The Four Loves

“Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities" – C. S. Lewis

Recently I decided to reread C. S. Lewis's book "The Four Loves" which was published in 1960. While some of the examples have become outdated and are ethno-centric the book still retains a beautiful simplicity which permits one to look at how and why one loves from four distinct perspectives.

The English word 'love' encompasses four distinct ideas which the Greeks described as "storge" (affection), "philia" (friendship), "eros" (sexual or romantic love) and "agape" (selfless love). Lewis's book summarizes these four kinds of human love--drawing on examples from Jane Austen and St. Augustine. He suggests that all earthly love will be eventually lost and indeed one outcome of accepting love in any form is that it will eventually lead to suffering.

Wikipedia summarizes Lewis's thoughts as follows :

Affection (storge, στοργη) is fondness through familiarity, especially between family members or people who have otherwise found themselves together by chance. It is described as the most natural, emotive, and widely diffused of loves: natural in that it is present without coercion; emotive because it is the result of fondness due to familiarity; and most widely diffused because it pays the least attention to those characteristics deemed "valuable" or worthy of love and, as a result, is able to transcend most discriminating factors. Ironically, its strength, however, is what makes it vulnerable. Affection has the appearance of being "built-in" or "ready made", says Lewis, and as a result people come to expect, even to demand, its presence--irrespective of their behavior and its natural consequences.

Friendship (philia, φιλια) is a strong bond existing between people who share a common interest or activity. Lewis explicitly says that his definition of friendship is narrower than mere companionship: friendship in his sense only exists if there is something for the friendship to be "about". It is the least natural of loves, states Lewis; i.e., it is not biologically necessary to progeny like either affection (e.g., rearing a child), eros (e.g., creating a child), or charity (e.g., providing for a child). It has the least association with impulse or emotion. In spite of these characteristics, it was the belief of the ancients that it was the most admirable of loves because it looked not at the beloved (like eros), but it looked towards that "about"--that thing because of which the relationship was formed. This freed the participants in this friendship from self-consciousness. Because they were looking towards something beyond or above themselves, the more who were looking towards that thing with them were welcomed with the same sincerity, which freed the relationship from jealousy. The relationship is by its nature selective, and therefore, exclusive.

Eros (έρως) is love in the sense of 'being in love'. This is distinct from sexuality, which Lewis calls Venus, although he does spend time discussing sexual activity and its spiritual significance in both a pagan and a Christian sense. He identifies eros as indifferent. This is good because it promotes appreciation of the beloved regardless of any pleasure that can be obtained from them. It can be bad, however, because this blind devotion has been at the root of many of history's most abominable tragedies. In keeping with his warning that "love begins to be a demon the moment [it] begins to be a god", he warns against the danger of elevating eros to the status of a god.

Caritas (agapē, αγαπη) is an unconditional love directed towards one's neighbor which is not dependent on any lovable qualities that the object of love possesses. Agape is the love that brings forth caring regardless of circumstance. Lewis metaphorically compares love with a garden, charity with the gardening utensils, the lover as the gardener, and God as the elements of nature. God's love and guidance act on our natural love (that cannot remain what it is by itself) as the sun and rain act on a garden: without either, the object (metaphorically the garden; realistically love itself) would cease to be beautiful or worthy. Lewis warns that those who exhibit charity must constantly check themselves that they do not flaunt--and thereby warp--this love which is its potential threat.

Charity, the greatest of the loves?

Posted March 5, 2008


Peter said...

Agree that the book is a little outdated but still well worth the read. I love C.S. Lewis – he had such a down to earth way of stating simple truths. I’ve always enjoyed thinking about how he breaks down things such as pleasure into those that are only pleasures when preceded by desire (a drink of water when you are dying of thirst) and those which are pleasures in their own right (the smell of newly cut grass or the singing of the birds on an early morning walk). Thinking of things like pleasures with this division in mind gives one a greater appreciation of these pleasures and one can be more sensitive to seeing them all around in our everyday life and become even more grateful for them. I think Lewis calls them the “Need” pleasures and the “Appreciation” pleasures.

Take care,

Peter said...

I should also have added that I like his visualization of the four loves towards the one who is 'loved':

Storge surrounds the beloved, Philia walks with the beloved, Eros turns to the beloved, and Agape raises up the beloved.

True and lasting love contains all four in equal proportion. When one fades, the other three must compensate or lover and beloved are in danger.

Take care,

Michael N. Hull said...

Lewis poses a very intriguing question which I would be interested in hearing reaction to:

Suppose you are fortunate enough to have 'fallen in love with' and married your Friend. And now suppose it possible that you were offered the choice of two futures: Either you two will cease to be lovers but remain forever Friends, or else, losing all that, you will retain as long as you live the raptures and ardours, all the wonder and the wild desire of Eros. Which should we choose and which choice should we not regret after we had made it?


Diana Malcolm said...


Interesting dscussion! As I see it people of the opposite sex can share the individual loves of philia, agape, or storge without any involvement of the Eros love.

So your question, Michael, only pertains to those relationships where the love, Eros, is involved.

Lewis breaks down the Eros love into a subpart which he calls ‘Venus’ i.e. the solely physical, pleasure of the Eros love and a second part which is the focus of an emotion on a particular person as the beloved. That is, Venus has its focus on an object – sexual pleasure – while Eros has its focus on a subject – the one sexually beloved.

I think Lewis sees Eros in a similar way as he sees Philia - the only difference being that in the former the love is focused on a person (the beloved to whom one is facing) and in the other the love is focused on being about something (a joint intense interest in art, music or like thing (the beloved to which each travels side by side)). In this sense giving up one or the other would be equally difficult but having one of these two loves still available would keep the relationship strong and healthy especially if there was also the other two loves of storge and agape in the relationship.

Now if the relationship for one or both parties is that of Venus (and not Eros) then I think the parties would find the lack of Venus unacceptable and the other loves that they might share (philia, storge or agape) would not be sufficient to hold the relationship together. Someone in a relationship for Venus is not going to stay in that relationship if Venus is not available.

What this all says to me is when Venus enters a relationship between friends it has to be through Eros or the relationship is certainly doomed.

Di Di