Eros Beyond Sex

Statue of Eros, Piccadilly Circus

When we encounter the word eros—the Greek noun to which the adjective “erotic” corresponds—we probably assume that eros is essentially sexual love. Yet in making this assumption, we hit far wide of the mark established in the thought of the Greek philosophers and continued in the Christian tradition.

What, then, is eros? Is it a purely physical love, or a love that consumes both mind and body? How does eros relate to sexuality? The traditional answers to these questions may surprise us and entail a reconsideration of how we think about and classify love itself.

In reflecting on the nature of eros, it would be remiss to neglect two great scholars whose work has had significant impact on the popular understanding of eros. Josef Pieper, the great twentieth-century German disciple of Thomas Aquinas, and C.S. Lewis, whom Pieper called “the greatest lay theologian of the twentieth century,” concisely articulate the nature and place of eros within the pantheon of Christian loves in their respective works, About Love and The Four Loves.

What kind of love is eros? In About Love, Pieper states that “eros is all demanding and needing love,” and Lewis agrees, classifying eros as a characteristic “need love.” Eros, then, is apparently something very distinct from philia (friendship), storge (natural affection) or agape-caritas (self-sacrificial love), and at first look it seems obvious that eros is “lower” than these types of love. Eros is primarily a desire, and desires are appetitive, and appetites indicate the natural inclination to fulfill ourselves. But for what is eros a desire?

At this point, Pieper suggests, one must step back and consider the broader context in which we must always situate questions of the nature of love. Love, of whatever form, is ultimately fulfillment or perfection. Without love, man is not truly himself. Man needs to love and be loved in order to be whole, in order to perfect his nature as a creature. We were created for love, by Love Himself, as St. John attests in his letters.

Given this conceptual framework, eros can be understood as the powerful longing, kindled by the beauty of the beloved, for the achievement of completion or wholeness in the beloved; it elicits in us a deep desire for union or communion with another in which we seek completion. Eros, therefore, openly acknowledges the need for completion in the other. This should not surprise us: if we were made for love, we are incomplete as individuals. The communion of love can only occur between persons; indeed, this reality is expressed fully in one of the central mysteries of Christian faith, the inner life of the Holy Trinity, which can fairly be called a loving communion of persons.

The implication of this fact may startle us: in erotic love, man loves not only for the sake of the beloved, but for his own sake, too. We are accustomed to thinking of authentic love as an affirmation of the beloved’s good at the expense of our own, to giving without counting the cost, loving without an eye for our own desires and fulfillment. Yet the longing for self-fulfillment with another is constitutive of the human condition. As St. Thomas Aquinas repeatedly said, we cannot choose not to pursue our own happiness; this holds true even in our most altruistic and charitable moments. We are, as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained in a 1991 speech, ontologically oriented toward and attuned to the pursuit of the transcendent goods of truth, goodness and beauty. All of our loves are “for our own sake.”

Eros is not purely self-referential or self-seeking, however: it does not seek to instrumentalize the other for the self’s sake. In erotic love, Pieper observes, we say to the beloved, “It’s good that you exist—good not just for you, nor just for me, but for us.” In eros, we find ourselves enchanted by another to the extent that, without much effort, we truly love another as we love ourselves. For many of us, the first time we woke up in the morning and regularly thought about someone other than ourselves was when we were first in love, or in eros. We all have seen how spontaneously and effortlessly we can appreciate and affirm the beloved when we are “in love” with him or her.

At this point, it should be apparent that sexual attraction is quite distinct from eros, just as eros can exist between persons in the absence of sexual attraction. Think of the great mystic saints, like Theresa of Ávila, who express their prayer experiences as rapturous, ecstatic, erotic. Eros and sexual attraction are certainly distinct. Yet there is a reason that they are often considered together.

If eros is the desire, permeating all facets of our being, for union with another person, and if both body and soul are constitutive of, not accidental to, human persons, then the way that we seek this union will be both spiritual and bodily. Beauty—and not just physical beauty—kindles eros in us, and since beauty for us is perceived sensually, our response in turn will include a sensual or bodily response. Our bodies, which on the one hand demarcate our separateness, are the vehicles through which we strive to realize our desire for union. Lewis frames this erotic phenomenon with his typical grace: “The longing for a union which only the flesh can mediate while the flesh, our mutually excluding bodies, renders it forever unattainable can have the grandeur of a metaphysical pursuit.”

Our erotic desires transcend our bodies’ ability to satisfy them. Especially in erotic love, we want to become one with the beloved, but we mustn’t think of this oneness only in physical terms— or only in non-physical terms, for that matter. The fullness of eros is the inter-communion of whole persons,two separate “I”s coming together as one while remaining distinct. This union is reflected and truly embodied in the act of intercourse, which is sacramental in this sense, but no amount of sexual satisfaction can exhaust our erotic desires; they cannot be exhausted at all. Lewis wrote that, “What happens in erotic love is thus not ‘gratification’ but an opening of the sphere of existence to an infinite quenching that cannot be had at all ‘here.’”

Our culture has been confused about this point ever since sex became a marketable product. In order to commodify sexual pleasure, enterprises have to market it as a concrete, instrumental and “no strings attached” service. Yet when sex is divorced from eros—when what brings persons together in the embrace of intercourse is not a love that desires and respects the beloved as a person but is just plain lust—then the “union” achieved in such an embrace is only a simulacrum, a doppleganger. Alienation, disenchantment, disgust, bitterness, and hostility are the common results of such encounters, as the partners realize that neither of them could give or take through a sharing of their bodies what they each longed for in the seat of their souls. John Paul II referred to such reciprocally objectifying encounters as “mutual masturbation.”

Our sexuality and erotic love are meant to be complementary, and without eros, our sexual love will only be frustrating, rather than sacramental. Eros plays an integrative role in bringing our bodies and souls into pursuit of the human good of communion that we seek through love. Loving well erotically is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has in mind when it defines chastity thus: “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.”

Part and parcel of Pope Benedict’s call to renewal during this Year of Faith was a ressourcement, a return to the riches and wisdom that the Christian tradition has to offer us for our own lives and time. Rediscovering and embracing the robust Christian understanding of eros—so different from how we typically think of “erotic”—will go a long way toward rehabilitating the broken sexual culture haunting us today.

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About Michael Bradley

Michael Bradley is a senior studying theology, philosophy, and Italian at the University of Notre Dame.