25. Early Greek philosophy

The Beautiful = The Good = The Truthful = The Eternal ◆ will and moral acts ◆ Eros, philia, agape, nomos, storge

Key terms introduced in this chapter:

  • agape
  • Eros
  • nomos
  • philia
  • storge

Key terms mentioned in this chapter that should now be familiar:

  • devotion
  • East Asia
  • faithfulness
  • love
  • model reader
  • worldviews


25.1. Introduction

While most of what remains “live” in modern Western cultures that affects how *love is conceived is rooted in Christian teachings, not everything is and of that which is, looking at its earlier iterations by Greek philosophers is informative. There are some truly remarkable, powerful, and definitely still relevant ideas within Greek philosophy. Plato’s Symposium is often cited as a seminal work for our current definitions of *love. His Phaedrus echoes and adds to these ideas. Aristotle continued to systematize Plato’s thinking. We do not need to go to a specific text and look at the formulation of ideas in that sort of pristine approach (that is, working with the original). We can, instead, pull out from the history of intellectual thoughts several concepts and terms that have shown persistent, powerful influence over the centuries.

Although learning the positions of Greek philosophers is both engaging and valuable, for this course, we have a narrower interest: identifying aspects of Greek philosophy that have helped inform Western culture in ways relevant to *love. The following are what I believe are the most central of those.

25.2. The Beautiful = The Good = The Truthful = The Eternal

Plato posits a perfect, abstract world toward which we (or “better men”) aspire. This world we live in is a dim reflection of that “true” world. When we see something beautiful and wish for it, we are, in fact, yearning for this true and good world. What is true is good and what is true is enduring. All of these are equated.

This basic formula is everywhere in the West: If a romance or marriage is good, it should endure (unless blocked from the outside for some reason). If an institution is good or a car built well, it will last a long time. If our interest in something is temporary, we were not truly interested in it. And so on. This contrasts sharply with both the Daoist / Ancient Chinese Cosmology worldview that everything changes (a *worldview shared with Buddhist ideology) as well as, for example, Japanese aesthetics that see the transient or short-lived as particularly moving and beautify (think cherry blossoms).

But, for us, there are further very fundamental ramifications than just this equation of the good with the enduring.

First, “The Beautiful = The Good = The Truthful = The Eternal” is a bridge to an abstract, superior, perfect world. It posits a metaphysical world, lending to powerful imagination, unrealistic goals, and soaring valuation of ideals.

The formula affords to “beauty” a certain amount of super, or supernatural, or other-worldly power, in a category beyond ordinary things. For example, it opens the door to placing a high-valuation on a woman’s beauty as something that “channels” high truth or perfect goodness. This is close to unthinkable in *East Asian love narratives where the exceptional beauty of a woman will, at most, represent high social status and perhaps good manners and intelligence. But such women cannot be a “muse” as in the West, where beauty helps the artist reach into a higher plane. The formula can also give permission to intense devotion, such as what one sees around the cult of Saint Mary from the 12th century, or in the 11th-14th century songs of troubadours. *Devotion to one’s woman is also something we are not likely to see in *premodern *East Asian love narratives. We might see a high level of *faithfulness (*xin 信) but not *devotion that can see in one’s partner godliness.

Second, with its pathway of first one loves physical beauty (the physical beauty of a woman or man), then one loves ethical beauty (good morals), and ultimately one loves knowledge-truth (thus “philosophy” the love of truth), Plato posits desire as good. Desire is also the precursor to action, of course, so these work as a pair: one desires the right thing, then takes an action to move toward it. Daoism / Ancient Chinese Cosmology, Buddhism, or Confucianism do not place this degree of value on acts of desire. Desire is unwise in the Daoist view, which sees health as harmonizing to the given situation, causes suffering in the Buddhist view, and is likely to cause disorder in the Confucian view.

