The four (or more) loves of C.S. LewisWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
“All you need is love,” sang the Beatles back in the 1960s. And half a century later, “love is love” has become the rallying cry of celebrities and social media influencers alike.
The two phrases are signposts along a cultural trajectory from idolizing romantic love to worshipping sexuality as the core of human identity, its every expression beyond critique.
A few years before the Beatles recorded their classic song, C.S. Lewis wrote one of his last books, The Four Loves. In it, he sought to present a balanced portrait of the different aspects of love – all of them created by God – using various Greek words that either appear in the Bible or else embody a biblical facet of love.
Across every era, love remains one of humanity’s chief preoccupations, enjoyed and celebrated but also abused and misunderstood. In our own cultural moment, when love has come to mean sexuality before all else, Lewis’ meditations have fresh relevance. They offer a welcome attempt to bring balance and a divine perspective back to the subject of love.
Love in different languages
The English word “love” covers a multitude of relationships. We love God, our spouse, our kids, our friends, our dog, and our favourite food or movie or season of the year.
This is not so different from some other languages, including biblical Hebrew. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew ahav is the broad, multi-purpose word for love. It includes God’s love, as well as human love for God and neighbour, the love of a parent for a child, love between friends or lovers, and even in a negative sense the love of sin or evil.
By contrast, the ancient Greeks had a wide range of words for different types of love. Lewis focused on four of them: storge (“store-gae” meaning affection); philia (friendship); eros (romantic love); and agape (selfless love). There were others as well: ludus (playful love); pragma (practical love); philautia (self-love); and mania (obsessive love). But Lewis chose the first four because they’re either common in the New Testament (agape, philia) or else they describe familiar biblical kinds of love (storge, eros).
Storge (natural affection)
“Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.”
Lewis wrote of affection as the natural bond born of fondness and familiarity, like that between a mother and her child or a man and his dog. It even extends to inanimate objects, such as a beloved toy or favourite sweater or comfort food.
It’s also the most diffuse of all the loves, and the least distinct from the others. We may choose our friends and lovers based on their appealing qualities, but affection just bubbles up naturally in response to familiar people or things. At the same time, it’s impossible to think of genuine friendship or romantic love without affection.
The word storge only appears a handful of times in the New Testament, and only as a compound term (“brotherly affection”) or in negative form (“lacking natural affection”). Nevertheless, the quality itself is on display everywhere in Scripture, in warm, heartfelt relationships: Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi; Hannah and her husband Elkanah; Jesus and his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
Philia (bond of friendship)
“The typical expression of opening friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’”
For Lewis, the deep friendship expressed by the word philia was no casual acquaintance. It was the bond between kindred spirits who share goals or interests, whose personalities and temperaments mesh in harmony with each other.
In the ancient and medieval world, this type of friendship was considered one of the highest forms of love. In fact, the Greeks valued it above romantic love, rooted as it was in fixed virtues rather than fickle passions. However, Lewis lamented its decline in modern times, no longer celebrated in stories and songs as it had been by earlier generations.
The friendship between David and Jonathan is perhaps the most familiar biblical example of this bond. But in the New Testament, philia is one of the two most common words for love, along with agape. Although philia is often thought of as inferior to agape, the two terms have considerable overlap in meaning and are even used as synonyms. Philia not only describes friendship between people, but also love between God and people as well as between God the Father and God the Son.
Eros (romantic or sexual love)
“Eros, honoured without reservation and obeyed unconditionally, becomes a demon.”
Of all the loves, Lewis viewed eros as having the greatest potential to “urge to evil as well as to good.” He contrasted the mere desire for romantic or sexual gratification with the desire for the beloved herself or himself. This desire for oneness between a man and a woman is a beautiful gift from God that reflects the unity between Christ and his people, as well as the intimacy among the members of the Trinity. But when elevated to the point of idolatry in place of God, it becomes a demon, in Lewis’ vivid language.
Unlike the other three loves, the word eros never appears in the New Testament. But the Scriptures are replete with its imagery. In the Old Testament, God is the husband to his people; in the New, Christ is the bridegroom to his church. The prophets of old decry the sins of Israel as spiritual adultery, at times with the most graphic language. And there’s the Song of Solomon, the Scriptures' passionate ode to the joys of romantic love between a young bride and her groom.
Agape (selfless or unconditional love)
“In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give.”
Lewis spoke of the first three loves as natural, shared by all human beings as God’s image bearers. But agape, which he called charity, he saw as a unique Christian virtue, inspired by God in the hearts of believers. As such, the three natural loves must be subordinate to it and framed by it. At the same time, he recognized that all four loves are created by God and each has its proper place; “the highest does not stand without the lowest.”
