One traditional distinction in philosophical and theological reflection about love is that between eros and agape. At the most basic level, this distinction has been framed in terms of the relation between the value we see in the things and persons we love on the one hand, and the love we have for them on the other. In eros, we love the beloved because of some value we see in them: their beauty, their goodness, or their virtue, for example. In agape, in contrast, the order of explanation is reversed: we see value in the beloved because we love them.
Of course, in the sources of these two conceptions of love—respectively, the works of Plato and the Bible—each is developed so as to involve more than what’s contained in these characterizations.
For example, in Plato’s Symposium, Socrates and his banquet companions consider a certain kind of love: one inspired by the bodily beauty of the beloved—a love that’s erotic in the more common sense of the term in English. However, in Socrates’s account of love—taught to him, he claims, by the prophetess Diotima—eros in the latter sense is merely a synecdoche: that is, one (and on her account, a less perfect) instance of a kind of love with other (and better) forms. Eros in this broader sense is, in short, love inspired by beauty. The beauty to which erotic love responds is that of the beloved’s body, and what this awakens in us are our powers of biological reproduction—i.e. the drive to sexual union with the beloved. But this love implicitly strives for a higher sort of beauty, which becomes clear once we understand what beauty is.
Beauty, on Diotima’s account, is the character that something has for us when its goodness strikes us in such a way as to awaken our creative powers. These include our reproductive powers—our capacity to create human beings through sexual union. However, they include a great deal more: we can, in Diotima’s terms, be pregnant in a great many ways. And, this is in part because there are other (and higher) goods that can strike us in the mode of the beautiful—that can awaken the capacities within us to ‘give birth to’ much more than other human beings. We have eros when an artist is inspired to give birth to art by the beauty of other artworks and of nature. We have it when a statesman is inspired by the beauty of justice to give birth to justice in the state. And most of all, as Socrates tells us in under the influence of Diotima, we have it when a philosopher is inspired by the highest goods—those embodied in the suprasensible forms—to give birth to the wisdom that comes from grasping them. This is why the pederastic love between mentor and mentee—between a man and a boy, in the Athenian context—provides the key to the true nature of eros. That is, it’s a kind of erotic love that makes clear that eros isn’t just about biological reproduction—since the sexual union between two males can’t have such a result.
Agape, in contrast, needs no inspiration from the goodness of the beloved. Quite the contrary: it’s a kind of love that awakens and persists despite the flaws—the ugliness—of the beloved. The Greek word came to have this meaning through Christian interpretations of the Greek Bible, where God’s love for human beings is offered as the paradigm example of agape. In the Christian view, God doesn’t love us because we are good—precisely because we’re not. We are, instead, incredible flawed—marred by the stain of original sin. Thus, God’s love isn’t something we deserve in the sense that something genuinely good does. Rather, God’s agape is, in line with his nature, completely spontaneous—that is, unmotivated by anything in its object: in traditional terms, the purest of gifts (expressed in God’s salvific grace); one that we don’t at all deserve, but that God gives us nevertheless in his infinite mercy.
In the Christian view, though, agape oughtn’t to be restricted to God: we are called to cultivate it in ourselves. We are in other words, called to love the stranger, the enemy, and the cruel world—i.e. precisely those things whose disvalue eros would tend to find repulsive. This is one of the unifying messages of Jesus Christ, as portrayed in the Greek Bible—embodied, for example, in the so-called Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22: 37-40).
However, in traditional Christianity the ordering of the two parts of the Great Commandment is a genetic one. In other words, it’s our love for God that makes it possible for us to have agape for the neighbor: i.e. for all other human beings, and the world at large. Our love for God, though, is a form of eros: that is, it’s a love inspired precisely by God’s goodness. In having this love, we accept the gift of grace, which, among other things, endows us with the power to get past our selfish, sinful nature and have agape for the neighbor and for creation as a whole. Of course, perhaps in contrast to Plato’s conception of eros, strictly speaking this is a power not our own. Still, though, it expresses itself through us nonetheless: we are inspired by the beauty of God’s goodness to emulate his example—especially through emulating its earthly manifestation in the life of Jesus Christ. In other words, on the traditional Christian view, human agape requires, as it were, an erotic bridge: we must pass through eros for God to achieve it.
When we consider the nature of this erotic bridge, though, we can see how traditional Christian agape is doomed to fall short of the example it aims to emulate most: that of the figure of Jesus Christ. Consider: what is the nature of the erotic bridge to agape? That is, what kind of goodness in God is it that drives traditional Christians most?
