The Five Melodies of Love


Classic Melodies of Love in Greek Philosophy

The ancient Greeks, from whom we borrow so much of our culture, used a variety of words to distinguish the different aspects of this complicated emotion of "love." We moderns have been greatly handicapped by losing these critical distinctions, as our convoluted and frustrating conversations about the topic reveal. Here are the basic differences in the five types of love as defined by the Greek philosophers: Storge, Philia, Eros, Agape and Xenia.

What we describe as domestic harmony in a marriage – affection, caring about, providing for, shared homemaking concerns, raising children, doing things as a family, creating holidays, building memories – all fall under the heading of what the Greeks called Storge, or familial love. It is a natural and expected bond between family members, which offers unconditional acceptance and is ready to sacrifice for the good of the group. It is a beautiful and necessary condition for a healthy family and community. It is inclusive of all the family but draws firm boundaries between “Us” and “Them.”

The Greeks also had words for other kinds of love: Philia, the loyal bond between friends who share a vision, a path or a common call; Eros, the passionate yearning for physical union, a pining to be always in the presence of the beloved and adoration of the qualities of the other; Agape, the pinnacle of selfless, spiritual love which perceives and works for the good of the loved one, even at a distance; and Xenia, hospitality, the love of the stranger, a ritualized friendship formed between a host and his guest, which bound them together as allies for the duration of the guest’s stay.

Xenia is an essential idea in international as well as national harmony for it predisposes the mind toward seeing “the other” as a friend rather than adversary. In many respects, hospitality is the foundation of civic society, without which only law and punishment can regulate relations between persons. Xenophobia – fear of the stranger – is the opposite of this love.

Philia was much revered by the Greeks as a sublime form of affection often shared between comrades-in-arms or between student and teacher. It was felt that this kind of love was essential for the formation of strong character and much mentoring was done under the wing of Philia. Philia could be extended through a family or a nation, binding siblings and citizens together in this noble affection.

Erotic love has been well-known to modern societies through its cultivation by the Troubadours of the 11th and 12th centuries. It is a complicated form of love which has a spiritual aspect often overlooked by a shallow or hasty interpretation. The physical yearnings of the flesh are invited to be the agent of a soulful longing that unites the lover to God. As one of the troubadour poets exclaimed: “I reach toward heaven through a woman!” In its darker incarnation, Eros is reduced to mere physical lust which may shift into power struggles or desires to dominate or possess the other. It has been considered by many philosophers to be one of the great motivating forces in all human history – for good and for ill!


Agape was a chaste form of affection, later adopted as an ideal by the Roman Christians who remembered these varieties of love from the Greeks. Agape is the patient, tolerant, compassionate love announced in the famous Corinthians passage by St. Paul, seeking not its own, but another’s good: “Love is patient. Love is kind.”

In the latter two forms of love – Eros and Agape --  is the insistence on a type of intimacy – a profound focus on the interiority of the other. Without this interest and attentiveness to the particularity, and sometimes peculiarity of the other, these forms of love cannot survive. Storge, Philia and Xenia are concerned with how the relationship affects the outer world and forms of interaction; Eros and Agape with the inner landscape of the heart/soul/mind. Eros, as we all know, has a special interest in the physical form of the beloved, whereas Agape looks beyond the physical into the simple or spiritual humanity of the other.

Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist and a marriage partner for 50 years, noted that until Eros has become muted between two people, it is not possible to see by the light of Agape and to know whether true compassion has arisen between the partners. Agape, he felt, is the presence of love that enters during the mature phase of a marriage.

Many marriages partake of Philia, where two people face the world together as friends, partners, comrades, colleagues. Eros may or may not be present, but many dynamic couples – artists, poets, scientists, political activists – show the power of this form of love to sustain a long relationship. This form of love is often called “the shoulder-to-shoulder” relationship, for the partners learn about and support each other through what they do, rather than who they are. Some marriages go in and out of this collegial form of love, returning to Eros at peak moments of intimacy.

Storge is also a sustaining type of love and can hold a family and a marriage together for many years. Yet, this type of love is not the same as intimacy and cannot be a permanent substitute for intimacy. Indeed, intimacy may “rock the boat” of daily Storge rituals, for intimacy is, first and foremost, being present to the moment. In the moment, something new may come to light for in the loving quietude of true attention to the beloved, the soul is finally free to be born. This is one reason why every marriage counselor advises partners to leave the confines of house and family responsibilities if they want to re-kindle romance. Eros requires a space to be face-to-face and without distraction, while Agape soars when the soul essence of the beloved becomes visible beyond the persona of the daily roles of husband, wife, child, etc.

While it may be considered ideal for all five forms of love to co-exist simultaneously in a relationship, it is much more likely that there will be seasons or cycles among the styles of loving. In fact, a relationship that has all of them at high pitch might be too exhausting and cut the lovers off from other valid relationships in the world. Whether in marriage, or in the exploration of one’s own place in the vast family of earth, or an attempt to understand the ways and means of society, it is essential to explore all the melodies of Love. Finding where you are in the ebb and flow of these different currents of love, and learning to tend and honor each of them, is a beautiful exercise in wisdom and gratitude.

Dr. Rebecca Armstrong 2007

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