The word love can mean a wide variety of different feelings and attitudes, ranging from a more general form of affection to a strong feeling that expresses itself in interpersonal attraction and attachment, a passionate dedication between people or, in its extended meaning, a deep inclination towards something.

It can also be a human virtue representing kindness and compassion, selfless closeness, loyalty and benevolent concern for other living beings, but also desiring the good of other people.

The ancient Greeks identified four primary forms of love: parental-familial love (storge), friendship (philia), erotic but also romantic desire (eros), and finally the more purely spiritual love (agape, which can go as far as self-annihilation or kenosis); modern authors have also distinguished other varieties of romantic love, while non-Western traditions contain variants or symbioses of these states.

Such a wide range of uses and meanings, in combination with the complexity of the feelings involved in love, can make it particularly difficult to define love unambiguously and with certainty, compared to other emotional states.

In the field of psychology it consists of a dual relationship based on an emotional exchange generated by the physiological need for sexual gratification and the psychological need for emotional exchange. Love in its various forms acts as an important facilitator in interpersonal relationships and, given its central psychological importance, is one of the most common themes treated in the creative arts; it can also be understood as a way to keep human beings together against threats from the external environment and to help human reproduction and the consequent continuation of the species.

The term can acquire further clarifications or meanings in the fields of philosophy, religion, or the arts.

Manifestations of love

Within the relationships an individual has with his or her environment, love can be classified through different manifestations:

  • Self-love – the healthy self-love. It appears as a condition of self-esteem, but should not be confused with narcissism that leads to egocentrism. For Buddhism, which qualifies the ego as an illusion of our mind, true love, i.e. compassion, exists only when it is directed to another person, not to oneself. For psychoanalysis, on the other hand, which is completely opposed to Buddhism, the ego is defined as the only reality, love is always self-personal, which can develop in a healthy or unhealthy form depending on the case.
  • Unconditional love – selfless and compassionate love, professed without expecting anything in return. It corresponds to the spiritual love preached by various religions.
  • Filial and fraternal love – between descendants and ancestors (familial, parental).
  • Friendship – a feeling that arises from the need felt by human beings to socialize with each other.
  • Romantic love – a feeling that to some degree idealizes the beloved, subject to the expectation of love.
  • Sexual love – produced by the sexual desire for the other person
  • Platonic love – philosophical concept that elevates love to the contemplation of beauty, pure and unselfish knowledge. Then later interpreted by the Neoplatonists of the 1500s as philosophical love toward a person.
  • Love of Nature – involves a feeling of protection toward the plant and animal world.
  • Love for something abstract or inanimate – a physical object, an idea, but also an ideal goal (love of country or patriotism) and can be associated with heroism; in the latter case it constitutes a form of altruism towards one’s own group
  • Love of God – devotion, is based on religious faith.
  • Universal love – spirituality in the broadest sense, corresponding to the experience given by mysticism (ecstasy, illumination, nirvana).

Cultural perspectives

Ancient Greece

The Greek language distinguishes several different meanings in which the word “love” can be used. For example, Ancient Greek has the terms philia, eros, agape, storge and xenia. However, with Greek (as well as many other languages), it can be quite difficult to separate the meanings of these words historically in a unique and total way. At the same time, the Greek text of the Bible contains examples of the verb “agapo” having the same meaning as “phileo”.

Agape (ἀγάπη agape) specifically means love in modern Greek. The term “S’agapo” means “I love you” in Greek; the word agapo corresponds to the verb love. It generally refers to an ideal type of “pure” love, rather than the physical attraction suggested by eros. However, there are some examples where agape is used to indicate the same meaning given by eros. It has also eventually been translated as “the love of the soul.”

In a more eminently religious-spiritual sense, it is love towards one’s neighbor, a concept close to the current idea of altruism; it is characterized by its spontaneity, and is therefore not an intentional act or a form of superficial courtesy coming from good manners, but a true empathy for others, whether neighbors or strangers. In the Christian tradition of the Fathers of the Church, the word is identified with the concept of charity, although it is closer to a physical relationship established with people who suffer.

Eros (ἔρως Eros) (from the Greek deity Eros) is passionate love, leading and accompanying sensual desire. The Greek word erota means in love. Plato refined his own definition: although eros is initially felt for a person, with contemplation it becomes an appreciation of the beauty that is present and living within that person, or even becomes an appreciation of beauty itself. Eros helps the soul recognize the call of beauty and contributes to the understanding of spiritual truth. Lovers and philosophers are both, therefore, inspired to seek the truth that comes from eros. In some translations it can also be understood as “love of the body”.

