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Eros (concept)

Spring, Pierre Auguste Cot, 1873
Two intimate males at an ancient Greek symposium. Part of a fresco from the Tomb of the Diver (Paestum, Italy, c. 475 BCE).

Eros (/ˈɪərɒs/ or /ˈɛrɒs/; Ancient Greek: ἔρως érōs "love" or "desire") is one of the four ancient Greco-Christian terms which can be rendered into English as "love". The other three are storge, philia, and agape. Eros refers to "passionate love" or romantic love; storge to familial love; philia to friendship as a kind of love; and agape refers to "selfless love", or "charity" as it is translated in the Christian scriptures (from the Latin caritas, dearness).[1]

The term erotic is derived from eros. Eros has also been used in philosophy and psychology in a much wider sense, almost as an equivalent to "life energy".[2]

In literature

The classical Greek tradition

In the classical world, erotic love was generally referred to as a kind of madness or theia mania ("madness from the gods").[3] This love passion was described through an elaborate metaphoric and mythological schema involving "love's arrows" or "love darts", the source of which was often the personified figure of Eros (or his Latin counterpart, Cupid),[4] or another deity (such as Rumor[5]). At times the source of the arrows was said to be the image of the beautiful love object itself. If these arrows were to arrive at the lover's eyes, they would then travel to and 'pierce' or 'wound' his or her heart and overwhelm him/her with desire and longing (lovesickness). The image of the "arrow's wound" was sometimes used to create oxymorons and rhetorical antithesis concerning its pleasure and pain.

"Love at first sight" was explained as a sudden and immediate beguiling of the lover through the action of these processes, but this was not the only mode of entering into passionate love in classical texts. At times the passion could occur after the initial meeting, as, for example, in Phaedra's letter to Hippolytus in Ovid's Heroides: "That time I went to Eleusis... it was then most of all (though you had pleased me before) that piercing love lodged in my deepest bones."[6] At times, the passion could even precede the first glimpse, as in Paris' letter to Helen of Troy in the same work, where Paris says that his love for Helen came upon him before he had set eyes on her: " were my heart's desire before you were known to me. I beheld your features with my soul ere I saw them with my eyes; rumour, that told me of you, was the first to deal my wound."[7]

Whether by "first sight" or by other routes, passionate love often had disastrous results according to the classical authors. In the event that the loved one was cruel or uninterested, this desire was shown to drive the lover into a state of depression, causing lamentation and illness. Occasionally, the loved one was depicted as an unwitting ensnarer of the lover, because of her sublime beauty—a "divine curse" which inspires men to kidnap her or try to rape her.[8] Stories in which unwitting men catch sight of the naked body of Artemis the huntress (and sometimes Aphrodite) lead to similar ravages (as in the tale of Actaeon).

In The Symposium by Plato, Aristophanes relays a myth of the origin of both heterosexual and homosexual love.[9] Originally, each human being had two heads, four arms, and four legs, before Zeus decided to split every person in two. After everyone was split, each half searched for their other half, to make themselves whole again. Some people were originally half-male and half-female, and when Zeus split them they became men and women who sought opposite-sex partners. Some people were originally all-female, and they split into females who sought female partners. Some were all-male, and they split into males who sought other males.[10]

The Judeo-Christian Tradition

Eros is described in Song of Songs in the Old Testament of the Bible, an 'explicitly sexual' depiction of the 'connection between conjugal love and [the act of] sex [between two lovers] - a very important and biblical connection to make, [since] there are some who would eliminate sex when they speak of love, supposing that they are making it more holy. Others when they think of sex, never think of love. The Song proclaims an integrated wholeness that is at the center of Christian teaching on committed, wedded love for a world that seems to specialize in loveless sex. the Song is a convincing witness that men and women were created physically, emotionally and spiritually to live in love. [It] elaborates on the Genesis story by celebrating the union of two diverse personalities in love... despite our sordid failures in love, we see what we were created for, what God intends for us in the ecstasy and fulfillment that is celebrated in the lyricism of the Song. Christians read the Song on many levels: as the intimacy of marital love between man and woman, God's deep love for his people, Christ's Bridegroom love for his church, the Christian's love for his or her Lord. it is a prism in which all the love of God in all the world, and all the responses of those who love and whom God loves, gathers and then separates into individual colors.' Song of Songs may have been written around 950 BCE by King Solomon of Israel, perhaps composed for a royal wedding. 'Love poetry was common all over the Middle East, but in other countries it often included references to fertility gods and goddesses. Infidelity and jealousy were common themes. in contrast, the Song of Songs celebrates faithful love.' (Peterson, E. H. 2006, The Message Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. NavPress, Canada. pg 948)

European literature

The Old, Old Story, John William Godward, 1903

The classical conception of love's arrows was developed further by the troubadour poets of Provence during the medieval period, and became part of the European courtly love tradition. The role of a woman's eyes in eliciting erotic desire was particularly emphasized by the Provençal poets, as N.E. Griffin points out:

According to this description, love originates upon the eyes of the lady when encountered by those of her future lover. The love thus generated is conveyed on bright beams of light from her eyes to his, through which it passes to take up its abode in his heart. [11]

In some medieval texts, the gaze of a beautiful woman is compared to the sight of a basilisk—a legendary reptile said to have the power to cause death with a single glance.

