What is Love?

Let’s Talk About Love

by Joanne Reed and Neel Burton edited by O Society October 12, 2019

Falling in or out of love is one of the strongest emotions people can experience. Love can be kind. Love can be cruel. Love is everything. Love is called “one of the most studied and least understood areas in psychology.”

Everyone experiences feelings of love to some extent or another. There are those who find love then lose it, those who find it and keep it, and those who seek it in odd places. Also there are those who don’t know they have it, not realizing it is closer than they think.


Everyone seems to be hankering after romantic love, but few of us realize far from being timeless and universal, romantic love is a modern construct, whicg emerged in tandem with the novel. In Madame Bovary (1856), itself a novel, Gustave Flaubert tells us 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.”

Yet there are many other ways to love, not all of which are consistent or consonant with romantic love. By preoccupying ourselves with romantic love, we risk neglecting other types of love more stable or readily available and may, especially in the longer term, prove more healing and fulfilling.

Let’s talk about 8 types of love according to the Greeks. These descriptions below are based loosely on classical readings, especially of Plato and Aristotle, as well as J.A. Lee’s 1973 book Colours of Love.


8 Flavors of Love

The ancient Greeks are sophisticated in the way they talk about love and could be shocked by our modern crudeness in using a single word both to whisper, “I love you” over a romantic candlelight meal and to casually sign an email, “lots of love.

Romantic love perhaps most naturally springs to mind, the inspiration for countless ballads, stories, and pieces of art. “Eros” captures the imagination of singers, artists, and poets throughout history.


However, there are many “flavors of love” from brotherly love, family love, the love of God, to self-love. In English, as with other languages, it is difficult to distinguish the separate meanings of these words without carefully considering the context in which these words are used.

The question “what is love?” generates a host of issues; some seek to analyze these; some prefer to leave these in the realm of the ineffable.



1.  Eros or Erotic Love

Eros is the Greek God of Love, Love, Lust, Sex, Eroticism, and Sensual Desires, born of Ares (God of War) and Aphrodite (Goddess of Beauty and Eternal Youth). Eros is said to be the one who blessed the union of Gaia and Uranus, after which the Universe came into existence. Gaia is a Greek Goddess who symbolizes Mother Earth and is the mother of everything. Uranus symbolizes Father Sky. Eros represents the idea of sexual passion and desire.

Author Joanne Reed This is Your Quest Eros Talk About Love
Eros ( ἔρως ) means desire

Eros usually is depicted as a young boy, with his bow and arrows, ready to either shoot into the hearts of gods or mortals to rouse them to desire. His arrows came in two types; golden with dove feathers to arouse love, or leaden arrows with owl feathers to cause indifference.


Eros is known as being bitter-sweet and cruel to his victims. Unscrupulous, and a danger to those around him, Eros makes as much mischief as he can by wounding the hearts of all. Without warning, he selects his targets and forcefully strikes at their hearts, making them fall in love. The arrow breaches us and we ‘fall’ in love, as did Paris with Helen, leading to the Trojan War and the downfall of Troy, and much of the assembled Greek army.

The ancient Greeks consider eros dangerous and frightening as it involves a madness or ‘loss of control’ through the primal impulse to procreate. Eros is a passionate and intense form of love with arousal of romantic and sexual feelings. Eros is a primal and powerful fire which can burn out quickly.


In modern times we typically think of eros as romantic love or desire. As eros is amalgamated with the broader life force, something akin to Schopenhauer’s will, a fundamentally blind process of striving for survival and reproduction (fertility). The heart wants what it wants. Eros is contrasted with Logos, or Reason. The Romans later call Eros by the name Cupid, and often paint him as a blindfolded child.

2.  Philia or Affectionate Love or Friendship

The ancient Greeks value philia far above Eros because it is considered a love between equals. Plato felt physical attraction is not a necessary part of love; hence, the use of the word ‘platonic’ to mean ‘without physical attraction.’ 

Philia is a type of love felt among friends who endure hard times together. Aristotle defines philia as a ‘dispassionate virtuous love’ free from the intensity of sexual attraction. Philia often involves the feelings of loyalty among friends, camaraderie among teammates, and a sense of sacrifice for your pack. It is about loyalty to your friends and the sharing of emotions with these people.

