Philosophy of Love [excerpts] by Alexander Moseley The Nature of Love

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Philosophy of Love [excerpts]

by Alexander Moseley

The Nature of Love: Eros, Philia, and Agape

The philosophical discussion regarding love logically begins with questions concerning its nature. This implies that love has a 'nature', a proposition that some may oppose arguing that love is conceptually irrational, in the sense that it cannot be described in rational or meaningful propositions. For such critics, who are presenting a metaphysical and epistemological argument, love may be an ejection of emotions that defy rational examination; on the other hand, some languages, such as Papuan do not even admit the concept, which negates the possibility of a philosophical examination. In English, the word 'love', which is derived from Germanic forms of the Sanskrit lubh (desire), is broadly defined and hence imprecise, which generates first order problems of definition and meaning, which are resolved to some extent by the reference to the Greek terms, eros, philia, and agape.

a. Eros

The term eros (Greek erasthai) is used to refer to that part of love constituting a passionate, intense desire for something, it is often referred to as a sexual desire, hence the modern notion of 'erotic' (Greek erotikos). In Plato's writings however, eros is held to be a common desire that seeks transcendental beauty-the particular beauty of an individual reminds us of true beauty that exists in the world of Forms or Ideas (Phaedrus 249E: "he who loves the beautiful is called a lover because he partakes of it." Trans. Jowett). The Platonic-Socratic position maintains that the love we generate for beauty on this earth can never be truly satisfied until we die; but in the meantime we should aspire beyond the particular stimulating image in front of us to the contemplation of beauty in itself.

The implication of the Platonic theory of eros is that ideal beauty, which is reflected in the particular images of beauty we find, becomes interchangeable across people and things, ideas, and art: to love is to love the Platonic form of beauty-not a particular individual, but the element they posses of true (Ideal) beauty. Reciprocity is not necessary to Plato's view of love, for the desire is for the object (of Beauty), than for, say, the company of another and shared values and pursuits.

Many in the Platonic vein of philosophy hold that love is an intrinsically higher value than appetitive or physical desire. Physical desire, they note, is held in common with the animal kingdom and hence of a lower order of reaction and stimulus than a rationally induced love, i.e., a love produced by rational discourse and exploration of ideas, which in turn defines the pursuit of Ideal beauty. Accordingly, the physical love of an object, an idea, or a person in itself is not be a proper form of love, love being a reflection of that part of the object, idea, or person, that partakes in Ideal beauty.

b. Philia

In contrast to the desiring and passionate yearning of eros, philia entails a fondness and appreciation of the other. For the Greeks, the term philia incorporated not just friendship, but also loyalties to family and polis-one's political community, job, or discipline. Philia for another may be motivated, as Aristotle explains in the Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, for the agent's sake or for the other's own sake. The motivational distinctions are derived from love for another because the friendship is wholly useful as in the case of business contacts, or because their character and values are pleasing (with the implication that if those attractive habits change, so too does the friendship), or for the other in who they are in themselves, regardless of one's interests in the matter. The English concept of friendship roughly captures Aristotle's notion of philia, as he writes: "things that cause friendship are: doing kindnesses; doing them unasked; and not proclaiming the fact when they are doneÖ" (Rhetoric, II. 4, trans. Rhys Roberts).

Aristotle elaborates on the kinds of things we seek in proper friendship, suggesting that the proper basis for philia is objective: those who share our dispositions, who bear no grudges, who seek what we do, who are temperate, and just, who admire us appropriately as we admire them, and so on. Philia could not emanate from those who are quarrelsome, gossips, aggressive in manner and personality, who are unjust, and so on. The best characters, it follows, may produce the best kind of friendship and hence love: indeed, how to be a good character worthy of philia is the theme of the Nicomachaen Ethics. The most rational man is he who would be the happiest, and he, therefore, who is capable of the best form of friendship, which between two "who are good, and alike in virtue" is rare (NE, VIII.4 trans. Ross). We can surmise that love between such equals-Aristotle's rational and happy men-would be perfect, with circles of diminishing quality for those who are morally removed from the best. He characterizes such love as "a sort of excess of feeling". (NE, VIII.6)

Friendships of a lesser quality may also be based on the pleasure or utility that is derived from another's company. A business friendship is based on utility--on mutual reciprocity of similar business interests; once the business is at an end, then the friendship dissolves. Similarly with those friendships based on the pleasure that is derived from the other's company, which is not a pleasure enjoyed for who the other person is in himself, but in the flow of pleasure from his actions or humour.

