Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Agape versus Eros

How different are agape and eros? I believe the definitive answer has been given by Pope Benedict in Deus Caritas Est a bit of which I cite below, but, as they say on the 'net, read the whole thing; there has been no other encyclical published in my lifetime as good and beautiful and true as this one.

Anyway, here is the section I want to highlight:
In philosophical and theological debate, these distinctions [between agape and eros] have often been radicalized to the point of establishing a clear antithesis between them: descending, oblative love—agape—would be typically Christian, while on the other hand ascending, possessive or covetous love —eros—would be typical of non-Christian, and particularly Greek culture. Were this antithesis to be taken to extremes, the essence of Christianity would be detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence, and would become a world apart, admirable perhaps, but decisively cut off from the complex fabric of human life. Yet eros and agape—ascending love and descending love—can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized.
As someone remarked soon after this came out, Benedict just called out CS Lewis and said, "you're wrong."

To put it another way, while eros  is not necessarily agape it can and should be. And to draw an exclusionary line between them would be to detach Christianity "from the vital relations fundamental to human existence." And the most important of these fundamental relations is marriage.

I've said this over and over—and I'll stop for a while after this time, honest—if I'm married and the eros has gone out of my marriage then I am obliged to do everything I can to rekindle it. This isn't voluntary. Finding and maintaining a proper unity between agape and eros is what I promised in a sacred vow to God in the presence of God's priest and in front of the community. If I don't do everything I can* I have betrayed that vow and betrayed my spouse in a  way that is at least as bad, and potentially worse, than if I had an affair.

* Which isn't to say that there might not be physical reasons preventing me from succeeding. In that case, the to-have-and-to-hold vow is succeeded by the in-sickness-and-in-health vow.


  1. I think Benedict's distinction between Eros and Agape is a bit simplistic, but nonetheless. I agree with your last statement, yet sometimes despite all of the best efforts of both parties in the couple, Eros cannot be rekindled. At that point all they can do is trust God and do what is best for both of them.

  2. This is a response to your earlier post about the marriage vow being about sexual love. I believe that the marriage vow includes--but is not limited to--sexual love. People marry for all sorts of reasons, you would be surprised at how many people I know--some in my own family--who married to upgrade their lifestyles. Some marry because the woman is pregnant, or a single mother (or father) is looking for the missing parent for their child, there are all sorts of reasons. But even if the marriage vow were limited to sexual love, how many couples do you think understand what that means? I'm thinking of young couples who often confuse sexual love with just being horny as a result of raging hormones, or because she has great tits. Because sexual desire is so powerful and can often cloud reason, I have no objection to couples having sex before they are married, because it gets that aspect of the relationship out of the way so to speak, and enables couples to concentrate on whether or not there is more to the relationship. If there isn't--as is so often the case--they are better off not getting married. In those cases, living together without the benefit of marriage is a learning experience which can prevent them from making a mistake.

    Pre Cana, from what I have observed and heard, is virtually useless. Most priests don't have enough of an understanding of the issues to even have the discussion we're having, and these days they're just happy to have straight couples who want to get married! In addition, by the time a couple gets to Pre Cana, the dress is bought, the non-refundable deposit is made on the reception hall, the invitations are printed and paid for, few have the balls to back out at that point assuming they could even comprehend what we're talking about.

    But more to the point, I would not want to be married to a woman who didn't love me anymore but was only staying with me because of a vow. Nor would I want to have sex with her if she was doing it out of obligation. If I knew that, I wouldn't even be able to get hard.

    Falling in love with and making a committment to someone involves taking a huge emotional risk, and no commandment is going to change that. That's life.

  3. Not only would I not get an erection under those circumstances, I would feel nothing but contempt for the woman. How could I respect a woman who didn't have the strength of character to say "I can't do this anymore because I don't love you" but just passively spread her legs for me? No woman under those circumstances could fake real lovemaking, and I would know it even without her saying it.