There are many things that we can still learn from the Ancient Greeks today. As well as giving the world democracy, geometry, and the Olympic games, the Ancient Greeks had plenty of wisdom to impart on the subject of love. Ancient Greece was a hotbed of philosophy, art, and literature that explored every aspect of existence and human relationships. It is no surprise that the topics of love and marriage were explored in detail!
So, what did the Ancient Greeks say about love and relationships that can help us today? In this article, we will explore five of the most important lessons in love that we can learn from the Ancient Greeks.
1.There are many different types of love
When we say the word “love,” what do we actually mean? The Ancient Greeks were all about trying to define concepts and answering questions like this. The Greek philosophers believed that love is a broad concept, made up of many different types of love that can exist together in various combinations.
Because of this, the Ancient Greeks did not use a singular word for love, in fact they used different words for different types of love. These types of love include “Eros” (from which the word “erotic is derived), a sexual and romantic desire, and “Philia”, a feeling of deep friendship and trust towards another. Other types of love include “Storge” (a familial love), “Ludus” (a playful, euphoric love), and “Agape” (a selfless, unconditional love that demands nothing in return).
Some of these types of love tend to combine and overlap in relationships. A long-term romantic relationship such as a marriage usually includes aspects of most of these to varying degrees. In an ideal world, you will be as much a friend to your romantic partner as you will be a lover. In contrast, the relationship between you and your close friends (unless you are in love with them romantically) is unlikely to include Eros.
2. A successful romantic relationship needs multiple types of love
A romantic relationship is a specific commitment that requires more than just one of these types of love to succeed. For example, a platonic friendship that includes a deep and lasting connection but does not include any physical attraction or desire is unlikely to fulfill every aspect of what we look for in a “soulmate.” Similarly, a relationship that is purely based around sexual desire and includes no emotional companionship is unlikely to last long and is best suited to a very casual arrangement if it is to be pursued at all.
The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed that the combination of the deep spiritual connection of Philia and the burning desire of Eros led to one of the highest forms of love. Most couples experience this combination during the “honeymoon period,” but unfortunately it is common to experience just one or the other of these at times over the course of a long-term relationship. New relationships often start out with a spark of erotic desire before compatibility is discovered, and this desire is also often one of the first things to fade away in a long-term relationship.
It is natural for the amounts of each type of love to change over time, but keeping a balance of them is the key to a successful relationship that is healthy and fulfilling for many years. When it comes to marriage in particular, a type of love that the Greeks called “Pragma” is particularly vital. Pragma love is based on reason, duty, and sacrifice. When two partners agree to compromise on their individual desires in order to pursue shared life goals, this is an example of Pragma love in action. Pragma is probably the least glamorous form of love, but one of the most necessary!
3. Marriage should be a cause for celebration
Although Pragma love and sacrifice are essential for a successful marriage, playful Ludus love should never be dismissed or forgotten! The Ancient Greeks knew how to have fun in all areas of life, and marriage was no exception.
Although Ancient Greek society did have some outdated (and in some cases, plain weird) views on marriage—marriages were typically arranged between girls in their early teens and men in their twenties or thirties—they did get one thing right. Greek wedding customs and traditions emphasized celebration and togetherness above almost all else.
The three-part marriage ceremony started with a huge feast called the “proaulia,” thrown by the father of the bride and featuring plenty of foods and the sharing of gifts. The second part, the “gamos,” was the actual wedding day, and featured a grand, torchlit chariot procession. The final part, or “epaulia” saw the newlyweds receive plenty more gifts. Many of our marriage traditions today are believed to be traced back to Ancient Greek wedding customs.
4. We seek out love to complete ourselves
In Plato’s famous philosophical text The Symposium, the character of Aristophanes stated his belief that humans were first created by the gods to have two faces, four arms, four legs, etc. Because these humans were “too strong” they were all cut in half by Zeus, and the result is what humans are today. Because of this, we are all searching for our “other half” to complete us. In fact, Aristophanes claims that love “tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.”
This certainly seems to be the view of love that is promoted by a lot of culture today, from pop songs to Hollywood movies. However, Plato himself did not entirely agree with the views of his character Aristophanes. Plato and other Greek philosophers, like Aristotle and Socrates, agreed that humans are “wounded,” they did not believe that simply finding the right partner will solve all of our problems! Aristotle believed that reason was the most important component of love. Socrates believed that love was an “art” that could be learned. Plato had complex ideas on love, but believed the ideal love to include friendship, desire, and truth.
While it is likely true that at least part of the reason that we seek out romance in our lives is a feeling of incompleteness when we are alone (after all, social connection is one of the most important drives for humans), the Ancient Greeks knew that there were plenty of other reasons to form relationships. It is important to remember that we should choose our partners based on more than just trying to avoid being lonely. Think back to the different types of love and connection that can be experienced with a partner.
5. We must love ourselves in order to love others
In the words of RuPaul, “if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” Of course, RuPaul is not an Ancient Greek philosopher, but this idea is remarkably similar to an idea put forward by Aristotle!
Aristotle was very keen on a type of love called “Philautia,” or “self-love.” He believed that loving yourself is a necessary first step towards being able to love others. Aristotle’s definition of “love” in this case was most similar to the “philia,” or “friendship” form of love. He warned against mistaking the gaining of personal wealth or power over others as a form of self-love, instead believing that loving yourself meant being a friend to yourself. Not only does this form of love benefit you, according to Aristotle, but it also benefits others around you.
Aristotle believed that true love comes from doing good—for yourself and others—for its own sake rather than as a means to an end. Loving yourself is not the same as being arrogant or thinking that you are better than others—it is about accepting yourself as who you are and forgiving your faults as you would forgive those of a close friend.
If you love yourself in this healthy way you are less likely to seek validation from external sources or take part in behavior that is destructive to yourself and others. Truly loving yourself puts you in the perfect position to love others and devote your time and energy to healthy and beautiful relationships.
How can you use these love lessons in your relationship?
The Ancient Greeks certainly had a lot to say about love and its many forms. To go into full detail on their philosophical theories would fill an entire bookshelf rather than just this article! You don’t need to remember the names of all of the different types of love, or have an advanced knowledge of Aristotelian theory, to use this ancient wisdom in your own life.
Ultimately, the Ancient Greek perspective on love is that it is a complex and multifaceted concept. Love requires work to cultivate, and healthy relationships have many aspects that need attention. A vital part of loving another person is learning to love ourselves despite our flaws and live complete inner lives without the need for validation from others.
Following all of these lessons is not easy, and is usually a lifelong pursuit. However, it is usually more than worth it. The beauty of a true and full love, whether in a marriage, long-term relationship, or friendship, is a life-affirming experience like no other.