Mary Irvine’s Blog: What Exactly Is Love?

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Go into any good coffee shop today and we are faced with an amazing range of words to describe the specific coffee we require. Gone are the days when black or white sufficed.  Cappuccino, espresso,  latte, macchiato, au lait, espresso, Turkish, Vienna, frappé, filter (how mundane) instant (ugh) liqueur not to mention all the variants!

Yet when it comes to love, the English language love is used equally to express the deeper feelings in close relationships as well as to end a quick email/text  or the modern ‘Love you’ that is now bandied about indiscriminately. Modern Greek is much more precise. And Classical Greek even more so.  


Probably the two most commonly used words in Modern Greek are agape and philia. The first appears in love songs as S’agapo which means ‘I love you’. It doesn’t always mean sexual love. In Ancient Greece it indicated selfless love. This was a love that you extended to all people, whether family members or distant strangers. Agape was later translated into Latin as caritas, which is the origin of our word “charity.” St Paul in 1 Corinthians refers to the ‘Love feast’ of the early follower of Christ. But it also appears in other religious traditions with the meaning of “universal loving kindness”  


The second is is friendship, affection, an affinity, a sharing, loyalty to friends, country, family and community. Often valued more than the base sexuality of eros, philia concerned the deep comradely friendship that developed between brothers in arms who had fought side by side on the battlefield. It was not primarily about sexual relations. It was about showing loyalty to your friends, sacrificing for them, as well as sharing your emotions with them. Another kind of philia is storgee, which means affection in both Modern and Ancient Greece. It is natural affection, like that felt by parents for offspring. It expresses acceptance or putting up with situations.  


A third word in Modern Greek is eros, passionate love, with sensual desire and longing but not necessarily sexual in nature. It can be used to indicate a stronger love than philia. It can also apply to dating relationships as well as marriage. The Modern Greek word “erotas” means “romantic love.”    


Plato defined erosas being initially felt for a person, but with contemplation it becomes an appreciation of the beauty within that person, or even appreciation of beauty itself. Plato does not talk of physical attraction as a necessary part of love, which is where our word ‘platonic’ comes in. He also said eros helps the soul recall knowledge of beauty, and contributes to an understanding of spiritual truth. Lovers and philosophers are all inspired to seek truth by eros. The most famous ancient work on the subject of eros is Plato’s Symposium, which is a discussion among the students of Socrates on the nature of eros.

Eros often involved a loss of control that frightened the Ancient Greeks. Reference the ritual worship of Pan or Dionysus or even Priapus


Thelema means “desire” in Ancient and Modern Greek. It is the desire to do something, to be occupied, or to be in prominence.


A further variety of love was filaftia or self-love. However, the Ancient Greeks realized there were two types. One was selfishness, where you became self-obsessed and focused on personal fame and fortune. A healthier version enhanced your wider capacity to love. Another Greek love was the mature love known as pragma. This was the deep understanding that developed between long-married couples. Pragma was about making compromises to help the relationship work over time, and showing patience and tolerance.

Moderns Greeks tend to use it only in the former sense.

Yes, the Greeks certainly had a word for it.

Mary Irvine, February, 2022

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