If you’ve clicked this post and are of a certain age group, chances are the jaunty rhythm of the Haddaway tune is running through your head right now. Hopefully my question is more intellectually stirring than a pop song making a mournful inquiry into the steadfastness of romantic love. Though it might be less entertaining. So you might want to crank up the volume of that 90’s electronic hit as you read through my philosophic meanderings. I’ll wait.
Perhaps it’s due to my perpetual singledom, but I’ve noticed that western culture as a whole, places an inordinate amount of emphasis on romantic love. People may argue that it’s only prevalent in romance novels and movies, but even action adventure movies often feature a subplot with a young couple falling in love amidst the shower of bullets and explosions. Most commercials feature a couple interacting in some mundane task meant to connect to all the couples at home watching the television. Most songs speak of love lost or gained, and overall, the general consensus is that “It is better to have [romantically] loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with these representations of romantic love, but there’s usually a subtext to our culture’s presentation of it, the subtext being that people who are not in love are missing out on something. Watch any movie or TV show: the character who is not in a romantic relationship is the loser, the person so insecure or too pathetic to ever garner the attention of a paramour. We’re told that once this person finds their soul mate then they can reach fulfillment.
This is a grave injustice to all of those people out there who are currently not in a romantic relationship or have no desire to be in a romantic relationship. It dismisses the importance of all of the other forms of love and perpetuates the myth that the most important form of love is what the Greeks referred to as eros. And I would argue eros is the most selfish form of love there is.
The sensual love of dating and in marriage is the most self-indulgent form of love, not that there is anything wrong with that! We all need to be self-indulgent from time to time. It’s healthy. But if you think that the butterfly-inducing, starry-eyed, “I’m getting giggly just thinking about you” of eros is what causes people to jump in front of moving buses for their loved ones, I think you need some reevaluation. I would die for my parents and sister, but it’s not because I’m hoping for an incestuous relationship. I would do anything to help my students to succeed, but it’s not because I’m in love with them. In fact, if I was, I would be called a pedophile and a predator and would lose my job. Yet there is a lot of confusion in today’s society which associates all self-sacrificial love with eros, instead of looking at the other types of love that the Greeks spoke about namely: philos, the love of deep friendship, storge, the love between family members, and agape, unconditional, self-sacrificial love.
I first became aware of this confusion back in the early 2000’s with the release of the Lord of the Rings movies. There were quite a few individuals who saw Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins as lovers rather than as comrades in arms. This realization frustrated me for a number of reasons, but mostly because it totally destroyed the idea set forth by the author himself. J.R.R Tolkien was a veteran of WWI. He experienced firsthand what it was like in the trenches, watching his fellow soldiers dying, some of them probably dying for him. The relationship forged by the fellowship of the ring, and most notably Sam and Frodo, stems from this idea of philos: men who will risk their lives for one another because of the friendship they have forged, not because they all have the hots for one another.
I see the same issue creeping into the Marvel fandom. Fans are shipping male characters with every other male character in the universe because the characters have made it clear they would die for one another. It doesn’t matter if the characters have been canonically straight or if they are brothers (ew?), fans have misconstrued philos and storge as eros.
And what is the reasoning for this confusion? It’s because they have been told romantic love is the end-all, be-all. That nothing is more fulfilling in the world than being “in love.” As someone who has never been in love, I call bull. I have lived a very fulfilled life. I have friends, family, students, pastors, etc. whom I love very much. I would do almost anything in the world for most of these people, and it’s not because I’m hoping for some serious necking in return. I am content with the storge and philos I give and receive. Would I love to experience eros in all it’s self-indulgent tendencies? Yes, but my life will not be meaningless if it never happens.
This month you’re going to see a bunch of commercials promoting love and its many wonderful attributes, and 90% of these ads will define love in a romantic sense only. When that happens, take a moment to remember the storge a mother displays as she nurses her sick child back to health, the philos a young man exhibits as he defends his friend from being bullied, and the agape a soldier shows when he lays down his life for his comrades. And remember a person lives a fulfilled life no matter what type of love he or she gives and receives.