25.3. Exertion of will and its place in moral acts

Plato places an exceptionally high value on the exertion of will, asserts the benefits of discipline that are measured by the degree of will power one can marshal, and posits morality as the soul being confronted by choices with the better men (he did not include women in his vision) making the more difficult choices that require will power. For example, note how violent the deployment of will is in Phaedrus, as the master charioteer teaches his “bad” horse to submit to his commands. (In a way this struggle for control is similar to punishment that asserts authoritative statements of right and wrong found in *East Asian contexts. But the charioteer’s fight is an internal, spiritual struggle seen as a very important, even glorious battle, one that will be reiterated as holy war by later religious thought. In this sense, it surpasses the this-worldly, simply parental, or paternal “teaching” of morality to another through forceful and violent punishments or threats of them.)

When the appointed hour comes, they make as if they [the two horses that are pulling the chariot, one naturally good, one naturally bad] had forgotten, and he [the charioteer, who represents the command position of the soul] reminds them, fighting and neighing and dragging them on, until at length he, on the same thoughts intent, forces them to draw near again. And when they are near he [the bad horse] stoops his head and puts up his tail, and takes the bit in his teeth and pulls shamelessly. Then the charioteer is worse off than ever; he falls back like a racer at the barrier, and with a still more violent wrench drags the bit out of the teeth of the wild steed [the bad horse] and covers his abusive tongue and jaws with blood, and forces his legs and haunches to the ground and punishes him sorely. And when this has happened several times and the villain [the bad horse] has ceased from his wanton way, he is tamed and humbled, and follows the will of the charioteer, and when he [the bad horse] sees the beautiful one [the beloved, the one that the charioteer loves = ultimately “truth”] he is ready to die of fear. And from that time forward the soul of the lover [the charioteer and his two horses] follows the beloved [truth] in modesty and holy fear.[1]

Plato’s tying of good moral behavior to action that is the result of choice and carried out by will power remains, I would suggest, a pillar of Western culture. Even the basic oh-so-American attitude of “Just do it!” or “You are unhappy? Well, do something about it!” can be traced back to this basic position.

While it is beyond the scope of our course, I would also like to share my personal view that this is an incredibly phallic position to take. In my opinion, the feminist movement is correct in its assertion that just about everything having to do with society, including language, honors this “take action, make a difference, assert yourself, dominate” position. It stands in contrast, we will see, with the Daoist / Ancient Chinese Cosmology view, which honors *wuwei (“non-action” 无为、無為). And, it does not take long to see how this works out in love narratives. Here are two basic narratives reflecting each of these positions: “I will slay the dragon for you, rescue you, and prove my love!” versus “Fate has separated us. We can lament this, but ultimately we must accept that we cannot be together.” When I am teaching The Tale of Genji (11th c. Japan), some students, particularly female students, express impatience at how much abuse the female characters in the narrative accept without resistance or complaint. While this impatience is healthy, in trying to understand the narrative as a *model reader might have understood it, we need to move off of the “exertion of will” model of the Greeks and draw on the value of *wuwei. We must also remember that there is yet no discourse of resistance developed for women. No one would affirm or support a woman’s complaints. For example, jealousy was taught as something to be avoided, regardless of a man’s behavior, because, “commonsense” and medical records asserted, it ages the woman and makes her less beautiful.

Free choice (an exercise of will) and doing the work of God (charitable acts) are, of course, at the center of Christian thinking, too. And these are directly connected to advice for a successful marriage which includes “working at it” if things are not going well. This “work at it” concept floats about as a romantic principle in many of our Western narratives. *Love in *East Asian narratives often has more passive constructions where love just happens to one and will naturally fade, too—”natural love.” In Japanese premodern literary texts, this passive posture supports the “truthfulness” of scenes of longing or waiting for someone. Such scenes vastly outnumber scenes where one engages in a loving act for another.

