Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 643
Agape and Eros by Anders Nygren examines the concept of love within Christianity and its development throughout history. The central theme of Agape and Eros is the comparison of Christianity's and Hellenism's concept of love. Hellenism was the major Greco-Roman ideology during antiquity.
In the Christian theology, the Greek word agape describes the love God bestows upon humanity and all lifeforms in the universe. It is an unconditional love that is hierarchical in nature, meaning it directly comes from the divine at the top of the cosmic hierarchy and is then distributed down to the mortals on earth.
However, humans can practice agape, and when they do so, they are mirroring divine love. If looked at as a distribution model, it is akin to a priest channeling divine knowledge and proliferating it to the masses. Thus, the priest is only a vessel of God despite being a godly representative on Earth.
The recipient of this love also gains value, as they are considered worthy upon receiving God's love. Eros, on the other hand, is a concept found in Hellenism. Nygren explains that there are two types of eros: vulgar and heavenly. The former is a type of longing for the body and includes earthly desires—for example, love for a romantic partner, a parent, or natural wonders.
Heavenly eros is seemingly more similar to agape, because it is one's love for the divine or heavenly things. Despite the similarities between agape and eros, Nygren concludes that they are still two different concepts. Agape has a top-down distribution, whereas eros has a bottom-up trajectory, in which humans attempt to transcend the earthly realm in order to reach for divine heights, thus breaking the God-mortal hierarchy.
Nygren also posits that through agape, God can grant salvation to humanity. On the other hand, heavenly eros gives humans the power to save themselves by trying to attain divinity. Nygren presents additional opinions on why eros—whether heavenly or vulgar—is not similar to agape.
For instance, Nygren believes that eros is egocentric, that it is still a love that is based on desire. Loving God from a heavenly eros perspective means that humans recognize that God is worthy of their love but does not give God value the way agape gives humans value when God loves them. Nygren goes on to state that over the centuries, people mixed agape and eros and eventually confused one with the other, which led to the modern concept of love.
He believes that this stems from the coexistence of Christianity with pagan ideologies like Hellenism. This part of the text is worth examining further, because it opens up opportunities for scholars to explore other instances in which an Abrahamic religion coexisted with a pagan or animist belief system.
Nygren also explores the motif of nomos—which is the legalistic concept of love and faith—and how this, too, was incorporated by early church leaders with Hellenistic ideas. Nygren points out that even revered Christian philosophers like Origen and St. Augustine unknowingly mixed agape and eros. This can be seen in St. Augustine's carta, or Christian love, which has the philosophical and ideological DNA of heavenly eros. Nygren concludes that it was Martin Luther—who believed that humanity's salvation could only come from God's love alone—marked a return to the original concept of agape.
In terms of content, Agape and Eros is just as much a historical account as it is a philosophical thesis. By detailing the chronological progression and regression of the concept of divine love within Christianity, Nygren illustrates how important it is to safeguard ideas and concepts from being influenced by other ideologies. On the other hand, the text also illustrates how doing so is difficult, because ideas are fluid in nature. The confluence and coalescence of ideas has shaped the human civilization, for better or for worse.
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