Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Eros and Agape

by Alice von Hildebrand


Traditional Catholic teaching distinguishes between "natural" love and "supernatural" love, indicating clearly that the latter is much superior to the former. The former is called eros, the latter agape. In this article Dr. Alice von Hildebrand discusses eros, the love that can exist between man and woman, and agape, the distinctly Christian love of neighbor.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


19 - 27

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, May 2005

Love plays a key role in human life, for God is love. (1 John 4:8). Heaven is the place where love reigns supreme. Hell is the place where creatures refuse to love. This is why Dante was right when he wrote: Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate. (Leave all hope ye that enter), (Inferno III. 9).

Man was created in God's image and likeness: that is, with a capacity to know, to will, and to love. Original sin has crippled these gifts. It has darkened our intelligence, weakened our wills and frozen our hearts. We now have hearts of stone. The work of Redemption is to re-teach and enable us to love by imitating him who, out of love, died for us on the Cross. "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).

Traditional Catholic teaching distinguishes between "natural" love and "supernatural" love, indicating clearly that the latter is much superior to the former. The former is called eros, the latter agape. Our aim is to compare these. Eros played an important role in pagan literature. Plato's Symposium is dedicated to an analysis of eros. The greatness of love is eulogized in Orpheus and Euridice, Cupid and Psyche. Christian literature usually refers to natural loves, such as the love between spouses, love for one's children, love for one's parents, love between siblings, love between friends. Agape, that is supernatural love, is limited to love of God and love of neighbor.

In the modest frame of this article, I shall limit myself to discussing eros, the love that can exist between man and woman, and agape, the distinctly Christian love of neighbor.

Eros is a response to value. In falling in love, we clearly perceive the beauty, charm, lovableness, and uniqueness of the person who touches our heart. There elicits in us a response of "enchantment." This is expressed in Tristan and Isolde: "Isolde, how beautiful art thou." The beloved one delights us, just as we are delighted by the perception of a grand sunset or of sublime music, with the crucial difference that in the latter cases, the beauty is impersonal. In spousal love, the loved one is a person and therefore does not only possess a much higher metaphysical dignity but can return our love.

As soon as one falls in love, one feels a strong desire to shower the beloved one with every conceivable gift. It can be a flower. It can be a beautiful object. It can be anything that truly benefits the beloved. Love is inventive and is constantly concerned about the good of the beloved. Italian expresses this strikingly: Ti voglio bene. (I wish you well). Dietrich von Hildebrand called this intentio benevolentiae (the desire for the good of the other). Not only does the lover harbor this wish, but he also wants to be the giver himself, "I wish you every possible good thing and moreover, I want that these should be given through me."

By contrast, to dislike another person is to close one's heart toward what benefits the other. We all know how difficult it is to be generous toward somebody we do not like. To love another person, however, is to wish to be with him, to share our life with him, to be united to him. In the case of spousal love, the lover longs for the closest possible human union: marriage in which two become one flesh, intentio unionis (desire for union with the other).

Natural love longs for reciprocity. Our heart is touched by the beloved, and we wish and hope that he will reciprocate our love. If love is not reciprocated, we experience deep bitterness. Our love is accepted, but we are not loved in return. Unreciprocated love and the loss of the beloved one are two pillars of "tragic" literature. In Virgil's Aeneid, Dido takes her life when Aeneas has left her. Ugo Foscolo's famous book: Le Ultime Lettere di Lacopo Ortis as well as Goethe's novel Das Leiden des Werthers are dedicated to tragic love. This alone explains their success.

To most men, a reciprocated human love is identified with earthly happiness. A lawyer discovered that the young girl he loved had finally returned his love. His remark made to Dietrich von Hildebrand upon finding out speaks volumes: "But from now on my law practice is no longer important!" Those of us not totally poisoned by the shallow materialism pervading our society know that earthly success will never satisfy the longing God has placed in our hearts. We are made for love. A reciprocated love elicits joy.

