Love, by other names

You can tell a lot about someone from the language or languages they speak. Cultural assumptions, thoughts, truths are nested into what can or can’t be said, and the word roots or idioms used to say them.

The Greeks didn’t invent philosophy—it was called wisdom long before Thales got his feet wet (this is a clever joke, look it up). But they were systematic about it and their language lends itself to analysis. As such, when I learned we had only one or two words for “love” in English and the Greeks had around 6*, depending on how wide you cast the net, I was interested.

You can find these on other sites, and I recommend it because it will help you write better romances and live them as well, but I like to touch on them in a particular order, which I hope you’ll find useful.

The first is philautia, or self-love. I am not, of course, encouraging narcissism, which is an unjustified self-esteem that is insatiable and self-destructive in its need for positive affirmation. Rather, I’m talking about a comprehensive and comprehending knowledge of who you are and why you do things and an acceptance of that person (other than things you care enough about to change). Philautia is important because no one else will let you see their every dirty secret, their weakness, their desperate need unless they think of you as part of themselves, which we’ll get to later.

Philautia makes agape possible. Agape is charity, the universal and unconditional love we have for all human beings. It’s your tolerance of other people’s imperfections, the kindness with which you fulfill their needs or spare them pain. Here’s a thing: if you can’t love yourself, knowing the full context and justification of your actions, and the things you didn’t do through great restraint, you can’t love other people. The best you can hope for is a kind of blind optimism that will continually disappoint you when people behave the same way you really do. Here’s another: people can smell agape from a mile away. It’s that sense that someone isn’t going to laugh at you or spit in your face when you bare your heart to them. It invites people in.

And if, when they step closer, something catches your eye that’s a trigger for you, a delight, something that fills your soul, you’ve hit eros. You’ve heard of eros. Some of you are sniggering already. The Greeks didn’t like eros that much, or at least the philosophers among them didn’t when they were calmly scribing or dictating. Eros is dangerous. You don’t control eros. It grabs you by the reproductive organs—I mean the heart—and leads you wherever it wants. It makes you do stupid things like find excuses to be near someone, or tear up when they flirt with someone else. It feels like the best and worst thing in the world. It destroys things that get in the way. This is good, because or else we’d never trust each other enough to reproduce. In English, it’s called infatuation, and it usually lasts between six months to two years, after which it lays dormant with occasional flare-ups (unless you feed it, which is a lot of fun).

As you actually get to know someone, you move into one of two states: philia or ludus. Philia is what we’d think of as true friendship, knowing someone and having an abiding but platonic (hah) fondness for them. It’s a more personal form of agape, and the two can be mistaken for each other. The main difference is how much effort you make to seek that person out over other people. Ludus, on the other hand, is the playful back-and-forth of children and lovers (whether sex is involved or not). It’s the jokes, the banter, the games, the fights, the dancing, and I would argue a certain level of deliberate and mindful sexuality. The key to moving from agape and eros to philia and ludus is understanding and esteem, because philia and ludus are shared by peers.

Finally, there is pragma. Pragma, the root of pragmatism, happens when you’ve decided the value of your philia or ludus is so great that you are willing to suffer for it. You compromise. You bend and trust the other person not to let you break. It’s the mark of long lasting friendships, marriages, and alliances between businesses and companies. It doesn’t do well with secrets and boundaries. It is completely rational because you are trading something temporary for something of greater value that will last your entire life. People in pragma defend each other, seek each other’s advantage, which is the beauty of it, because pragma leads from I to us. And when you’ve reached that point, you can loop right back to the beginning: philautia.

*I'm no Greek scholar, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express once.



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