Love is such a difficult network of concepts, we can’t even seem to settle on a word for it. If we can love hot dogs, what thought, feeling, or state (we aren’t always sure of its genus, either) do we mean when we say that we love a person? In junior high, we distinguished degrees of attachment by using the word “like” either once or twice. “I like you, Winnie.” “What do you mean, Kevin? Do you like me, like me?” When I was a teenager, I once decided that saying I liked someone counterintuitively meant something more special than saying I loved someone, since I was bound by Christian teaching to love everybody but not to like everybody.
Ancient Greek had four different words for love. Paul chose agape to designate the Christian virtue he described in the thirteenth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians. Supposedly agape means sacrificial love and philia brotherly love or friendship. But I don’t know that the Greek speakers consistently used the first word to indicate a deeper or holier love than that meant by philia. The Apostle John, for example, used the two words interchangeably in the several places he describes himself as the disciple Jesus loved. More than the word itself, it was the whole phrase that indicated a special bond: surely Jesus loved all his disciples in one sense, but John was special enough to eat next to Jesus, to go up mountains with him, and so on.
On the other hand, John does seem to differentiate and use these two words to distinguish depths of love in his account of a conversation between Jesus and Peter near the end of his gospel. Jesus first asks Peter twice if he has agape for Him, and Peter replies that he has philia for the Master. I think Peter was torn between considering the words equivalent and treating them as different. It seems he wasn’t ready to adopt the term Jesus used but perhaps hoped that his switch wouldn’t be noticed. Jesus next asks, though, if Peter has philia for Him, and John reports that Peter was grieved that Jesus put the question this way the third time. The context here makes philia sound like a weaker grade of love. (I have no idea how this conversation plays out in Aramaic, which may well have been the language actually used by the two speakers.)
Bible translations don’t always distinguish the words in this exchange; versions that use “love” throughout make it sound as though Peter felt distress simply because Jesus asked him three times. But I think Peter’s anxiety stemmed from the change of terminology. Dorothy Sayers agreed, and preserved the distinction when she presented the dialog in the last play of her cycle called The Man Born to Be King. But she also met the dilemma caused by the multifaceted twentieth-century English use of the word “love.” If she has Jesus ask first whether Peter loves him and has Peter respond that he likes Jesus, she risks the problem my younger self noticed: Peter’s response could sound stronger and more personal than the original question. And if she has Peter respond, “Lord, I’m your friend,” that problem only deepens. Her solution, as she explains in her explanatory preface to the plays, is actually to switch the traditional Greek meanings of the words. Jesus first asks if Peter is his friend, which sounds to us as though the Lord is asking for confession of a personal bond. But Peter can only respond with the generic “You know I love you.”
Just after finishing Sayers’s plays, I began Cicero’s On Friendship according to my reading schedule, and there again was the use of “friendship” as the highest form of love. Writing in Latin, where he can show that love (amor) and friendship (amicitia) have the same root, Cicero proceeds to describe friendship in a way that makes it sound astonishingly like Paul’s agape. Friendship involves complete accord. (Love does not insist on its own way.) Friendship involves mutual goodwill and affection. (Love is kind.) Friendship is an attraction of one virtuous person to another. (Love does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.) In friendships of people with differing status, the poorer or less powerful friend must not be envious. (Love is not jealous.) And the richer or more powerful friend must ignore the difference and treat the other as an equal. (Love is not boastful.) Finally, friendship means loyalty and constancy. (Love never ends.)
Friendship of this kind is indeed a rare, precious thing. Many relationships I’ve thought were friendships have come to an end over the years. Sometimes the fault lay with me, at other times with the other person, and at yet other times with both of us. Accord, mutual goodwill, virtue, lack of envy, and the like are indeed the signs, and constancy is indeed the proof of true friendship. Yet we use the word “friend” as casually as we do “love.” “Will you friend me on facebook?” means something about as shallow as “I love that pen.” So I have many friends (my computer screen says, in fact, that I have 522) but only a very few friends friends.