Skip to main content



An affective accord or union with what is in some way grasped as congenial. While almost hopelessly general, this definition has the merit of indicating the dynamic and relational character of all love and of suggesting that its function is to promote wholeness. An effort to specify the levels of wholeness toward which various loves are directed cannot fail to throw light on the ultimate meaning and destiny of human existence. This article considers the various kinds of love, the historical development of theories of love, love at the level of sense, and love at the level of reason.

Kinds of Love

Human beings experience many different kinds of love, corresponding to different levels of existence. The most important distinction is that between sensible and rational love; other types are concupiscent and benevolent love, eros and agape, and appreciative love.

Sensible and Rational . Sensible love, which humanity shares with the animals, is geared to satisfying the needs of biological life. It looks to what is presented by the senses as requisite and congenial to the individual here and now. Since it is intrinsically dependent on matter and consists in the dynamic accord of sensitized potency with what can fulfill it, it is radically subjective.

Rational love, on the other hand, is rooted in human spirituality and openness to being. Because he is spiritual, man can grasp the real (both sensible and suprasensible) as independent of the present condition of his organism and affectively relate himself to it on the basis of its own merits. Such love is fundamentally objective. Whereas sensible love is a psychic reaction to stimulus, rational love is a personal response to worth. The first looks to the conservation and promotion of the individual organism or the species. The second looks beyond these to the absolute value of being, which it seeks to promote in all its finite embodiments.

Concupiscent and Benevolent . The fact that rational love is ordered to the continual enhancement of the finite in the light of the infinite leads to a further distinction. For one cannot enhance something without desiring for it whatever is conducive to its growth and development. This facet of love, which is rooted in the limited and potential character of the beloved and seeks goods that will perfect him, is called concupiscent love (amor concupiscentiae ). On the other hand, the beloved for whom such goods are desired and whose full growth in being is sought is loved with benevolent love (amor benevolentiae ). Concupiscent love and benevolent love are thus two dimensions or aspects of rational love; although not identical with one another, they are nonetheless inseparable.

Eros and Agape. Another important distinction in the language of love is that between eros and agape. Although sometimes confused with the distinction between concupiscent and benevolent love, this is really quite different. It does not arise from the essential polarity within all human love, but regards instead the different orientations such love may assume. For since man is open to Being as absolute, he can serve such Being anywhere. He is not limited to promoting being in himself only, but can do so in others. When, therefore, he focuses on himself and seeks his own full expansion in being, his love is called eros. When, however, it looks to others and devotes itself to their fulfillment, it is called agape. In either case, both the concupiscent and benevolent aspects of all human love are involved. On the other hand, neither eros nor agape taken separately would seem to be equal to love's total drive, for the distinction between self and other is a distinction within being. A love, therefore, looking to Being Itself could not exclude either without falling short. But more about this later.

Appreciative. Mention should also be made of what is sometimes called appreciative love (C. S. Lewis). For in the presence of what is congenial, it sometimes happens that a person's stance is neither one of desire nor one of benevolence but is more akin to sheer gratitude. From the depths of his soul he appreciates simply the excellence of what he encounters. However, although this may appear to be a distinct mode of love, it seems better to identify it with the openness to being that is the root of all rational love. It is precisely because man can appreciate the consummate excellence of being wherever he finds it that he seeks to promote it in himself and others and desires what furthers this work. And he is able to appreciate it because of that basic affinity to being that is the root of his spirituality.

Historical Development

Theories of love have gone through so long a process of evolution that it is impossible to detail their history in brief compass. [M.J. Adler, ed., The Great Ideas: A Synopticon of Great Books of the Western World (Chicago 1952) 1:10582; R. Eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe (Berlin 192730) 2:2938; Enciclopedia filosofica (Venice Rome 1957) 1:173180.]. Here only the main stages are mentioned, with emphasis focused on the origin of such theories among the Greeks and on their development within Christianity.

Greek Theories. Among the facets of love outlined above, the first to take systematic shape in a full-blown philosophy was that of ροςnot eros as contrasted with agape and as one of the two orientations of rational love, but as the overriding dynamism of the soul. Thus plato (Symp. 210AE) conceives the soul as ordered from the outset to a wholly satisfying contemplation of the good, which it can reach, however, only gradually and by means of a laborious ascent. Stirred by the ideal reality that makes its presence felt in and through the sensible, the soul is moved with longing for the eternal. Beyond the fleeting forms of beauty and goodness in the world around it, it looks for that which does not fade and whose immutable possession can alone quench its thirst. The Good, therefore, for Plato, however nobly and spiritually conceived, remains a term of desire (concupiscent love). It is not loved for its own sake but for its capacity to satisfy the soul's hunger. Love, on the other hand, is basically a matter of longing. It is not benevolence, a generous impulse to enhance the world; it is flight from the world to a changeless noetic heaven that is seen as the soul's salvation.