These images continued to be circulated and elaborated upon in the literature and iconography of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.[12] Boccaccio for example, in his Il Filostrato, mixes the tradition of Cupid's arrow with the Provençal emphasis on the eyes as the birthplace of love: "Nor did he (Troilus) who was so wise shortly before... perceive that Love with his darts dwelt within the rays of those lovely eyes... nor notice the arrow that sped to his heart."[13]

The rhetorical antithesis between the pleasure and pain from love's dart continued through the 17th century, as for example, in these classically inspired images from The Fairy-Queen:

If Love's a Sweet Passion, why does it torment?
If a Bitter, oh tell me whence comes my content?
Since I suffer with pleasure, why should I complain,
Or grieve at my Fate, when I know 'tis in vain?
Yet so pleasing the Pain is, so soft is the Dart,
That at once it both wounds me, and Tickles my Heart.[14]

In philosophy and psychology


The ancient philosopher Plato developed an idealistic concept of eros which would prove to be very influential in modern times. In general, Plato did not consider physical attraction to be a necessary part of eros. "Platonic love" in this original sense can be attained by the intellectual purification of eros from carnal into ideal form. This process is examined in Plato's dialogue the Symposium. Plato argues there that eros is initially felt for a person, but with contemplation it can become an appreciation for the beauty within that person, or even an appreciation for beauty itself in an ideal sense. As Plato expresses it, eros can help the soul to "remember" beauty in its pure form. It follows from this, for Plato, that eros can contribute to an understanding of truth.

Eros, understood in this sense, differed considerably from the common meaning of the word in the Greek language of Plato's time. It also differed from the meaning of the word in contemporary literature and poetry. For Plato, eros is neither purely human nor purely divine: it is something intermediate which he calls a daimon.

Its main characteristic is permanent aspiration and desire. Even when it seems to give, eros continues to be a "desire to possess", but nevertheless it is different from a purely sensual love in being the love that tends towards the sublime. According to Plato, the gods do not love, because they do not experience desires, inasmuch as their desires are all satisfied. They can thus only be an object, not a subject of love (Symposium 200-1). For this reason they do not have a direct relationship with man; it is only the mediation of eros that allows the connecting of a relationship (Symposium 203). Eros is thus the way that leads man to divinity, but not vice versa.

[...] Nevertheless, eros remains always, for Plato, an egocentric love: it tends toward conquering and possessing the object that represents a value for man. To love the good signifies to desire to possess it forever. Love is therefore always a desire for immortality.[15]

Paradoxically, for Plato, the object of eros does not have to be physically beautiful. This is because the object of eros is beauty, and the greatest beauty is eternal, whereas physical beauty is in no way eternal. However, if the lover achieves possession of the beloved's inner (i.e., ideal) beauty, his need for happiness will be fulfilled, because happiness is the experience of knowing that you are participating in the ideal.[16]

Sigmund Freud

In Freudian psychology, eros, not to be confused with libido, is not exclusively the sex drive, but our life force, the will to live. It is the desire to create life, and favors productivity and construction. In early psychoanalytic writings, instincts from the eros were opposed by forces from the ego. But in later psychoanalytic theory, eros is opposed by the destructive death instinct of Thanatos (death instinct or death drive).

In his 1925 paper "The Resistances to Psycho-Analysis",[17] Freud explains that the psychoanalytic concept of sexual energy is more in line with the Platonic view of eros, as expressed in the Symposium, than with the common use of the word "sex" as related primarily to genital activity. He also mentions the philosopher Schopenhauer as an influence. He then goes on to confront his adversaries for ignoring such great precursors and for tainting his whole theory of eros with a pansexual tendency. He finally writes that his theory naturally explains this collective misunderstanding as a predictable resistance to the acknowledgement of sexual activity in childhood.

However, F. M. Cornford finds the standpoints of Plato and of Freud to be "diametrically opposed" with regard to eros. In Plato, eros is a spiritual energy initially, which then "falls" downward; whereas in Freud eros is a physical energy which is "sublimated" upward.[18]

The philosopher and sociologist Herbert Marcuse appropriated the Freudian concept of eros for his highly influential 1955 work Eros and Civilization.

