Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck. How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices! (Song of Songs 4:9-10 KJV)
If you have heard many sermons on love, you have no doubt been treated to the various terms and distinctions that the scriptures (particularly the New Testament) make in regards to love.
Agape love (caritas in Latin, agape in Greek) stands particularly for God’s love, an unconditional and giving love that is the highest form of love.
Friendship love (philia in Greek) signified the bond of affection between friends, a sort of mutual desire for the other’s happiness. Aristotle described it as a state wherein one “want[s] for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one’s own, and being inclined, so far as one can, to do such things for him.”
Eros love often signified what we might term romantic love, characterized by the sense of being overtaken by the beauty of the beloved and desire for her. In the ancient world this did not necessarily have sexual connotations; Plato, for example, understood Eros to be capable of transcending the desire for an individual and their beauty to affix it attractions upon the ideal of Beauty itself.
Yet however eros was to ultimately be fleshed out, the notion behind it for the ancients was a sort of intoxication, a madness from the gods (or some other external source) that overtook one’s senses and desires and centered them on the beloved. In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est Benedict XVI describes it this way:
The Greeks—not unlike other cultures—considered eros principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a “divine madness” which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness. (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 4)
He notes previously that due to the sexualized notion often given to eros, the biblical authors tend to avoid it; The New Testament uses it not at all, while in the Greek Old testament it is used only twice. (ibid., 3)
Eros was often imaged as the arrow of love that strikes suddenly, the passion that which beforehand was dormant is suddenly awakened in the lover. Hence, the Greek god Eros was the equivalent of the Roman Cupid. This striking of love awakened the soul to something outside of itself, to a beauty it perhaps had missed before.
In this sense, then, eros has a touch of the divine to it, promising that which is eternal in a moment of rapture. The wound of love is often such that the present intoxication seems to portend something forever. Indeed, even in its least exalted state eros seems to have the ability (as short-lived as it may be) to force the lover to look outside of himself, to glimpse another objective reality in the beloved. How could such a feat (which rarely occurs in our mortal existence) signify anything less than infinity? C.S. Lewis describes it this way:
The event of falling in love is of such a nature that we are right to reject as intolerable the idea that it should be transitory. In one high bound it has overleaped the massive wall of our selfhood; it has made appetite itself altruistic, tossed personal happiness aside as a triviality and planted the interests of another in the centre of our being. Spontaneously and without effort we have fulfilled the law (towards one person) by loving our neighbour as ourselves. It is an image, a foretaste, of what we must become to all if Love Himself rules in us without a rival. It is even (well used) a preparation for that. (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 114)
But just as the greatest goods can descend to the greatest evils, such a powerful love like eros can either be an angel which assists us to heaven or a demon which drags us down to hell. The problem with eros is not that it intoxicates us or momentarily drives us out of ourselves or causes us to desire the beauty in another; in fact, all of these are goods which can lead to an ever-deepening blossoming of love.
The real problem with eros is that it is simply incapable- in and of itself- of keeping the very promises it makes:
Simply to relapse from it, merely to “fall out of” love again is- if I may coin the ugly word- a sort of disredemption. Eros is driven to promise what Eros himself cannot perform.” (ibid.)
In the modern world we tend to conflate the erotic with the sexual, and usually with the sexual of a certain character, which is quite unfortunate in that it robs us of a perfectly good word for love. True, we often use ‘romantic’ as a stand-in for what eros used to entail, but ‘romantic’ has too much sentimentality involved, with very little of the wound of love.
The debasement of eros by means of the erotic is truly that, since we then conflate mere pleasure or gratification with a certain type of love, and then, after enough time conflating terms, with love itself. In the modern world it has been seen as a sort of liberation of the body, freed from the oppressive restrictions concerning sexuality that existed for millennia. But,
the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man’s great “yes” to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will. Nor does he see it as an arena for the exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless. Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness. (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 5)
In this situation we are left with the erotic as pure bodily sexual gratification and the romantic as a sort of saccharine sentimentality, neither of which can adequately describe the arrow of love that piecers us when eros infuses us with a love beyond ourselves. The result is that we either conflate this desire entirely with sex or imagining it as the culmination of our own desires and sentiments, both of which utterly destroy eros in the process.
