THE FIVE GREEK WORDS FOR LOVE AND A WORLD WITHOUT THEM
Although a heterosexual to the first degree, there have been two instances in my life that stirred doubt as to my sexual preferences. The first occurrence was in 1984 at a U.S.A. park, where I gave a spontaneous hug and a strong kiss on the cutest little cheek of my three year-old boy. This apparently vexed two ladies enough to summon a nearby officer to arrest me for pederasty. Luckily, I convinced the officer that I was the father of the boy and that we Greeks often manifest our love towards our children in that manner.
"Then it is a matter of incest, judging by the way he kissed the child!" shouted the elder of the two concerned ladies.
Luckily the reasonable officer appeased them on the grounds that he had Greek friends and that such behaviour was common in our culture.
The second occurrence was at Chania Harbour of Crete, when two half-drunk English tourists interpreted my arm around the shoulder of a pal, whom I was consoling at a time of difficulty, as a homosexual act. That was duly resolved when my already despondent friend lost control and launched his fist at the sarcastically grinning teeth of the one who had referred to us as 'Greek fags.' Personally, I had a good laugh when I considered the source of the insult.
However, there is nothing really funny about these two incidents - especially when the purest forms of human affection of paternal love and brotherly friendship, respectively, confuse a large number of people in English-speaking cultures. Now as to the reasons for this, well, they are partly explained historically in a forthcoming article where I elaborate on the reasons why the Western World never experienced indigenous humanistic development.
Here, however, I will approach the issue through sociolinguistics, since language is literally the cultural DNA of those who speak it. Meanwhile, there is no need to juxtapose an endless word list of two languages (in this case Greek and English) to come to some sort of conclusion that would explain the intercultural reasons for the aforementioned misapprehensions. This is easily achieved by comparing the way the notion of love is perceived by the speakers of the corresponding languages. In this manner we may not only explain the reasons for the aforesaid misinterpretations of love, but, even more importantly, distinguish which of the two types of civilization has more to offer by way of a dignifying form of human development, since 'love' is the corner stone of both humanism and humanitarianism.
The Greek language, for instance, boasts five different words for the supreme human feeling of love: Agápi = unconditional love, Eros = sexual love / infatuation / force that unites, Philia = Platonic/brotherly love, Storgí = familial, maternal/paternal love (associated with affection), Philótimo = love of human dignity, which compels one to help one's fellow human being in need with a feeling of shame if one does not fulfil the task (this is the most difficult to translate as a notion as it semantically acts as the quintessence of Greek humanism). Speakers of English who attend New Testament Greek courses find it particularly difficult to understand the distinctions of such words as they appear in the bible.
At this point one could claim that friendship could represent Philia and affection could mean Storgí. Only up to a certain degree, as the Greek words function in a more dynamic semantic field, proven by the way the derivatives of Philia, for instance, function to mean love as in philosophy (love of wisdom), philologist (lover of literature), philatelist (lover of stamps), etc. In other words, the Greek word for friendship (philia) entails the meaning of love, something that reflects the gravity placed in friendship within the Greek world. In Modern Greek the very word for 'kiss' (philó) stems from 'philia' (friendship). Greeting and parting kisses come and go between Greek friends of the same sex without sexual undertones. As English lacks this semantic in the word friend, it is understandable how one's arm around his buddy could be misinterpreted as an anomalous act by a speaker of English. Meanwhile, whereas English once again resorts to lover to refer to one's sexual relation, Greek makes a distinction with erastis.
As for the word Storgí, it functions semantically to mean familial love, affection and compassion all in one and it evokes such a strong feeling that it is used to refer to the kind of love God feels for humanity, hence the adjective philostorgos, meaning one who loves to bestow Storgí. Its family-oriented semantic field is also emblematic of the paramount importance of the family unit in Greek societies, which is manifest with a spontaneous kiss on a tender little cheek now and then. 'Affection' simply does not work like that in English as it denotes something more like 'tenderness,' rather than love, hence the use of 'love and affection' to intensify it.
When contrasting this wealth of love words in Greek to the single one in English, it becomes evident that the infrastructure of English-speaking societies is greatly impoverished by way of expressing emotion. This owes itself to the fact that healthy contact between human beings was greatly hindered by the circumstances the members of these societies had to act in. No sooner had Britannia been wrested from the Bronze Age by invading Romans than it was thrown into Monarchies and Feudalism - no indigenous culture in-between, no city states and no real freedom. This was so because monarchy and feudalism, unlike the democracy of a Greek City State limited one's role to that of a 'subject,' unlike the freedom that a 'politis' (citizen) enjoyed. A 'Subject of State' is subject to authority, whilst a citizen in the Greek sense has an active share in it. The former submissively obeys, while the latter has the right to question.
'God save the Queen' and 'I am ready to die for my President" (quoted by many a U.S. Marine) still resounds amongst the recipients of a submissive culture, whereas the volatility of Greek governments and the overthrow of Monarchies reflect the perennial sense of individual freedom amongst the heirs of free-thinkers. This has always lent Greece an atmosphere of a subterranean restlessness despite its surface conformity to the tyrannies of the moment. That is not to say that a Greek is not patriotic; on the contrary, history has proven that when Greeks face a threat to their ethnic freedom by a common foe their fierceness in battle and their unity have been unmatched throughout the past (although we may have lost that recently). In other words, a citizen mentality compels one to die for his country as opposed to that of a subject who is willing to die for a figurehead in foreign climes, hence the British Empire.