25.4. Eros, philia, agape, nomos, storge

I would like to introduce five Greek terms for love. Although there are other ways of discussing love within the context of Greek philosophy, these are the most common terms. The schema I use to introduce them keep in mind Confucian terms.[2]

25.4.1. Eros

Modern romantic love. In the modern version, passionate love is a mark of affirming the depth and importance of the bond. “A marriage without passion” is considered a negative statement. “I am not attracted to him but I plan to marry him” will worry most people if told this. Passion is seen as fundamental to the warmth and power of love. “How to get passion back into the relationship” is an easy to imagine title for an advice webpage. The Greek position is of a higher order. Eros represents the inherent urge within a man (called a “loved”, with the object of love called the “beloved”) towards beauty and truth. He may well desire a beloved who is beautiful woman or beautiful boy, but these are representatives of his urge towards the understanding of philosophical truth. So please note” “eros” in the Greek system is, at core, not about low love or hormones or lust or physical attraction or Freud’s libidinal drive, although it acknowledges similar emotional states and definitely acknowledges their pleasures and risks. “Eros” does not mean mutual attraction; it does not explore the idea that passionate attraction can be mutual. Since the ultimate object of love is a philosophical truth, it was be truly odd to attribute to the “beloved” a mutual response of attraction back towards the “lover”. If the love partner is a human it may well be that this person feels some returning devotion or appreciation but this is not the same at the movement of eros.

25.4.2. Philia

This is friendship or “brotherly love” where the two involved (in the Greek system both must be men) appreciate and respect one another, take pleasure in each other’s company, and explore through discourse philosophic truths. It is often presented as the high order of something that could be called love. It is, of course, the idea behind the modern expression “Platonic Love” although this has evolved to more often simply mean love without sexual intimacy. Though not required, there is an implied sense of equality between the two in such a relationship. This is not required, however.

25.4.3. Agape (early Greek and later Christian definitions)

In early Greek texts, “agape” meant the affection for one’s family or one’s spouse or towards certain activities. It was not a widely used word and would not interest us if it were not for its dynamic use in the Christian New Testament. While it may be somewhat out of place to move forward in time and discuss this later definition of word, I would like to do so now, because I want to make clear the Christian contribution to ways of thinking about *love.

The New World Encyclopedia outlines concisely the definitions of agape within a Christian context like this:[3]

In the New Testament, the word agape or its verb form agapao appears more than 200 times. It is used to describe:

  • God’s love for human beings: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son (John 3:16); … “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
  • Jesus’ love for human beings: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:2).
  • What our love for God should be like: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
  • What our love for one another as human beings should be like: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39); “Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12); “Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10).

Agape in the New Testament is a form of love that is voluntarily self-sacrificial and gratuitous, and its origin is God.

Of these, the fourth is most relevant to us. It provides the fundamental model for a married couple (and perhaps for the idealized love relationship):

In reflection of God’s divine love, as God’s work, each partner is to give willingly to the other a love that is self-sacrificing, unselfish, and unconditional.

Agape is pronounced “ah-GAH-pee.”

25.4.4. Nomos

Irving Singer, in his The Nature of Love: Plato to Luther, reconsiders this Greek term that means “laws” or “The Law” as it was understood in early Christianity. His reconsideration is what is most relevant to us here, not the original Greek discussion. The following is an abstract of the relevant chapter “Nomos: Submission to God’s Will” in his work, as provided by MIT Press Scholarship Online (http://mitpress.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.7551/mitpress/9780262512725.001.0001/upso-9780262512725-chapter-12 )

This chapter discusses how religion turns the idea of love into a form of submission. In Christianity, all must believe that man is created in the likeness of God; because a likeness is always inferior to the original, the religious soul must submit to the superiority of God. Spiritual marriage not only entails unanimity but also conformity; man’s will must yield to the will of God. This aspect of Judeo-Christian love based on submissiveness is referred to as nomos, a concept fundamental in a number of respects to all religious love. Freud believes that Christian nomos, inasmuch as it implies a renunciation of the world, is a mechanism by which civilization controls the individual’s antisocial impulses. It originates from the universal fear of some external authority. This is not fundamentally a romantic value in Plato’s world. It is about law and society. However, I find it interesting that there can be a crossover between submission to the law, to authority, and romantic submission / domination, including devotion. “True love” in the West is probably a blend of willingness to sacrifice oneself for another and commitment/devotion to another.

25.4.5. Storge

This is a fondness or affection for someone that grows through shared values or experiences, in other words, familiarity. It occurs naturally. It is also the natural love that parents feel towards their children. This is not as common a term as the following four; I mention it because the Confucian idea of *qin (“familiarity” 親) shares some qualities with it. The parent-child relationship, however, is much better described as *xiao (“filial piety” 孝).