aristotle is more down to earth. His analysis of love is directed largely to the question of friendship and is situated in the context of natural finality (Eth. Nic. 1155a1172a). Like all natural entities, man too has an innate drive toward what will perfect him. This relationship to himself is seen as a kind of friendship, a benevolent attitude aiming at his own promotion in goodness. More importantly, because of man's intellectual nature, he is able to recognize another man as in some sense one with him by likeness and, on the basis of this similarity, to extend the benevolence he has for himself to this other. Friendship is thus a prolongation of self-love and the friend a kind of second self (Eth. Nic. 1166a 12).

The importance of Aristotle's theory is that it makes room for a love that is more than mere desire. Because of his likeness to the self, the friend is loved for his own sake. Love becomes generous, a matter of giving as well as of getting. This is what will permit a Christian theologian such as St. thomas aquinas to make considerable use of Aristotle's ideas in the elaboration of a theory of charity. However, it must be pointed out that because of Aristotle's fundamental naturalism and his lack of a doctrine on creation, the individual substance remains ontologically primary and all its activities, including friendship in the case of man, are necessarily subordinate to its own drive for perfection. Benevolence is therefore rooted in a more radical concupiscence; although one's friend is loved for his own sake, the reason that one enters such a relationship is to satisfy a natural need. Friendship is but a good required for human happiness.

Christian Thought. Christianity brought about a basic shift in man's thinking about love. The abundant generosity of love comes to the fore. Instead of rooting love, as Plato did, in man's spiritual poverty or deriving it, with Aristotle, from the needs of nature, Christian thought sees love's source in the infinite perfection and creativity of Divine Being. God Himself is love (1 Jn 4.8). His very substance is a loving community of three divine Persons. He creates the world out of love. And out of love He sends his Son to redeem man. The Word made flesh is Love incarnate who calls man, made in His image, to a share in His life. Man's basic vocation is now one of generous love, agape. His consuming task is to promote God's kingdom on earth, to spend himself in behalf of the Lord who seeks an ever fuller presence in the world He made. In this perspective, even the search for personal happiness is subordinated to pure devotion to God and His glory (cf. Thomas Aquinas, In 4 sent. ad 3).

This Christian insight, founded on God's revelation of Himself, represents the high-water mark in man's comprehension of love's scope. Subsequent thinkers, working under its influence, have only partially succeeded in elaborating comprehensive systems consistent with it. Too often, when they have not ignored it and reverted to something inferior, their efforts have resulted only in distorting the sublime vision that Christ's revelation affords.

It is perhaps not too much to say that in the writings of Aquinas, the Middle Ages produced its least unsatisfactory synthesis. Even there, however, some thinkers feel that Aquinas's reliance on Aristotle produced a tension in his thinking on love that he never fully overcame. The other great medieval tradition, represented by richard of saint-victor, though more in tune with contemporary personalism, is, like the latter, too lacking in comprehensive categories to provide an adequate metaphysics. Both, however, are truer to the Christian concept of love than anything found in modern thought until quite recently. Thus, for example, the Italian Renaissance combined the impersonalism of Platonic eros with the creativity of Christian agape to conceive love as an immanent, all-pervasive cosmic force. The rise of empiricism, on the other hand, stripped away love's transcendental implications and reduced it to the status of a particular, purely natural instinct. While the romantics absolutized the sexual side of love, the objective idealists, once more recognizing its suprasensible orientation, nevertheless saw it as part of a universal, impersonal dialectic. In reaction to all this, recent years have seen the rise of a new personalism, much enriched by the techniques of phenomenology, but still, it must be said, in search of a metaphysics. If ever there is to be a philosophy adequate to the Christian message, its best hope seems to lie in the restructuring of Aquinas's metaphysics of being along lines that take more explicit account of the central and comprehensive mystery of the personal.

Love at the Level of Sense

The distinction between sensible love and rational love is rooted in the different types of awareness that give rise to them. Sensible love is aroused by the presence to the animal's senses of something congenial to his nature. Its goal is pleasure, a strictly subjective state that is related to the animal's objective good only as a natural sign. For sensible consciousness is not objective. The animal is wholly guided in its actions by feelings of attraction and repulsion that it is unable to distinguish from the realities stimulating them. Hence those other traits of sensible love: the narrowness of its horizon and its lack of freedom, but also, on the brute level, its sureness and apparent innocence.

