The Limitations of Love


by Randall S. Frederick

When I was a young man, I attended church regularly. For many reasons, I no longer do that – at least not as frequently – but I am still committed to the idea that attending religious services, having a strong and vibrant circle of friends, having a place to be each week, can help us become better individuals. Having a period of time, whether it is a dinner date or a class or going to the gym, that we commit to our calendar can give us something to look forward to and anticipate. Regularly keeping a schedule plays an important role in shaping us, restricting us or exercising certain facets of our personality. As a business owner and, before that, a business consultant, this is one of the most important things I could discuss with a client – what we allow or restrict for ourselves and others will inevitably mold how we behave.

One of the things I remember hearing over and over in church was that there were “three kinds of love” which correlated with a tripartite understanding of humanity. The human, I was taught, was made up of a Spirit, a Soul, and a Body – our physical self, our emotional self, and the ineffable “spirit” which was a reflection of who we really were “deep down.” The spirit, I was taught, was either asleep or dead from the moment we were born. Only later in life when we had a spiritual epiphany and  “got saved” or “found Enlightenment” would our spiritual identity “wake up” and begin seeing the world and universe in new ways.

That’s a very appealing narrative, and not just a Christian one. Yoga seeks to “yoke” together our bodies and True Selves. When a Buddhist “finds Enlightenment,” he or she finds release to a new life. It’s a very appealing thought, isn’t it? That yes, we feel sad and depressed and have an abiding sense of longing, but one day we can “wake up” and see the world with new eyes, ears, and spirits.

For me, sitting in church and hearing this narrative put forward in different ways – that there were three kinds of love, and that all of life was made up of three sides – felt a bit screwy. Attending Christian services, I got why we were supposed to believe this since God was supposedly a Trinity of God, Jesus, and the Spirit of God, but that didn’t make it any better. After all, God was supposedly to be limitless. So naturally, we say there are only three ways for God to appear. God creates the rules of existence, but decides to limit himself (or herself?) to three forms of existence. Conveniently, we could understand God better by understanding water – liquid, solid, and gaseous.

Even as a young boy, I felt this was so limiting. So small. So unimaginative.

As the years went on, this tripartite idea wasn’t just confusing. It agitated me. Frustrated me. Wore on me. God was love – the idea of love, anyway, and that love took on a physical body in Jesus, but love was also immortal and ethereal through the Spirit. As I grew into adulthood, “Love” (always a capital L) is supposed to be this amazing thing that, like God, has no limits, but often takes on physical form – a lover, a parent, a child, a friend, a stranger – and is an eternal concept. Love is both an idea, an emotion, and a thing. Again, we see a threesome here of head, heart, and hands. Love is supposed to awaken us, enlighten us, show us the world with new eyes and ears. So of course, like God, we have to restrict it before someone gets “crazy ideas” and tries to say Love is a ray of sunshine, Love is a well crafted piece of furniture, Love is that feeling we get when we think fondly of a memory. Let’s not get crazy, let’s try to bolt it down.

As a young man, I felt God had to be a little crazy. Unexplainable. A touch of madness. And as I became an adult, I felt the same thing about Love – Love, to be Love, had to be a little exaggerated, uncontrolled, untouchable. Love, by its very nature, had to be a little wild. Everyone looks for Love these days, and it’s a great selling point. It’s like big bold SEX. You put the word Love on an Internet meme or magazine, and voila, you’ve just sold your thing. Cigarettes are the Devil’s Dick, but you tell someone they need to “Love themselves enough to die slowly and painfully” and you’re a Marlboro millionaire. Everybody wants Love – at least on their terms – and as long as we continue to think of Love (which is, for some, a kind of god) in very small, tidy terms, we will continue to expect very little from those who say they love us. That is, as long as we only recognize Love in unimaginative ways or in the ways we have been told to recognize it (physically, emotionally, and mentally) we are closed off to the ways those around us are trying to love us – sometimes, even in ways they themselves are not fully able to articulate or recognize as Love.

One of my favorite musicals, The Fiddler on the Roof, has a song between husband and wife Tevye and Golde. “Do You Love Me?” examines the marriage between these two characters. Their daughters are marrying for different reasons: one for love, one for security, one for a meeting of the minds. Tevye wonders, as their daughters go off with their new husbands, his wife has ever really loved him or whether she married him because there were no other options for her. They go over different scenes of their marriage, realizing that while what they felt at the time may not have been romance and crescendos of happiness, what existed between them over a lifetime had been different kinds of love, each securing a deep and abiding, even romantic, affection between them.

