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 Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand.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.


  1. I enjoyed this blog entry and would like to add a story of my own. Suzy and I have been attending a Bible church for over ten years. We like it. Each week, Scripture is exposited in the manner in which you are prescribing. These word-study sermons have had a direct and meaningful effect on my own married life. The time I am remembering was a study over the word "honor" and how husbands should honor their wives. It sounds nice doesn't it? Similar to the compromised translation of the word "love" into our own English language, so much of the texts original meaning was lost. What does this prescribed honor look like? Well, left to our own devices, most husbands would have concluded something along the lines of, "think your wife is important". Not bad… fair to say the least. But as you have already observed: I think my car is important too. The pastor went on to explain the Greek form of the word was used only in a few other places in the Bible-- don't quote me here-- and that the particular use of the word "honor" bared the weight of the type of honor you would offer to royalty. The pastor's exposition and application has stayed with me. Do you let a Queen do dishes? Do you belch in front of the Queen? How do you act when a Queen enters the room? These questions have guided me in my attempt honor and love of my wife. Now, most wives would refuse the constant insistence of being carried around on pedestal and most of us know this isn't very practical in everyday life. But the deep knowledge of wife knowing that her husband is willing to drop anything else (his first preferences, his work, his hobbies, his time, etc.) at the drop of hat-- The queen has entered the room!!--to give his wife his best is an amazing thing that I suppose few wives find in a husband. Not only because it is a difficult standard to fulfill but because most husbands have missed this lofty mandate through the dullness of our English language and our own ignorance as well.

  2. Matt, thanks for you thoughtful comment. Notice at the end of my post I said that this is a microcosm for many more like it; your example is a perfect illustration for what I mean.

    Now, imagine with me for a minute a different world than the one we live in. Imagine a world where more people are equipped to understand these nuances themselves. Imagine a world where lay Christians - that is, your average, everyday, non-ministerial Christians - are educated in such a way that they can analyze texts and language like this for themselves. I daresay we wouldn't look like the fools that the secular progressives portray us to be. That's what the world would look like if we committed to a classical education.

    I understand it isn't where we are now, but couldn't it be different?