Role in Man. With man, the picture becomes more complicated. The sensible level of his nature is radically transformed by the spiritual component it embodies. As spirit, man is at once interior to himself and present to the other as other. He enjoys objectivity. Unlike the brute, he is not imprisoned within his own psycho-organic nature but can refer his sensations and feelings explicitly to the objects arousing them. They become revelations of the nature of the situation in which he finds himself and of its harmony or discord with his own concrete being. Thus, even though his sensible love has pleasure for its aim, it is pleasure known as such and as distinct from the things that provide it. This is what J. Guitton means when he remarks that in man's "most fundamental states, even the most bestial, there is always a hormone of spirit sufficient to differentiate these states from their animal counterparts" (113).

Granting, however, this transformation of sense life by its integration in man with objective awareness, its role nonetheless remains basically the same. In both man and beast, the attractions things exert are in the service of biological lifethe life of the individual and that, too, of the species. Experiencing his own affective accord with certain objects in his environment, of his desires in their absence and of his pleasure in their presence, man, no less than the beast, is induced to satisfy the objective requirements of his psyche-organic nature that the former reactions signify. But whereas for the beast the inducement is compelling, it is not so for man. His self-possession and openness to more comprehensive values leave him free to follow the lead of sense or not to follow it. He cannot suppress the feelings that things arouse in him; but he can, when to yield would conflict with pursuit of a higher good, resist their promptings. Moreover, such regulation by reason is necessary if this vital realm of feelings and emotions, which is meant to sustain and promote human life, is not to disrupt it instead. For since nature has relaxed its grip on man to allow for the emergence of personal freedom, man's fund of emotional energy will dissipate itself in chaotic eruptions unless he personally intervenes to restrain and order it.

Need for Passions. But if man's passionate life apart from spirit's control will lack humanity, his spiritual life will be limp and languid unless fired from below by his passions. This is the truth Aquinas saw when he rejected the Stoic view of the passions as enemies of reason and morality (Summa Theologiae la2ae, 24.2). On the contrary, not only does the rational application of passionate energy not diminish spiritual activity; it enhances and presses it onward (Summa Theologiae la2ae, 24.3). For just as in man the presence of spirit transforms all the levels below it, so also it needs the support and cooperation of all these lower levels to carry out its own work. Here, perhaps, is the germ of truth in views that reduce all love to the level of sense and even to the sexual instinct (H. Spencer, S. Freud). Because spirit can insert itself effectively in the world only through the mediation of psychoorganic energy and because among all his drives the sexual one in man is the most clamorously insistent, the temptation is strong to simplify matters by collapsing all distinctions. One refutation of these views is simply that, in suppressing manifest distinctions, they impoverish experience instead of explaining it. That there is a difference between sensible love whose goal is pleasure and rational love whose term is being itself should become clear in the following section, which is devoted to the latter. Suffice it to say here that when man makes pleasure his overriding concern, not only does he blind himself to all that is valuable in itself, but by that very fact he makes sadness his constant companion. For he condemns himself to the permanent absence of the only good commensurate with the human heart.

Love on the Level of Reason

The root of rational love is the openness and affinity to Being Itself that defines the realm of spirit. To be spirit is to have access to being-as-absolute, i.e., to a value that encompasses both oneself and the other and, while grounding each person in his originality, still transcends him on every side. To be spirit is to be-for-being, to exist, even prior to choice, as sharing in that pure devotion-tobeing that is being. Whereas the dynamism of sensible nature is the dynamism of potency seeking its own fulfillment, the radical dynamism of spirit is one of act, of abundanceit is a pure love of excellence, a pure complacency with perfection, rejoicing in its presence and bent on promoting its reign.

Characteristics. On this basis, the characteristics of rational love, as distinct from sensible love, are clearly discernible. For rational love is the individual's free ratification of this fundamental dynamism of spirit. It is a matter of freely orienting one's life in the direction of service. The element of freedom here is important. The individual, to be sure, is not free on the pre-reflective level to determine what will present itself as good to his intellect. Just as the dynamism of the organism assures that whatever is sensibly present and in harmony with that dynamism will be felt as attractive, so also, when what is intellectually perceived presents itself as harmonizing with the spirit's essential drive, it is known as a rational good (cf. J. de Finance). But whereas, on the sensible level, the reactions are automatic, the response of spirit is not. For the absolute value of Being is present to spirit only through the mediation of particular forms, and the ways it may be served are seen as limited and often conflicting. Moreover, given the distinction in man between his psycho-organic drives, which look to his fulfillment as a separate individual, and the spirit's thrust toward a generous service that subordinates separate fulfillment to a more comprehensive good, the need for man to assume the direction of his life becomes manifest. What will he do? Will he pursue his own satisfaction on the organic level even if it means sacrificing his spiritual fulfillment, or will he let spirit be his guide even when to do so entails the curtailment of sensible appetites? This is the choice he must make. To decide for the former is to reject spirit's call and to settle for a life that he knows falls short. To opt for the latter is to undertake a life of discipline and hardship, but one in which even frustration serves a purpose and is redeemed by what it promotes. Reason and spirit, to be sure, are involved in either case since, on this level, even failure is a matter of free decision. But only when reason directs its course is a person's love truly rational.

