By: Marc De Kesel
The first word in any reflection upon Christian love is always already double. For that Love is both Eros and Agapè, Amor and Caritas.
Agapè/Caritas is historically the first. Don’t forget it is a ‘technical’ term. Before Christ’s resurrection, we lived under the Law, while now we live in Love, Agapè: thus Saint Paul in several of his letters. The Law was good and holy, but since it became clear we are unable to fulfill its commandments, God sent a Messiah to put an end to the age of the Law – i.e. the age of sin, death and all other kinds of ‘lack’ – and to start a new age, a time without time, a realm without death or any other lack. Love/Agapè is one of the names of that age, of the age without lack, the age of supreme goodness and eternal life.
We longed for God, followed the way of the Law, but failed to reach Him. Now, in the age of Love, our longing is satisfied. Now, to love means at the same time to be loved, to be satisfied in our longing for love.
This is exactly the opposite of that other word that resonates in Christian Love. Eros – translated in Latin as Amor – is love, but without at the same time being loved. It is desire, unsatisfied and unsatisfiable desire. It is desire in so far it is not anchored in what or whom it desires.
The origin of Eros is pagan. It is a god, and even with regard to pagan religion, it is a strange god. Somewhere in Euripides, you can read that nowhere in Greece you can find an altar for Eros. It is a god to whom you cannot pray, whom you can give no sacrifice, no prayer, no religion.
Love as the shore of satisfaction (agape/caritas) and Love as the endless quest for satisfaction (eros/amor): Christian Love combines both.
Augustine was not the first to do that, but the way he did is was historically decisive. According to him, we long for God in the ‘erotic’ sense of the word. What drives us is Eros.
But Augustine’s Eros is divine, it is anchored in the divinity of its object, and since that object is perfect, our love, too, is so. This is what Augustine calls Amor.
Since Augistine, amor translates both eros and agapè, unsatifiable desire and satisfied desire, longing and enjoyment. It is not only the way medieval Christianity spoke about love. We, moderns, still do so, whether we are Christians or not. On Valentine’s day, love colors rose. It is the color of satisfaction veiling love’s radical unsatisfied condition.
Or remember Otto Vaenius, a famous Dutch emblemata artist from the seventeenth century. He had no problem whatsoever with publishing an emblemata book on Christian love and another one on erotic love (http://emblems.let.uu.nl/v1608.html ; http://emblems.let.uu.nl/v1615.html ). Though logically contradictory, early modern man easily mixed up both ‘grammars’ when talking about love.
It is one thing to claim that desire and satisfaction are one and the same, that desire is already its satisfaction and satisfaction does not exclude desire. It is another thing to understand this. And it is yet another thing to understand why that contradictory idea has made history. Not solely during the hegemony of Christianity, but also in our post-Christian times.