The 4 Loves of Ancient Greece

by Philip Damico  /  @philipsdamico
watch the video essay here

These days there can be a lot of miscommunications when trying to convey to another person how you feel about them. One vague word is used for such a variety of emotions: love. We love our grandparents, our friends, lovers and siblings differently. Love is such a broad emotion and trying to reduce the varied types of love to one emotion is a fool’s errand. Confusion and the ensuing awkward clarification resulting from the one dimensional word we use to communicate affection is an all too common reality. Anyone that’s experienced the pains of unrequited love – on either side – knows the intense strategy required to communicate that you love a friend, but don’t love them. We accept this as but one of the many failings of human communication, but this wasn’t always the case. The Ancient Greeks had four different words for the emotion of love. Agape, Eros, Philos and Storge. The exact definitions of these four concepts are often blurry as pop philosophy blogs claimed, modernized and simplified them long ago but with a little digging it’s easy to read up on the Ancient Greek words for love.

The first and most distinctive Ancient Greek wor d for love is Eros. In the classical Greek tradition, Eros refers to romantic and sexual desire. We’re most familiar with the concept of Eros in contemporary western civilization because of the emphasis our culture places on sexuality.

The Ancient Greek understanding of Eros is very different from ours. Erotic love was often considered a type of madness, elaborately analogized using the mythological figure Eros who would shoot magical arrows of love at people to make them desire one another. An apt description of the sensation and a useful one, coming from a society with little understanding of psychology and biology. Eros was treated with caution and often spurned by Greek writers and philosophers, who largely believed that passion was prone to disastrous results. Tales like that of Paris’s love for Helen refer to this involuntary attraction – Paris writes to Helen in Ovid’s Heroides: “…you were my heart’s desire before you were known to me. I beheld your features with my soul ere I saw them with my eyes; rumour, that told me of you, was the first to deal my wound.” Despite the Greek’s cautious views, they were a promiscuous people who commonly practiced homosexuality and took advantage of prostitution.

The Greek understanding of Eros disappeared during the medieval period as the Church only acknowledged sexuality in the context of married couples. This more conservative view of sexuality largely stayed the same, gradually eroding until it disappeared altogether during the sexual revolution in the 1960s, surviving only in some small religious communities. People of the 21st century don’t share the same careful consideration and meditation on the nature of romantic and sexual attraction with the Greeks. But modern westerners often echo the Grecian concept of Eros without even knowing it. Phrases like “falling in love” and being “madly in love” reference the timeless idea that romantic and sexual desire is not something we are in control of.

Another Greek word for love is Storge. Storge often refers to the instinctual affection shared between family members. It distinguishes itself between the other forms of love in that Storge doesn’t expect anything in return. Storge is unconditional and can also be applied to the relationship between a person and his pet or close friendships. Use of Storge in ancient works is rare and so its definition is blurry. Some texts use it to describe the connection between lovers that were once friends while yet others use Storge to indicate love for a country or athlete.

The third Greek word for love is Philia. Philia refers to a brotherly love or friendship in general and like Eros, this concept has survived into the 21st century thanks to the timeless nature of camaraderie. The philosopher Artistotle divides Philia into three categories: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure and friendships of good.

Friendships of utility are formed without regard to involved parties as in the case of friendship between a business owner and a patron of his business. These days people in Aristotle’s friendship of utility would not be considered friends but acquaintances.

The next level of Aristotle’s philia is that based on enjoyed company between people, or friendships of pleasure. Aristotle places this above friendship by way of utility because this form of friendship is based on happiness. For example two people may enjoy biking together for many years, but when one of the bikers suffers a knee injury and must put away their bicycle for good, they find that they have nothing to talk about anymore. This is not inherently bad but friendships of pleasure end more quickly than Aristotle’s third type of friendship – friendships of good.

Friendships of good are ones where both friends enjoy each other for the other’s personalities and care for each other’s well being. These friendships may last as long as the lives of those who partake in them given that they do not undergo an undesirable change in personality.

A more general definition of Philia is loyalty to friends.

The final classical Greek word for love is Agape. Agape generally refers to two things: charity and in some later contexts, love of God. It is used in The New Testament to denote God’s love for humanity and a Christian’s love for his fellow man. C.S. Lewis writes in his 1960 book The Four Loves that Agape is the highest form of love known to humanity, calling it a selfless love that is felt for the well-being of others.

And there we have it: the four Greek concepts of love. It’s important to keep in mind that the ancient Greeks did not have one singular understanding of what love is and as such, these classifications may not make perfect sense to us. And not only that, but the differences between these concepts often blur as they changed over hundreds of years. Nevertheless I find that an understanding of these ideas provides value to us not only historically, but as a reminder to more consciously observe our emotions and the way we interact with other people.

3 thoughts on “The 4 Loves of Ancient Greece

  1. I have long been secretly distraught that “Philip,” in Latin, means “lover of horses.”

    But at least we are not named “Eros-ip.”

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. “these classifications may not make perfect sense to us. And not only that, but the differences between these concepts often blur as they changed over hundreds of years. ”

    Well, these four words still have the same meaning in modern Greek today . I think the classification is pretty obvious to all , you describe it perfectly .


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