Storge is pronounce “store-gay.”

25.5. Summary & Conclusion

I would suggest that many of these Greek positions remain relevant to traditional Western views of love as later developed within Christianity and which remain with us today; however, some have the *status of being challenged and some have the *status of being affirmed.

Directly challenged by Christianity is that, in the case of Greek thought, no aspect of love except friendship is considered to be reciprocal. Rather, one has desire towards another or another object, or bestows love, or submits through awe and respect—all “one-way” actions. Christianity is ambiguous on this point. Charity is not a directly reciprocal action; however, charitable acts or even acts of sacrifice are recognized and “rewarded” by God, so bestowing love is not entirely one-way. Similarly accepting God into one’s heart humbly is definitely seen to be of enormous personal benefit, so in this sense submission has a reciprocal, “giving back” aspect to it.

Further, Greek-style love makes distinctions: some people are more deserving of love and to love someone does not mean that you have entered into an agreement of equality with that someone.

I think these things are important points to note if one is to capture accurately some of the premodern East Asian positions because they resemble more these Greek positions than they do the later Christian positions. It is best to think of premodern romantic relationships as fundamentally not reciprocal and accepting of hierarchy within the relationship. This clarifies the picture greatly. For example, the talented gentlemen “gets” the beautiful woman as a prize for his talents. This does not place on him the expectation that he should respect and honor her as equal to himself. There are definitely remnants of this premodern way of thinking in current traditional East Asian values. Confucianism does have a very strong element of reciprocity, but it is not based on the Christian teaching of universal, no-distinctions-made, unconditional love.

Greek philosophy puts a high valuation on love and the abstract metaphysical plane on which it ultimately resides; indeed, love is broadly, and gravely, treated as the foundation of all things. Unlike Freud (and one of the reasons, I think, Freud received such an unfriendly reception), desire is understood to be fundamentally beautiful and good. Desire is the goodness in man seeking to become closer to truth. Desire is the first step towards good acts, and, ultimately, wisdom. This position is even further extended by devotional Christianity and its exceptionally high valuation of romantic relationships, marriage, feelings of love, the transformative and healing power of love and its unique (to other religions) formula: “God is love.” All of these positions are in sharp contrast to East Asian treatments of love, which has a more limited place in one’s overall condition and life plan.

As an aside—the Roman poets Lucretius  (99-55 B.C.E., On the Nature of Things) and Ovid (43 B.C.E – 17 or 18 A.D., The Art of Love, The Cure for Love) set out views of love that contrast with the above—a view that sees love not as sacred at all but rather the arena of erotic play, game, and strategy. For them, love was ultimately unhealthy to one’s spiritual life.[4]  Here is a passage from Ovid’s The Art of Love (http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/ovid/lboo/lboo58.htm) to give you a sense of how far this view of love is from notions of love for good ethics and philosophy. The poet is explaining techniques for seducing a woman:

If, as not infrequently befalls,
a speck of dust lights on your fair one’s breast,
flick it off with an airy finger;
and if there’s nothing there,
flick it off just the same;
anything is good enough
to serve as a pretext for paying her attention.
Is her dress dragging on the ground?
Gather it up,
and take special care that nothing soils it.
to reward you for your kindness,
she’ll grant you the favor
of letting you see her leg.

  1. "Phaedrus — Plato's Chariot Allegory," John Uebersax's Home Page, accessed March 5, 2018, http://www.john-uebersax.com/plato/plato3.htm#descr2. According to the website, this translation is by Benjamin Jowett, and is his third and last translation of 1892.
  2. The Wikipedia entry "Greek words for love" is an informative overview. See, Wikipedia contributors, "Greek words for love," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed March 5, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_words_for_love.
  3. New World Encyclopedia contributors, "Agape," New World Encyclopedia, accessed March , 2018, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Agape.
  4. See for example William Fitzgerald, "Lucretius' Cure for Love in the 'De Rerum Natura'," The Classical World 78, no. 2 (1984): 73-86. doi:10.2307/4349696.


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Interpreting Love Narratives in East Asian Literature and Film Copyright © 2019 by John R Wallace is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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