February 14, 2012
Today is the day named for third century Roman priest Valentinus who was executed for insisting on spreading the Christian faith. What that has to do with cardboard hearts and heart-shaped boxes of candy is a bit of a stretch, but somehow one thing led to another and here we are February 14, 2012, the day for which Americans spend $17.6 billion to show our loved ones how much we love them. But I am not in the mood to be cynical this year. Last year was my cynical year and we can’t stay in the cynic’s pit forever or we will begin to grow roots there.
So even though the whole commercial thing puts a garish spotlight on a delicate personal thing such as your love for another soul, and even though Valentine’s Day throws together willy-nilly the various kinds of love – romance, friendship, and obligatory (as in you have to give every kid the class a card) – this year I want to take a look at what it is mean we mean by “love” anyway. The best book I know that explains love, or at least sheds some light on its nature, is The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. I first read it about five years ago and yesterday I downloaded from Audible.com a wonderful 1958 recording of Lewis giving a series of radio addresses from this book, reading his handwritten copy of the manuscript.
Unlike English, the Greek language has precise words for distinct kinds of love: storge for natural affection for the familiar, phileo for brotherly love or friendship, eros for romantic love, and agape for self-sacrificing Godly love, the highest and rarest. The first three, according to Lewis, are natural loves and although they have wonderful and positive qualities, all have a dark side. Each has elements of agape, and only to extent that the lover tries to emphasize and grow in these elements, do these loves because purified and eternal.
I love this book. (Hmmmm….I wonder which category love for books fits into…..) It’s hard for me to imagine that at least some parts of Lewis’ exquisite yet accessible descriptions of love in all four senses would not resonate with any member of the human race. It may also help you to avoid some of the pitfalls and thus save you a lot of grief. Here are some quick summaries of each of the four loves, none of which does justice to Lewis’ warm and cogent prose.
Storge (pronounced stor-gay) finds its most elemental expression in the natural love of parent for child, but it extends to all family relationships, neighbors, co-workers, and anyone we see on a regular basis and begin to feel some affection for. Lewis considers it the base love, comparing it to gin, a base for all kinds of mixed drinks. It is the most democratic of the loves – anyone can be loved in this way – the ugly, the rude, people we would not ordinarily choose to speak to on their own merits. It is the love shared by all sentient creatures, especially dogs, who will wag their tails for anyone they know and bark at anyone they don’t, familiarity their only criteria for affection.
The dark side of storge is a possessiveness or tribalism, expressed when one loved in this way begins to love someone or something else. Storge is subject to jealousy and self-gratification disguised as love.
Phileo, or friendship, is the most spiritual of the three natural loves because it is voluntary and has no connection with biological processes as do storge and eros. Out of these three, it is also the least self-conscious. Real phileo is not just hanging out with co-workers or even sharing interests. Although shared interest is its essential element, it is more than that. Two friends who love each other in this way share a deeper connection. They would do anything for each other, but this willingness is taken for granted, and never the basis for the friendship.
Phileo does not have to be between only two people but can be shared within a group. The dark side of phileo, especially in a group of friends, is that you value the opinions of the group more than the opinions of the rest of the world. The power of your feelings for this group is such that if the group decides to go bad, to become bullies or Nazis or whatever, it is easy to become bad with them.
Then of course we get to everybody’s favorite: eros. Lewis first clarifies that wanting to have sex with someone is not the same thing as eros. Wanting to have sex is…. wanting to have sex – to experience a certain physical sensation in your body, and is not primarily about the other person. Lewis thinks (and this was in 1958!) that our culture has made a way bigger deal about sex than the activity warrants.
Yes, eros does involve sex because you desire union with the beloved, but is not itself simply the desire for sex per se. Eros is the feeling of being in love, the desire to be with a certain person whether it means misery or happiness, because even misery with that person is better than happiness anywhere else. Can there be a dark side to this beautiful thing? I think we all know there can. For one thing, eros believes itself above all other considerations and has been known to stomp all over the happiness of other people to have its way, thinking it can justify all manner of irresponsible behavior. It is subject to disappointment, heartbreak, jealousy, possessiveness, and can even descend into some serious hate.
The final type of love is of course agape, the love of and for God, the rarest and the highest. All other loves have within their positive elements the embryo of agape, and those are the elements we need to nourish and encourage within ourselves and others. C.S. Lewis says many wonderful things about this kind of love, and uses the famous verses from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians as its model. These verses are simply the best possible description of what agape is all about, so for my Valentine post, I will leave you with 1 Corinthians 13: 1-8 (The Bible, New International Version):
1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails.
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