Let’s just get it out of the way: romance is a rather new idea. “Romance” originates from the Medieval idea of chivalry established in chivalric tales in Romantic Literature. The word was originally an adverb of Latin origin for romanicus, or “of the Roman style” which is kind of a misnomer since Roman social culture looked down on men who loved their wives too much. Men who “loved” their wives in the sense that we recognize as love today were seen as weak and effeminate, having given over their rightful ownership and demands upon a woman for an equality that women were not permitted to have. Which makes Paul’s direction in Ephesians 5 for husbands to “love your wives” so ludicrous.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church — for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Rome would fall a few hundred years after Paul’s letter was written, in 476 A.D. when the last Roman emperor was overthrown by Odovacar. While there exists strong evidence that the idea of Rome reappeared during the Medieval Period as Latin became the lingua franca of several nation states and libraries began trading more information with the rise of Scholasticism, there is no getting around the fact that Roman custom did not allow for a man to lavish attention on his wife, nor she on him. Still, given the absence of factual history as civilization came out of the Dark Ages, “Romanticism” (or a generous eye toward revising the idea of Rome for new purposes) prevailed. As troubadours began travelling around, singing kind words and flattery, with gentleness and poetic attention, the “Roman” idea of love was one that began to intersect with a renewed interest in the Pauline writings – again, where equality and self-sacrifice for the betterment of another was the primary marker of “love.” The connecting notion then was that European vernacular during the Medieval period allowed for “romance” as chivalric adventure. It was in the Seventeenth Century that “love” and “romance” were combined to the idea since “Romantic” heroes typically set out on a gallant adventure to win the hand of a lady in marriage, or returned from their quest to settle into a quiet life of familial duty, an adventure in itself. In Madame Bovary (1856), Gustave Flaubert tells us that Emma Bovary only found out about romantic love through “the refuse of old lending libraries.” These books, he wrote:

…were all about love and lovers, damsels in distress swooning in lonely lodges, postillions slaughtered all along the road, horses ridden to death on every page, gloomy forests, troubles of the heart, vows, sobs, tears, kisses, rowing-boats in the moonlight, nightingales in the grove, gentlemen brave as lions and gentle as lambs, too virtuous to be true, invariably well-dressed, and weeping like fountains.

Couples began to marry, slowly and scattered, and direct themselves toward these grand notions of love where romance was the defining quality of “true” love, or at least an ideal. Like a slowly building wave, more people began to marry not for financial security, social mobility, or access to resources but for Love as these tales became popular again, in part, because of the roving nature of the troubadours and the rise of theatrical production. At least in the case of Shakespeare, a truly good story concluded with a wedding and a dance.

Beyond this, a definition cannot be found. That is, philologically, “romantic” only means “in the Roman way” and has no indication of love and affection. Still, these ideas prevail because of literature together with the works of psychologists who borrowed the term, philosophers who appealed to a higher nature in human relationships, biochemists who began to note a chemical change in “lovestruck” individuals by the turn of the Twentieth Century. If that seems a bit of a leap, moving from the 17th to 20th Century, you might attribute that to a decline of romance. While romance was an ideal, that does not mean individuals lived out that ideal in their daily lives. American settlers were too busy building cities, establishing Puritanical societies where survival and production were paramount. In England, Victorianism promoted large families and marriage as a means of social mobility. It was during this period that the educated, still holding up Roman culture as an ideal, began to recognize with the advent of travel that Rome held no equality of the sexes but rather an oppressive patriarchy where men were supposed to tolerate the women in their lives, but not necessarily love them. In France, this was translated to mean men and women were free to love those who caught their eye, but marriage was for procreation alone. More and more, the West distinguished between love and marriage as two irreconcilable and distinct circumstances. Perhaps this was why, at the turn of the Twentieth Century, the addresses of Adolf Hitler found such fertile ground. Hitler gave tremendous lip service to the family and an almost idolization of women both through the arts, where women were highly sexualized, romance where men were encouraged to treat women with respect and dignity before building families with the most beautiful and intelligent women possible, and culture where women were the lightbringers and torchbearers of tradition, instilling in future generations the truth of Germany’s superiority. Focus on the future and the combination of individual desires together with what was best for society become intertwined at this point throughout Europe, even in Britain. Psychologist Charles Lindhold writes that romance became “an intense attraction that involves the idealization of the other, within an erotic context, with [an] expectation of enduring sometime into the future.” Perhaps because of the devastation of two global wars, security on both a private and communal level became very attractive. But for novelist and essayist C.S. Lewis, the “Christian” and civilized idea of love focused on the three kinds of love: agape, eros, and phileo. More than anyone else, Lewis’ radio addresses during World War II which would later become the book Mere Christianity, shaped how the West understood love.