The first condition for the highest form Aristotelian love is that a man loves himself. Without an egoistic basis, he cannot extend sympathy and affection to others (NE, IX.8). Such self-love is not hedonistic, or glorified, depending on the pursuit of immediate pleasures or the adulation of the crowd, it is instead a reflection of his pursuit of the noble and virtuous, which culminate in the pursuit of the reflective life. Friendship with others is required "since his purpose is to contemplate worthy actionsÖto live pleasantlyÖsharing in discussion and thought" as is appropriate for the virtuous man and his friend (NE, IX.9). The morally virtuous man deserves in turn the love of those below him; he is not obliged to give an equal love in return, which implies that the Aristotelian concept of love is elitist or perfectionist: "In all friendships implying inequality the love also should be proportional, i.e. the better should be more loved than he loves." (NE, VIII, 7,). Reciprocity, although not necessarily equal, is a condition of Aristotelian love and friendship, although parental love can involve a one-sided fondness.

c. Agape

Agape refers to the paternal love of God for man and for man for God but is extended to include a brotherly love for all humanity. (The Hebrew ahev has a slightly wider semantic range than agape). Agape arguably draws on elements from both eros and philia in that it seeks a perfect kind of love that is at once a fondness, a transcending of the particular, and a passion without the necessity of reciprocity. The concept is expanded on in the Judaic-Christian tradition of loving God: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5) and loving "thy neighbour as thyself" (Leviticus 19:18). The love of God requires absolute devotion that is reminiscent of Plato's love of Beauty (and Christian translators of Plato such as St Augustine employed the connections), which involves an erotic passion, awe, and desire that transcends earthly cares and obstacles. Aquinas, on the other hand, picked up on the Aristotelian theories of friendship and love to proclaim God as the most rational being and hence the most deserving of one's love, respect, and considerations.

The universalist command to "love thy neighbor as thyself" refers the subject to those surrounding him, whom he should love unilaterally if necessary. The command employs the logic of mutual reciprocity, and hints at an Aristotelian basis that the subject should love himself in some appropriate manner: for awkward results would ensue if he loved himself in a particularly inappropriate, perverted manner! (Philosophers can debate the nature of 'self-love' implied in this-from the Aristotelian notion that self-love is necessary for any kind of inter-personal love, to the condemnation of egoism and the impoverished examples that pride and self-glorification from which to base one's love of another. St Augustine relinquishes the debate--he claims that no command is needed for a man to love himself (De bono viduitatis, xxi.) Analogous to the logic of "it is better to give than to receive", the universalism of agape requires an initial invocation from someone: in a reversal of the Aristotelian position, the onus for the Christian is on the morally superior to extend love to others. Nonetheless, the command also entails an egalitarian love-hence the Christian code to "love thy enemies" (Matthew 5:44-45). Such love transcends any perfectionist or aristocratic notions that some are (or should be) more loveable than others. Agape finds echoes in the ethics of Kant and Kierkegaard, who assert the moral importance of giving impartial respect or love to another person qua human being in the abstract.

However, loving one's neighbor impartially (James 2:9) invokes serious ethical concerns, especially if the neighbor ostensibly does not warrant love. Debate thus begins on what elements of a neighbor's conduct should be included in agape, and which should be excluded. Early Christians asked whether the principle applied only to disciples of Christ or to all. The impartialists won the debate asserting that the neighbor's humanity provides the primary condition of being loved; nonetheless his actions may require a second order of criticisms, for the logic of brotherly love implies that it is a moral improvement on brotherly hate. For metaphysical dualists, loving the soul rather than the neighbor's body or deeds provides a useful escape clause-or in turn the justification for penalizing the other's body for sin and moral transgressions, while releasing the proper object of love-the soul-from its secular torments. For Christian pacifists, "turning the other cheek" to aggression and violence implies a hope that the aggressor will eventually learn to comprehend the higher values of peace, forgiveness, and a love for humanity.

