Page Summary

  • Phrases like “love is love” don’t explain how a person can love in multiple ways.
  • Eros, the kind of love characterized by romantic or sexual attraction, is good, but can easily be distorted into use.
  • Agape, the selfless gift of good to the other, makes it possible for eros to endure without becoming distorted.


Even if we love others to different degrees, is it all basically the same kind of activity?

No. Love isn’t just a question of “how much”, but of what kind:

storge, philia, eros, or agape.

Ok, but what does that actually mean?

Danielle loves her husband. Danielle loves her daughters. Danielle loves her best friend from high school. Danielle loves her patients. Danielle loves Ella Fitzgerald’s music. Why are all these sentences using the same word to describe such different relationships? In a statement like “love is love”, which version does the speaker mean (either time)?

large family photo
sisters hugging

As the Father loves me [with agape], so I also love you. Remain in my love.… This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Jesus of Nazareth, John 15:9, 12-13

Maybe all these different usages really do have something in common. The people and things that Danielle loves all seem to answer her desires for some good she lacks on her own. They all bear some resemblance to her nature that provides a common ground on which she can receive goodness from them. She enjoys their presence, overcomes obstacles to shorten their absence, and misses them when the absence has to be endured. She chooses to will good things for them in turn (even the music, which she helps preserve by supporting the people responsible for passing it on).

But these differences can’t be ignored. For example, it would be unreasonable for Danielle to love her best friend in the same way she loves her daughters, whose diapers she changes. Phrases like “love is love” don’t explain how she can love multiple recipients while treating them so differently. That’s because English is missing some words for “love”.


The word ‘love’ has more than one meaning.

St. John Paul II, Love & Responsibility, p. 207

There are nine words across three other languages that could help fill out the picture, but that’s too much to tackle all at once. For now, let’s just focus on four Greek words:




Agape (“uh-GAHP-ay”)

Generally speaking, storge is family-love, which is such an instinctual bond that it almost doesn’t need to be chosen, and which Danielle and her daughters have for each other. Philia is love between friends, as between Danielle and her best friend from high school. So far so good, but we encounter difficulty with the remaining two.

Eros, the chief focus of most of this site’s discussion of love, is often thought to be the most strongly felt of the four. It is the kind of love (characterized by romantic or sexual attraction) by which Danielle seeks goodness from her husband Dave, and Dave seeks goodness from her.

Each of them seeks “upwardly” in the sense that they desire something “higher” that they lack. Together, they choose spousal unity, forsaking all others. The overwhelming beauty of eros makes it seem like infinite happiness is within our grasp, but in this world, it can easily devolve into mere use. An upward movement loses its beauty if it means turning the other person into a steppingstone.

Agape, on the other hand, does not seek gain at all. It asks for nothing in return, it simply delights in the existence of the beloved for its own sake. It is love perfectedthe selfless gift of good, which the individual possesses, to another. The ultimate source of agape is in God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each person of the Trinity is eternally making a total self-gift of such infinite, white-hot intensity that they are not three very intimate beings, but one in being.

This love is fundamentally impossible for us to achieve on our own. We are limited, fallen, dependent, and incapable of giving without first receiving, even if we want to. Nevertheless, the Father sends the Son and the Holy Spirit into the world to make agape, his inner life, available to us above all in the cross, resurrection, and ascension made present in the Eucharist.

We rarely, if ever, perfectly live this love, which “descends” to us. In a broken and finite world, it’s impossible to be selfless without incurring some cost; for Danielle to put someone else at the center of her universe means that she no longer is. When we do experience agape, however imperfectly, we will the good of the other as otherif necessary, at the cost of our own temporal good. Danielle doesn’t really love her patients with storge, philia, or eros, but there is a possibility for her to love them sacrificially and unconditionally, with agape.

So does Jesus ruin our fun eros with agape? Are their goals somehow opposed? Not really. Left to its own devices and closed off from agape, eros would ruin itself. The desire for infinite fulfillment from a finite source will inevitably result in disillusionment with eros’s original object, and even the pleasure that made it so powerful will diminish. If, however, eros leads Danielle to a discovery of Dave as an objective reality outside herself, then she can love him for his own sake (and vice versa). Then both ascending eros and descending agape can work together to keep Danielle and Dave in love.

Agape can enter into any love in this way. It can prevent storge from deforming into possessiveness and it can preserve philia from fermenting into cliquishness. By maintaining the focus on the ultimate goal, which transcends any of these loves, agape makes it possible for them to keep their distinctive character. Danielle can love not just her patients, but any of the people in her life with agape along with philia for her friend, storge for her daughters, and eros for her husband.


Yet eros and agape—ascending love and descending love—can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized.

Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est 7


Resources on

eros + agape