In describing the Christian idea of love to his radio audience, Lewis (a man who had never been married) returned to Rome. This makes sense, since Lewis was classically educated and was, at the time of his addresses, a don at Oxford University. His academic publications focused on the history and development of language and its use in daily life, all stemming from Latin, the language of Rome and original “romantic” language from which Italian, Spanish, and French derived. “Love,” for Lewis, was again restricted by the Christian triumvirate of spirit, soul, and body. It is a curious thing, since Lewis would have surely known the other words for “love” in Latin and would have been aware that the word romance had developed other meanings in other languages such as the early 19th Century Spanish and Italian definitions which had connotations of “adventurous” and “passionate”, combined with the idea of “love affair” and a state of “idealistic quality” of life. Romantic love then was so much more than Lewis described to his audience and committed to print. But as an unmarried man and self-proclaimed bachelor at the time of Mere Christianity, it is understandable why Lewis protracted his thoughts on love. Simply put, he didn’t understand it except through the academic and theological lenses.

Which brings us back to my restless times in the church pew. Because of Lewis, theologians and pastors described love in marriage, relationships, and between humans and divine beings in inaccurate terms. This depiction of love related to the three areas of life was based on numerous misunderstandings: historical, theological, relational, psychological, sexual, emotional, soteriological, sociological, and philological. For Lewis, love was about responsibility and as he writes about it, is more or less a bothersome experience for humans.

What we call ‘being in love’ is a glorious state, and, in several ways, good for us. It helps to make us generous and courageous, it opens our eyes not only to the beauty of the beloved but to all beauty, and it subordinates (especially at first) our merely animal sexuality; in that sense, love is the great conqueror of lust. No one in his senses would deny that being in love is far better than either common sensuality or cold self-centredness. But, as I said before, ‘the most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of our own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs’. Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. There are many things below it, but there are also many things above it. You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling. Now no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all. Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last; but feelings come and go. And in fact, whatever people say, the state called “being in love” usually does not last. If the old fairy-tale ending “They lived happily ever after” is taken to mean “They felt for the next fifty years exactly as they felt the day before they were married,” then it says what probably was never was or ever could be true, and would be highly undesirable if it were. Who could bear to live in that excitement for even five years? What would become of your work, your appetite, your sleep, your friendships? But, of course, ceasing to be “in love” need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense — love as distinct from “being in love” is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself. They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be “in love” with someone else. “Being in love” first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.

In the end, Lewis concludes that marriage is a sufferable state where two individuals must endure one another. But how they endure one another is not a matter of aspiration or ideal, but rather the kind of commitment they choose to have. He continues,

There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.

Friend and fellow author J.R.R. Tolkien was outraged at Lewis’ smallmindedness. In a letter to Lewis, Tolkien said he felt his friend’s thoughts on love and marriage boiled down to “the correct way of ‘running the human machine.’ Your argument reduces it merely to a way of (perhaps?) getting an extra mileage out of a few selected machines.” In other words, Tolkien felt Lewis has approached the idea of Love from a utilitarian position rather than experiential. And, as we know, Lewis’ works subsequently affected millions of Christians who continue to believe that yes, love is nice and good for a while but God would have us buckle in for the hard work of committing to the ignorant git we made bonds with until one of us shoves off. Surely, there is more to love than that.

Based on his exceptionally limited interpretations for love and marriage, thousands of couples have seen romance as a depreciable state terminating in the chore of love, secured by a legal obligation toward one another. It was this kind of thinking that I balked at as a child, resisted as a young man, and have entirely rejected now that I am grown. There are many ways to love, not all of which are compatible with this idea of romance I’ve been focusing on.

By preoccupying ourselves with romantic love, we risk neglecting other types of love that are more readily accessible and may, especially in the long term, prove more healing and fulfilling. The seven types of love listed below are loosely based on classical readings, especially of Plato and Aristotle which Lewis, and Western society, have long overlooked. I present them here not as a correction to Lewis or Christianity, but to instead help us broaden our horizons and begin imagining once again what the parameters of the human heart might allow us to bring about in our daily lives.

