I had an acquaintance years ago with whom I got into an argument about the nature of love. I was coming from the rather simplistic notion that if you loved somebody or something, you acted as though you loved them; you acted on their behalf. I will not comment on whether I still believe in this today. Yet my friend was a tad more fundamentalist, and insisted that anything short of 1st Corinthians’ description was no true love. I had trouble understanding why he believed that imperfect love could not still be love, but for the sake of argument, I will quote Corinthians about “Caritas” which I found referred to in The Hawk’s Way by Sy Montgomery as “the love of a god.” In Greek this word is “agape” but I will use the Latin because it is the word in the King James Version:
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
Of course, caritas was a special kind of love, describing God’s love of humankind. Other kinds of love–eros, the love of lovers, and philia, the love of friends–were conditional, but agape or caritas was a love that transcended human limitations. Of course, to the ancient Greeks and Romans, romantic love was perhaps not as important as it is to us: people did not marry for love, and a wife’s relation to her husband was based more on duty than love. Of course, looking at either Sappho or Plato, a person does notice that within their societies bisexuality was allowed publicly, and that in Plato’s Republic a man was supposed to practice certain disciplines in love–outright promiscuity was frowned on. Yet intimacy between the sexes as people in love not viewed on as important to the ancients.
Strangely, I believe it may have been Judaism and Christianity that taught the world to value romantic love. In Genesis the relationship between Adam and Eve before the eating of the forbidden fruit, the reader sees an idealization of humanity “made in the image of God” male and female, distinct but together. The idea that “it is not good for man to be alone” says that without woman, man is incomplete. Plato never believed this: to him complete love was two “equal” (male) minds transfixed with each other. Even the idea of Eve as a “helper” in tending God’s Garden in Genesis is in reality a step up: it emphasizes that woman is not a useless being in man’s world but a necessity. Alas, after the “fall,” this idealized state ends, but it is never completely reneged on: Reading the Song of Solomon and the Christian writings on the nature of marriage, a person is struck for the reverence of the conjugal relationship, and the woman in the conjugal relationship. Even the seemingly strict prohibitions on things like homosexuality could be seen as a way of strengthening the bond between man and woman in marriage. Perhaps it is not surprising that while Sappho is alone among Greeks as a female writer, and there are no Latin women who wrote, during the Middle Ages a female author Christine de Pizan wrote The Book of the City of Ladies about an ideal society of women. Despite the mockery Medieval times get for being Europe’s falling away from “civilization” there were ways in which progress was made. (And, yes, there were a few other female writers, Marie de France and the Jewish Gluckel of Hameln.) More, there were strong women able to overcome the stigma of being a woman who made the lists of firsts for “women in power”: Elinore of Aquitaine and even Blanche of Namur (a Swedish queen who had much power over her husbands). It was not Seneca Falls or Betty Freidan yet, but it was real.
Anyway, having given this much credit to Jews and Christians, I still feel that Paul’s definition of love only sounds concrete if it is “the love of a god” which is hard to define in human terms. Writing back to Paul, I wish to say,
If a human does not love,
That human being has never lived
Perhaps such a life suits angels–
Perhaps it suits philosopher-kings–
Yet it does not suit humankind’s needs.
Love is passionate,
Though love though it gives, demands,
And it ebbs and flows like a river.
Only the foolish believe the loved one
Is loved the same day-by-day,
And that there are not days
When Love is More or less.
Yet when Love is nurtured
As something human and imperfect–
It survives death itself.
For Love is as strong as death.