What is Love? (P2)

“You become what you give your attention to.” – Epictetus

Exploring the multifaceted concept of love, this article delves into the various dimensions of affection, from passionate desire to spiritual connection, shedding light on how different forms of love interplay in relationships and personal growth.

This article is a follow up to an idea I have been exploring through reading Jungian psychology, writing poetry (What Is Love? (Part 1): https://thewalledgarden.com/what-is-love-a-poem-for-october-2022 ), and conversation that have come up through Walled Garden meet-ups (Particularly Stoicon X Midwest and Josh Bertolotti’s Friday book club meet-up).

Love is a concept that is not well defined and maybe it is meant to be ephemeral. But as in the Jungian tradition, I think it is something that can be analyzed and talked about in a rational manner. Not only expressed through art, poetry, and the felt sense. To come at the topic from both directions (the emotional and the rational), hopefully greater insight is gained, while not diminishing the concept.

I also want to understand love from the Stoic perspective. Is love something irrational, tied to unhealthy desires and clinging to indifferents? Or is it an expression of Justice. Treating others as we want to be treated?

“It is thus to the wise alone that the power of love belongs.”

– Epictetus Discourses 2.22 On Friendship.


On Love.

In the English language, and in America in general, we have a very confused idea about Love. When people speak of love they are often confuse if they mean a feeling of caring, a feeling of attachment, or possessiveness, a feeling of lust, desire, sexual passion. Also maybe something that is a higher spiritual idea (soul mates).

From a psychological perspective, love is either very complicated and at times involves a range of the previously discussed feelings, or maybe there are different things happening and it is useful to define each of these separate and related terms.

I find it personally meaningful, and I share with my clients the perspective that the ancient Greeks had 4 different words for love.

Philia is a love that could be considered love for your common human being (philanthropy, phil-anthropy, love for mankind), or a friendly love, or brotherly love (Philadelphia, phil-adelphia, the city of brotherly love). Love for a person who is a good friend to you. A friend who is like family. A countryman with shared values and mission. It can be a love that is rational and also felt. Feeling and thinking at the same time. Philosophy, philia-sophia, was originally considered the practice of demonstrating love for Wisdom (the goddess of Wisdom being Sophia).

Philia is particularly contrasted with Eros. Eros is often seen as romantic love, but particularly includes passionate sexual lust and desire. Eros was seen as either the force that created the universe and all of the gods, or at other times Eros was seen as the child of Venus, the goddess of love. Eros or cupid was the child who shot people with an arrow of love and caused them to become obsessively passionate about another being and forget their conscious mind and rational faculty of choice. This would be the idea of not just feeling love for a human being but falling “In Love”. In Love is not rational. But it is a very passionate feeling. The psychiatrist Sigmund Freud said that everything in the psychological process is a product of Eros or Libido. When a child loves their parent, it is a misdirected libido that they will later learn to direct towards an appropriate marriage partner. When a person loves their work or art, it is redirected libido. Freud was a weird guy, he didn’t believe in the soul, just libido. But he was the inspiration for all of modern psychology.

Agape is spiritual love, which could be the love of a human for God or the love of God for a human. It is loving another person’s spirit or soul. A feeling of love coming from your own soul.
Whether or not we believe in God or the soul is another question, but psychologically speaking, it would be ‘to see the best in a person’ (their Arete: excellence or Virtue). Seeing the beautiful part of their spirit. To love other people because they are living beings with a soul.
Some of this may be the psychological concept of projection. We see the beauty in another person’s soul that we have difficulty seeing or acknowledging in our own soul. We see the wonder of their positive qualities, but refuse to see the wholeness of their good and bad traits that make them a whole human being.
Freud’s student Carl Jung believed in the idea of the soul, and as the soul cannot be proven or disproven, he referred to the psychological concept of ‘The Self’ as the larger part of yourself beyond your ego. Ego is the sense of “what I want” but the Self includes the unconscious desires and behaviors (why do I want and do things that I don’t actually want to do? These would be included in the desires of The Self.)

I am just reading a book (‘We’ by Robert Johnson) that is inspired by the Jungian theory and discusses the difference between Romance and Love. Love is the broad concept which includes all of these concepts, but Romance is more than just passionate lust. Romance comes from the European tradition around the 12th century where Knights would develop courtly love for a Lady of the castle. It was not only to court a lady with the intention of marrying her. It was for knights to court a married lady to develop a sexual frustration that they could “pray on” to further develop their capacity to feel love, while developing the discipline to never act on it (since she already had a husband). It is a bizarre practice that helped to humanize a warrior (he is a lover and romantic besides just a killer for hire), also he then had a real love for protecting the kingdom and the lord’s interests (as they were his Lady’s interests as well). So he had something to love, something to die for, but also he developed his softer and gentler side (The Feminine) where he would learn poetry and arts and the art of romance in order to court his lady. He would also learn these feminine arts from her.
The purpose of this, from a psychological perspective, is to develop the feminine half of the wholeness of The True Self. What a man typically rejects as “unmanly” he can nurture if he is projecting it onto a woman. In time he hopefully learns to integrate parts of it into himself (I can fight and also write poetry and play the lute) rather than just holding it as a projection on a woman (“She has rejected me, and now I can never write poetry again!”).

Our modern romance is a confused mess of trying to find an attachment figure so we feel wanted and “good enough”, trying to get lust and sexual desires met, and trying to actually develop a partnership that can be the basis of marriage and/or family.
Some could argue that Romance is not a good path towards those disparate goals, but when romance is done consciously, mindfully, and with intentionality, it can still serve the spiritual (agape) purpose of connecting soul to soul, spirit to spirit, and helping a person find inspiration in their projection, to better see the other half of their own soul and find the fullness that is the full Self.
Said another way, love does not help us find our “other half” (the other person who is expected to complete us). It confronts us with another person who helps us to see that we were already whole but just didn’t remember (re-member: to take parts and make whole again).

I left out the 4th type of love, which is Storge. It is probably the type I understand least well and it is referred to as “familial love”. It would be a different type of “brotherly love”, that for your actual sibling. Or the love of mother for child, child for mother. I think of it as attachment love, which would feel nurturing. It might be more possessive, you take ownership and responsibility for your child and their behavior. You have a desire to see them do well in life, that is to some degree not rational (as the Stoics would say, it is not up to you) but might also serve a spiritual meaning or cultural value purpose.

It is interesting to see that in a marriage we can have all 4 types of love. Friendly. Passionate. Spiritual. Familial (Attachment).
It is important to know if all 4 feelings are there. It can also be an intentional choice to decide if you want all 4 to be there and to what degree (to know what you’re both signing up for).
There are arguments that Eros in particular can be destructive and impulsive in its irrationality.
An attachment relationship can be a source of healing, but can also be possessive and controlling.
Hopefully there is a core of friendship and Philia that endures through hard times. Passion may be present at the beginning but fade over time. Hopefully it is replaced by something greater and lasting (Agape). Maybe you can kindle Eros and Romance to “keep the flame alive” without getting burned or burning each other.

It is interesting to see how ‘Romance’ can be a path to channel Eros into Agape. Eros with temperance. Each form of love has its place. It is not good or bad, but only the question of “is it effective?” Towards your goals in life or towards the Cosmopolis, when done mindfully, with intention.


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David Alexander

New Mexico-based psychotherapist exploring Stoic Philosophy and Jungian psychology to understand human nature, aiming for self-discovery and empathy through integrated disciplines.

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