Carl Jung

In Carl Jung's analytical psychology, the counterpart to eros is logos, a Greek term for the principle of rationality. Jung considers logos to be a masculine principle, while eros is a feminine principle. According to Jung:

Woman's psychology is founded on the principle of Eros, the great binder and loosener, whereas from ancient times the ruling principle ascribed to man is Logos. The concept of Eros could be expressed in modern terms as psychic relatedness, and that of Logos as objective interest.[19]

This gendering of eros and logos is a consequence of Jung's theory of the anima/animus syzygy of the human psyche. Syzygy refers to the split between male and female. According to Jung, this split is recapitulated in the unconscious mind by means of "contrasexual" (opposite-gendered) elements called the anima (in men) and the animus (in women). Thus men have an unconscious feminine principle, the "anima", which is characterized by feminine eros. The work of individuation for men involves becoming conscious of the anima and learning to accept it as one's own, which entails accepting eros. This is necessary in order to see beyond the projections that initially blind the conscious ego. "Taking back the projections" is a major task in the work of individuation, which involves owning and subjectivizing unconscious forces which are initially regarded as alien.[20]

In essence, Jung's concept of eros is not dissimilar to the Platonic one. Eros is ultimately the desire for wholeness, and although it may initially take the form of passionate love, it is more truly a desire for "psychic relatedness", a desire for interconnection and interaction with other sentient beings. However, Jung was inconsistent, and he did sometimes use the word "eros" as a shorthand to designate sexuality.[21]

See also


  1. ^ C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
  2. ^ Peterson, Eugene H (2006). The Message Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress. p. 948. ISBN 1600060021.
  3. ^ Tallis, Frank (February 2005). "Crazy for You". The Psychologist. 18 (2).
  4. ^ See, for example, the Amores and the Heroides of Ovid which frequently refer to the overwhelming passion caused by Cupid's darts.
  5. ^ See Paris's letter to Helen of Troy, in Ovid, Heroides and Amores, XVI, 36-38.
  6. ^ Ovid, Heroides and Amores, translated by Grant Showerman. Second edition revised by G.P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), IV, 67-70, p 49. ISBN 0-674-99045-5
  7. ^ Ovid, Heroides and Amores, translated by Grant Showerman, second edition revised by G.P. Goold (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), XVI, 36-38, pp. 199-201.
  8. ^ For more on these tropes in the Ancient Greek novel, see Françoise Létoublon, Les Lieux communs du roman: Stéréotypes grecs d'aventure et d'amour, Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1993. ISBN 90-04-09724-4.
  9. ^ Halperin, David M. (1990). One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge. pp. 19. ISBN 0415900964. OCLC 19740359.
  10. ^ Plato (2006-05-30). The Symposium. Translated by Gill, Christopher; Lee, Desmond. New York. pp. 22–26. ISBN 9781101651490. OCLC 859326008.
  11. ^ See the introduction by Nathaniel Edward Griffin to The Filostrato of Giovanni Boccaccio (New York: Bilbo and Tannen, no date. ISBN 0-8196-0187-X), p.76, note 2.
  12. ^ For a full discussion of the scene of "love at first sight" in fiction, see Jean Rousset, "Leurs yeux se rencontrèrent" : la scène de première vue dans le roman, Paris: José Corti, 1981.
  13. ^ Giovanni Boccaccio, Il Filostrato, canto 1, strophe 29; translation by Nathaniel Edward Griffin and Arthur Beckwith Myrick, p. 147. According to Griffin: "In the description of the enamorment of Troilus is a singular blending of the Provençal conception of the eyes as the birthplace of love with the classical idea of the God of Love with his bows and quiver..." (ibid., p.77, note 2).
  14. ^ Anonymous, "If Love's a Sweet Passion", from the libretto of Henry Purcell's The Fairy-Queen, act 3.
  15. ^ John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: a theology of the body, translated by Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books and Media), 47:1 (p.315), footnote 56. See also Anders Nygren, Agape and eros, translated by Philip S. Watson (University of Chicago Press).
  16. ^ Plato. Symposium. 199c5-212c
  17. ^ Freud, S. (1925). "The Resistances to Psycho-Analysis", in The Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 5, p.163-74. (Tr. James Strachey.)
  18. ^ Cornford, F.M. (1950), "The Doctrine of Eros in Plato's Symposium", in The Unwritten Philosophy.
  19. ^ Carl Jung, “Woman in Europe” (1927), in Collected Works vol. 10, paragraph 255; reprinted in Aspects of the Feminine, Princeton University Press, 1982, p. 65, ISBN 0-7100-9522-8.
  20. ^ For a critical perspective on this viewpoint, which also summarizes the Jungian position well, see James Hillman, The Dream and The Underworld (1979), p.100.
  21. ^ Robert H. Hopcke, A Guided Tour of the Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Shambhala Books, 1999, p.45ff.