Human beings who normally choose to "veil" themselves toward others joyfully reveal themselves to the beloved when love is reciprocated. There are things we tell only to the one whom we love above everyone else. This is why if we have "revealed" ourselves and later are betrayed, we fell so fatally wounded.

Many human beings are lovable, but only one touches our heart in a unique way. Kierkegaard writes that deep down we all believe that there is one person in the world who is made for us. We keep looking for this one unique person. To find him or her is earthly happiness. It implies a bond between human beings that nothing can replace. Two people blessed with a deep affinity can often communicate without words. One look suffices.

Beautiful as earthly love is, it is not morally obligatory. There is no obligation for a man to fall in love even though it is one of the great experiences of human life.

Agape, supernatural love, is very different. In this case, we are not responding to a particular individuality of a person but to his dignity as a person, as imago Dei. Every single human being is a child of God, created by him, loved by him. Christ died for every one of us. No one is excluded, even though man can choose to exclude himself. In agape, we need not perceive the beauty of the neighbor whom we embrace in our love, for we know in faith that he deserves our love, even though this lovableness can be totally hidden from our sight. When he kissed a leper, St. Francis of Assisi was kissing Christ in him. Leprosy is not lovable. This was physical leprosy. Spiritual leprosy is infinitely worse because one is responsible for it. Yet, the greatest criminal, be it a Stalin or a Hitler, as long as he is alive, deserves our prayers, which express our concern for his true welfare: to turn back to God.

Unfortunately there are human beings who seem to make themselves as unattractive as possible. St. Catherine of Siena took care of a woman who responded to the saint's loving care with insults and ingratitude. But this did not deter Catherine from lovingly attending to the woman's needs.

To love someone who is "unlovable" does not make sense on a purely natural level. At the supernatural level, on the contrary, it is a direct and necessary consequence of our love of Christ. This is why St. John writes that if we claim to love God and do not love our neighbor, we are liars (1 John 4:20). This love is clearly a victory of grace in us. Without grace, to use Dostoyevsky's words, we are "physically incapable of loving our neighbors" (A Raw Youth, Chapter 11).

Whereas in natural love we perceive the beauty and lovableness of the beloved (and this is why it is so wrong to say that love is blind), in supernatural love we choose "to be blind" to a person's unattractiveness. Whether or not he is "beautiful" is irrelevant. We love him because of his dignity as a child of God. We partake in Christ's love for him. Christ loves sinners in spite of their sin. This is reason enough for us. We need not inquire further.

In supernatural love, there is also a desire to do good to our neighbor. It is manifested in our ardent wish that his soul will be saved and in our willingness to do anything in our power to further this end. This explains the ardor of missionaries who sacrifice everything to bring souls to Christ. St. Therese of Lisieux writes that she burned with the desire to win souls for Christ. This is true of all saints. They partake in Christ's love for these souls, for Christ's heart is a fornax ardens caritatis (burning furnace of charity). Though our main concern is the salvation of our neighbors, this does not exclude our sincere interest in whatever is objectively good for them, be it works of charity, alms, or a readiness to help. He who is animated by this love "becomes good" because he partakes in Christ's love. His heart of stone is transformed into a heart of flesh.

Agape's desire to be united to the loved one (our neighbor) takes the form of longing to praise God with him in eternity. St. Maria Goretti, for example, expressed the wish that her murderer would join her in heaven. She converted him.

In agape, the lover does not wish for reciprocity except insofar as it would be good for an unlovable neighbor to love. But "human" reciprocity is not the aim. This once again distinguishes love of neighbor from spousal love.

We mentioned that human happiness is equated with reciprocated love between man and woman. Not so with Christian love of neighbor. There, my own earthly happiness does not depend on how or whether my neighbor responds to my love, but, instead, on whether he too will learn to share in Christ's love for others. Further, in love of neighbor there is no self-revelation, no desire to open oneself up to him. This self-revelation is only justified when a true love between man and woman (eros) has been reciprocated.