  • Eros – Eros is sexual or passionate love, and is the type most akin to our modern construct of romantic love. In Greek myth, it is a form of madness brought about by one of Cupid’s arrows. The arrow breaches us and we “fall” in love, as did Paris with Helen, leading to the Trojan War and downfall of Troy. In modern times, eros has been amalgamated with the broader life force, something akin to Schopenhauer’s will, a fundamentally blind process of striving for survival and reproduction. It has also been contrasted with Logos, or Reason, creating a dichotomy where Love cannot be rational, and behaving rationally cannot be loving. More, Cupid as the mischievous agent of eros, is depicted as a blindfolded child, where we get the popular notion that “love is blind.” Must it be? Or might we instead see for ourselves, with full sobriety, the person we are loving with knowledge (and rational choice) of what we are doing?
  • Philia – The hallmark of philia, or friendship, is shared goodwill. Aristotle believed a person can bear goodwill to another for one of three reasons—that he is useful; that he is pleasant; and, above all, that he is good, that is, rational and virtuous. Friendships founded on goodness are associated not only with mutual benefit but also with companionship, dependability, and trust. For Plato, the best kind of friendship is that which lovers have for each other. It is a philia born out of eros, and that in turn feeds back into eros to strengthen and develop it, transforming it from a lust for possession into a shared desire for a higher level of understanding of the self, the other, and the world. In sum, philia transforms eros from a lust for possession into an impulse forphilosophy.
  • Storge – Storge (‘store-gae’), or familial love, is a kind of philia pertaining to the love between parents and their children. It differs from most philia in that it tends, especially with younger children, to be unilateral or asymmetrical. More broadly, storgeis the fondness born out of familiarity or dependency and, unlike eros or philia, does not hang on our personal qualities. People in the early stages of a romantic relationship often expect unconditional storge, but find only eros, and, if they are lucky,philia. Over time, eros often mutates into storge and, if we are lucky, there might be philia and pragma as well.
  • Agape – Agape is universal love, such as the love for strangers, nature, or God. Unlikestorge, it does not depend on filiation or familiarity. Also called “charity” by Christian thinkers, agape can be said to encompass the modern concept of altruism, defined as unselfish concern for the welfare of others. Recent studies link altruism with a number of benefits. In the short term, altruism leaves us with a euphoric feeling—the so-called “helper’s high.” In the long term, it is associated with better mental and physicalhealth, as well as longevity. At a social level, altruism serves as a signal of cooperative intentions, and also of resource availability and so of mating or partnering potential. It also opens up a debt account, encouraging beneficiaries to reciprocate with gifts and favors that may be of much greater value to us than those with which we feel able to part. More generally, altruism, or agape, helps to build and maintain the psychological and social fabric that shields, sustains, and enriches us. Given the increasing anger and division in our society, we could all do with quite a bit more agape!
  • Ludus – Ludus is playful or uncommitted love. It can involve activities such as teasing and dancing, or more overt flirting, seducing, and conjugating. The focus is on fun, and sometimes on conquest, with no strings attached. Ludus relationships are casual, undemanding, and uncomplicated but, for all that, can be very long-lasting. Ludusworks best when both parties are self-sufficient. Problems arise when one party mistakes ludus for eros, whereas ludus is in fact much more compatible with philia.
  • Pragma – Pragma is a kind of practical love founded on reason or duty and one’s longer-term interests. Sexual attraction takes a back seat in favor of personal qualities and compatibilities, shared goals, and making it work. In the days of arranged marriages, pragma must have been very common. Although unfashionable, it remains widespread, most visibly in certain high-profile celebrity and political pairings. Many relationships that start off as eros or ludus end up as various combinations of storge andpragma. Pragma may seem opposed to ludus, but the two can co-exist, with the one providing a counterpoint to the other. In the best of cases, the partners in the pragmarelationship agree to turn a blind eye or even, as in the case of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, a sympathetic eye.
  • Philautia – Philautia is self-love, which can be healthy or unhealthy. Unhealthy self-love is akin to hubris. In ancient Greece, a person could be accused of hubris if he placed himself above the gods, or, like certain modern politicians, above the greater good. Many believed that hubris led to destruction, or nemesis. Today, hubris has come to mean an inflated sense of one’s status, abilities, or accomplishments, especially when accompanied by haughtiness or arrogance. As it disregards truth, hubris promotes injustice, conflict, and enmity. Healthy self-love is akin to self-esteem, which is our cognitive and, above all, emotional appraisal of our own worth. More than that, it is the matrix through which we think, feel, and act, and reflects and determines our relation to ourselves, to others, and to the world. Self-esteem and self-confidence do not always go hand in hand. In particular, it is possible to be highly self-confident and yet to have profoundly low self-esteem, as is the case with many performers and celebrities. People with high self-esteem do not need to prop themselves up with externals such as income, status, or notoriety, or lean on crutches such as alcohol, drugs, or sex. They are able to invest themselves completely in projects and people because they do not fear failure or rejection. Of course they suffer hurt and disappointment, but their setbacks neither damage nor diminish them. Owing to their resilience, they are open to growth experiences and relationships, tolerant of risk, quick to joy and delight, and accepting and forgiving of themselves and others.

Love then, even in “the Roman Way,” is far more than we have been able to imagine. Because of this, Love appears and is manifested around us in all kinds of ways that we need to pay attention to and celebrate. An individual might “love” someone by giving them a book or movie. Being quiet so as not to bother a loved one might also be an act of love. Whether loud and immediately visible, or silent and unseen, Love is all around us if we are able to cast off the blinders placed upon us (or which we have placed upon ourselves) and begin to open up to the world in new ways!

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