Eros: the Love that Mimics Eternity
According to the Ancient Greeks, the whole cosmos was animated by Eros. And quite literally! Aristotle writes in his Metaphysics that God, the Unmoved Mover, “moves” the whole universe “by being loved (eromenon)” (Bk. 12).
Before venturing into the Orthodox vision of eros, we will explore this lively, mythopoetic backdrop of the characteristically Greek notion of Eros. Indeed, the influence of this vision is evident throughout the patristic and medieval traditions. Dante and Beatrice, at the end of the Divine Comedy, behold this sight:
In Aristotle’s world, all things desire to imitate the eternity of God in different ways. Matter “desires” (era) form, planets “desire” eternity through their perpetual, orbital motion. The human race, being both rational and animal (logikon zoon), always “desires to know” (Metaphysics 1) and reproduces through eros, which itself is a form of the desire for eternity. Through this dual aspect of ourselves, as psychosomatic beings, the mind desires unfading beauty through poetry, contemplation, religious devotion, while the body expresses this desire through mingling, child-bearing, and victory in wartime. “Eros, invincible in battle!” is what the chorus proclaims in Sophocles’ Antigone.
Plato took this even further: he says we crave the beauty in others because it is a reflection of eternal Beauty. In Plato’s dialogues, eros is always the point where language begins to break down. Words are insufficient to express the beauty with which eros is enamored. Reason and rational discourse (logos) must take a pause, and instead the speaker has to resort to Myth or Romance. So, in the Symposium, Socrates for once ceases to indulge in his usual dialectics, but recounts a poetic dialogue with Diotima, the woman who taught him how to love. In the Phaedrus he rhapsodizes about the enraptured soul’s flight into heaven. Dante does the same in the Divine Comedy, but with a Catholic vision of the afterlife, and with the saintly, enigmatic Beatrice as his guide to the beatific vision. St Gregory the Theologian uses strikingly similar imagery when he expresses, in verse, his eros for philosophy and divinity. They all push language to its utmost limits. Poetry, too, is eros imitating eternity.
Again and again, we see the recurring motif of ascending beyond even the highest spheres of heaven, into the Infinite. Shakespeare even finds fault with the sun’s splendor, which seems dim next to the immortal effulgence that sometimes flashes from human faces:
But eros is a thorn in the flesh. It is agony, pain, and restless pining. However, this pain lingers only in the aspect of time, until there is a consummation between Love and the ultimate Beauty. Moreover, even this pain has a part to play in God’s providence. St Gregory the Theologian, our guide to the circle of love, compares the world and human life with all its topsy-turviness to an endlessly whirling circle. To what end is this wheel set in motion by the Creator Word? So that we may increase our eros for eternal things.
Eros was a god in ancient Greek religion, but Diotima, Socrates’ guide to the “mysteries of love,” insists that he is actually a humble spirit, a searcher. He is the child of Poverty and Plenty. He inherits an abundance of inspiration and resourcefulness from his father, Plenty (Poros), but weakness and misery from his mother, Poverty (Penia). He is a poet, a lover of Wisdom and her beauty, a philosopher “because he is ignorant and wise at the same time.”
This motif of Eros as being puzzled and ignorant (aporia) and yet wise and resourceful (poros) has left its mark even in Orthodox mystical writings. In the Philokalia, the nous, which is by nature philokalic, a “lover of goodness and beauty” fans the flames of the smaller sparks of love and wonder, “making what is comprehensible of the Incomprehensible into fuel for divine love and rendering the impasse (aporia) a passageway (porismos) to greater desires (erotes)” (St Kallistos Kataphygiotes, Philokalia Vol. 5).
Likewise, St Porphyrios says that in order to become Christians, we must first become poets:
“The soul of the Christian needs to be refined and sensitive, to have sensibility and wings, to be constantly in flight and to live in dreams, to fly through infinity, among the stars, amidst the greatness of God, amid silence. Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet. That’s what it is! You must love and suffer – suffer for the one you love. Love makes effort for the beloved. She runs all through the night; she stays awake; she stains her feet with blood in order to meet her beloved. She makes sacrifices and disregards all impediments, threats and difficulties for the sake of the loved one. Love towards Christ is something even higher, infinitely higher.” (Wounded by Love, 107)
In this way, the passionate longing (pothos) seen in pagan and romantic literature can unexpectedly serve as a Preparatio Evangelica, as a kind of “preparation for the Gospel.” The troubadour’s endless wandering for his one true love, King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail, and a vast array of classical romances may just be a lightly-disguised nostalgia for Paradise, a longing for the consummation of union with God. Thus, Chaucer concludes one such romance, The Knight’s Tale, a story set in Athens, with a philosophical ode to the First Mover:
The Greeks have handed down this golden Chain of Eros, whereby they have bound us with a fascination for immortal beauty. Starting from the principle of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, who “moves” all things “by being loved,” we can traverse the whole universe with a dizzying sense of wonder. We can ponder the mystery of humans, whose unique features are heads that look heavenward and faces (prosopon) that exchange infinitely subtle and meaningful glances with each other. Moreover, following the Greeks we can examine the world as a cosmos, literally an “adornment” or “ornament.”
But herein lies the Christian mystery of Eros: that God is not only loved, but He is love. That God has not so arranged the world so that biological and planetary cycles repeat an infinite series to mimic ever so faintly His divinity. Rather, God descends to our level, not only manifesting Himself through His humanity, but even raising us up to divine life. Indeed, “Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25), and He prepares the New Jerusalem, not simply as a jewel, but “as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2).
From all of the above, one tentative conclusion we might make about the problems of modern romance is not that people today are too obsessed with eros and romance, but that they hardly take them seriously enough. How can a man truly claim to love a woman if he couldn’t care less about eternal things? If he were not concerned with her immortality? How can love bear to live without faith and hope? How can we even begin to grasp what is meant by “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25).
We will, in our following article, attempt to say something about this mystery, if only the words be granted us.