For some years now, I’ve been wishing I could smack American culture as a whole upside the head with this week’s book. Fifty Shades of Twilight is only the latest iteration of the problem’s symptoms. James T. Kirk, James Bond, Jim West, Robert Hogan—I could go on and on listing examples of the notion that a hero will have girls throwing themselves at his feet every week, with manhood defined not by virtue but by virility. But the problem is even older and deeper than that. Romeo and Juliet, Abelard and Heloise, Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere… they all imply that romantic love is the highest and best form of love, that such a feeling is worth sacrificing even Camelot for the sake of the beloved, and that life bereft of such love is not worth living. Now society’s reached a point where it seems a large number of people can’t conceive of any form of love that isn’t inherently sexual.
And it’s all a thrice-accurséd lie.
In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis spends one chapter each examining the four Greek words for love in ascending order of importance. Eros, romantic or sexual love, may need the least explanation as a concept; what needs more explanation is the idea that eros is in fact the lowest of the loves, partly because of the ease with which it becomes the vice of lust. Eros is a passion, an emotion, and as such belongs to the lower powers of the soul. Moreover, Lewis notes, eros drives a couple to turn inward, looking only at each other and shutting out anything else—potentially up to and including God.
Lewis gives the second place in this hierarchy to storge, affection. Storge is a much more general term than eros because it includes many more kinds of relationships: parents and children, pets and owners, heroes and the villains they love to hate. Even the way we feel about our favorite foods, books, music, or films is storge. But this love, too, is only a passion.
Third, Lewis explores philia, friendship or brotherly love. One can hear echoes in this chapter of Lewis’ own great friendships, especially with Tolkien and the Inklings. Friends may come together over a shared interest, he states, but eventually that interest becomes only incidental to the friendship. Good friends may spend hours talking and have a grand time but not necessarily remember what was said after the conversation is over; what actually mattered was spending time together. And unlike eros, philia is focused outward, open to bringing more friends into the circle. Whereas lovers stand across from each other, looking at each other, friends stand side by side looking at something else. Yet even friendship is a passion, a feeling that can fade.
Last and greatest, therefore, is agape, the word used in the New Testament to describe the unconditional, sacrificial love of God. Its chief characteristic is desiring good for the other person, regardless of what that means for the self. Far from being a passion, agape is an act of will, one of the higher powers of the soul, and doesn’t depend on any kind of emotion or anything inherently likeable about the other person; as such, it’s the only form of love considered a virtue. When the Bible commands Christians to love their neighbors and their enemies—generally, as G. K. Chesterton once quipped, because they’re the same people—the command refers to agape. And “Greater [agape] hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
A healthy romantic relationship, of course, will exhibit all of these kinds of love. But even when the passions fade in the face of hardship or age or hurt feelings, agape is the glue that can hold the relationship together until the other emotions can be restored. While writing The Four Loves, Lewis himself experienced the importance of agape in his relationship with Joy Davidman, whom he married at her hospital bedside when she was believed to be dying of cancer. Though she miraculously went into remission for several years and the marriage was very happy during that time, he didn’t stop loving her when the cancer returned and proved fatal—and when it comes to love stories, I’d stack either version of Shadowlands up against Fifty Shades any day.