I take issue with the word “love” and its ambiguity. It has grown to be nuanced at best – amorphous and euphemistic at worst. I propose that we as English speakers need to implement more words to express the variety of emotional experiences and bonds that are currently encompassed within the blanket term “love”.
Think about it, what does “love” even mean? Pretend for a moment that I don’t speak English, nor have I been exposed to Western culture, and then try to explain to me what you mean when you say “I love you…”. To complicate this hypothetical even further, how would you explain to me why the word “love” is used in so many different contexts, but that Western English-speaking culture views these various contexts as not actually equivalent. We use “love” to describe the way a mother feels for her children, the way two best friends with a platonic yet affectionate bond feel for one another, and of course it is used for passionate sexual romances, as well as the infatuation between two lovers. Even the term “lovers” is confusing! Native English speakers intuitively recognize “lovers” as sexual and would not use it to describe two friends who in fact love each other. How can all of these feelings and bonds be the same and yet… different? Confused yet? Not to mention that the word “love” has been somewhat diluted by overuse – how often do people say they love chocolate when they mean they’re fond of it? Sorry, chocoholics.
If you still have any doubt that the singular term “love” isn’t enough, think about the cliche of a person rationalizing the end of their romantic relationship with the awkward explanation “I love them, but I’m not in love with them”. Semantically that makes very little sense. Yet we all know what they mean, or at least what they mean to mean, when people say it. Or do we? This is one of the problems with one word stretching to cover all these semantic needs, it leads to a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding. Personally, I think the more effective our communication, especially when it comes to our feelings and relationships, the better.
There is a the linguistic phenomena that affects all of us, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, also known as Linguistic Relativity. The gist of this principle is that the language you speak and the words it contains actually affects your ability to conceptualize the world and thus influences your reality. Cognitive linguists debate over how strong or weak this influence is, but they all agree the influence between language and thought exists. All conscious thought is mediated through language so it makes sense that you can only explicitly think about concepts/ideas/feelings/etc for which your language has words. On the flip side, if your language doesn’t have a word for a particular concept it is much harder for you to think about it. Not impossible, just harder. Language shapes our reality, but that means our world can be expanded by expanding our language. The more words we have to illustrate the variations and nuances of love in all its forms, the better able we are to think and talk about it.
All I’m saying is that we should have just as many words for love as we do for cheese, because let’s be real they are equally important and essential to happiness.
The ancient Greeks were meticulous when it came to philosophical thought and we owe them a lot. They had about six different words for what we try to convey under the “love” umbrella. I think we could benefit from having just as many if not more.
Eros, or sexual passion
Eros was named after the Greek god of lust and desire, known later in the Roman pantheon as Cupid. The Greeks appreciated the irrational and potentially destructive qualities of this sort of love along with it’s pleasure. Experiencing eros could be passionate and thrilling, or fiery, maddening and lead to a loss of control that was considered frightening. It was seen as a loss of sense and reason as a person was overcome with desire. This is the sort of love that could drive someone mad, make them act recklessly, and even destroy them. It is like playing with fire.
We definitely need a better way to identify and discuss this sort of love, characterized by passionate infatuation and a loss of rationality. To say that this is what love is supposed to feel like does a disservice to all the other ways a person can feel affection for another. It can also raise concerns that two people don’t love each other anymore once this fire calms the fuck down, which is often not the case. I could write a whole post about infatuation, and in fact, I promise I will.
Philia, or deep friendship
This second variety of love was valued just as much, if not more, by ancient Greeks than what was seen as the erratic and fickle eros. Philia concerned the camaraderie and loyalty that develops between two people who have a mutual respect and a genuine concern for one another’s well being. This is a a friendship built through experience and trust. The feeling that someone has your back and you have theirs. This is totally a form of love that is just as important as eros, and yet our culture tends to down play it or marginalize it completely. I think that is silly and unfair.
“the central idea of [philia] is that of doing well by someone for his own sake, out of concern for him (and not, or not merely, out of concern for oneself)… [a] kind of mutual well-doing.” – Philosopher, John M. Cooper
Ludus, or playful love
Ludus is playful love, the kind of lively fun and affection that happens between children when they play, adolescents and adults when they flirt, new lovers when they tease and find fun ways to get to know each other and of course red pandas when they pounce. This is the banter, the dancing, the laughing and the feel-good frivolity who’s worth is often under appreciated. I’m here to reassure you that having fun is important and love is not always so serious.
Agape, or selfless love
Agape is selfless love and is even the origin of the word “charity” (from the Latin caritas). This is the love an individual feels for the entirety of human kind, which can inspire and motivate them to contribute to the greater good. Agape is distinctive from other types of love because it is compassion for other humans simply because they are human, not because you know them, or they are your family member, or you are fond or them, or they can do something for you, or you like the way they make you feel. I would argue you that it does not stop at our own species and that one’s desire to protect animals or preserve ecosystems is also a form of agape. Charity and selfless acts are important acts of love and should be recognized as such.
Pragma, or mature love
Pragma is the mature, intimate love that develops between two people who have known each other for a long time. This is patient, loyal, respectful love that comes from understanding each other, sharing many experiences and compromising on one another’s behalf. Often eros, the fiery, passionate beginning of a relationship gets all the attention and praise (likely due to it’s intensity), but pragma is what most of us hope to have in our lives. Pragma is secure and satisfying and doesn’t have to be boring. In many cases eros can grow into pragma after time has passed and compatibility and intimacy has been established, but pragma is also often found between long lasting, platonic friends.
Philautia, or self love
This sixth type, philautia or self-love, was believed to have a healthy side as well as a dangerous one. There was the unhealthy and potentially destructive narcissism, where a person becomes self-obsessed to the point that they only truly love themselves and relate to others as an extension of their own self. A healthy expression of philautia though, was thought to not only bring the individual greater happiness, but improve their capacity for kindness, compassion and love towards others. Aristotle said, “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself” with the understanding that the more love we have for ourselves the more we have to give to others.
The truth is no one person can be your everything and fulfill your every need. Friendship, family and the community at large are just as important and can be just as much sources of satisfaction as a committed, romantic relationship. The ancient Greeks recognized this diversity of love and relationships and they had a more complete picture of life because of it. They saw the potentially destructive side of eros, just as they believed in the importance of philia. This ability to see the good, bad, beautiful and ugly about the ways we love each other allows us to be more conscious of the relationships we build. Furthermore, it shows us that our lives are full of love even if we do not have a spouse.
Expanding our vocabulary will allow us to think about love more completely and in turn communicate about it more effectively. It will allow us to recognize and appreciate all the various types of love and affection present in our lives. It helps us to see that all of these types of love are important and enriching. It eliminates the hierarchy that puts romantic love as the pinnacle and everything else as good, sure, but not the epitome. It shows that labeling the love we receive from friends and companions as less than what we receive from a romantic partner is flawed and does us a disservice. It enables us to talk about the changes that happen in a relationship as one moves from eros towards pragma, or how much ludos we experience. Expand your vocabulary, expand your mind and see all the many forms that love takes in your life.
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