The Great Conversation:
Love—Part I

By Gabriel Blanchard

Love is one of the richest and most varied topics of the Great Conversation.

It has long been conventional in western thought to divide love into four subtypes, based on the principal Greek words for love and their meanings: στοργή (storgē) or “affection,” φιλία (philia) or “friendship,” έρως (erōs) or “desire,” and αγάπη (agapē) or “unconditional love.” These categories were not hard and fast, and these words were sometimes used interchangeably in ancient times; philia in particular could be substituted for any of the others. But the “center of gravity” for each word came to be more and more distinct, especially after Christianity began to make special use of agapē as a theological term, and the categories are a useful way of thinking about the various forms of love.

We may begin with storgē, loosely translated “affection.” This has special reference to family love. Given that we all have parents, this is for most of us the first context for love, or indeed for existence, that we experience. It is worth noting, however, that the ancient Mediterranean (in which the roots of the western tradition lie) had a different and slightly broader idea of what constituted the family than our idea of nuclear families, which is itself a comparatively recent concept. “Household” might be a closer equivalent; multiple generations habitually lived together, and the term could also embrace household staff—which, regrettably, almost invariably meant slaves in the ancient world—for those who were prosperous enough to afford them. But the core of the idea was the same: parents with their children, ramifying backwards through ancestors and forwards through descendants. The image of a nest or burrow suits the whole thing very well.

Curiously enough, given the primordial quality of this love, much of the most famous literature from the classical period is about family love going horrifically wrong in one way or another. Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother, is doubtless the most famous example; however, in terms of sheer volume of horror, the House of Mycenæ is pre-eminent. Agamemnon, the king of the city, was forced by Artemis to kill his own daughter in order to be able to lead the Greeks against Troy as he had vowed to his brother; his wife Clytaemnestra then murdered him when he returned from the war, only to be murdered in turn by her son Orestes, in order to fulfill his duty to avenge his father. Æschylus makes the tragedy of the House of Mycenæ the focus of his Oresteia, a trilogy of plays that expose the inadequacy of family loyalty and consequent blood-feud as the guiding principles of conduct, and sets forth a system of reasoned justice as a substitute that can end the otherwise endless cycle of retribution.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

But the picture is not one of unrelieved blackness! The central virtue of Virgil‘s hero Æneas is his pietas—a term conventionally translated “piety” (since it is the direct ancestor of the English word), but which can also be rendered “kindness,” “dutifulness,” or “filial affection.” The notion here is clear enough: that particular kind of love for parents that is blended with gratitude, pride, and loyalty. And Æneas does display this in sharp relief from the beginning to the end of the epic; his escape from the burning wreckage of Troy, carrying his aged father on his back and leading his little son by the hand, became one of the stock images of pietas, of storgē, for all of Roman culture. Pietas even drives his reverence for the gods, both because the most important gods in Roman culture were the household deities (called the lares and the penates, at least some of which were or were derived from ancestor worship—not unlike the traditional practices of the Chinese), and because Æneas himself, although a mortal, was held to be the son of Venus.

However, family is not always defined by blood relation, either in our own day or historically speaking. The most obvious exception is adoption, which has been practiced by most if not all cultures from time immemorial. Other social ties have also been understood and articulated in familial terms, as a way of expressing the depth of loyalty and affection they involve, from early Christian ascetics, who would address their mentors as abba or “father” (hence the term “abbot”) and obey them implicitly, to Japanese geisha, who have a complex web of mother-daughter and elder sister-younger sister relationships, codified in ceremonies as formal as the traditional wedding service. But here we are reaching the edges of the next type of love we have to consider, philia.

Go here for Parts II, III, and IV.

Suggested reading:
Euripides, Alcestis
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market
John Steinbeck, East of Eden
James Goldman, The Lion in Winter


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