Philia is a Greek term usually translated as brotherly or friendly love.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle says there are three types of philia:
- Love for what is of practical use
- Love for what is pleasing
- Love for the good
Aristotle is a powerful thinker but, unlike Plato, not a mystical one. And he himself realizes that his three types of philia are not watertight categories.
Believing that good relationships are important to the development of virtue, Aristotle says we get something from our friends, and vice versa. Friends please each other and if they are excellent friends, they mutually help one other to grow toward the good.
So Aristotle’s view of philia could mean that by helping and enjoying others, we help ourselves. Superior friendships maximize the good, contributing to a win-win situation. And this, one could argue, approximates the idea of agape.
Again, Aristotle was not a mystic and some believe that mystical experience is essential to learning about love.
Although upheld as one of the great thinkers in the Western tradition, Aristotle doesn’t appreciate how some saints, Christian and otherwise, have no need for human friendship.¹ Saints of the highest order say they are completely fulfilled by God, making other people mere distractions or burdens to intercede for.
This is exceptional but there are first hand accounts. These narratives are often overlooked or trivialized by materialists yet they are worth considering. So much emphasis today is placed on being “social.” If someone prefers solitude over society they’re usually regarded with suspicion, or worse. Emily Dickinson, who lived a life of solitude, put it this way:
MUCH madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
‘T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,-you’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.²
The term philia is sometimes interpreted by Christian theologians to mean a superficial, transitory and contingent kind of love (I have also heard a priest in homily extol the virtues of brotherly love as found in the New Testament).
Similar to Aristotle’s merging of different types of philia, however, Christian theologians also believe the Holy Spirit strengthens married couples so as to properly align their physical and emotional desires (eros) with agape.
For most Christians, the sacrificial love of agape stands above all as the permanent, noblest and highest type of love. Perhaps some of us only discover agape after journeying through many relationships filled with the pleasures of philia and drama of eros.
Surprising enough, or maybe not surprisingly, the popular Catholic monk Thomas Merton, whom some see as a great mystic, had a romantic relationship with a student nurse whom he met while in the hospital, away from his monastery.³ Ultimately Merton came to reject the relationship, seeing it as a temptation that obscured his higher purpose and fulfillment.
That is, Merton let go of philia and eros in favor of agape. For most of us, however, it’s a mix. And to pretend otherwise when one isn’t really “there” is, I think, unwise.
¹ Some Christians might say, well yeah… Aristotle lived before Christ. But Catholics claim that Christ exists through all time, making it conceivable that some knew him intimately before his earthly appearance.
² Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Part 1: Life (XI), Boston: Little, Brown, 1924; Bartleby.com, 2000.
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