The universalism of agape runs counter to the partialism of Aristotle and poses a variety of ethical implications. Aquinas admits a partialism in love towards those we are related while maintaining that we should be charitable to all, whereas others such as Kierkegaard insist on impartiality. Recently, LaFallotte has noted that to love those one is partial towards is not necessarily a negation of the impartiality principle, for impartialism could admit loving those closer to one as an impartial principle, and, employing Aristotle's conception of self-love, iterates that loving others requires an intimacy that can only be gained from being partially intimate ("Personal Relations", Blackwell Companion to Ethics). Others would claim that the concept of universal love, of loving all equally, is not only impracticable, but logically empty-Aristotle, for example, argues: "One cannot be a friend to many people in the sense of having friendship of the perfect type with them, just as one cannot be in love with many people at once (for love is a sort of excess of feeling, and it is the nature of such only to be felt towards one person)" (NE, VIII.6).

Male Love in Ancient Greece

It is important in the beginning to define our vocabulary. The term ’homosexuality’ as it is used and understood today is not applicable to Greek antiquity for three reasons: First of all, most Greeks [men, that is] were bisexual. Second, homosexuality and 'gay' as sexual identities are recent developments, emerging only in the 2Oth Century (our idea of what it means to be gay or a homosexual has largely been influenced by recent gay activism and the emergence of gay rights on the cultural landscape). Last, and most important of all, passion and erotic love between two adult men (the model for modern gay relationships), was generally considered unusual and held up to ridicule. Homosexual love in Greece was love between a man and a [teenage] boy.

As with all else, there were exceptions, such as the well known relationship between Alexander the Great and his boyhood friend Hephaiston, or the one between the mythical hero of the Trojan war, Achilles, and his best friend and lover, Patroklos. These love affairs [may] fit the pattern of gay relationships today. However, the relationship that was characteristic of the Greek way of life, accepted or even regarded as a social duty by the state, was intergenerational male love. In its ideal form this bond was between a man (called the erastes [lover] in Athens, or the ‘inspirer’ in Sparta) and an adolescent youth (called the eromenos [beloved], or the ‘hearer’, respectively). It bears saying here that opinions even then were divided, with a lively debate going on between proponents and opponents of homosexual love.

The Greek word for homosexual love between a man and a youth was paiderastia (hence pederasty), derived from pais, boy, and eran, to love, meaning emotional and sensual affection for a pais. A common synonym for beloved boys in Greek writings is ta paidika, ’the boyish.’ The youths who attracted men’s attentions ranged in age from adolescence to early manhood, as can be seen from the images that have come down to us on Greek pottery and sculpture. Relationships with overly young boys were frowned upon then as they are now (though some Greek beloved youths would have fallen below the age of consent in many modern countries), one mark of a beloved ripe for a man’s attentions being the ability to “think for himself”.

Social environment

The Greek male was expected not only to marry and raise children, but also to be available for friendship and homosexual love affairs with worthy youths, not to the exclusion of marriage but as its necessary complement. Thus his destined path ... would begin some time in adolescence when the boy was courted by many men and would choose one to be his lover. This homosexual relationship would continue till early adulthood when he'd begin courting and winning the love of a deserving youth of his own. Then it would expand to include taking a wife and having children. (Of course there were countless variations on this theme, some noble and others sordid, just as it is with us today in our love life.) This variety of life was reflected in the ‘deep well of time’, the ancient sacred myths on which were based the archetypes of human life and self-knowledge.

All Greeks were familiar with the tales of male love: Zeus descending as an eagle to carry off Ganymede, the most beautiful boy on Earth, to be his lover on Mount Olympus, of Apollo and Hyakinthos’ ill fated love, and of many other such passionate friendships between gods or heroes and handsome youths.... It was one of the fundamental traditions of Greek life, one practised and enjoyed to the fullest. Indeed, it was a social must which no poet, no philosopher, no artist disdained to explore. It was discussed in public as a matter of course and included in the reflections of the greatest minds.