Sometimes understood as a negative passion produced by épithumia-appetite, but also as a form of “divine madness” cause of the greatest blessings for men. It can, however, mix with philia through pederasty-in its Greek sense-which binds a mature man-erastès who loves to a younger one-eromenos who is loved.

Philia (φιλία philia), a dispassionate and virtuous love (a strong mutual respect between two people of similar status), was a concept addressed and extensively developed by Aristotle. It includes loyalty directed toward friends, relatives, and the community to which one belongs; it requires virtue, equality, and familiarity. Philia is motivated by practical reasons; one or both parties benefit from the relationship. It can also mean “the love of the mind”; it is an extensive concept of friendship that could not exist other than between people of the same sex, due to the strong inequality between the sexes that existed.

Storge (στοργή storge) is a natural affection, such as that felt by parents for their children.

Xenia (ξενία Xenia), hospitality, was an extremely important practice in ancient Greece. It was an almost ritualized friendship formed between a host and his or her guest, who may have previously been complete strangers. The host provided food and lodging for the guests, expecting to be repaid only with a sense of gratitude and appreciation. The importance of this institution can be seen well throughout Greek mythology and literature from Homer onward.

Ancient Rome

The Latin language has several verbs corresponding to love; “amo” is its basic verb whose infinitive “amare” is still used today in the Italian language and the ancients used it in an affectionate sense as well as in a romantic and sexual sense. From this verb derives amans-amateur, the lover often with accessory notion of lust and friend (girlfriend, but often euphemistically applied to a prostitute).

The corresponding noun is amor, and the meaning of this term for the Romans is well illustrated in the fact that Roma may be an anagram for Amor, used as a secret name for the city in large circles of the population during ancient times; used finally also in its plural form to denote amours or sexual adventures.

This same root also yields amicus-friend and amicitia-friendship (often based on mutual benefit, and sometimes corresponding to a meaning closer to that of “indebtedness” or “influence”). Cicero wrote a treatise entitled “De amicitia (Cicero),” which discusses the concept with some breadth. Ovid wrote a veritable guidebook called “Ars Amatoria,” which addresses, in depth, everything related to love, from extramarital affairs to the problem given by overprotective parents.

The Latins sometimes use amare (to love) to indicate what one likes; a notion, however, that is more generally expressed by placere or delectare, terms the latter used in a more colloquial form, very frequently for example in Catullus’ love poetry.

Diligere, on the other hand, contains the concept of being affectionate as a consequence of esteem; this word also appropriately describes the friendship that can exist between two men, that is, affection combined with esteem. The corresponding noun diligentia (from which we derive diligent) instead takes the meaning of prudence and has little semantic overlap with the verb. Observare is synonymous with diligere, this verb with its corresponding noun, observantia, also often denotes esteem and affection.

The term Caritas is used in Latin translations of the Christian Bible to mean “charitable love”; this meaning, however, is not found in classical pagan literature, since it derives from a merger with a Greek word, so there is no corresponding verb.

Concept of love in pedagogy

In classical antiquity it is especially with Plato that the concept of love acquires relevance from the pedagogical point of view. Eros, in fact, represents the spring of every process of self-elevation and asceticism to which the formative moment of man is substantially reduced. But the centrality of love is fully manifested in Christian pedagogy which is characterized by the assumption of love as the foundation of every educational relationship (St. Augustine, St. Anselm of Aosta, St. John Baptist de la Salle, etc.). In a general sense, charity, or supernatural love, illuminates all of this educational methodology, so much so that we can speak of a “pedagogy of love” in the Gospel.

Love as “loving-kindness” distinguishes Don Bosco’s educational system and, while it is translated in the educational practice into respect, attention and affectionate dedication to the young, it is always supernatural charity. In the pedagogy of rationalism and enlightenment, due to the emergence of the problem of method and intellectual education, the consideration of love is attenuated, but also becomes concrete.

For Comenius (Jan Amos Komenský) the urgency of love appears again as the background of every valid educational work, as well as in Rousseau, in Pestalozzi’s popular humanism, in Fröbel and in the most representative figures of romantic pedagogy. In Pestalozzi love and faith are the “divine” and “eternal” sources of ethical-religious education and originate in their formation and development from family life. Around the meaning and importance of love in the educational process, a debate has arisen between the proponents of a rational conception (scientific pedagogy) and the supporters of a sentimental vision (empirical pedagogy). The theme of love is also discussed, and from different points of view, in the perspectives of sexual education and coeducation, where the theoretical tools of psychoanalysis and general psychology are becoming more and more consistent in a scientific concreteness that does not necessarily marginalize the world of values.

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