Whereas spousal love is exclusive and limited to one single person, love of neighbor is not exclusive. The love can be directed to anybody, black or white, man or woman, stranger or acquaintance, old or young, born or unborn. This finds its sublime expression in Christ's response to the man who said, "Who is my neighbor?" in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In traditional philosophy, the difference between natural and supernatural love has been expressed by the words, amor concupiscentiae and amor benevolentiae. We may question whether the choice of words is a happy one. The word concupiscentia carries with it a note of selfishness, i.e., seeking one's own advantage, a pursuing of one's wishes. Benevolentia, on the other hand, expresses generosity and self-giving. It is tempting to accept the superiority of the "benevolent love" over the other because the first aims only at "doing good" to the neighbor, whereas the latter seeks union with the loved one and is easily interpreted as "self seeking."

This is something we shall challenge. The word "selfless" is ambiguous. Ambiguity is one of the main sources of error in philosophy. It can mean, first of all, that "the self" is in no way involved. It is, so to speak, put in brackets. This selflessness is underlined in St. Benedict's holy rule. He prohibits his monks from seeking their own advantage, and commands them to seek that of others. Self-interest is in no way the theme. Nevertheless, this does not allow us to draw the conclusion that this "selflessness" is the opposite of selfishness. Granted, it is tempting to do so because, clearly, to be "selfless" in this sense necessarily excludes our being selfish.

To assume, however, that as soon as I pursue my own beneficial good, I am necessarily selfish is definitely wrong. Choosing a major in college because one has a particular talent in that field is in no way selfish. When choosing a career, it is wise to select one corresponding to our interests and talents. C.S. Lewis, who hated business, wrote to his father that had he chosen to work in a bank, it is likely that he would have been promptly arrested for fraud. How ill-advised it would be if someone decided to join an active religious order when his soul is strongly geared to contemplation. To assume that to be virtuous is to always choose the thing for which one has no inclination and no talent, is a total distortion of religious life.

When self-interest conflicts with those of others, the question of selfishness may arise. I say "may" because it need not be the case. When two people apply for the same job, it is legitimate for each one of them to present his case in the best favorable light. Obviously, if in order to get hired one were to slander the other candidate, then it would be not properly selfish but strictly immoral.

It is typical of the person striving for perfection that he joyfully sacrifices his beneficial good for the good of others. There are innumerable occasions each day where one can renounce his preferences in order to please the loved one. This is true, not only in religious life, but also in marriage. In religious life, the rule commands this selfless behavior. In married life, it is the road not only to peace and harmony, but also to holiness.

Selfishness can always creep into a purely natural love. It makes its appearance as soon as one yields to the temptation of ruthlessly sacrificing the legitimate good of another person for the sake of one's own interest. Our wounded nature always tempts us to put our advantage above others, and it does not hesitate to trample upon another's rights in order to satisfy its cravings. This self-centeredness is clearly immoral.

While serving our neighbor, we are not self-concerned. This selflessness is inevitably unselfish, but it would be wrong to draw the conclusion that it is because the self has been put in brackets.

Supernatural love of neighbor excludes selfishness under any form. Natural love is threatened by selfishness, not because it seeks union with the loved one, and not because it longs for happiness, but because it can creep into these legitimate longings. Not only is it legitimate to desire union with the loved one and to expect happiness from this union,, but not to desire this union is totally incompatible with love. What would a girl think of her fiancé if he showered gifts upon her, but manifested no desire ever to be with her? She would inevitably conclude that he does not love her with a spousal love. To be the source of happiness for another person is a deep source of one's own happiness. This is why, more than once, men have told me that they would rather be loved with an ardent natural love than to be just the object of another person's love of neighbor.

This becomes luminous upon realizing how ardently saints desire union with God. For this reason, the famous thesis of Fenelon, Bishop of Cambrai, called l'amour desinteresse (disinterested love, i.e., quietism) was condemned by the Church.

