Book Review-The Four Loves

I’ve for some time recognized the three words in Greek used to describe love – eros, philos, and agape. C.S. Lewis’ count of The Four Loves, therefore, was interesting and confusing. Effectively to the three above, Lewis adds storge, which is somewhere between liking and the kind of love and concern you have for someone who happens to be related to you – like family.

Liking and Loving

Early on, Lewis points out that, while Greek has several words for love, English at least has retained two words – like and love – where French must function with only one – aimer. While I appreciate the sentiment that English retains greater precision then French for this area, I’m equally concerned that liking and loving are not the same thing, and though they may be on the same continuum, they’re still miles apart.

If the degree to which you love someone were simply liking them, then storge doesn’t quite fit. In this context, you may seriously dislike a family member, but they are, of course, family. There are still things you’ll do for them. It seems like there’s a chasm between liking and loving. Perhaps it’s the degree to which you’re willing to do something for someone.

Put Out the Fire

What is Love?

I suppose that, before we can get to describing different kinds of love, it’s important to understand what we mean by love. In my review of How Dogs Love Us, I summarized love as the choice to do something for someone else. In this context, perhaps, then, liking and loving are not all that different. Storge is a measure of connection and our willingness to do something for another person.

In my post The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, I explain how the willingness to do things for others takes many forms and has many levels, including a willingness to do for others what you wouldn’t do for yourself.

Gift-Love and Need-Love

The first distinction that Lewis makes is between gift-love and need-love. Gift-love is the desire to do for others. It’s for someone else’s benefit. It might be viewed as compassion (see My Spiritual Journey and Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism for more on compassion). Need-love is, in Lewis’ description, the drive that pulls someone who is needy into the arms of someone who can fulfil that need.

I’m not so sure of this distinction, as it seems like need-love is not love at all but rather dependency disguised as love. It’s incredibly difficult to infer intent. That may be why the armed forces now included the commander’s intent with the detailed instructions given to troops. (See Competing Against Luck.) Kahneman calls it “fundamental attribution error” when speaking our propensity for inferring intent from another person’s actions. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

Despite the difficulty in inferring intent, it seems like intention is the first criteria that Lewis uses to separate love into different types. If we’re less inclined to punish those who we believe have no malintent in their actions, shouldn’t we be less inclined to accept love from those whom we believe are “loving” us based on their own selfish needs? (See The Blank Slate for more on our disinterest in punishing when we can’t infer intent.)

Fair-Weather Friends

No one wants fair-weather friends. What’s the point of feeling loved and cared for if it disappears when you need it? We’ve all experienced people who come to us when they think that they can get something from us but disappear when we’re in need.

We judge intent – correctly or not – when we meet others. We silently assess whether these people will be with us when we’re crushed and unable to provide anything to them. Sometimes we get the judgement right, and the friends are there when you need them – and sometimes we get it wrong.

My big problem with need-love as Lewis describes it is that, if it comes solely out of weakness and dependence, I wouldn’t call it love at all.

Friends and Lovers

There are obvious differences between friends and lovers. (At least there are if you’re willing to exclude “friends with benefits.”) While lovers can – and should – be friends as well, there are differences. A curious difference is that lovers tend to talk about their love for one another, where friends rarely speak about how they feel about each other. We place friendship in a completely different category than our feelings for our lover (eros). So, while we may greatly value – and need – friends, we’re less likely to communicate this with them. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on our need for friends.)

Performance-Based Love

Though most of us don’t want fair-weather friends, many of us have learned performance-based love. We believe that those who love us won’t love us if we fail to be the star athlete, powerful CEO, or amazing musician. Somehow, when we fall short of perfect, we’re left in the situation of being unlovable.

When you shine the light on the discrepancy between our aversion to being a fair-weather friend and our belief that others in our lives will treat us this way, we must either accept that the world is filled with unethical, amoral people – or the more likely solution that performance-based love fear isn’t well-founded. Certainly, some people may have a performance-based love for us that will evaporate when we’re no longer performing, but surely most people will continue to care for us, even if we falter.

In the end, we may find that The Four Loves helps us understand that we can be loved simply for being ourselves, not because of the ways we help others or how we perform.

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