A citizen who partakes in the affairs of the State socializes with his fellow human beings with an air of a truly free man who knows that his words count. It follows, therefore, that he increases his vocabulary to express the high thoughts and sentiments that celebrate his freedom. It is no wonder that to this day, conversations amongst Greeks are dominated by the issues of politics, religion and Eros, while members of Anglo-Saxon cultures abstain from such issues as they are considered 'taboo.' This is quite understandable as in England both Sovereign and Church for hundreds of years repressed free speech, thought and passion within Anglo-Saxon societies. The bleak weather of their northern climes also contributed to their insipidity. The subjects of these powers, unlike free 'citizens', after a long working day in the name of their Lords, withdrew home and sought their quiet and solitude - something reflected in the word 'privacy' widely used in the English-speaking world to this day. In such a world, one of the few outlets for all that a tenet farmer would suppress was offered at the Public House (pub). There, under the influence of drink, people would unbolt and be more social. However, what sort of high thoughts could an inebriated conversation give vent to? Things have not changed much since the Middle Ages in Anglo-Saxon societies, since alcohol continues to play a major role in almost every social occasion. The cliché notion of wine and candlelight being prerequisite to a romantic night out and spiked punches and alcohol a must in parties attest to this, just as do 'Alcoholics Anonymous' sessions. In the U.S., adolescents loitering about outside liquor stores in the hope of persuading an adult passerby to buy them some 'booze' is a common phenomenon. Even Her Majesty's super agent, James Bond, upholds the tradition with his 'shaken but not stirred' martinis.
At this point, one might say that Greeks have also been known to drink and in fact smash plates in the process. However, getting 'pissed' (British for 'drunk') for the sake of getting 'pissed' is a far cry from the Dionysian element that emerges spontaneously amongst Greeks after a hearty get-together with friends and food during, let's say, one's name-day celebration. The Greek will rapturously break plates in defiance of the material world while in the realm of friends and spirits. With a few exceptions in large cities, he will drink his wine with food and conversation as it was customary in the symposiums of antiquity. The word 'symposium,' which literally means 'drink-together' is yet another sociolinguistic element that reveals an emphasis of philia. This explains why there is no Greek word for 'bar' as to this day it is considered abnormal for one to indulge in solitary drinking perched on a stool contemplating bottles. It is also a fact that an inebriated Greek usually becomes jovial, unlike his Anglo-Saxon counterpart who often becomes violent (hence the phrase 'barroom brawls' non-existent in the Greek language), the latter reflecting an outlet for the repressions of a people belonging to a subdued culture. Besides all this, studies have shown that private persons are more likely to become alcoholics.
The phrase 'I would like my privacy' reverberates throughout the West, which in itself signifies the general introversion of its populaces and their need to loosen up socially via alcoholic beverages. What is particularly interesting sociolinguistically is that the word 'privacy' does not exist in Greek, as introversion has been frowned upon in Greek societies since ancient times. In fact, in classical Athens one who kept to himself and was not socially active was contemptuously referred to as an 'idiotes' (one who withdraws to himself). The irony is that when speakers of English use the word 'idiot' the recipient of the term usually wears the original meaning well. This by all means does not exclude many Greek 'idiotes' who are dangerously on the increase in large cities.
A society preoccupied with the notion of privacy does not offer the ideal environment for substantial friendships to root themselves. Thus, human relations acquire a superficial 'you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours' mentality. National bestsellers like Dale Carnegie's "How to Make Friends and Influence People" and Stephen Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" (over ten million copies sold!) clearly indicate a society where the establishment of true friendships is not a natural process, but one that must be learned; and at that, not so much for the sake of philia, but for exploitation!
The loneliness that follows in absence of true friends who do not desire some kind of profit leads to seclusion, depression and neurosis. It is not coincidental that everything has been 'psychiatrified,' as it were, in the U.S.. It is common knowledge that the 'therapist' functions as a family doctor for Americans. Group therapies come and go, while psychiatric pills are administered like candy to children who may be simply overly active or face family problems, something that is also extensive in England.
Of course, the multicultural social structure and the lack of homogeneity in Western cities greatly contribute to this, as there is no focus point that would give the various peoples a common cultural identity. This makes everything impersonal as reflected in the phrase "I don't want to get involved" that echoes throughout such societies. A common sight in large U.S. cities is that of a man sprawling on the pavement after a heart attack, while people walk past him or just stand and observe (for novelty's sake). Devoid of concepts like the one mirrored in the Greek word 'philotimo', that which roots in this kind of world is a form of beastly individualism that literally treads on corpses.
