Ancient Insights Into Love

What is love?  Is it an emotion or feeling?  Is it a relationship state or status?  Is it a choice or decision?  The answer is: "Yes"... to all of the above!

While love is certainly multifaceted, there is a great deal of agreement regarding how we experience and express it.  There are three basic components to love: passion, intimacy, and commitment.  [See previous article.]  While this "triangle of love" conceptualization has been confirmed by contemporary social science research it is by no means a novel idea.  The ancient world shared the same basic understanding.

The ancient Greco-Roman culture primarily used three different Greek terms to describe love: eros, philia, and agape.  These three terms basically correspond to the "passion/intimacy/commitment" triad.  While eros is found only in secular ancient Greek literature, the Christian New Testament (which was written in the ancient Greek language) is replete with references to both philia and agape.

Eros describes the romantic, sensual, passionate aspect of love.  For the most part this is an emotion or feeling that is instinctively inspired from our biological structure.  However, eros differs from a mere craving for sexual gratification in that it seeks expression and consummation in an exclusive, lasting relationship.  "Lust" is a different term altogether in ancient Greek.

Philia describes the friendship and companionship aspect of an intimate relationship.  Ideally one's spouse (or future spouse) is one's best friend and closest companion.  Scripturally, this type of bondedness and closeness is an expectation in marriage (e.g. Tit. 2:4).  However, philia can also describe the love that friends share in other contexts.  In any case, it is a reciprocal love that requires intimacy based in a relationship characterized by constancy.

Agape describes the decision or intellectual commitment to love.  It is love in a social or moral sense.  Agape does not necessarily require reciprocity, sentimentality, affinity, or affection.  It is often a sacrificial love.  The Bible tells us that marriage should be characterized by this type of love (e.g. Eph. 5:25, 33; Col. 3:19).  Interestingly, we are also expected to love God, fellow believers, strangers, and even our enemies in the same sense according to scripture.  The latter examples serve to demonstrate that we can retain a commitment to love even when unloved by another or when another is, for all practical purposes, unlovable.  This has great ramifications with regards to marriage.
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