Q. Our world needs more loving kindness and compassion, but ‘love’ is such an overused word that it is almost meaningless. Bob Hawke’s widow called for more love at the end of his memorial service, but the word almost sounded insipid. How can we take this word back from the superficiality of pop songs and romcoms?
The love we have for our friends is different to our love for our partners.Credit:Getty Images
A. English is rich and nuanced, offering a range of words for similar concepts, but a single word, ‘love’, is expected to describe something that is complex and multifaceted. I love my partner, cheese, Essendon FC, reading, my kids, music, The Bold & the Beautiful, my Mum, swimming in the ocean, op shopping, and shoes. I would, however, be much more distraught if something happened to my family than if I snapped a heel, and the intense emotion felt at the birth of my child bears no relation to how I feel in front of a cheese platter.
We need to start by separating our strong liking for certain things and experiences from the emotions we feel towards different groups of people. This is where the ancient Greek language was far better equipped to describe the different kinds of human love.
‘Eros’ describes the type of ‘love’ that seems to dominate Western society. It is the passionate, sexual, ‘falling in love’ emotion portrayed in love songs, romances, and soap operas, as well as great literature and art. The Greeks, however, knew that eros can be dangerous, leading to loss of control, and being focused on self-pleasure, often reducing the loved one to an object of desire.
'Philea’ was far more highly regarded. It describes the love between great friends, and is best covered, in English, by the Australian notion of ‘mateship’, or ‘team spirit’. This love gives as well as takes, is selfless, and is less influenced by the personal charms of the loved one.
‘Ludus’ is a playful, and uncommitted love. It is flirting, hanging out with friends, dancing, and one-night stands. Usually associated with youth and high spirits, ludus lacks seriousness.
‘Storgē’ is the unconditional love we feel for family and close friends. It is a deep, grounded, unchanging affection that does not have to be earned.
‘Agapē’ is the gentle, profound and compassionate love of all humanity. Often seen as divine or spiritual, agape inspires disinterested kindness, and acts of altruism and charity (From the Latin word for agape, ‘caritas’. What the world needs now is a lot more agape.
‘Pragma’ is the practical, solid love that often develops when a couple has been together for many years. Based on compatibility, and mutual affection, it is not dependent on looks or personal charm, but on practical, mutual support.
‘Philautia’ is love of oneself. It can range from the healthy self-regard that leads to self-respect and taking care of one’s needs, but, taken to an extreme, can become narcissism or selfishness.
‘Mania’ is an obsessive, unhealthy kind of love. It results in dependency, and leads to stalking, controlling behaviours, and violent jealousy. Often disregarding the feelings of its object, mania can be the result of eros gone bad.
When I was invited to participate in this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival I was intrigued by its theme, ‘When We Talk About Love’. In her opening comments, festival director, Marieke Hardy, says:
“It is said that love conquers all, but the all-consuming emotional state we call ‘love’ is capable of so much more than that. It stirs our creative spirits, brings us to our knees, inspires songs and sonnets and paintings and volumes, breaks us into tiny pieces and glues us back together again with gold adhesive. It’s a rich and complex well to draw inspiration and creativity from.”
I don’t think she’s talking about cheese, or, for that matter, ‘storge’ or ‘philea’. In fact, reading over the program, I get the impression that the topics covered mainly address the highs, the lows, the politics and the questions of identity raised by our experience of ‘eros’. I look forward to seeing how the individual participants interrogate, and elaborate on that ‘crazy little thing called love’.
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