Zeus and Ganymede

That a man should be attracted both to lovely women and to beardless boys was seen as natural and normal. It was also accepted that some men would lean more towards one, and some towards the other. However, young males were considered the fair sex par excellence; the Greek ideal of beauty was embodied by the young man, a fact evident in all of Greek literature and art from first beginnings to last examples. Literary disputes examined the question of which kind of love was preferable, and often the love of youths won out. Apart from purely scientific texts there was hardly a work in which juvenile male beauty was not praised, from casual asides to richly embroidered descriptions. The extent to which the youth was the paragon of beauty can be seen in the arts, where even girls were often represented with boyish traits. Furthermore,a great deal of pottery depicting youths has been found, often inscribed with the epithet kalos (the masculine form of beautiful), while pictures of girls and the feminine kale are rare. Even he great sculptor Phidias payed homage to his beloved by carving kalos Pantarkes on a finger of the colossal statue of Zeus at Olympia.

Marble of Hercules


Besides their physical charm, boys were also valued for their minds, held to be especially capable of reason and debate and therefore meant to be cultivated. Thus homosexual love was the driving force not only of the sexual but also of the pedagogic side of Greek pederasty. Ancient culture was male oriented through and through. To the Greek man, his spouse counted mostly as mother of his children and keeper of his household. With very few exceptions women (and wives in particular) were excluded from intellectual and public life. Girls were considered capable only of chitchat, and unworthy of education. Only hetairas, a class of entertainers / courtesans who were not charged with domestic responsibilities, could enter the political and philosophic arenas. Thus, the intellectual development of most girls was neglected, while the right upbringing of boys was given the highest importance.

The aim of the Greek educational system, the paideia, was summed up by the words: kalos k’agathos, ’beautiful and good’, meaning that beauty of body and goodness of soul were the essence of human – i.e. male – perfection. Homosexual love between men and youths striving together to develop these virtues was seen as the most effective way to cultivate that ideal. It was said that even Herakles (Hercules) could perform his mighty deeds with more ease when his beloved Iolaos watched him. It was in commemoration of their union that the Iolaeia, gymnastic and equestrian games, were celebrated in Thebes.

The education of the youths took place in the gymnasium. Far more than a modern gym, such a complex was situated in the centre of every Greek town. There boys and men spent a large part of their day engaged in physical and intellectual exercise. Its architecture was described by the Roman architect Vitruvius: First, it contained a large peristyle, i.e. a square with a perimeter of two stadia (or 270 ft per side). It was surrounded on three sides by single arcades, and on the southern side by a double arcade that enclosed the Ephebeion, the training ground for the epheboi, young men past the age of majority, that is eighteen to twenty or so. At the sides were baths, halls and other rooms, where philosophers, rhetoricians, poets and all the many friends of male beauty would come together. Behind the peristyle were further arcades, one of them the xystos, apparently mainly for the training of adult men, and connected to it the palestra, the main training ground for the youths. The rooms were decorated with all kinds of artwork, above all with statues of gods and heroes such as Hermes, Apollo and the Muses, Herakles and especially Eros. Such daily exposure to the many wondrous works of art and to the beauty of young bodies harmoniously developed by regular exercises goes a long way towards explaining the Greeks’ enthusiasm for beauty and male eros.

The word gymnasium derives from gymnos, naked, reflecting the fact that all sports were performed unclothed. Not surprisingly, the gymnasium was an epicentre of erotic energy. [Acceptance and appreciation of] male nudity was a widespread phenomenon of Greek life, and was viewed as one of the cardinal differences between the cultured Greeks and their barbarian neighbours. Nudity was practised not only in the gymnasia but also at the great national [athletic] competitions in Olympia, Nemea, Delphi and on the Isthmus, at religious ceremonies, at public festivals and at private feasts where the young cupbearers went usually in the nude. The Gymnopaidiai was an important yearly festival in Sparta, celebrated with dances and presentations of naked boys. Paradoxically, the Spartan authorities tried to use the dances as reward for those fighting the decrease in population that their state was stricken with: only married men were allowed as spectators....