Author Joanne Reed This is Your Quest Philia Talk About Love
Philia ( φιλία ) means brotherly love

The hallmark of philia, or friendship, is shared goodwill. Aristotle believes a person can bear goodwill to another for one of three reasons: he is useful; he is pleasant; and, above all, he is good, which is to say, rational and virtuous. Friendships founded on goodness are associated not only with mutual benefit but also with companionship, dependability, and trust.

Aristotle thinks deeply about the concept of human well-being and the virtues necessary to live well; he writes his findings and conclusions in Ethics. Aristotle concludes to live well is a proper appreciation of the way in which friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor, and wealth fit together as a whole.


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 short, philia transforms eros from a lust for possession into an impulse for philosophy.

Real friends seek together to live truer, fuller lives by relating to each other authentically and teaching each other about the limitations of their beliefs and the defects in their character, which are a far greater source of error than mere rational confusion: they are, in effect, each other’s therapist—and in this much it helps to find a friend with some degree of openness, articulacy, and insight, both to change and to be changed.

3.  Storge or Familial Love

Storge closely resembles philia as love without physical attraction; however, Storge primarily is to do with kinship and family. It differs from most philia in that it tends, especially with younger children, to be unilateral or asymmetrical. Storge is the natural flow of affection  between parents and their children, and children for their parents.

Storge is the bond a mother develops with her child as it forms inside her womb as the miracle of life develops. Once born, this bond continues to strengthen as the mother and baby get to know each other through the nurturing and breastfeeding process.


Storge ( στοργή ) is the bond between dog and a human

Storge also can be found in the unconditional love  dog owners gain from their dog. Dogs are the only species who, like a child, run to their owner when frightened, anxious, or just pleased to see us. Dogs have a quite refreshing capacity to demonstrate unconditional love. Studies show being in contact with animals such as dogs, cats, rabbits, and horses can lead to lower blood pressure, combat stress, and ease anxiety disorder and depression. Pets can provide friendship to those who are lonely, sick, or depressed.

More broadly, storge is 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 the need and dependency of eros, and, if they are lucky, the maturity and fertility of philia. Given enough time, eros tends to mutate into storge.

4. Agape or selfless love

Agape is the highest and most radical type of love according to the Greeks. Agape is what some call spiritual love, it is an unconditional love, bigger than ourselves, a boundless compassion, an infinite empathy. Agape is the purest form of love, free from desires and expectations, given regardless of the flaws and shortcomings in others.

Agape is altruistic love, love given for its own sake, without expecting anything in return. Agape is universal love, such as the love for strangers, nature, or God. Unlike storge, 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.

Dalai Lama Love is wanting others to be happy.jpg

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 longer term, it is associated with better mental and physical health, 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 which may be of much greater value to us than those with which we feel able to part.


Agape ( ἀγάπη ) in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love (agapēseis) your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love (agapāte) your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?”

~ Matthew 5:43-46, RSV


More generally, altruism, or agape, helps to build and maintain the psychological, social, and, indeed, environmental fabric to shield, sustain, and enrich us. Given the increasing anger and division in our society, and the state of our planet, we could all do with quite a bit more agape.

Agape is the love felt for that which we intuitively know something as being the divine truth; a love that accepts, forgives, and believes for our greater good. Aristotle makes the point in several of his works the happiest human life resembles the life of a divine being.

5.  Ludus or Playful Love

Ludus has a touch of the erotic Eros in it but is different as Greeks thought of Ludus as a playful form of love; the affection between young lovers. Ludus is the feeling we have in the early stages of falling in love, the fluttering heart, flirting, teasing and feelings of euphoria. Playfulness in love is an essential ingredient that is often lost in long-term relationships. Yet, playfulness is one of the secrets to keeping the childlike innocence of your love alive, interesting, and exciting.


Ludus, Playful Love

Aristotle frequently emphasizes the importance of pleasure to human life and states a happy life must include pleasure. For Aristotle, pleasure is not a process but an unimpeded activity of a natural state. It follows from his conception of pleasure every instance of pleasure must be good to some extent; how could an unimpeded activity of a natural state be bad?


Tender Wings of Desire

Aristotle did not mean every pleasure should be chosen. Simply put, although some pleasures may be good, they are not worth choosing when they interfere with superior activities. We must choose our pleasures by determining which ones are better. The standard we should use in making comparisons between rival options is virtuous activity because virtuous activity is shown to be identical to happiness.