Getting back to the exasperation that my fatherly kiss produced in the American ladies at the park, I must point out that the concepts of affection and love are not easily distinguished from those of sexual intent and perversion. I specifically remember an American TV programme on the subject of incest and sexual harassment, which may very well have influenced the two well-meaning ladies. The narrator's references to incest were accompanied by images of parents simply hugging their children or stroking them on the head or back in public places. Ι was later informed by an elementary teacher friend of mine that she had been issued an official guideline not to touch children in the head lest she be sued by a parent. The effect that such broadcasts exercise on secluded members of a culture that has not delved in the various facets of love is catalytically dangerous, as it shapes attitudes and homogenizes thoughts.
The non-existence of Eros or Erotas as it functions in Greek may very well cause the greatest confusion with regard to human relationships amongst the populaces of the Western World. Although English contains the derivatives of this unifying force in the words 'erotic' and 'eroticism', they are strictly limited to function in the realm of sex or pornography. In Greek the word Eros and its derivatives act poetically to mean the stimulation of all the senses, the desire to connect, the stimulant of thought and the impetus of passion for life itself. Its import fluctuates according to the context. When a Greek says life is erotas, my friend is erotic in his conversations, or my aunt's cooking is eros in itself he feels all the shades of the word. To add to this, a speaker of Greek knows that theios (divine) erotas refers to one's inexorable desire to unite with God. By contrast, the term 'Divine love' hardly suffices to fulfill the powerful nuance, for in its laborious task to cater for all the types of desire that a human can feel, the singular English word for love has been rendered relatively impotent.
It is quite oxymoronic that a form of quasi-Puritanism is often used to make up for this linguistic-notional and therefore behavioural chasm. On the one hand, the laws in the U.S.A., for instance, have secured the emancipation of women to such an extent that nowadays men fear to complement a beautiful woman lest she sue them for sexual harassment and end up in court. On the other hand, the American film industry presents women as objects of sexual pleasure. This is apparent in TV programmes where the well-endowed female lifeguard indiscriminately gives mouth to mouth assistance, or in football games, where cheerleaders in soaring skirts support their teams with palpitating breasts, swaying hips and projecting buttocks. (Not that one should find this disgusting, on the contrary! But let us not confuse the no's with the yes's)
This sort of schizophrenia has also various crises as to sexual identity, behaviour and doubt as to what one's sexual inclination should be. To augment this, recently more and more American films are promoting the absolute equality of homosexuals, transvestites, heterosexuals and the good o'le traditional types. The propagandistic effect of the screen works catalytically against human dignity. Subsequent to this state of confusion as to what is right or abnormal and what is wrong or normal are the rapes, sexual perversion and other relative psychoses, all of which thrive in a society that has never been initiated in the concept of the word Eros.
Nor does the American family come out untarnished from such a corrosive social infrastructure. The escalating crime rate in primary/elementary schools, the young resorting to drugs and the social abandonment of senior citizens in a state of wretchedness and of infinite loneliness all reflect the absence of the five meanings of love. The "ugly American divorces" are now commonplace phenomena with the children being the direct recipients of its repercussions, as they grow up at the mercy of television without storgi (familial love), as the parents either work interminably or thrash about in the unbearable lightness of their cultureless 'being.' Without maternal affection there has been an ever increasing number of young men in all English speaking countries, especially the U.S. and Britain, who marry women much older than themselves as they are searching for the mother figure they never enjoyed.
I would not have deemed it necessary to mention all the above, if the course that humanity has taken towards globalization did not have as a role model that kind of "civilization" which is spreading throughout the planet like a cloud of locusts. As things stand that which is being globally established is a world devoid the five Greek concepts of Love, rendering societies oblivious to the real values of life. Ever since a McDonald's opened up in Beijing, for instance, the words farmer and traditional have become mock words, while all the more bicycles are being trashed for new cars. (Let's imagine the environmental consequences with a car to every Chinaman!)
However, over a forty year period of
exposure to the demoralizing culture of the mass media many Greeks seem to have
a head start on the Chinese, as they also seem to be losing sight of these
grass root values and their ability to think for themselves. It seems that even the
"Greekest of the Greekest Greeks" is undergoing an identity crisis.
Is there a solution? Well, it is all too
apparent! As long
as there is Memory there is also hope that if we cannot overturn things where they
have rooted themselves, we can at least avert their spread where they have just
made their appearance. If more and more of us invoke Mnemosyne, we may once
again recognize the values that once made us more human. Everyone will definitely
find something more down to earth, more humanely substantial in the roots of
his culture. May he pick it up, clear off the dust and submit it to his city as
a politis / hoplitis (citizen /
warrior), who, unlike a subject, will
not be led to the cultural oblivion allowing his social hearth to be governed
by an obscure, impersonal liege.
From my cultural perspective, I submit little of what has been dictated by the memory of my language and by my consciousness as it has been formed in the world of ancestral dreams. I have also pointed to a language fountain one can fearlessly drink from, while warning against a contaminated pond. I also place on the altar of human dignity the five Greek notions for love and offer their distillation to the god Eros, in hope that his power will unite the elements that may salvage Harmony in our world.
BY PANAGIOTIS TERPANDROS ZACHARIOU
(FIRST PUBLISHED IN ELT NEWS IN 2004)