Saturday, July 28, 2012

6. Love

The ancient Greeks distinguished between three types of love: eros, philia, and agape.

Eros is passionate and romantic love. It is exhilarating, exuberant, ecstatic, and propels one into unconditional commitment, to the point of blindness to imperfection. In one form, there is a myth of perfect unity, visualized as a perfect, egg-shaped, polished stone, which has broken into two jagged parts. The lover is one part and is on a quest to find his/her unique counterpart, to restore the perfect unity of seamless fit. That ideal is somewhat difficult to reconcile with a different, modern urge to be autonomous and free to engage in careers and ‘a life of one’s own’. Yet this impossible combination is what glossy magazines lead people to expect if not demand: romantic, passionate love as well as autonomy.

Another form of eros is that the lover (typically a male) installs the loved one on a pedestal, pure and unattainable, and then goes out to slay dragons, conduct a crusade or work for a bank. The loved one is supposed to quietly worship her hero, sit still and demure, pining for his glorious return, and to gratefully receive whatever spoils he brings home. That also is difficult to combine with a woman’s own identity, perspective and career. This love is possessive, domineering and is more about the self than about the loved one, more appropriation than giving or sharing.

Philia is usually translated as ‘friendship’ but it goes far beyond what is usually meant by that. It includes relations between parent and child, and even passionate love, but not in its romantic form, indicated above, of wanting to possess or merge. Characteristics of philia are reciprocal affection, mutual interest (in both senses), a sincere wish for the best for the other, empathy, a high degree of altruism (though that can never be expected to be unlimited), and mutual acceptance of independence. To help a true friend should be felt not as a duty but as an honour.

Agape is a more general benevolence towards others, not specific to unique persons. I may discuss that in a later item of this blog.

I would grant everyone the experience of eros at least once in life, but it is hardly sustainable in an ongoing relationship, and the best road to a happy life is eros that evolves into philia.  But then, why not skip the turbulence and vicissitudes of eros and go straight to philia? That happens, but eros at the outset lends an enviable gloss of tenderness and depth of philia, if one manages the transition well, which is an art of life.

And we need eros, evolution needed it, to be blind to the risks and efforts of building commitmment and to the imperfections of the partner until the commitment of give and take, the steps towards philia, have been made that make them acceptable.

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