The superiority of love of neighbor over natural love is to be explained by its supernatural quality, in its partaking in Christ's love for our neighbor. Its virtue resides in its supernatural nature. By its very essence, this love is pure because it has its source in God's love. This is why it is imperative for a real Christian to aim, with God's grace, at transforming all natural loves into supernatural ones and then enabling them to exude the perfume of holiness. By so doing, spousal love would not only preserve its ardor and enchantment, but it would also fulfill all its potential purified of human faults and imperfections.

From a Christian point of view, the barrier dividing natural and supernatural love should be abolished. All loves should be transformed in Christ, and only then will they blossom in all their beauty. That this is possible is proven by the fact that there have been and are holy couples and holy friendships. Let us think of St. Henrich and St. Cunegonde. We can assume that the same is true of the father and mother of the Little Flower. It is deeply meaningful that marriage is a sacrament. (This is not true of consecrated virginity even though the Church places it above the married state.)

There was a holy friendship between St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, between St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, between St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal, between St. Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac. Had these friendships, based on a deep affinity, not been "supernaturalized," they would have lost their glow and beauty. These saints loved each other in and through Christ.

Love of God and love of neighbor are strict Christian obligations. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27). This leads us to the important question: what is meant by self-love? Once again, we are facing ambiguities for the expression "self-love" can mean very different things.

First, self-love can refer to the inevitable solidarity that each man has with himself. If my foot hurts me, I feel it and will do something about it. This "love" is neither moral nor immoral. It is simply rooted in our nature.

Self-love can also mean the tendency since original sin to pursue our personal advantage with no concern for that of others. "Me first," unless corrected by grace, is a selfish response that is manifested even in very small children. This is why Pascal wrote: Le moi est haissable. (The me is hateful.) Innumerable sins are committed daily because we do not care about the good of others while ruthlessly pursuing our own interests. "I am not my brother's keeper."

Many will interpret the saying, "Charity begins at home," to justify their constant self-concern. "I must provide for myself first; I owe this to myself." This interpretation has one valid sense only: I am first and foremost responsible for my immortal soul for the plain reason that it is my soul and that I have a control over it, even as I do not have control over the souls of others. This is strikingly expressed in Dom Chautard's book, The Soul of the Apostolate. He writes, "God wishes us to love our neighbor as ourselves, but never more than ourselves: that is to say, never to the extent of hurting ourselves personally."

The secretary of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux described him for us this way: the saint was "First for himself, and thus everything for all." Souls have threatened their salvation by being so absorbed in their apostolate that they totally neglected their own prayer life. They tried to save others while starving themselves spiritually. This is why St. Bernard tells us that we should not be like pipes through which the water keeps flowing. We should be like cisterns that are filled to the brim and then overflow. Dom Chautard quotes these words from Sacred Scripture, "If you wish to please God, have pity on your soul!" Our primary obligation is to work toward the salvation of our soul. We are also morally obliged to care primarily for those linked to us by familial or other special bonds. In his book, Bleak House, Dickens has admirably sketched the personality of Mrs. Jellyby, who totally neglects husband and children because of her dedication to some obscure tribe in Africa.

Proper self-love is not easy to achieve for Christians and still more difficult for a pagan. Socrates came close to it when he was about to drink the hemlock and a friend asked him whether there was still something they could do for him. The "wise man of Greece" answered, "Take care of your souls." To love oneself is to cater to the spiritual health of the soul. To love others implies that we are deeply concerned about the well being of their souls. The saints alone truly love themselves because they love God above all things. St. Augustine has expressed this strikingly, "He who loves himself and hates God, hates himself. He who hates himself and loves God truly loves himself."

