“Whatever is done from love always occurs beyond good and evil.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
My life, recently, has seen a regular recurrence of the question ‘What is eros?’ And perhaps just as important, does eros exist as a unique thing?
I am torn on the issue. When forced, I define eros as the combination of philia (friendship) and sexual attraction. This seems to imply that eros does not exist as a separate thing, but merely as an amalgamation of already existing feelings/ideas/relationships.
This leads me to a deeper question. Can you have philia without any sexual component? Likewise, can you have a real sexual desire without any sense of philia? Obviously, our culture tells us that certainly both exist separately. But I have to wonder if that is, in fact, a reflection of our culture rather than a reflection of our nature.
Being who I am, I turn to ‘the science of love’ seeking answers. The first and most obvious stop is with the originator of the concepts: Plato. For Plato, eros is the desire for the beautiful and the good. The personification of what is good and beautiful in the world which eventually leads to a deeper understanding of beauty and goodness as abstract concepts. Unfortunately, Plato’s focus on man-boy love leads me to believe that perhaps he was defining eros as a justification for the particular behaviors of his own life and culture.
Later, Freud conceived of eros as an objectification of sexual desire. He suggested that human development is functionally sexual in nature, from the stages of psycho-sexual development through the Oedipus Complex and Repression as the foundation of all mental disease. In my mind, Freudian Psychology is, itself, a reflection of Freud’s own repressed issues, and therefore less useful in understanding humanity in general.
Jung, on the other hand, offers a few ideas I find useful. Starting with the definitions of anima and animus Jung offers a scalar view of human sexuality. Anima, the feminine qualities carried by men and projected out onto women in their life, and animus, the masculine qualities of women projected out onto men, provide the first reasonable suggestion, in my mind as to the foundations of eros, and perhaps philia as well.
If we each seek out sexual partners, life partners, and other relationships based upon our own gender-archetypal qualities (both anima and animus in both men and women), then it seems to me that eros cannot exist without philia — for we cannot perceive those qualities in others at the stage of temporal lust (ie, fantasy attraction: first look, strippers, porno, etc). It is only through the act of getting to know another person that we begin to perceive those qualities we are seeking.
I am certainly taking this in a direction distinctly different from Jung. In his work, we begin with a fantasy fully formed within our mind, and then as we get to know the other person, we gradually find that the fantasy and the reality either correlate or they do not. In either case, where does eros begin? I believe it must be after we begin to honestly perceive their true qualities and therefore after a philia bond forms.
However, none of this yet addresses whether philia can exist without eros. For that question, I find myself drawn to the work of Kinsey. The Kinsey Scale (of Sexuality) describes the fundamental sexual nature of the ‘average’ human person. He found that almost all humans are somewhere on the scale between purely heterosexual and purely homosexual. Kinsey relied on actual behaviors, whereas I am more concerned with feelings and thoughts. Both those expressed and those repressed. In our culture, there is a strong anti male homosexuality meme, with a lesser, but still prevalent anti female homosexuality meme. Without those memes, how would human sexuality actually express itself? Would we find, in fact, that there are no examples of purely homo or hetero individuals?
I suspect, although I cannot prove it, that without the sexual conditioning that is so prevalent in our society, that eros and philia can be best understood as poles on a single scale rather than two distinct, and separate emotional states. We are drawn to other individuals, regardless of gender, based upon the parts of ourselves that need to be explored. From male/female archtypes, to psychological scars and failings, through a fundamental desire to explore new possibilities, we seek out others that can help us understand, heal, and grow. Where on the scale of philia and eros each individual sits is probably a combination of cultural conditioning, physical attraction (or our individual notions of ‘beauty’), and the nature of the quality we are exploring through the given individual.
(Originally posted August 7, 2006)