OK you want love — but which type?

At times we all feel our life would be improved if there was more love in it.

By ‘love’ we usually mean the western ideal of mutual passion and respect, often leading to some form of coupling or exclusivity. Endlessly promoted, this romantic love makes Valentines Day a lucrative time for florists, jewellers, restaurateurs and — yes — greetings card manufacturers.

But that’s just one type of love. Concepts of love vary widely across the world and between cultures.

‘Love’ was similar to ‘duty’ for Chinese philosopher Confucius, to be expressed through a close respectful relationship with your family or clan and through loyalty to your king.

In Hinduism the closest equivalent of western ‘love’ is ‘kama’ (named after Kamadeva, the dashing bow and arrow wielding god of human love) — a word which encapsulates all emotional attraction and sensory and aesthetic pleasure, including the appreciation of nature and the arts as well as sexual desire.

Plato (centre left) and Aristotle (centre right) split love into six distinct types

But the Greeks have the most clearly defined concepts of love, thanks to philosophers Plato and Aristotle. They split love into six distinct types, which have been refined and expanded over time. According to these guys, we are most fulfilled when we have an abundance of each type of Greek love in our life.

These definitions of love remain completely relevant today. As such, they can help to explain the often painful mismatch in what we’re looking for, what we need and what we actually find, when searching for ‘love’.

So turn the lights down low, slip into something more comfortable and dive in:

Philia — deep friendship

When I went to my first family wedding as a kid in the 80s, my mum explained that it was also a sad occasion — because while the bride and groom were joining their lives together, they were officially saying goodbye to all their friends. I didn’t like the sound of that.

Thankfully ‘philia’ has none of this. This type of love recognises the enduring importance and strength of deep friendship. It includes feelings of loyalty among friends and feelings of camaraderie among colleagues.

Aristotle believed there were three reasons why we become friends with someone: either because they are useful to us, because they are pleasant company or because they are ‘good’ (defined as being rational and virtuous). Friendships founded on ‘goodness’ were the most valued by Aristotle because they were linked to companionship, dependability and trust, as well as mutual benefit.

Bjork’s 1997 single Joga was inspired by (and named after) her best friend

Aristotle saw philia as a dispassionate and virtuous love but for Plato, friendship did not conflict with sexual love (known as ‘eros’ — see below). Plato felt that friendship (philia) was sometimes a stage toward sexual love (eros) which in turn could transform the sexual relationship into a shared desire for a higher level of understanding (a better understanding of the self, each other and the world). This echoes priestess Diotima’s concept of a progressive Ladder of Love, which is described below.

So it’s fair to say the love we feel for our friends is a big deal. Don’t give up your place in the friend zone without good reason.

  • Philia anthem: Joga by Bjork — “Coincidence makes sense only with you.”

Eros — passionate love

Named after the god of love and fertility, eros is sexual or passionate love — the type of Greek love that’s closest to our modern romantic love.

We see love as a largely positive force but in Greek myth, eros is a form of madness that sets in once you’ve been pierced by one of Cupid’s arrows.

Just ask Prince Paris, who fell madly in love with Helen of Troy then stole her from her husband (Menelaus, the king of Sparta) which started the Trojan War. This in turn led to the Greek army’s defeat and the downfall of Troy.

So love and madness are intertwined, which won’t come as news to most of us, silently raging as the guy we’ve been dating has clearly read our message but not yet bothered to respond.

“Love is merely a madness and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do, and the reason why they are not so punished and cured is that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love, too.”
Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It

Nevertheless it’s necessary for us to each to experience sexual or passionate love at some point in our lives because it is the essential first rung on Diotima’s Ladder of Love. Diotima was a priestess who in Plato’s Symposium described six rungs or stages of love that we must each ascend in order to truly appreciate beauty and to be fulfilled:

  • Stage 1) Love for one person
  • Stage 2) Love for all people
  • Stage 3) Love for souls — moving beyond appearance to appreciate our beautiful minds
  • Stage 4) Love for laws and institutions (bit of a tricky one this)
  • Stage 5) Love of knowledge
  • Stage 6) Love for love itself — an appreciation of beauty in the abstract, experienced as a vision.
Diotima saw love for one person as a step on the way to love for many (pic: BBC Radio 4’s History of Ideas)

So as long as your heart’s in it, even the messiest love affair could set you on course for enlightenment. Thanks Diotima.

  • Eros anthem: Love Hangover by Diana Ross — “If there’s a cure for this I don’t want it.”

Ludus — playful love

Sometimes overlooked, ‘ludus’ is the playful no strings attached kind of love that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever swiped left or right on a dating app.