Some psychologists claim that no one is capable of loving others unless he loves himself first, and so they determine that our first concern should be to develop our "self-esteem." Once we achieve this goal, we shall be able to love others. This is a fashionable view. Time and again we hear about people suffering from "low self-esteem" who go to psychiatrists to learn to appreciate themselves. The remedy offered by pop psychology is to talk "patients" into believing that they are just as good as others. Once they have achieved this goal, they will be capable of having a "positive" relationship with others. Much of the New Age pedagogy rests on this principle.

There is an unhealthy hatred of oneself based on the acknowledgement that we are not as beautiful, as intelligent, as talented as we would like to be. This hatred is a response of one's wounded pride. It is better to be ugly or to have an unattractive figure when one would like to bask in self-admiration. The popularity of plastic surgery can be explained by the fact that most people are not pleased about their physical appearance and are willing to deplete their purse for he sake of improving it. The billion-dollar business of the cosmetic world rests upon the fact that it constantly promises that its products will work miracles, and once a person is pleased about himself, he will inevitably attract others.

Very few realize that there exists what I shall term "holy cosmetics." Not all saints were beauties. But all of them had a spiritual attraction and a mysterious radiance that is a promise of how they will look in eternity. In heaven we shall not have the face that we were born with, but the face that our collaboration with grace has chiseled for us.

To accept to be oneself with all of one's imperfections and limitations in domains where one has no control is the triumph of humility over pride. But we are rarely concerned about improving our spiritual appearance in a domain where, with God's grace, we can change and truly become lovable. We start loving ourselves in the valid sense of this term when we realize that God loves us (This has been strikingly formulated by Roy Schoeman in his great book, Salvation is from the Jews. He desperately craved to be loved, and one day, through a thunderbolt of divine grace, he experienced that God did love him). Sometimes, in his Goodness, God sends us a messenger that speaks of his love: father, mother, and friend. St. Monica was clearly God's messenger for St. Augustine. But his soul ceased to be restless only when it rested in God. Unless we understand that the messenger's love comes from Love Itself, our deep longing to be loved will never be totally satisfied.

All this will become much clearer as soon as we realize how weak and imperfect human love is. I have tried to sing of its beauty. Dietrich von Hildebrand called it, "a remnant of the earthly paradise." But this beautiful flower is constantly threatened by the imperfections of our fallen nature. An authentic, great love is not immune from this danger. The subtle poisons of selfishness and pride, which seem to be dormant when one falls in love, can awaken in married life.

Unbaptized eros is both tragic and crippled. One striking example is Elsa in Wagner's Lohengrin. She deeply loves the hero, but yields to the demon of doubt when tempted by the poisonous insinuations of Ortrud. She has solemnly promised Lohengrin that she would not ask him where he came from and so obey his command: Nie sollst Du mich befragen. (Never shallst thou ask me.) One fatal day, she yields to temptation, forces him to reveal his origins . . . and loses him.

This drama repeats itself under various forms in many marriages. The sacred promise of faithfulness can be forgotten when temptation arises.

Once married, the beloved is put under a microscope. Many of his weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, which had not been perceived or which were overlooked during the courtship, can become irritating. One tends to exaggerate them and so is unable to regain the Mount Tabor image of the loved one.

Kierkegaard wrote, "One hundred cannons should remind us daily of the curse of habit." Which one of us would forget the first kiss? Why is it that after awhile, one can exchange this sign of tenderness absentmindedly, preoccupied with small, petty tasks? The enchantment of courtship was united to our eagerness to "listen" to the voice of the beloved. Everything was of interest to us. The death of a pet, a grave illness, or a childish sorrow awakened our burning interest. Those married for a while who have failed to "fight the good fight" lose interest in one another's concerns.

But the dangers of marital life are not limited to those mentioned. We all have eagle eyesight for the weaknesses of others, while being blind to our own failures. There are two reasons for this. First, our sight is outwardly directed: all of us perceive the defects of another's face more easily than those of our own. Second, self-criticism is painful and is for this reason carefully avoided. Yet those who have learned some wisdom know that to correct one's own imperfections is the best and fastest way of correcting those of our spouse. Our readiness to change, be it even in small things such as coming on time or putting things in order, is the best and fastest way to help the beloved overcome his own limitations. This is what Dietrich von Hildebrand called "the apostolate of being," and it should be practiced in marriage.