Disinterested Love. What has been said about love in the preceding paragraphs raises an important question about love's disinterestedness. For if it is its harmony with the spirit's drive that recommends a particular course of action as goodmuch as sensible attractiveness is grounded in the conformity of an object with the psycho-physical dynamism of the organismthen it seems that love of the good on the level of spirit, no less than on the level of sense, is actually and inevitably simply a form of self-seeking. The reason a person dedicates himself to the service of Being is to achieve himself as spirit, just as the pursuit of pleasure looks to his fulfillment as organism. The one may be a higher and more comprehensive goal than the other, but in both cases the good remains subordinate to self-realization. The question then arises: Is a pure and disinterested love of anything, even God, within the bounds of human possibility? If it is not, then the selfishness of man becomes limitless and incurable, since he cannot help making God Himself a mere means to his own happiness. If, however, such love is possible, how can one even begin to understand itfor it seems to imply that a being can tend to something in no way connected with itself (cf. Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, 26.3 ad 2).

In their efforts to resolve this dilemma, philosophers have usually succeeded in holding on to only one of its horns. Thus, for example, there developed among some of the mystics of the 12th century an ecstatic conception of love (see Rousselot). From their point of view, love is not love at all unless it is completely pure and disinterested, unless the subject goes completely outside himself and loses himself in the beloved. An echo of this passion for complete disinterestedness comes up later in the writings of I. kant (e.g., Critique of Practical Reason ), for whom morality is not genuine if the maxims it proposes are in any way connected with the subject's likes or dislikes or with his drive for fulfillment, even spiritual. "Duty and obligation are the only names that we must give to our relation to the moral law." In both of these views something human is lost. The ecstatic conception maintains a disinterested love at the price of foregoing any attempt to understand it. Kant's doctrine sacrifices love itself to preserve the subject from any touch of egoism.

On the other hand, there are thinkers who are less interested in idealizing selflessness than in giving a rational account of it. Thus P. rousselot defends as the doctrine of Aquinas a thinly disguised monism wherein God and creature are interpreted as whole and part and the distinction between them is all but collapsed. In this light, self-love is identically a pure and greater love of God, since to love oneself is at the same time and more profoundly to promote the whole in which the self has its being. Such a position is not much different from that of philosophers who are openly pantheistic. B. spinoza, for example, likewise collapses the distinction between creature and God. But instead of identifying self-love with a greater love for God, Spinoza ultimately identifies it with God's own love for Himself.

If moves such as these, which account for selfless love by doing away with the self, are philosophically inadequate, they are less so than the ones that either ignore or deny God in their efforts to explain love. For if the individual self is primary and has no ground beyond itself, then in all its relations with others it must ultimately seek itself. Thus, as has been seen, Aristotle was forced to derive an individual's love for another from his natural love for himself. And centuries later, J. S. mill preached service to others as a source of deepest satisfaction to oneself. There is, no doubt, truth in both positions. But neither is successful in explaining disinterested love. For all they actually do is to make selfless love reasonable by showing that it is really not selfless.

Love of Self and Others. If a rational account of truly generous love can be given, it will have to proceed along lines similar to the ones indicated in L. B. Geiger's brilliant exposition of the Thomist solution. The foundation of Geiger's position is the analogy of appetite consequent upon the different ways in which the good is present to it. The will, or intellectual appetite, seeks the good as presented by intellect. But the intellect is man's faculty for objective knowledge. It knows the real not merely in terms of the person's immediate dealings with it but as it is in itself. It presents to the will, therefore, not merely what is good for the individual but what is good in itself. The will thus is seen as naturally ordered to the real on its own merits. It is true to itself only when it loves what is good in itself for its own sake.

To rephrase this in the language used above, one can say that the spirit in man is dynamically ordered to being as an absolute value. In its very roots it is a love of being for its own sake. The perfection of spirit, therefore, is not a matter of acquisition but of orientation. Its fulfillment is to love generously. It is most itself when it is most for the other.