The underlying idea [of ancient Greek pederasty was] that the adult lover had to give the adolescent beloved a piece of his own heart, so to speak, transferring his own areté, meaning all that was good and noble in him, to facilitate the youth’s passage into manhood. The bond that was formed by these relationships often lasted beyond the end of the youth’s formal education. Sometimes the older man remained responsible for his pupil until the latter reached marriageable age, about thirty.

The power of love that was used to such good effect to educate Greek youths also served to sharpen their motivation, and that of their lovers, in battle. The bravery of male couples, such as those that made up the Theban Sacred Band, was well known throughout ancient Greece and was an important factor in war. Pederastic couples were also known as tyrannicides, killers of tyrants, in that they often were the first to rise up against despots. Harmodius and his erastes, Aristogiton, were perhaps the best known of those couples.

Other aspects

Though the Greeks, in their creative genius, elevated a common human impulse and utilized its power for the improvement of both boy and man, in daily life male love had other faces too, even as today ideal marriage is far from being the only manifestation of desire between a woman and a man. Prostitution of boys, for example, was common from early on. The statesman Solon of Athens (ca. 634-560 BC), who put through important social reforms in his home town, tried to regulate these aspects of sexual life. His laws forbade the prostitution of free-born Athenian boys, but did not protect slaves nor xenoi, ‘foreigners’ (who lacked Athenian citizenship), from such abuse. Brothels that provided boys were officially sanctioned, and taxed just like the ones that offered women or girls. Many were ‘staffed’ by captive boys who had been kidnapped in war after their parents had been killed or sold off into slavery. Free boys as well were not always above selling their favours to the highest bidder.

Fact Sheet: Achilles & Patroclus

  1. Greatest hero of the Trojan War

  2. Supernatural power:

    1. His mother was an immortal sea nymph (minor goddess), who dipped him in the River Styx (the river one crosses over into the underworld upon death) to make him invulnerable to any weapon. She held him by the heel to do so, which was his undoing at Troy.

    2. Sent by his mortal father – King Peleus of Phthia, a region of Greece – to be raised by the centaur (half man, half horse) Chiron on Mt. Pelion. Chiron taught him the ways of war and trained him to be a fast runner and fearless.

  3. Prophecy of greatness:

    1. Achilles mother told him that the gods intended one of two fates for him. 1) He could be a great hero, but die young. 2) He could live a long and happy life in obscurity. Toward the end of the Trojan War, he chooses the former.

  4. At Troy:

    1. Homer's Iliad begins with Achilles sulking in his tent over a slave girl King Agamemnon has taken from him. He refuses to fight because Agamemnon has insulted Achilles' honor.

    2. Achilles' best friend – and perhaps his lover – Patroclus, steps forward to lead the Greeks into battle wearing Achilles' armor. Patroclus inspires the Greeks, but is finally killed by the Trojan's great hero, Hector.

    3. Achilles is spurred to action by the death of his friend, kills Hector, desecrates his body in revenge, and is finally killed by an arrow shot by Paris, the Trojan prince who had begun the war by stealing Helen of Troy, wife of Agamemnon's brother Menelaus.


  1. Best known as Achilles' closest friend (and maybe his lover), he was somehow related to Achilles, perhaps his first cousin, once removed.

  2. Because he accidentally killed another boy in an argument over a game, Patroclus was sent to live with King Peleus, who was somehow related to Patroclus' father, Menoetius.

  3. Patroclus may have been raised by Chiron with Achilles.

  4. The friendship that developed between Achilles and Patroclus has been seen as a model for a loving male relationship since ancient times.

  5. Questions that have been – and continue to be – asked about this relationship:

    1. Were they close to the same age?

    2. Was one of them the eromenos and the other the erastes?

    3. Were they physically intimate?

    4. If so, who was the dominant partner?

  6. Before wreaking his revenge on Hector and the Trojans, Achilles built a gigantic funeral pyre for his beloved friend, on which he burned 12 Trojan captives. He then insisted the Greeks celebrate his friend with 10 days of funeral games (athletic competitions) before returning to the war.

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