Wednesday, September 02, 2009

God, Agape and Eros

In Plato’s Symposium, each guest is invited to give a speech on the nature of Love (Eros). After Agathon makes an elaborate speech praising the beauty of the god Eros, it is at last Socrates’ turn. At first he declines speaking though, claiming that his opinion would not fit in with the others’ claim that Eros was a great and beautiful god. His argument rests on the fact that the defining quality of Eros is desire, and that one cannot possess what she desires. [If we have good health and say we also desire good health, what we mean is that we desire the continuation of good health into the future.] So we cannot possess something and desire it at the same time.

Since the object of Eros’ desire is beauty, Eros itself does not possess beauty. And since all gods possess goodness and beauty, neither is Eros a god. Socrates recounts his teacher Diotima’s explanation:

"What then is Love?" I asked; "Is he mortal?" "No." "What then?" "As in the former instance, he is neither mortal nor immortal, but in a mean between the two." "What is he, Diotima?" "He is a great spirit (daimon), and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal." "And what," I said, "is his power?" "He interprets," she replied, "between gods and men… he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them… For God mingles not with man; but through Love all the intercourse, and converse of god with man, whether awake or asleep, is carried on. The wisdom which understands this is spiritual; all other wisdom, such as that of arts and handicrafts, is mean and vulgar. Now these spirits or intermediate powers are many and diverse, and one of them is Love. "And who," I said, "was his father, and who his mother?" "The tale," she said, "will take time; nevertheless I will tell you.

“On the birthday of Aphrodite there was a feast of the gods, at which the god Poros or Plenty, who is the son of Metis or Discretion, was one of the guests. When the feast was over, Penia or Poverty, as the manner is on such occasions, came about the doors to beg. Now Plenty who was the worse for nectar (there was no wine in those days), went into the garden of Zeus and fell into a heavy sleep, and Poverty considering her own straitened circumstances, plotted to have a child by him, and accordingly she lay down at his side and conceived love, who partly because he is naturally a lover of the beautiful, and because Aphrodite is herself beautiful, and also because he was born on her birthday, is her follower and attendant. And as his parentage is, so also are his fortunes. In the first place he is always poor, and anything but tender and fair, as the many imagine him; and he is rough and squalid, and has no shoes, nor a house to dwell in; on the bare earth exposed he lies under the open heaven, in-the streets, or at the doors of houses, taking his rest; and like his mother he is always in distress. Like his father too, whom he also partly resembles, he is always plotting against the fair and good; he is bold, enterprising, strong, a mighty hunter, always weaving some intrigue or other, keen in the pursuit of wisdom, fertile in resources; a philosopher at all times, terrible as an enchanter, sorcerer, sophist. He is by nature neither mortal nor immortal, but alive and flourishing at one moment when he is in plenty, and dead at another moment, and again alive by reason of his father's nature. But that which is always flowing in is always flowing out, and so he is never in want and never in wealth; and, further, he is in a mean between ignorance and knowledge.

The error in your conception of him was very natural, and as I imagine from what you say, has arisen out of a confusion of love and the beloved, which made you think that love was all beautiful. For the beloved is the truly beautiful, and delicate, and perfect, and blessed; but the principle of love is of another nature, and is such as I have described."

So Eros is not a god, nor even good and fair. He is the offspring of Plenty and Poverty, sometimes reflecting one, sometimes the other. He is a philosopher, a seeker of beauty and wisdom.

Agape love, charitable love, however, is possessing of goodness and beauty. 1 John 4:8 even claims that God is this charitable kind of love, (and what God is, must be good and beautiful.)

Have to pull out a Stephen Colbert Wag of My Finger to the 12th century monk who translated 1 John from the Greek as “God is love” rather than “God is charity.” I believe this is the root of a lot of confusion in modern Christianity. “God is Love” is perhaps the shortest possible summary of Jesus’s teachings, but it is a bad translation. I think the common perception among most Christians is that “yeah, I know the difference between “agape” love (charity/God’s love) and “eros” love (romantic love), but they are similar in a lot of ways, (after all they’re both love.)” Even Pope Benedict in his first Encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” claims that “God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape.” Plato would disagree. God’s love cannot be Eros, because God already possesses goodness and beauty. Agape and Eros, while both are important parts of a good life, are not really similar at all. Eros is seeking, wanting, desiring--Agape is enjoyment, beauty, and happiness. “God is charity” or “God is charitable love” is a better translation.


  1. In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm wrote -

    “If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to the rest of his fellow men, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism. … If I truly love one person I love all persons, I love the world, I love life. If I can say to somebody else, ‘I love you,’ I must be able to say, ‘I love in you everybody, I love through you the world, I love in you also myself.’ "

    He speaks here of the combined Agape and Eros loves, which both should be present in socially-healthy relationships. Plato says that love's beauty comes from its Agape component, not Eros. "If I truly love one person I love all persons, I love the world, I love life." Perhaps Fromm should have added "Assuming that love is beautiful..." at the start of this passage. Love can certainly exist exclusively between two people, but Plato tells us such Eros is not beautiful. This is Fromm's point also. Because it creates such a contrast with what our culture tells us, I believe it is a message worth our critical attention.

  2. Wow, totally disagree with myself now. As Jung points out, a monotheistic God is the "unity of all contradictions" and so must contain every attribute and its opposite--God must contain both light and dark, both justice and its opposite, etc. Therefore my argument concerning Plato falls apart. A monotheistic God unites the opposites of perfect and imperfect. So although "God already possesses goodness and beauty" as I wrote above, God also encompasses imperfection, and so his love does include can include Eros.