Polyosophy – Ancient Greek conceptions of love

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So while I plough on through Rousseau’s Social Contract (harder going than I remember… More evidence I need to kick my brain back into action) here are some quick thoughts on love.

In modern English, we have (roughly) one word for love. There are related-concept-words, like care, affection, desire, but still. In ancient Greek, there were four types of love recognised in language: eros, agape, philia and storge.


This is a familiar one; most people recognise the name of the god (aka Cupid). This is of course also the etymological root of ‘erotic’. So eros refers to romantic love and desire – often in the context of those first stages of falling in love. Current mainstream thinking often holds up falling in love as a wonderful thing, a thing to be greatly desired, and the phase of ‘can’t eat, can’t sleep, missing you’ is seen as deeply romantic and special. (And yes, I admit, the romantic in me agrees). But even the word ‘falling’ describes a dangerous thing to do, literally speaking, and the ancient Greeks recognised this danger – erotic love was seen not as a wonderful and essential state to be desired, but as a kind of madness. And this kind of passionate love was recognised as sometimes having terrible and destructive results – this is the love that drives the great stories of humanity, the love that inspires wars, suicides, murderous jealousy… Think of the stories of classical mythology, of Shakespearean tragedies.

It’s interesting, then, that poly communities recognise this amazing and beautiful but potentially destructive force as NRE – new relationship energy. Giving it a label makes it something that can be recognised and accounted for (like, don’t make any big decisions while you’re in the throes of NRE and decide that you want to move your shiny new lover into the family home because she is amazing and clearly there is nothing that can possibly go wrong). You do, I think, go temporarily mad when falling in love. But unlike when your friends fall in love (you lose them for a little while, and then they come back when they’ve returned to normal) in a poly relationship it’s essential not to neglect existing loves in favour of New Shiny. So it’s incredibly valuable to have a vocabulary with which to talk about this. Orwell recognised the power of words when he created Newspeak in 1984 – if you don’t have words for something, you can’t effectively acknowledge it, talk about it, criticise or debate it.

I haven’t talked about Plato’s specific take on eros- that is a whole topic in itself and can be saved for another post. But that is, of course, where we get the term ‘platonic love’. More soon. I


(pronounced a-gah-pay) This usually refers to the deep, true, unconditional love felt by a parent for a child, or the love in a long-established marriage. It was also adopted by early Christians to refer to the unconditional love of God for humanity, and Christian love more generally. As an atheist, and someone who was a bookish child, I tend to associate CS Lewis with the Narnia books – but his extensive writings on Christianity after his conversion include The Four Loves, based in part on these four ancient Greek words, and holding up agape as the finest and truest form of love. Another one to add to the reading list, I think.

Agape seems to correspond well to the final stage of the five stages of love, as written about on BitchBuzz by Lori Smith. I suppose the particular relevance for polyamory is, looking at how eros and agape apply to specifically romantic/sexual relationships, how to balance those different forms of love without making unfair comparisons. You may not have the depth of understanding and trust with a new lover as you do with a long-established partner, but that’s ok; you may not be obsessively checking your phone for texts from your husband in the way you do with your girlfriend, but that’s ok too. Again, we’re back to this idea of the value of giving words to something; if we can happily recognise these as two different kinds of love, then perhaps it helps us celebrate and value them for what they are, not look for what they aren’t.

(Incidentally – I’d be really interested in reading some theological thoughts on non-monogamy. There was a recent piece here on Polytical looking at the author’s personal take on Christianity and polyamory; does anyone know of anything more general? I’m insufficiently informed about theology to tackle it myself! Also there’s a great piece by Amanda Jones on the intersection of Buddhism and polyamory)


This is the root of all those words ending in -phile, and is of course also part of philosophy – literally, the love of wisdom (sophia). Philia is the most general kind of love; it’s often translated as friendship. Aristotle talks about philia a lot in the Nicomachean Ethics, his best known work on ethics which explores how men should live (it was originally based on notes from his lectures to young men destined for Big Things in Athens). I’ll give this a whole post (or more) in its own right, as the Nicomachean Ethics is one of the most influential ethical works in the history of European thought. Yeah baby, this is the big guns. (I am an Aristotle fangirl. I want that on a tshirt.)

Anyway. The Nicomachean Ethics has lots of examples of philia – like lifelong friends, political contacts, fellow travellers, members of the same religious society or tribe, even ‘a cobbler and the person who buys from him’. Interestingly he also lists parents and children, which might suggest that more than one kind of love can exist in the same relationship – the love of a parent for a child seems to crop up regularly in all the forms of love except (obviously) eros. Philia is characterised by, again, wanting the best for someone for their own sake, and wanting to do things for them as much as is possible/reasonable. Though in that qualifier is a big distinction from agape, which is a self-sacrificing love. Another distinction is that – not always, but often – philia is characterised by a sense of equality, of meeting as equals, in the very nature of the Iove itself, not merely in the persons of those sharing the love.

