psychological definition of love is companionate love. This translates over to philia (and storge at some level) from the ancient understandings of love. This is the deep love and respect between friends and between peers. This is a love of intimacy and commitment, built through respect and well-intentioned action.
It does not need to entail a romantic or sexual attraction and can remain platonic. This is bred over time, and there are very specific actions you can take to deepen this love within your inner circle.
Expressing your vulnerability, letting someone know that they matter to you, highlighting what you appreciate in them — these can all strengthen the companionate love felt and reciprocated in relationships.
4. Consummate Love
Finally, we see agape manifest itself in what psychologists call ‘consummate love’. ‘Consummate’ finds its etymological root in ‘consuming’. This echoes the ethos of agape, which is an all-consuming, unconditional love.
Consummate love is a love that contains intimacy (closeness), passion, and deep commitment. It does not require standards to be met but is unconditional and freely given.
This is a love that we all strive for in romantic relationships, but not all of them reach this point.
This is the love of God for man and the love of a mother for her offspring. This is the sparkle in your eye as you watch your lover from across the room, even when they’re at their worst.
It isn’t to say that nothing bad has happened in your relationship. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. There may be many strenuous moments that occur. This, however, does not diminish the love you feel, as consummate love is not contextual.
Now that we’ve seen four different flavors of love, from the ancient Greeks (eros, philia, storge, agape) all the way to modern psychologists (fatuous, romantic, companionate, consummate) — how can you apply this knowledge to your own life? How does your nuanced understanding of love aid your everyday life?
We start by understanding the nature of love in our relationships and then work to deepen it.
How To Gauge The Level of Love in Your Relationships
Just by being able to describe love at a deeper level, you will be able to see where your relationships are. Both romantic and personal relationships can be understood through these lenses, and you can develop them if you so wish.
When looking at eros, or passionate/romantic love, you can determine how ‘surface-level’ your relationship is.
- Would your relationship be strained if you changed your look or image?
- How does your partner act when you’re sick, or not at your best?
- Are you commonly ‘advertised’ to their network or peers?
- Are you praised for certain aspects of your personality, but not others?
- What does your partner appreciate about you? What do they like about your character?
The goal here should be to understand the gap between fatuous and romantic love and adjust accordingly.
Love is the one aspect of life with respect to which we should never settle for mediocre.
By understanding where you stand, you can take action to dive deeper into these relationships.
When looking at philia, or your friendly/familial relationships, you can understand who your true inner circle is, or who is using you as a ‘convenience’.
- Do you have friends who ask you for favors, but are reluctant to help you when you ask?
- Do your friends check in on you by their own will?
- Do you feel like you can confide in, and truly open up to, your friends and inner circle?
- Do you feel respected, trusted, and appreciated by your friends?
- If you had great news to tell someone, who comes to your mind?
- Who in your life do you respect deeply?
As we noted, this is one of the highest levels of love as it is freely selected. As a result, you choose who you invite into your inner circle, and ensure that you are surrounded by those who love you.
“You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you.”
— The Minimalists
Friends are incredibly important. Ensure that you surround yourself with good people.
Finally, we address agape. Often, this a personal understanding and embodiment of love. It is your relationship with love and the world. This is something developed within; it can be cultivated with time.
- Do you see intrinsic value in everyone you meet?
- Are some individual people worthy of love, while others are not?
- Are certain types of people worthy of love, while others are not?
- Do you only give love to people who have loved you first, or done something you deem worthy of deserving love?
- Are there things people can do that would make you stop loving them?
Agape is unconditional love. Unconditional. Find areas where you create conditions for love and address these.
How To Develop and Deepen the Love in Your Life
There are a number of ways we can improve the love in our life; to feel love deeply and to express it honestly and openly.
The first step was being able to effectively describe love. We now have more nuanced definitions: eros, philia, storge, agape.
The next step was identifying where our relationships stand on this spectrum. Are our relationships superficial, are they as deep as we thought, and how do we express our own love?
Once we understand what love is and how our relationships embody this love, we can decide where we would like them to be and take action to move forward. Here are some ways to do this:
- Practice loving-kindness meditation. Picture giving and receiving love to/from everyone that you meet.
- Cultivate gratitude throughout your day. We cannot love others or receive love effectively until we ourselves are in a state of love. Cultivate this within yourself.
- Take friendships deeper. Instead of sitting around watching Netflix, ask them about the challenges they face and how you can help. Express times that they helped you, and express how important the relationship is to them.
- Deeply understand your partner. Is this relationship solely fatuous? Or do you see the true inner beauty of your partner? Are they a beautiful soul or only a beautiful face to you?
- Ask questions that build empathy. Move towards unconditional love for that person and all people. Ask them what they struggle with, what they are afraid of, what they’re passionate about, and what you mean to them.
Love is one of the most important experiences in our lives. We all strive to give love and to feel love. But too often it is an afterthought, something that we will simply ‘arrive at’ eventually.
If we put conscious effort into understanding and cultivating love, we can dive deeper into this profound emotional and spiritual state than we ever thought possible.