Friday, May 18, 2012

The Tragedy of Eros

We began [this encyclical] by asking whether the different, or even opposed, meanings of the word “love” point to some profound underlying unity, or whether on the contrary they must remain unconnected, one alongside the other. More significantly, though, we questioned whether the message of love proclaimed to us by the Bible and the Church's Tradition has some points of contact with the common human experience of love, or whether it is opposed to that experience.

This in turn led us to consider two fundamental words: eros, as a term to indicate “worldly” love and agape, referring to love grounded in and shaped by faith. The two notions are often contrasted as “ascending” love and “descending” love. There are other, similar classifications, such as the distinction between possessive love and oblative love (amor concupiscentiae – amor benevolentiae), to which is sometimes also added love that seeks its own advantage.

In philosophical and theological debate, these distinctions 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.
Deus Caritas Est 7

Reflection – Well, it’s been quite awhile since we’ve visited this encyclical on this blog. The passage cited here picks up its themes admirably, and tomorrow we will continue those themes.

Eros and agape. The Pope has earlier made clear that by eros he does not simply or even primarily mean sexual attraction, although the English word ‘erotic’ means precisely that. It’s much broader in Greek—the whole experience of love as desire, as longing, as the will to possess and be united with the beloved. Sex, yes, but clearly more than that. There can be eros for knowledge, for all manner of worldly goods, and even a proper eros for God. At times religion is spoken of as sublimated sexuality, as a pathology emerging from repression even, but it is just as likely and maybe more so that disordered sexuality is sublimated religion. ‘A man entering a brothel is looking for God,’ saith Chesterton. We could well update this to ‘A man surfing the internet for pornography is looking for God’.

The Pope takes great pains in this encyclical to show exactly how eros and agape are related; how the human reality of desire in all its forms is met by, completed by the love that comes from God who is perfect and desires nothing from us.

I’m struck by the tragedy of eros cut off from agape, symbolized by the epidemic of pornography today. The love of desire is meant to blossom into a genuine love of the person. What begins as a basically chemically driven, primitive selection and movement towards the other is meant to grow towards a genuine inter-personal relationship. What begins with hormones is meant to end with commitment, with self-gift. What begins with attraction and delight is meant to end with sacrifice.

When eros and agape get separated, while agape can become a bit frosty and lofty, eros has an even more calamitous fate, disintegrating into lust, into a fruitless, futile, demonic parody of itself. And this is the tragic situation of countless men today.

Casanova conquered his thousands of women but he did not know a single one of them, and he emerges a tragic and pathetic figure. How much more pathetic and tragic are the millions of cyber-Casanovas with hundreds of thousands of digitized women available at the click of a mouse… yet knowing none of them, going nowhere, eros utterly frustrated from its true end of agape, desire sundered from relationship, commitment, and sacrifice.

It is a human, psychological, spiritual crisis of (if I may wax dramatic) civilizational proportions, a rot that strikes at the very heart of essential human realities, our capacity to love maturely and well, to grow into the fullness of love and gift. There is much questioning today of ‘what’s wrong with the men?’ A sense is widely afoot that something has gone very badly awry in the male of the species. I believe that the tragedy of eros cut off from agape is at the heart of this problem, and until society effectively addresses this tragedy and the epidemic of pornography that is its cause and effect, we will continue to flounder. And that’s enough for one day!


  1. Ok, we fall in love or maybe Eros, but he do not fall in agape. We rise in it.

    How great is that?

    God is agape itself, the essence of love, while Eros is only little dribbles of it, little echoes of love , received into the medium of our passions, our emotions, our passivity. Love "overcomes us" or comes over us but nothing can come over or overcome God. God can can't fall in love for that can reason fire cannot get heat: it is heat. It is heat itself. Love itself cannot receive love as a passivity. It can only spread as an activity. God is love in action, not love in dreams. I am thinking of Dorothy day quoting dostoyevsky; love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams. Eros... Maybe pornography...? Not a lot of experience here ... Like dreams: easy, passive, spontaneous. Agape is hard and precious like a diamond. Much more personal too....

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  3. What about when eros is so disordered, it needs to be discarded? Can agape, divorced from terrestrial forms of love, be sufficient? Can it be human?

    1. Good question. I think we have to count on the grace of God to be able - eventually - to restore and heal our eros. It may only happen in heaven, and the path to that restoration may be a path of considerable asceticism and self-denial... but God made us to be whole and intact in our humanity and our divine participation. So I think eros will never be discarded in us, even as we have to tread difficult paths towards its restoration.


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