As this refers to a much wider sense of friendship-love, there’s nothing – to me – that seems any more relevant to non-monogamous people than everyone else. We all need friends, and that comfortable companionable love of an old friendship is wonderful. I suppose the only thought here would be, even if you are conducting twenty romantic relationships at once, don’t neglect your friendships. Make the time for them too; don’t just fill up your Google Calendar with lovers.

I am so keen to wander off into an exploration of how Aristotle defined friendship-love and why it’s so important to living a good life, but we’d be here all week. Another time. On to the last form of love.


This is much less commonly used in classical writings than the others. It’s the kind of affection that comes through familiarity; it can explain the love-bonds of wider family members and is generally only used to describe family love. It is often described as a natural or instinctive affection; similar to agape, it is unconditional in that it doesn’t depend on any characteristics in the loved one to make them ‘worthy’ of love, it’s simply because they are there. But storge does not have the self-sacrificing and altruistic aspects of agape.

Interestingly, a less widely-used meaning of storge can be found in political thought, especially Renaissance-era. I don’t want to say too much about this as I’m not that well-read in it (yet… *adds to reading list*) but: some thinkers claimed that the State can in fact be made to wither away by the subjects believing themselves to be ruled over by a benevolent father-like figure, and loving the state (ie storge), and the king or tyrant in return believing himself to be like a loving parent. If I find more resources on this I’ll post them here; I’ve come across snatches of references to this form of storge but am very under-informed.

But storge is primarily used to describe familiar familial love. As ethical non-monogamy becomes more visible, it’s likely that more and more people will incorporate – somehow – multiple partners into their family life, which no doubt brings all sorts of challenges of its own. But as this isn’t something I’ve yet had to deal with, I’ll leave it to those with more experience to comment on that balancing act.

Storge might also be used to describe the love for a metamour – your partner’s partner. If you’re lucky and they are awesome, it may become philia, a deeper friendship in its own right and truly wanting the best for each other, but at the very least you’ll need storge, giving them love and affection not because of who they are or any of their characteristics, but because of the place they hold in your partner’s heart and in your personal constellation of people.

If you don’t have words for something, you can’t talk about it. Why else do subcultures come up with new words like polyamory, metamour, compersion? Perhaps identifying different forms of love as genuinely different feelings, different things, not just different stages of love, would help us talk about them better. And perhaps it would help us all tell our friends more often that we love them. More love in the world – whatever name you give it – can only be a good thing, right?

Would you separate out any other kinds of love from these four? Is there something from your experience that you think is missing?

About Polly Oliver

Twenty-something polyamorous London-dweller, recovering philosopher, eternal optimist. Borrowing the name of Polly Oliver for my blogging – because she was a faithful and honest (well, except for the cross-dressing disguise) lover who stepped outside the norms of what society expected of her to Get Good Things Done. Also writes at http://closeenoughtoread.wordpress.com

15 Responses to Polyosophy – Ancient Greek conceptions of love

  1. Deorccwen says:

    Fascinating! I only knew of Eros and Agape: thank you for filling in the gaps. :)

  2. Joseph Garvin says:

    While these cover most of the range of attractions and affections we feel, I think they miss out on the most common one – the one that most people seem to feel for most of their sexual partners, mono (especially serial) or poly, that of a mix of lust and “they are fun to be around”. Is there anything in the Greek work on the emotions that covers that?

  3. Dan Jasper says:

    Thanks for this post! I always enjoy a little Greek over my morning coffee! :)

    I work in the field of theology (which means, my graduate career has been in theology, and I have been in full-time Christian ministry), and have been toying with the idea of developing a theology around my experience of being in a polyfidelitous triad, and in being a committed (yet liberal, pacifist, queer, poly) Christian. I’m just starting to work on it. Would you like to tell me any areas that you are specifically interested in getting some theological perspectives on? OF COURSE, this would not be THE definitive Christian poly view, just one theologian’s perspective. let me know!

    again, thank you for your wonderfully lucid, and intriguing posts on the intersections between philosophy and poly here on polytical!

  4. Polly Oliver says:

    @Joseph – not that I’ve come across, but I’m by no means an expert! I wonder, though, whether that’s not better described by a blend of loves – eros and philia, perhaps? Lust plus friendship?? Given that the example of a parent’s love for a child gets used to illustrate three of the four types of love pretty regularly, that would seem to suggest that one type of love being present doesn’t prevent another in the same relationship.