The word agape was rare in classical Greek literature, only becoming well-known via the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced two or three centuries before the time of Christ. The translators used it as their standard rendering of the Hebrew ahav, and the authors of the New Testament picked up on this, making agape their most common Greek word for love.
In its original sense, agape meant intentional love directed toward everyone, family and strangers alike, as a universal sign of respect, regardless of emotional affinity or attractive traits in the subject. But the New Testament writers expanded it to include the selfless, unconditional love of God, seeking the good of those who don’t deserve it, and by extension the love Christians are to show one another.
The purposeful nature of agape distinguishes it from philia, which is at heart an emotional response to appealing qualities shared with another. This is likely why agape is commanded as an action in the New Testament, whereas philia is not. Even so, the meaning of the two words overlap and they are often used interchangeably for the love of God as well as the love of people for God and for each other. In a negative sense, they can each indicate misplaced love (for the world or for the praise of men, as examples). And both describe the love shared between Jesus and his Father.
Gift, need and appreciative love
Throughout his book, Lewis juxtaposed the four types of love across three broad categories, which he called need-love, gift-love and appreciative love. At the outset, he admitted trying to dismiss what he viewed as selfish need-love, as inferior to the selfless gift-love of God.
However, he soon realized it wasn’t that simple. After all, no one would disparage a child’s love for their mother, born of necessity, as selfish indulgence. In addition, some forms of parental gift-love, taken to extreme, can be smothering. And in a fundamental sense, all human love for God is born of need. We are utterly dependent on him, and we love him because he first loved us. There’s a complex dynamic between our need-love and God’s gift-love, which in turn can inspire our selfless love for him.
As Lewis developed his thinking in this area, he realized there was a third category, appreciative love. This is a love that treasures and delights in a thing for its own sake, as good and worthwhile and beautiful. It can be expressed toward a person or object, or at its best toward God himself.
With respect to our love for God, Lewis summed up the three categories in this way:
“Need-love cries to God from our poverty; Gift-love longs to serve, or even to suffer for, God; Appreciative love says: ‘We give thanks to thee for thy great glory.’”
And using romantic love as an illustration:
“Need-love says of a woman ‘I cannot live without her’; Gift-love longs to give her happiness, comfort, protection – if possible, wealth; Appreciative love gazes and holds its breath and is silent, rejoices that such a wonder should exist even if not for him, will not be wholly dejected by losing her, would rather have it so than never to have seen her at all.”
Bringing the balance back
More than in Lewis’ day, the cultural perspective on love is out of balance; it has tilted from idolizing romance to elevating sexuality as the ground of human identity. And as Lewis repeats in his colourful way, when any aspect of natural love takes the place of God, it becomes a demon that will destroy us.
But love is often out of balance in various corners of the church as well, sometimes due to a misreading of Lewis. There’s a tendency to drop his four loves into separate boxes with sharp, clear boundaries and to rank them from best to worst, with agape at the top and eros (typically) at the bottom.
It’s true that Lewis considered God’s agape as the supreme love from which all others descend. But his layered work, interlacing the four types of love across three qualitative categories, offers a model whose facets overlap and blend into each other, the borders between them porous and dynamic. More than that, each facet is a creation of God to be enjoyed in proper relation to the rest.
Lewis’ The Four Loves not only draws a road map for restoring some balance to how the church and culture look at love. It also invites the reader to delight in love in each of its interrelated forms, and in the God who is the source of them all.
Sources and further reading
Kenny Burchard, “Let’s stop over-interpreting agape vs. phileo,” ChurchLeaders, January 4, 2023.
Neel Burton, “These are the 7 types of love,” Psychology Today, June 25, 2016.
Brenton Dickieson, “And the greatest of these: A review of C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves,” A Pilgrim in Narnia, September 1, 2011.
Zach Kincaid, “Four types of love,” C.S. Lewis blog, February 13, 2020.
Cierra Klatt, “5 Greek and Hebrew words for love,” Olive Tree blog, accessed November 8, 2023.
Roman Krznaric, “The ancient Greeks’ 6 words for love (And why knowing them can change your life),” Yes! Magazine, December 28, 2013.
C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, HarperOne, 2017.
Helmut Richter, “How many loves?” author’s blog, December 12, 2014.
Abby Thornburg, “A response to C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves,” The Dartmouth Apologia, Volume 8 Issue 1, Fall 2013.
“Study guide to The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis,” C.S. Lewis Foundation, 2001.
“The Four Loves quotes,” Goodreads, accessed November 8, 2023.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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