Eros in its purest form as the arrow of love necessarily points beyond itself. Firstly, it points us towards the beloved, that other for whom desire is enkindled and in whom beauty is found. In the throes of eros we bound over Lewis’ “wall of our selfhood” and for a brief moment understand the universe to be populated by a beauty other than our own. There is a certain indescribable quality to this love, for while it desires the beauty of the beloved and the pleasure of being in her company, it is not merely this beauty or that pleasure which it desires. St. Augustine notices this tension in his own experience of coming to desire and love God:
But what is it that I love in loving You? Not corporeal beauty, nor the splendour of time, nor the radiance of the light, so pleasant to our eyes, nor the sweet melodies of songs of all kinds, nor the fragrant smell of flowers, and ointments, and spices, not manna and honey, not limbs pleasant to the embracements of flesh. I love not these things when I love my God; and yet I love a certain kind of light, and sound, and fragrance, and food, and embracement in loving my God, who is the light, sound, fragrance, food, and embracement of my inner man— where that light shines unto my soul which no place can contain, where that sounds which time snatches not away, where there is a fragrance which no breeze disperses, where there is a food which no eating can diminish, and where that clings which no satiety can sunder. This is what I love, when I love my God. (St. Augustine, Confessions, 10, 6)
He rhetorically asks of all the sensible creation if they are that which enkindles his desire, and they answer:
These things was my inner man cognizant of by the ministry of the outer; I, the inner man, knew all this— I, the soul, through the senses of my body. I asked the vast bulk of the earth of my God, and it answered me, “I am not He, but He made me.” (ibid.)
It is the quality of eros that it escapes our ability to describe it and thus- by its very nature- entails a love transcendent to it. This is precisely why reducing eros to the erotic completely destroys eros. In fact, eros is a love that cannot be complete in and of itself. If taken as the highest good it will not only disappoint, but will become a torment. The wound of love that eros inflicts is not meant to fester, but to be healed as it is transcended. In opening up the eyes to beauty and to the other, it is intended to be a threshold to a far surpassing love. St. Gregory of Nysssa describes this movement as such:
Human nature cannot express this surplus (that is divine love). Thus has it taken as a symbol, in order to make us understand its teaching, what there is that is most violent in the passions that act upon us- I am talking about the passion of love- so that we come to understand through it that the soul has its eyes fixed upon the inaccessible Beauty of the divine nature is in love with it, so much so that the body inclines toward that which is con natural to it, changing passion to impassibility such that, every carnal disposition thus embraced, our soul burns amorously in us with the sole flame of the Spirit. (Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs, Oration 1)
Thus, we must treat eros in a two-fold way. Firstly, eros must be allowed to be what it is, neither giving more meaning to the wound of love than is merited nor taking away from its ability to arose passion merely because it is temporary and fleeting. Human beings are as much body as they are soul, and the passions are not excised by love but rather purified and directed by it. Secondly, eros must be governed by the will and directed into the higher love that accompanies the will, which is that of charity:
Thus Eros, like the other loves, but more strikingly because of his strength, sweetness, terror and high port, reveals his true status. He cannot of himself be what, nevertheless, he must be if he is to remain Eros. He needs help; therefore needs to be ruled. The god dies or becomes a demon unless he obeys God. (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 115)
Charity ultimately brings about the redemption of eros, precisely in both allowing eros to remain what it is, and in perfecting the movement that eros elicits in the first place. The arrows of love draw us out of ourselves, to come face to face with the beauty of the other, a love in which we want nothing more than to give of ourselves and receive the same in return. Since we are finite beings we cannot be always giving as charity demands; thus eros will in some respect always be a part of our existence. Only God is charity all the way through, and as much as eros does its best to mimic charity in its ardor, it cannot cash in on its promises.
Eros is redeemed when its love is allowed to grow beyond itself and blossom into charity, which is what eros ultimately promises and points to. Plato could conceive of an eros without passion, since an ideal Beauty could eventually be obtained, but the Christian perfection of love as a movement from eros to charity does not merely bring the body along kicking and screaming but integrates love into the entirety of the existential experience of not only being in a body, but of actually being a body. Benedict XVI describes the growth of the love in this manner:
It is part of love’s growth towards higher levels and inward purification that it now seeks to become definitive, and it does so in a twofold sense: both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense of being “for ever”. Love embraces the whole of existence in each of its dimensions, including the dimension of time. It could hardly be otherwise, since its promise looks towards its definitive goal: love looks to the eternal. Love is indeed “ecstasy”, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God… (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 6)
Benedict XVI also imagines this path using Jesus’ metaphor for his own life as the seed which falls into the ground and dies but opens up the way to new life. Eros can be the seed which, if allowed to ‘die’ by being purified and directed into a love beyond itself, can ultimately blossom forth into charity, a love rich and deep enough to exist in harmony with such ecstasy. Such an understanding similarly enables that classic expression of St. Augustine:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace. (St. Augustine, Confessions, 10, 27)
In this manner the Christian understanding of the relation between eros and charity as the fullness of love (especially as imaged in the union of a man and a woman in marriage) gives greater depth and meaning to the wound of love in eros. Rather than consigning it to destruction in the erotic or sapping it of its vitality in romantic sentimentality, eros is allowed the space and freedom to inflict its arrows with all their force and passion since it is understood that the intoxication of love is not meant for a night but rather for a lifetime; even more so, an eternity.
It is only when eros is brought under the direction of a higher love that it is actually free and robust, for it can truly be what it is without the shackles of debasement or the airs of promises it cannot fulfill.