Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.
Friday, October 8, 2010
Love's Lost Meaning
It was a Saturday morning and I had just grabbed my morning cup of coffee. I sat down at the computer to browse through new Facebook posts and I came across one from a high school friend that caught my eye. She apparently was the victim of a bad romance, and in her sorrow she quoted Paul’s famous treatise on love found in his first letter to the church at Corinth, part of which reads: “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Paul’s description of love appears clear enough prima facie: when you love someone, you will be kind to them, practice long-suffering towards them, don’t be proud or envious or selfish, etc. But things become much less clear in practice: as my Facebook friend can attest, most people’s experiences with love do not look anything like Paul’s description. Why? Because a complex problem exists in understanding Paul’s description of love that the modern world has left us unprepared to solve. The fact of the matter is the English language is woefully inadequate to describe the full range of human emotions as it pertains to love. Think about all the different ways we use the word “love”: I love my wife, I love my daughters, I love my friends, I love my car, I love my favorite football team. But clearly I love my wife differently than I love my daughters, and my car differently than either, and my friends in yet another different way. All this equivocating between the different forms of love often leaves us horribly confused, and - like my Facebook friend – hurt and frustrated.
Greek and Latin are both much better at differentiating between the different expressions of love. Both classical languages had several different words that can be translated as “love” in English. For example, the Greek word ερος (eros) and the Latin word amor both mean love in a sexual connotation; this is largely the emotion that causes men and women to get married and promise life-long fidelity to one another. Φιλια (philia) and affectus both mean love in a friendly sense; this is the pleasant feeling experienced between friends meeting over coffee after a long time apart or between men watching football together in their man cave. And finally, αγαπη (agapé) and its Latin equivalent caritas both characterize something totally lost on many Americans today: a charitable love born out of selflessness and respect for other people.
At this point I am sure you have figured out that Paul did not use ερος or φιλια in that famous excerpt from his first letter to the church at Corinth. He used αγαπη. And when St. Jerome translated the text into Latin late in the fourth century, he used caritas, the Latin word from which we derive our English word "charity." As such, when translators in the seventeenth century translated the Bible into English and produced the King James Version, they used the word “charity.” As you can imagine, the passage loses all relevance for my love-sick Facebook friend when you substitute “charity” for “love.” Similarly, most other words in the New Testament translated into English as “love” are also αγαπη (or a form of it); for example, in Colossians 3 when Paul exhorts men to “love [their] wives”, he uses the verbal form of αγαπη. Imagine for a minute the translation of that verse reading, “Husbands, be charitable to your wives…,” and the passage bears a new significance.
In our selfish, hyper-sexed, divorce-on-demand society, we are in danger of forgetting about αγαπη. People are unequipped to build healthy relationships and understand the nuances of "love"; as a result, they are hurt and confused, and relationships fail and families are destroyed. This problem serves as a microcosm for many more like it. Without a quick about-face with regards to our educational approach to classical languages and the humanities in general, the pain and confusion will only increase.