Kierkegaard, who certainly loved his fiancée, wrote that much as we love the beloved, we tend to love our own will more. To "force" one's will, while disregarding the wish of one's spouse, will inevitably lead to conflicts. Obviously, there are things that one cannot do, such as agreeing to commit evil because one's spouse insists upon it. (This is the tragic situation of women whose husbands want them to take the pill.) I refer instead to legitimate "preferences" that a lover gives up for the sake of the other. These preferences are by themselves good, but it is a sign of love to sacrifice them for our spouse. When dealing with another person's "faults," the situation is different. A true lover legitimately suffers from them. But there is a right way and a wrong way of suffering. First, and primarily, a spouse should suffer from these faults because they offend God and hurt the soul of the one we love. If a husband has violent fits of anger, he is hurting his own soul. But if a wife challenges this fault because "she cannot stand it," she has not adopted the true Christian attitude. She is more concerned about herself than about the offense against God and the harm to her spouse. In his Confessions, St. Augustine has admirably shed light on this danger. When cheated by his students in Rome, his response was rage. He tells us, "He hated these students but not with a righteous hatred," for he hated them because of the harm they did him, and not because they endangered their own souls. We have all heard a spouse exclaim that he or she will never "forgive" her or him for an act of unfaithfulness. This spouse is more concerned about the hurt felt than about the offense to God and grave spiritual harm done. These examples of an unwillingness to forgive stem from a greater concern about one's "feelings," more than the good of the other. This can create a serious breach in a human relationship and can bring a marriage to the brink of disaster.

Another danger of eros is that the loved one is idolized. The beloved replaces God. But to make a god of a creature is to introduce a deadly cancer into this relationship. One loves a human being best by loving him as a human being. This has been powerfully expressed by St. Augustine in the Confessions, where when meditating upon his despair upon the death of his friend, he writes, O dementiam nescientem diligere homines humaniter ("O madness that does not know to love men as men should be loved").

We all know such tragic cases in which the death of the loved one causes the other to commit suicide. This danger of idolization is potentially present in any great love that is not baptized. The Greeks immortalized this is the story of Oreste and Pylade. Sheldon Vanauken relates in his great book A Severe Mercy that he and Davy had made a suicide pact in case one of them were to die. A friend of my husband had made a similar pact with her spouse.

This is not yet the end of dangers menacing a purely human love, passionate and intense as it might be. Love, by its very essence, longs for eternity and infinity in order to fulfill its very "genius." Man is tragically limited: the discrepancy between his longing and his weakness can drive him to despair. This is also linked to his awareness that though he wants to protect the loved one from harm, he is bound to fail. Love is chivalrous and certainly can achieve much to protect the beloved. But accidents, sickness and death are not under our control.

Finally, the lover will sooner or later realize that our human capacity to love is limited. We are not "love itself" but can at best "partake" of love. This is why the noblest eros carries within itself a note of tragedy. It can never achieve by itself what the very essence of love calls for. Humanly, our love is defeated.

The longing that burns in the soul of any true lover can only find its fulfillment in being transformed in Christ, and in no way from the fact that the intentio unionis has been eliminated. One only needs to read the mystics to realize how they longed to be united with Christ, and how they joyfully embraced the Cross where it is to be found in this vale of tears.

Dr. Alice von Hildebrand was born in Brussels, Belgium. She earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Fordham University. She was the wife of the famous philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand. She is the author of Introduction to Philosophy and collaborated with her husband in the writing of Situation Ethics, Graven Images, and The Art of Living. In 1989 Sophia Institute Press published her book, By Love Refined. She has lectured extensively and is Professor Emeritus at Hunter College of the City of New York. Her last article in HPR appeared in March 2004.

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