Since, in this light, there is no distinction between self-realization and genuine devotion to being for its own sake, the problem of disinterested love disappears. For now there can be no question of subordinating love for the other to one's own fulfillment (egoism) or of sacrificing that fulfillment to one's love for the other (ecstaticism). Personal fulfillment is identically a matter of generous service. When one loves generously, one is by that very fact fulfilled; one is caught up in Being's embrace. On the other hand, any idea of self-realization as a separate goal to which love is only a means is a misconception. It is to think of the self as something apart from its loving relation to Being and, therefore, able to use this relation for its own advantage. The truth is that the self exists only in this relationship and apart from it is nothing at all.

From what has been said, it is clear that no opposition can exist between genuine love of self and genuine love for others. Hence it is misleading to speak of a person's loving God more than himself, as if one could really sacrifice himself for the love of God and not instead be completed by it. What such a phrase means is that, since the root relation of spirit is one of responsiveness to the consummate excellence of Being Itself (God), the created spirit can be concerned for itself only as derivatively sharing in that excellence, not as rivaling, or, much less, surpassing it. So also with the idea that man naturally loves himself more than his neighbor. One can no more subordinate others to oneself than one can sacrifice self to God. On the contrary, one loves himself truly only in willing and spending himself for others.

What lies behind these other views is Aristotle's idea that self-love is the origin of man's love for othersan idea that, in turn, is founded on the Stagirite's conception of the ontological primacy of the individual substance. With one's own substantial reality functioning as the ultimate reason for all one does, it is manifest that one's relation to others must be secondary to the pursuit of one's own perfection. For Aristotle, this is true without qualification. It is only partly so, however, when viewed from the perspective of a metaphysics that takes account of the fact of creation. Thus St. Thomas, adopting Aristotle's position regarding man's relations with others who are finite like himself, is nevertheless forced to reverse it when it comes to man's love for God. For God is the ontological ground of man's individual reality and hence is the ultimate reason why man himself is lovable. Hence St. Thomas concludes that naturally man loves God more than himself and himself more than his neighbor. This view is tenable, and indeed irrefutable, so long as finite reality is seen as a collection of individual substances that are only accidentally related to one another. It would not hold, however, if the self is essentially constituted by its relationship to the other. Moreover, this latter position seems to some to be more in line with the Christian contention that love is the root of reality, its first beginning and its last end.

Man's Vocation. Thus, even apart from grace, man's vocation as a person is one of generous love. He completes himself through wholehearted commitment to a work of "reasonable service." The dominant motif of this work is the promotion of being in the beings around him, their continual enhancement in the light of possibilities that the enveloping presence of Being opens up. To this overriding motif, all man's passionate energies must be subordinated. The passions supply the raw material with which spirit works, the vitality it requires for any effective accomplishment. But they must be checked, disciplined, and integrated into the coherent work of love.

Unless spirit truly and vigorously assumes the ascendency, man's lower drives run riot in their strident search for satisfaction. But as part of the larger work of love, even their curtailment and frustration in particular instances can contribute to overall growth. This natural capacity of the person to grow in love and achieve a work of genuine service is what grace presupposes and transforms. For the manner and scope of this transformation, which enriches without suppressing what has here been described rather briefly, see charity.

See Also: appetite; emotion; passion; person; sex.

Bibliography: l. b. geiger, Le Problèe de l'amour chez saint Thomas d'Aquin (Montreal 1952). p. rousselot, "Pour l'histoire du problème de l'amour au moyen âge," Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie und Theologie des Mittelatlters 6.6 (Münster 1908) 1102. h. d. simonin, "Autour de la solution thomiste du probléme de l'amour," Archives d'histoire doctinale et littéraire du moyenâge 6 (Paris 1931) 174276. r. o. johann, The Meaning of Love (Westminster, Md. 1955). j. de finance, "La Motion du bien," Gregorianum 39 (Rome 1958) 542. f. e. crowe, "Complacency and Concern in the Thought of St. Thomas," Theological Studies 20 (Woodstock, Md. 1959) 139, 198230, 343395. j. guitton, Essay on Human Love, tr. m. channing-pearce (New York 1951). c. s. lewis, The Four Loves (London 1960). m. c. d'arcy, The Mind and Heart of Love (New York 1947). f. d. wilhelmsen, The Metaphysics of Love (New York 1962).

[r. o. johann]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Love." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 16 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Love." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (August 16, 2018).

"Love." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 16, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.