Four loves

In modern English, the word “love” conveys a range of emotions, but the classical Greeks were more precise. They had four words that have all been translated as “love” in English:

Storgē roughly fits our English word “affection,” especially the type of affection within families. It can also be used in a “put up with” type of way—and as most of us know, that is in fact the type of love many of us had for our siblings when growing up.

Philíos was used for a general type of virtuous, dispassionate love—the type that inspires loyalty. Today, it’s an equivalent of “friendship.”

Éros was a passionate love, the kind that exists in a healthy marriage or intimate relationship. Socrates had a famous debate about éros with his students, which was recorded in Plato’s Symposium. Plato refined the idea to be not so much love of a person, but love of the beauty in a person. This is where we get the idea of a platonic relationship, which is a love relationship devoid of sexual overtones.

The Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament completed before the time of Jesus—used the verb agápao frequently to describe all sorts of love, from divine pity to erotic passion. And it was in that same work that the derivative noun agape, the fourth word for love, made its first appearance in Greek literature to describe the deepest kind of love, such as in the Song of Songs, which is attributed to Solomon and thought to be evocative of the relationship between God and believers.

The New Testament writers used agape around 250 times to describe this highest ideal of love. In addition to the English word “love”—such as in Theos agápe estin, “God is love” (1 John 4:8)—the King James translators sometimes chose the English word “charity” (for instance in 1 Corinthians 13). This was meant to reinforce the idea that agape is a selfless, giving, and unconditional love.

Now we know what to strive for.