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Tom Hodgkinson: Why love isn't as simple as we think


What is love? As this week's cover story makes clear, these days it can take many forms. But as Valentine's Day approaches, I too have been reflecting on the meaning of the word. Help has come from the author Roman Krznaric in his new book The Wonderbox, a sort of self-help manual that uses historical precedent to shine an old light on new problems, from love to work. I've also been reading The Art of Loving (1956) by the radical psychologist Erich Fromm, another great guide for the confused in love.

Mr Krznaric's service is to break down love into the six varieties recognised by the Ancient Greeks. He says that the freeborn citizens of Athens would have thought that our contemporary idea of romantic love, which states that all six varieties could be found in the same person, our soulmate, for now and for ever more, is crude and absurd. In fact, this idea is destructive simply because it is false: we spend a lifetime trying to find this person, will generally fail, and in the process will load ourselves and our loved ones with a lot of misery.

Our first variety of love is "eros" or sexual love, and this was distrusted by the Greeks. It was irrational and it could possess you: "Desire doubled is love, love doubled is madness," said Prodicus. Today the madness of mistaking eros for real love breaks up marriages, because one or other spouse "falls in love" with someone new and in the ensuing mayhem sets up with the new person. But eros should perhaps be sought outside of marriage. This is why for millennia husbands have used prostitutes and chased girls, and wives have sought excitement in affairs. It is extremely rare for eros to survive the everyday tedium of marriage. Eros is a sort of adolescent fantasy: exciting, but short-lived.

Beyond eros we encounter mature love or "philia". This is a non-crazy love and really means friendship. It could exist, says Krznaric, between fellow soldiers, family members or even business partners. For the Greeks this was the most important kind of love. So: keep up with your old friends.

Then there is "ludus", the playful love that exists between children or between new lovers. Ludus describes a sort of light-hearted frivolity, and could be found playing games with children or doing silly dancing to Spotify in the front room at two in the morning with a group of friends.

The long-term love that exists between husband and wife was called "pragma", clearly the root of our word pragmatic. Pragma means a love that respects the differences of the other person. It means being committed but also realistic. It does not necessarily just mean "the boring bits". Clearly it is pragma that keeps people together in the long term. I have taken this concept on board at home, and now I say to Victoria with all the tenderness I can muster: I really pragma you, you know.

A fifth kind of love was "agape". In the Bible it is often translated as "love". It means something closer to the Latin caritas, or our "charity", a selfless love that extends out to the whole world. It was used to describe divine love, the love of God for the world.

Equally important to the Greeks was "philautia", or self-love, a concept picked up much later by Rousseau with his notion of amour-propre as opposed to amour-de-soi-même. The first is a healthy sense of liking yourself and feeling secure. From this base, you can go out and form mature loving relationships with other people. It is distinguished from the second kind of self-love, which is closer to selfishness and greed, to power lust and money lust. It describes the kind of person who uses others as objects, either to further their own ambitions or as sexual toys.

The point that Erich Fromm makes, in what is quite a stern book, is that these different varieties of love need to be worked at. In today's world, encouraged by movies and advertising culture, we indulge in eros with a new person, enjoy sex and drugs and rock'n'roll, and before we know it we are married with children. Goodbye eros and hello... what, exactly? Simmering resentments and disillusion? We simply have no guidance. We are left to sink or swim. At this point many individuals worry that because eros with his naughty little arrows has moved on, then there is something wrong with the marriage. Actually, this is perfectly normal and now the more difficult task begins of nurturing pragma and philia. Fromm believes that like any art, love must be practised. We need consciously to take pragma and philia and tend them, we need to water them and cherish them. Fromm says that this will take "humility, courage, faith and discipline".

At the end of this path, or as we travel along it, we will find true freedom.

Roman Krznaric will be giving a talk on the six varieties of love at 6.30pm on Valentine's Day (Tuesday) at the Idler Academy, idler.co.uk/academy