The Four Loves

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CS Lewis was a Philologist, as was his friend J. R. R. Tolkien. Philology is the study of language in oral and written historical sources; it is the intersection between textual criticism, literary criticism, history, and linguistics.

In his studies, Lewis had discovered a danger called "Linguistic relativity" - the idea that the structure of a language influences its speakers' world view or thoughts.

As an example, in one experiment some Zuni Indians were put alongside some English-speaking Americans. Both groups were asked to classify a series of colors. The English-speakers correctly classified all the colors. The Zuni Indians classified all the colors correctly, except for blue and green which they had difficulty telling the difference between. This was not due to color blindness, but due to the fact that the Zuni Indians have a single word which encompasses both blue and green - they were not distinct concepts to them.

Why does it matter?

The Bible wasn't written in English. The New Testament was actually written in Greek.

Just as the Zuni Indians struggled to see the difference between blue and green because of their single word for the concept, Lewis also determined that English speakers struggle to see the differences between the four Greek words for love due to our single word for the concept.

  • I love my wife.
  • I love tacos.
  • "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another." [John 13:35]
  • "Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love." [1 John 4:8]
  • The love between David and Jonathan, or Frodo and Sam.

To the English ear, the same word is used in all of these cases. However, they are as different as blue and green.

Let us dive into Lewis' attempt to separate these "four loves".

Storge (affectionate love)

Storge (Pronounced: STOR-jay) is a term for love in the Bible that describes affection, such as between family members.

Romans 12:10 [philostorgos]
Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.

Examples abound in Scripture, such as in John 11:1-44 between siblings Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (whom Jesus raised).

Affection can 'go bad' when it is corrupted by jealousy, ambivalence, and smothering.

Eros (romantic love)

Eros is the romantic love, or the state of "being in love".

Portrayed in Song of Solomon in the Old Testament.

Eros frequently goes bad due to a modern tendency for Eros to become a god to people who fully submit themselves to it.

Lewis contrasts Eros with the raw sexuality of what he called Venus: the illustration Lewis used was the distinction between "wanting a woman" and wanting one particular woman – something that matched his (classical) view of man as a rational animal, a composite both of reasoning angel and instinctual alley-cat.

Philia (friendship love)

Philia is the friendship love - the strong bond existing between people who share common values, interests, or activities. Lewis differentiates philia from the other loves, as philia is "the least biological, organic, instinctive, gregarious and necessary...the least natural of loves". Our species does not need friendship in order to reproduce, but to the classical and medieval worlds it is a higher-level love because it is freely chosen.

Lewis explains that true friendships, like the friendship between David and Jonathan in the Bible, are almost a lost art. He expresses a strong distaste for the way modern society ignores friendship. He notes that he cannot remember any poem that celebrated true friendship like that between David and Jonathan, Orestes and Pylades, Roland and Oliver, Amis and Amiles. Lewis goes on to say, "to the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it".

Growing out of companionship, friendship for Lewis was a deeply appreciative love, though one which he felt few people in modern society could value at its worth, because so few actually experienced true friendship.

In addition to the example of David and Jonathan in the Bible, the Greek word philia is used to describes Jesus' relationship with specifically ONE of his 12 disciples. Do you know which one?

John 20:2 [ephilei]
So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."

It's interesting that we see Jesus had many disciples, and he had 12 apostles, and within the 12 he had an 'inner' group of 3 Apostles with whom he was especially close - Peter and the sons of Zebedee, James and John. These 3 saw him transfigured on the mountain (Matthew 17:1-2) and were the ones whom Jesus shared his sorrow with in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-38). Of those 3, one (John) is the one whom scripture identifies as "the one whom Jesus loved", philia - distinguishing him even from Peter, who was in Christ's inner circle.

Philia has numerous dangers, such as its potential for cliquiness, anti-authoritarianism and pride.

Agape (charity love)

Agape (also called Charity) is the love that exists regardless of changing circumstances.

1 John 4:8 [agapē]
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
John 13:35 [agapēn]
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.

Lewis recognizes this selfless love as the greatest of the four loves, and sees it as a specifically Christian virtue to achieve.

Speaking of the other three natural loves, Lewis says "The natural loves are not self-sufficient" - they need to be subordinate to Agape love, the love of God, to avoid becoming corrupted.


1) Numerous worship songs use the word "Love". In "Let My Words Be Few" by Matt Redman, the refrain goes "Jesus, I am so in love with You". In "Love Song For A Savior" by Jars Of Clay, the refrain goes "I want to fall in love with You". What love is being referred to?

2) Where do you see this confusion of love playing out in modern (English-speaking) society?

3) Where else do you see this confusion of words, of "Linguistic relativity", playing out in modern (English-speaking) society?

Additional Examples