by Tanis Helliwell
Love is arguably the most important feeling that we can experience in our lives. It motivates us to be the best of what we are capable of being, and the worst. More books, films and songs are devoted to the exploration of love than to any other topic. We know that babies who are held and cuddled thrive, and that babies deprived of touch wither and even die. As adults the quest to be in loving relationships continues and without it we feel sad and depressed.
There are many kinds of love, but the three main ones defined by the ancient Greeks are Eros, Philia, and Agape. It is helpful to examine these terms in order to better understand how love affects our lives.
Eros is love of the physical body. It is the sexual attraction that we feel for one person instead of another. It fires up our gonads and juices and creates a hunger, a lust, in our physical bodies. Eros is also sensual and can be found in the bodily pleasures of enjoying a massage, having our feet scratched, or our head stroked. The many forms of grooming, manicures, pedicures, and even having our hair cut are sensual outlets for eros in our society, and sometimes the only forms available to us when we do not have a lover.
Eros overturns emotional stability with passion and dominates our thoughts with those of the object of our desire. It can wreak havoc in our lives when we leave stable relationships and jobs to follow the new person whom we think we love. This stage of erotic love might only last from three to six months, but oh what a ride. During this time we project on our lover all the desirable qualities that we’d like him or her to have, and carefully avoid examining any attributes that lie outside our fantasy.
Eros comes in many degrees from mild infatuation to passionate intensity where we feel that we might die if our beloved does not reciprocate our love. Yet, in time the erotic charge between lovers diminishes, and we wake up and see the previously ignored qualities of our lover and start to re-assess our relationship. Questions arise about our lover’s values, lifestyle, friends, and we examine these to see if they fit with ours. If they do not, the relationship will most often end, although sometimes the erotic component remains strong and individuals stay in relationships that are not healthy in other ways. If, however, we end up liking our lover as a friend then we enter the second stage of love, which in Greek is called philia.
Philia is the love we have for our family members and good friends. It is affectionate and platonic. It is love of the heart, not love of the gonads. When we think of the love we have for our mother, sister, brother, and both men and women friends we understand philia. This love transcends gender, age, and is a love of someone who is part of our circle, someone whom we love as a person, who feels known to us and with whom we share our personal lives. This love might also include a love of a dog, cat, or bird who is part of our family.
Arranged marriages in eastern countries very often start with philia love where spouses are chosen by the parents from families who share similar values and friendship. Most often the children have had neither sexual experience, nor erotic feelings for their spouse at the time of marriage, but over time erotic love may blossom from philia. Love in western countries is the opposite where individuals most often fall in love with eros and through time develop philia love. Interestingly, spouses in eastern countries appear to have as much success with loving marriages by starting relationships based on philia, as western countries do by starting relationships based on eros. It appears that philia is
important for long-term loving relationships.
There is a third kind of love. Agape is the love that God, The Creator, The Beloved, The Great Mother, and Spirit by all names, has for us and for all life. Agape is used in the New Testament of the Bible to describe the unconditional way in which God loves us and that we can emulate by loving others. It is defined by the Buddhist expression “Love all beings as you love your mother,” or as Jesus said, “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” At first glance these expressions might be confusing, as we have just said that philia is the term given to love of family members. However, with a deeper look we can see that both Buddha and Jesus are emphasizing unconditional love for all beings.
Agape love has neither the hot passion of eros, nor the conditional exclusivity and familiarity of philia. It is a more spiritual love than the other two, and has at its foundation the belief that all beings are one. When we love with agape, we do not kill others from a different country, religion, or way of life than ours. We hold all life as sacred and as an expression of spirit in its many forms. We may not like what someone is doing, but we still love him or her. Unlike philia and eros’s preferences and selectivity, agape has no preferences about whom or what it loves. Agape is altruistic, wide open and not
Agape is also known as the love of the soul and it is the love of a spiritual seeker, who loves God and does whatever it takes, be it dark nights or bliss, to unite with the divine. Agape is non-attached to results, and is committed to being love, fully in the present moment with whomever, and whatever, is occurring.
Eros, philia and agape are not mutually exclusive and we can love a person, and even the divine, with all three kinds of love. In our world we have a better understanding and experience of both eros and philia than we do of agape. Because agape is cooler and nonattached, it may not always be recognized as love.
Teachers who help us on our spiritual path practice agape. They might use both compassion and tough love with their students, in order to teach them agape, which is to love all beings as they love a beloved, a mother, or spirit.
All three forms of love motivate us to become better people. Through erotic love we experience the heights of ecstasy, and the depths of yearning and pain so that our hearts are cracked open to love more. Through philia love we learn forgiveness, patience, tolerance and endurance in committing to love another individual long-term. Through agape we develop unlimited compassion, faith and trust for all the ways in which spirit works through love in our world.
My poetry book, Embraced by Love, shares my thoughts on all of these types of love here. Enjoy!