    @Dan – thank you for your fulsome praise! You know, I just threw that out there without really knowing what I was hoping for. I suppose, in the same way that I’m playing with mapping analytical philosophical perspectives onto non-monogamy and seeing what comes out, I’d be interested to hear how that works for specifically religious thinkers and schools of thought… If it weren’t for the fact that a) I’m very under-read in specifically religious ethics (except for the obvious ones like Aquinas), and b) I’m an atheist so (despite best attempts) might not fully engage with it, I’d look into it myself! So I’m hoping someone better informed starts looking at it :) I’m delighted by the blog post I linked to about Buddhism and polyamory, which looks like it’s going to be the first in a series. Would love to hear more about all the major religions and how they might fit with modern polyamory, to be honest.

  5. ChickPea says:

    I’ve seen a variety of lists of Greek words for love- there was one (which I can’t find at the moment) that claimed 12! If I dig it out, I’ll post it here.

    Another one that is sometimes listed is “mania”, which is obsessive love.

    One phrase I really enjoy for the whole falling-in-love/NRE thing is “Disney Chemicals”.

  6. Julian Morrison says:

    Here’s a kind of love that the Greeks didn’t know about, that which is expressed by the Japanese verb amaeru, meaning, to”to depend and presume upon another’s benevolence”. It’s the way a child loves a parent, and if you’re kinky, there’s a lot of that in the way a sub loves a dom.

    • Polly Oliver says:

      Ooh, what a brilliant word! And really interesting to see how many different types of love describe, or can be compared to, the parent-child bond. My instinct (backed up by more informed people such as Freja, writing at Polyamorous Parenting) is that we learn a great deal about how to love (and how to love healthily) from our early relationships with parents.

  7. Dan Jasper says:

    the issue of a christian poly ‘apologetics’ has been much on my mind recently, as well as my two partners, as we try and discern how two very ‘real’ perspectives exist side-by-side in our lives, two perspectives that at first glance seem incompatible. yet, even though their co-existence seems illogical (and many commentators have noted that the ‘illogic’ automatically makes their co-existence ‘false’), they do co-exist in our lives. our experience does not make any sense using extant intellectual paradigms. so, we either develop new paradigms, or just accept the current ones, and either break up, or give up our faith. i, for one, refuse to accept that binary. :) so, im beginning to play w/some ideas around using queer theology and reconciliation theology to build a space for poly in christianity. i’ll keep you posted on how it’s going!

  8. Bookwormgal says:

    Good article but you missed Mania, Ludus, and Xenia – also forms of “Love” within the Greek/Roman thought paradigm. If you add those this article would be even better!!!

    • D says:

      The 4 words listed in this article are the main types of love, 3 of which are used in the Holy Bible. These four are used from Ancient Greek era.

      • Bookwormgal says:

        Actually the terms I added above are from the Ancient Greek era, not everything relevant to that era is in the Christian Bible. There are lots of other better sources, on ancient Greek culture particularly those written by the Greeks themselves most of whom were Pagans of one sort or the other.

        Not everyone limits themselves to the Christian view, and not everyone is Christian. Seeing as I’m neither Christian or Pagan, but am an anthropologist I aim for thoroughness to have all the recorded views of the time heard.

  9. Craig says:

    In talking about language and words it should be noted that it is generally recognized
    and agreed that all modern languages originated from a singular source commonly
    referred to as ancient Hebrew. (Semitic family of languages )

    You recognize the obvious , that ‘ words mean things ‘ and they draw mental pictures.
    Ancient Hebrew is a concrete language rather than ethereal where one word or phrase
    can be ‘ interpreted ‘in the mind of the hearer dozens of ways ( ‘love’ for example )Words in Hebrew can be either a noun or a verb depending on context and there are many concepts in the culture expressed in it’s language that have absolutely no equivilant in English or other languages. This is from the fact that those cultural concepts have been lost for centuries and some cases millenia.

    I will leave off at that and let anyone interested to peer into some of these fasinating
    mysteries. Caveat : Beware atheists, agnostics, humanists – you will find a lot more than
    mere intellectual stimulation.

    • Natja says:

      >>In talking about language and words it should be noted that it is generally recognized
      and agreed that all modern languages originated from a singular source commonly
      referred to as ancient Hebrew. (Semitic family of languages )

      Generally recognised by whom?

      This is definitely not the case and makes no sense at all considering the origins of man exist far earlier than any settlement in that region so why would the proto language be called ‘Ancient Hebrew’?

      Methinks you have confused Biblical theory for linguistics, like anything to do with the Bible it is not usually compatible with science…


  10. wonderful post! I always enjoy a little Greek over coffee! :)
    I work in the field of theology (which means, my graduate career has been in theology, and I have been in full-time Christian ministry), and have been toying with the idea of developing a theology around my experience of being in a polynucleotides triad, and in being a committed (yet liberal, pacifist, queer, poly) Christian. I’m just starting to work on it. Would you like to tell me any areas that you are specifically interested in getting some theological perspectives on? OF COURSE, this would not be THE definitive Christian poly view, just one theologian’s perspective. let me know!
    thank you

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