Described as purely fun, ludus relationships are casual, undemanding and uncomplicated, and often accompanied by flirting, sex, music, dancing and laughter.

For all their simplicity, ludus relationships can be very long-lasting and are said to work best when both partners are self-sufficient.

Problems arise when one partner mistakes ludus (playful love) for eros (passionate love). Tell me about it. In fact, ludus has much more in common with the friendly love of philia.

Thankfully the enlightened Greeks did not regard ludus as simply an early stage of development to pass through en route to a more committed relationship. They regard this fun playfulness as an essential part of any relationship that aims to be long lasting — after all, where’s the enjoyment in love if there’s no sex, music, dancing or laughter?

  • Ludus anthem: Darling Nikki by Prince — “Thank U 4 a funky time, call me up whenever U want 2 grind.”

Storge — love for family

Maybe you don’t want to introduce your ludus hookups to your mum and dad (’so how did you guys meet?’) but the Greeks place a lot of significance upon family love, known as ’storge’.

Storge (pronounced ‘store-gae’) is the common empathy felt by most parents towards their children, and vice versa. Physical characteristics are irrelevant here. And as counsellors the world over will testify, a deficit of storge could be psychologically damaging.

The type of fondness that results from familiarity or dependency also falls under this category.

Like it or not, over time the sexual or passionate love known as ‘eros’ does tend to mutate into storge. I think ‘mutate’ is exactly the right word there.

  • Storge anthem: Keep it Together by Madonna — “Don’t forget that your family is gold.”

Pragma — love as a transaction

Let’s take a brief interlude here. Pragma is not one of the essential six types of Greek love. Instead it is a word used to describe a more practical and less emotional type of love that you may experience in your life.

Pragmatic love is a rich source of material for songwriter Lana Del Rey

Founded on reason or duty, pragma is love within a transactional relationship in the long-term interests of one or both partners.

An arranged marriage would be seen as pragmatic, as would a relationship where the attraction is purely financial. Hopefully they’ll order in a little ludus on the side.

Unhappy couples who decide to stay together out of a sense of duty to their family would also fall under this category.

  • Pragma anthem: Off to the Races by Lana Del Rey — “Tell me you want me, gimme them coins.”

Agape — love of all mankind

OK, back to the six essential types of Greek love: ‘Agape’ is love in its broadest sense — the love of all mankind.

Agape is selfless, unconditional and showing boundless compassion, so it’s also sometimes described as being charitable or altruistic.

In David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, FBI Special Agent Albert Rosenfield (played by the late Miguel Ferrer) demonstrates agape. Brought in to help find Laura Palmer’s killer, Rosenfield’s hilarious “attitude of general unpleasantness” rubs everyone up the wrong way. But as Sheriff Harry S Truman grabs him by the scruff of the neck, Rosenfield surprises everyone by saying:

“My concerns are global. I reject absolutely revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method… is love. I love you Sheriff Truman.”
Special Agent Albert Rosenfield, Twin Peaks Season 2

In Christianity, ‘agape’ is adapted to express the unconditional love of God for man.

Agape also has a Buddhist equivalent: ‘metta’ or ‘universal loving kindness’. This is said to be the purest form of love, in that it’s free from desire or expectation, and loves regardless of the flaws or shortcomings of others.

Agape anthem: Caravan of Love by Isley Jasper Isley — “I’m your brother, don’t you know.”

Philautia — self love

Finally we have the greatest love of all (thanks Whitney) — ‘philautia’ or self love.

Broadly defined as ‘regard for one’s own happiness or advantage’, the Ancient Greeks were quick to realise that philautia could be either a positive or negative force.

Positive self love is linked to our self esteem: the confidence and self belief seen as necessary if we want to help others.

“All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.”

Negative self love is to be self absorbed or to show hubris, an excessive pride that in Ancient Greece would have been seen as an affront to the Gods.

Nowadays excessive self love may be revealed in an inflated sense of one’s abilities or achievements, revealing a disregard for truth that could prove dangerous. Come on through Mr Trump.

So we have to ration philautia carefully. Nevertheless like eros, ludus, philia, storge and agape, it is seen as an essential part of our emotional wellbeing.

As the Greeks have known for centuries, a life well lived is a life spent seeking and nurturing a rich variety of love.

  • Philautia anthem — I Touch Myself by Divinyls — “I love myself, I want you to love me.”

Source material: Psychology Today; BBC Radio 4: A History of Ideas; The School of Life; Thought Catalog; Lonerwolf



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Tom Bishop

Hackney, east London; has written for BBC News website, Gay Times, Diva & Attitude.