Friday, February 4, 2011


In pop culture and ordinary life as well, we hear the same question. The speaker is usually a woman, perhaps because women are, ah, more intuitive? The question is: “Yes, dear, but do you really love me?” In the usual context, this could be expanded. What she is saying is, “I already know that you want me—sexually. But do you really…” The vast range and complexity of that concept, love, once more came into my focus—and the thought once more arose that this question is asked at every level of human experience right up to the dizzying heights of theology. This gradation is recognized in language, in some much more explicitly than others, and English seems love-challenged, as it were.

In Greek three words are readily at hand: eros, philia, and agape. In Latin we have amor and caritas. In Hungarian eros and amor are rendered as szerelem, philia and agape as szeretet—although, to be sure, that last word is also applied to any kind of favorable view of a thing, as in “I like it.” The modern Chinese also have three words, ai, xihuan, and ren or jen, where the first is used in love-relations, the second means to like, and the third is benevolent and self-less love. In English we have love, friendship or liking, and love. Friendship derives from the Old English freogan, meaning to love, to favor, but the love-element hidden in the root is not quite visible in our use of the word. We have no word for agape because the Latin approach to it, as charity, has undergone change. I may be wrong, but the way I usually hear the word used is in a negative sort of context like “I don’t want your charity.” But this may be due to the hardening of our cultural arteries. It takes a certain loving quality to receive love as much as to bestow it—one of the mysteries hidden in the word.

It is the very quality of human experience, the physical fused with the spiritual, that renders the word love problematical—but only when a rift opens between the fused layers that form us. The more the sensuous is to the fore, the less the spiritual is perceived. In the well-formed individual an all-encompassing feeling for the beloved dominates; the erotic is present in it, but is not decisive. If she has to ask her question, there is a certain problem present in that relationship—but a much more precise vocabulary would not make it go away.

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