Updated: Apr 11, 2021
Tomorrow, 14th of February, is Valentine’s Day. Named after Saint Valentine, the patron saint of love (among other things), Valentine’s Day provides an occasion to reflect on those whom we love and the nature of love itself.
Love can be thought of as a powerful emotion or attitude, or a kind of energy or light. Love has been given as a name for God. It is considered to be valuable in itself, worth it for its own sake, something which is distinctly human and which makes life worth having. As Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote of love:
"’Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all."
The ancient Greeks divided love into three kinds: eros, philia and agape. Eros and philia are kinds of love which respond to particular objects. Eros is a sort of passionate desire, often but not always sexual, for an object, e.g. a romantic partner. Philia is more of an affection for an object, as we see with friends and family. On the other hand, agape is a kind of love which does not respond to particular objects, but is more akin to a general love of mankind, for instance.
Plato’s love, which he called eros, although a passionate desire, is directed not towards a particular person but to the Form of Beauty itself, and from there to the Form of the Good. For Plato, when a person loves another he sees and appreciates their beauty (not necessarily physical beauty but inner beauty). As he reflects on the beauty of his beloved he comes to see and appreciate the beauty in all persons. And when he has recognised that there is beauty in all persons, he comes to see and appreciate Beauty itself. Beauty is the Form which is most readily apprehensible for humankind, and love is the energy by which we are drawn towards the Form of the Good.
Having friends (philia), was for Aristotle a necessary good in order for a person to achieve flourishing (eudaimonia), i.e. for having a good life. In his account of what it means to be a human being the love between friends occupies a central place. This kind of friendship Aristotle called ‘friendship of the good’. A friendship of this kind involves friends who love each other for their own sake; who help and assist each other as they each recognise the goodness in the other.
Simone Weil wrote about (agape) love in Gravity and Grace:
"Among human beings, only the existence of those we love is ever fully recognised.
Belief in the existence of other human beings as such is love."
When we see homeless people out on the streets in the cold we tend to walk right past them as if they do not really exist. We tend not to imagine life from their perspective; how they might feel, what they might hope for. There are many people here in the UK who are suffering in some form or another. Many have been thrown into poverty as a result of the pandemic; many who have lost family and friends; many with problems of mental illness and addiction.
The misfortunes of others can sometimes feel distant. We all have our own worries and concerns. There are people in our own lives whom we love and care about and whose well-being we rightly prioritise. We feel love (eros) for our partners, husbands, wives; (philia) for our children, friends, and family. But these are not the only kinds of love we can give. According to the quote by Simone Weil, just to believe in the existence of another qua human being, is (agape) love. That is, to believe that others feel and think and act in the same ways as us, to recognise that they are also part of the same species of moral being, is love. And if you have love for others then you will treat them as such, because love is the most powerful force for good there is.
Especially now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we are all concerned for our loved ones: partners, family, friends, children etc. But love needn’t have a limit. It is in fact an infinite resource. Perhaps if we can freely extend our love to others we can do much to change the lives of the less fortunate for the better, and support them in their times of need.
Every penny raised goes towards supporting vulnerable people through what is not only a rough winter, but the most severe global health crisis of our lifetime.
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