The key here is to notice the central role hope plays in traditional Christianity. In that context, hope is always soteriological: the hope for salvation. What salvation is thought to consist in varies from denomination to denomination, and from person to person. For some, it consists in an afterlife in heaven, whether it be envisioned according to popular images of clouds, harps, and intensified versions of earthly joys; or, more abstractly, as Christian philosophers have often preferred—the sheer ecstasy of a beatific vision of God. For others, it’s envisioned in millenarian terms—an existence purified of all things bad after the Apocalypse or the Rapture. However it’s envisioned, traditional Christian hope is hope for escape: escaping the flaws and awfulness of the world and other people.
The erotic bridge to agape, as it functions in traditional Christianity, is built on the foundations of such soteriological hope. I often ask my Christian friends: if there were no hope of salvation—if you thought, for example, that your death was really the end, that your life and the lives of those you care for have no particular unifying point or purpose, that many injustices will never be punished, and many acts of virtue will go unrewarded—would you still love God? If the answer is ‘no’, I think, what you have isn’t real love: not, that is, the agape that, Christ taught, is love in its highest and most difficult form.
For this reason, such traditional Christian agape is utterly unchristlike. At bottom, it is an instrumental, transactional affair: something Christians cultivate in the hope of achieving salvation. However, by the standards of the Christian picture itself, it is, therefore, qualitatively unlike that agape of Christ, and of God—a love that needs no such inspiration from goodness, let alone hope for anything good for oneself. The latter sort of agape—genuined agape, I would like to say—is unselfish, and in being so, can easily strike us as mad: the love that turns its cheek against the savage enemy, that persists despite hostility, persecution, and violence.
The figure of Christ in the gospels is an astonishing example of such seemingly mad agape, both in word and deed. For an example of the former, we need turn no further than to the episode from the book of Matthew quoted above. Immediately after Christ expresses the Great Commandment, a lawyer approaches him and asks: but who is my neighbor? Jesus doesn’t answer his question, but tells a story—the famed story of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan who helps the man who is precisely not his neighbor by any criteria that could inspire eros in him—the stranger from another, hostile land—is the one who exhibits true agape. He doesn’t ask why he should love—what goodness in the stranger could activate his powers. And this is why Jesus doesn’t answer the lawyer’s question: from the viewpoint of agape, it’s simply the wrong question to ask.
For an example of the latter—Christ’s exemplification of agape in deed—we can find no better example than his actions in the wake of his prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus begs: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” (Matthew 26:39)—may he, in other words, be allowed to avoid the torment and death that he knows awaits him if he stays on his current path. On one traditional reading of this episode, Jesus knows that on the other side of this painful death, kingship in heaven awaits him. But if this is right, the love he exhibits in being willing to undergo the Passion isn’t, for me, all that inspirational. That is, on the traditional reading, Jesus is simply very good at deferring gratification. He’s like the athlete willing to undergo painful training, living in the assurance that achievement and reward are waiting for her on the other side. Such people are, of course, impressive in their own way. However, they’re impressive for having incredible fortitude and ambition, not examples of resolute agape. The Jesus who is willing to go through some trials in order to get a much greater reward—lordship in heaven—is impressive the way the hardworking athlete is. However, the Jesus who is willing to do so without any such hope—who is committed to love, come what may—is an example of something far greater, far more challenging. This is the Jesus that I find inspiring: the one who loves without hope of reward.
One of the deepest lessons in Spinoza’s religious thought, I think, is that hope for salvation is beside the point. At one level, Spinoza’s hostility to soteriology and theodicy stems from his naturalism—his allergy to any belief in the supernatural. However, there is, I think, a deeper religious conviction that drives this hostility: one that concerns the proper understanding of the insights to be found in the Christian tradition that Spinoza took such great care to preserve. If the cultivation of agape is one of the core lessons of Christ’s teaching, then someone who seeks to emulate his example shouldn’t need any hope of salvation to drive their love of others and the world, should need to find the world beautiful or good to have love: no promise of relief in the afterlife, of an apocalyptic redemption of the fallen world, nor of communing with any suprasensible reality, as in Plato or in the doctrine of the beatific vision. If they do need such hope, their love is simply like that of the child who kisses their grandmother on their parents’ instructions, driven by the promise of a nice bag of candy if they just suck up their distaste and behave.