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 also on conquest, with no strings attached. Ludus relationships are casual, undemanding, and uncomplicated but, for all this, can be very long-lasting. Ludus works best when both parties are mature and self-sufficient. Problems arise when one party mistakes ludus for eros, whereas ludus is much more compatible with philia.


Colors of Love (1973), J. A. Lee

6.  Mania or obsessive love


Mania leads a partner into a kind of madness and obsessiveness. To those who experience mania, love itself is a means of rescuing themselves; a reinforcement of their own value, as they suffer from poor self-esteem. Because of this, we can become possessive and jealous lovers, feeling as though we desperately “need” our partners.

7.  Pragma or enduring love

Pragma is an enduring love, aged, matured, and developed. Pragma is beyond the physical, it transcends casual love, and forms a unique harmony over time. You can find pragma in couples who are together for a long time, or in friendships which endure for decades.

Unfortunately, pragma is a type of love not easily found as we often spend so much time and energy trying to find love, yet so little time in learning how to maintain it. Pragma is the result of effort on both sides. It is the love between people who learn to make compromises, who demonstrate patience, and tolerance to make their relationship work.

Author Joanne Reed This is Your Quest Pragma Talk About Love
Pragma or Enduring Love

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 favour 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.

the kiss.jpg

Many relationships start off as eros or ludus and end up as various combinations of storge and pragma. Pragma may seem opposed to ludus, but the two can co-exist, with one providing a counterpoint to the other. In the best of cases, the partners in a pragma relationship agree to turn a blind eye—or even a sympathetic eye, as in the case of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, or Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson.


8.  Philautia or self-Love

Philautia,’ or self-love, is about caring for ourselves. The Greeks understood self-care is necessary before we can care for others. Philautia is not unhealthy vanity nor self-obsession focused on personal fame, gain and fortune as is the case with narcissism.

Instead, Philautia is self-love in its healthiest form. It shares the Buddhist philosophy of “self-compassion,” which is a deep understanding only once you have the strength to love yourself can you feel comfortable in your own skin. Buddhism promotes self-love as vital for health and happiness.

Aristotle described “all friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.” You cannot share what you do not have. If you do not love yourself, you cannot love anyone else either. The only way to truly be happy is to find unconditional love for yourself.


Loving ourselves unconditionally in exactly the same way we love our children and pets is what we are striving for. Instead, we love ourselves with conditions. We only expect to be happy with ourselves when we get the job we want, or after losing weight. Then and only then do we feel worthy of self-compassion.

Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate. Self-compassionate people recognize being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable; they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.


Self-compassion requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. Balance requires putting ourselves through a process of relating personal experiences to experiences of others who are also suffering, thus putting our own situation into a larger perspective. Balance also stems from a willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity.

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 believe hubris leads to destruction, or nemesis. Today, hubris comes 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 relative to that of others. More than this, 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. 

leah Gonzales.jpg

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. We are able to invest ourselves completely in projects and people because we do not fear failure or rejection. Of course, we suffer hurt and disappointment, yet our setbacks neither damage nor diminish us. Owing to our resilience, we are open to growth experiences and relationships, tolerant of risk, quick to joy and delight, and accepting and forgiving of ourselves and others. 


Let’s Talk About Love – Conclusion

We are often hankering over romantic love, but the message from the Greeks is there are many types of love. A better understanding of the 8 types of love and a larger vocabulary helps. This helps us to recognize how we feel, and it helps us to recognize the feelings being bestowed upon us.

We are all students of love and can thank the Ancient Greeks as our esteemed teachers. We learn there are many types of love, it’s good to talk about love, and when loving:

  • Beware ‘Mania.’
  • Don’t seek ‘Eros’ alone for it often ends badly.
  • Cultivate ‘Philia’ by spending more time with your friends and family.
  • Add some frivolity into your life from time to time with ‘Ludic’ activities.
  • Seek ‘Pragma’ for a long-lasting relationship.
  • Indulge in ‘Storge,’ let your maternal and paternal instincts out. For any lonely souls, get yourself a dog!
  • Practice ‘Philautia’ to stay away from stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • And for the most advanced students, seek ‘Agape.’

And this, my dear companion, is your Quest.


In closing, there is, of course, a kind of porosity between these types of love, which keep on seeping and passing into one another. For Plato, love aims at beautiful and good things and happiness is an end-in-itself. Of all beautiful and good things, the best, most beautiful, and most dependable is truth or wisdom, which is why Plato called love not a god but a philosopher:

He whom love touches not walks in darkness.





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