On Valentine’s Day our thoughts turn, naturally, to love. There are many kinds, as the most evocative commercial on Super Bowl Sunday reminded us. Titled “Agape” and created by a Madison Avenue ad agency named Anomaly (actually, its offices are on Broadway), the ad speaks to our better angels.
“The ancient Greeks,” the 60-second spot begins, “had four words for love.” To stirring music and accompanying visuals, the commercial then goes through them:
Philia, “affection that grows from friendship.”
Storge, “the kind you have for a grandparent, or a brother.”
Eros, “the uncontrollable urge to say, ‘I love you.’” During the Eros voice-over, two lovers approach each other in a swimming pool, and embrace before the camera cuts away to a bed, showing only the couple’s feet. It’s both appealing and tastefully done, but that kind of love is not what this advertisement is about.
“The fourth kind of love is different,” intones the narrator, actress Tessa Thompson. “It’s the most admirable. It’s called agape — love as an action. It takes courage, sacrifice, strength.”
It’s a poignant pitch, and I loved it, but the list is incomplete. The Greeks had additional words for love, and meanings that were more layered. Philia, which Aristotle wrote about, was most often associated with men who had been brothers in arms. Another ancient Greek word for love, ludus, conveys flirtatious love of the uncommitted variety, usually by young people. The word we’d use today is “crush.”
The ancient Greeks had a sixth word for love, too. It was philautia — love of self. Then, as now, it’s a concept with a healthy version and an unhealthy one. The malignant type of self-love is narcissism, a term that also comes from ancient Greece. The benign form of philautia is what we call self-esteem and it’s a necessary component of mental health — and of showing love, as it takes a requisite level of self-regard to extend one’s heart to another. Aristotle put it this way: “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of man’s feeling for himself.”
Fair enough, but what happens when a person has too much self-regard? My puckish answer is they enter politics. Our current chief executive is often called a narcissist. There are entire books about it, some written by mental health professionals, others by journalists — with the evidence coming in the president’s own words.
This same diagnosis was leveled at Donald Trump’s predecessor — and at some of the candidates currently seeking the job, male and female. Nor is it a new worry. Socrates posited that until the cities were ruled by philosophers instead of kings “cities will have no rest of evils.”
Plato, Socrates’ most famous pupil, expounded on this idea in a book titled “Republic,” outlining the virtues of these “philosopher-kings” who should be put in charge. They must be wise leaders, with a lifelong love of learning. They must be truthful and cannot be cowards. They must not lust after power. In other words, the desire for positions of authority is itself a disqualification for the job.
Despite his book’s title, Plato was uncomfortable with democracy. He believed “the origins of tyranny” are found within self-rule on account of the masses being too susceptible to propaganda. Considering the fate that befell Socrates, Plato came by his skepticism honestly.
But what’s the alternative? “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise,” Winston Churchill once noted. “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
But not all of Churchill’s contemporaries, particularly those who knew him during the First World War, considered him any kind of philosopher king. Margot Asquith, wife of Britain’s prime minister when England entered the Great War, considered him a “dangerous maniac, so poor in character and judgment, so insolent and childish.”
Mainly, she thought Churchill’s ego was too big — that he was full of philautia. “Winston’s vanity is septic,” she wrote in her memoirs, even sniping at his relationship with his wife, Clementine: “He is devoted to Clemmy, but fonder of himself.”
To some critics, including famously acerbic American literary critic Dorothy Parker, there was a glass house issue here. Lady Asquith’s own vanity was on display in her writing. In her 1927 New Yorker magazine review, Dorothy Parker put it this way: “The affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest love stories in all literature.”
It was a devastating line, as were so many of Miss Parker’s witticisms. But this is Valentine’s Day, so I can’t leave things there.
Winston Churchill and Clementine were married in 1908 and spent much of their early years apart. As First Lord of the Admiralty he justifiably took much of the blame for the disaster of the Gallipoli campaign. It was his wife’s idea that he volunteer to serve at the western front, which he did. Their letters from that time reveal a love story as well as a political partnership: both eros and philia. One letter from France was postmarked, “To be sent to Mrs. Churchill in the event of my death.”
“Do not grieve for me too much,” Churchill wrote. “Death is only an incident and not the most important which happens to us in this state of being. On the whole, especially since I met you my darling one, I have been happy and you have taught me how noble a woman’s heart can be.”
And that, after a long buildup, is a valentine message for the ages.