How does the way the Ancient Greeks thought of love fit with the triangular theory of love?

The Ancient Greeks, it is argued and I believe (without being able to read Ancient Greek), were the cleverest people who ever lived, combining rationality (logos) and spirituality (mythos) in a way that no other peoples have managed.  I’ve long been fascinated by their ways of defining different sorts of love, and I have wondered how their categorisation fits with Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love I encountered and wrote about the other day.

Sternberg sees three components to what he calls consummate love: intimacy, passion, and commitment. He then describes types of love that have only one or two of the three components.

The Ancient Greeks had many different words for love, but I’m going to concentrate on six from a short article I admire.

The first of the Ancient Greek words is eros or sexual passion. The Greeks were suspicious of eros, thinking that it led to madness and a loss of rationality. This fits with Sternberg’s single word passion and might include consummate love but also infatuation (passion alone), romantic love (passion plus intimacy), and fatuous love (passion plus commitment). The Greeks and Sternberg seem to fit together here, with eros including both the desirable and the undesirable.

Philia or deep friendship, the lifelong friendship between “brothers in arms,” was the kind of love the Greeks most admired. This fits with what Sternberg calls companionate love (intimacy plus commitment)–and with my Polish friend’s insistence on the need for a best friend.  A subset of philia is storge, the love between parents and their children.

Ludus is playful love, the love between children or teenagers. Dancing with a stranger is an example of ludus. Sternberg doesn’t seem to me to have an equivalent.

Agape is love of everyone, the love of Christ for all mankind, including those who condemned and killed him. The Romans translated agape as caritas, charity. A monthly payment to Oxfam hardly seems to amount to agape, but perhaps compassion is closer.  Sternberg, who is dealing with love between couples, has no equivalent.

Pragma is longstanding love, the love between long-married couples. It might be Sternberg’s consummate love or companionate love (commitment plus intimacy).

Philautia is love of the self and has a malignant form (narcissism) and a good form that increases your capacity to love. It is, the Greeks recognised, impossible to love others if you loathe yourself. Sternberg has no equivalent.

The Ancient Greeks took a broader view of love than Sternberg, whose theory seems to be restricted to couples, but both ways of thinking have value.

Ancient Greeks



Alexander saying hello to everybody in the street

Alexander is in an exuberant mood when I pick him up from school. He sings loudly as we walk towards the swings, and then when we arrive at the gates shouts “Hayo Luka” loudly to a boy about 40 yards away. Alexander runs over to him, and they start playing football. I talk to his Chinese mother, who, I quickly learn, has three older children, although she looks to me as if she’s in her early 20s.

After Luka leaves Alexander says he wants to go to the “high church,” referring not to the nature of its religious offering, although it is Catholic, but to its spire. We start to walk up the street, and Alexander shouts “Hayo” to everybody we pass, about 20 people. Almost everybody answers “Hello” back, and almost everybody smiles. Some laugh, and one woman says “Would you like an ice-pop?”

“He’s jolly,” says a woman pushing a wheelchair, and we fall into conversation.

“Yes,” I say, “and people seem to like it. They smile and laugh. If I did it they scowl and think I was nuts.”

“They would.”

The power and magic of small children.

Drinkng tea

How could a nanny murder the children she loves?

We regularly read in the newspapers of fathers, mothers, and nannies who murder the children they care for; we shudder and think “How could that happen?” Leïla Slimani, the twelfth woman to win the Prix Goncourt, provides a convincing answer in her novel French Lullaby.

I came to read this book after reading an interview with Slimani in the Financial Times. I rarely read contemporary, as opposed to classic, French novels, and I thought I should. Plus the story sounded interesting, and a book that wins such a prestigious prize must have something to say. I wasn’t disappointed.

We are told about the murders of the two Parisian children and that the nanny was the murderer at the very beginning of the book. So this is not a “whodunit” but a “whydidshedoit”?

The two quotes that Slimani choses to precede her novel give us clues.

“Miss Vezzis came from across the Borderline to look after some children who belonged to a lady until a regularly ordained nurse could come out. The lady said Miss Vezzis was a bad, dirty nurse, and inattentive. It never struck her that Miss Vezzis had her own life to lead and her own affairs to worry over, and that these affairs were the most important things in the world to Miss Vezzis. KIPLING, Plain Tales from the Hills.”

“Do you understand, dear sir, do you understand what it means when there is absolutely nowhere to go?’ Marmeladov’s question of the previous day came suddenly into his mind. ‘For every man must have somewhere to go.’ DOSTOEVSKY, Crime and Punishment.”

An alter ego of Slimani, Nina Dorval, the investigating police officer appears at the end of the book and describes Slimani’s task:

“Despite the corroborating testimonies about this perfect nanny, she told herself she would find the flaw. She swore she would understand what had happened in this warm, secret world of childhood, behind closed doors.”

“Nina Dorval plunged her hands into Louise’s rotting soul.”

The story is simple. A young middle class Parisian couple need a nanny because the husband is busy with his career and the mother, who was a brilliant law student, is finding full time child care exhausting and debilitating and wants to return to work. They find a “perfect” nanny, Louise, who is a widow, doll-like, wears heavy makeup and a Peter Pan collar (many references to this and it features on the cover of the book). She not only is marvellous with the children and willing to look after them all hours but also cooks excellent meals and does all the housework. She rapidly becomes indispensable.

Slowly we learn about the nanny’s life: its emptiness and complete lack of love. We read as well about episodes that begin to explain her terrible crime. We sympathise with her, but we can’t love her.

I won’t say any more about the plot, but two things struck me. Firstly, the book is full of accounts of bodies and bodily functions, most of which we find repellent. Here’s one:

“Geneviève, Mr Franck’s mother, had fractured the neck of her femur getting down from a train. Unable to walk, she had lost her mind on the platform. She spent her life lying down – naked, most of the time – in a light-filled ground-floor bedroom. It was so difficult to dress her – she fought with such ferocity – that they just laid her on an open nappy, her breasts and genitals exposed. The sight of that abandoned abandoned body was appalling.

Louise slept with Geneviève. She washed her. She listened to her rant all night. Like a baby, the old woman dreaded dusk. The fading light, the shadows, the silences made her scream with fear. She begged her own mother – who’d been dead for forty years – to come and fetch her. Louise, who slept next to the medical bed, tried to calm her down. The old woman spat insults at her, called her a whore, a bitch, a peasant. Sometimes she would try to hit her.”

Secondly, the novel describes well the bleak world of the Banlieue, the grim suburbs of Paris where the immigrants and the poor live. Slimani is French-Moroccan. One of the few other contemporary French novels I’ve read is Atomised by Michel Houellebecq. My memory, perhaps false, is that it too describes a grim, empty, loveless world. Does this say something about contemporary France? Probably not, but the two novels are certainly contrast to the richness, colour, and extravagance of Balzac and Proust, although closer perhaps to Zola and Maupassant.

Finally, the prose was simple and direct, but I think that I would have guessed that it was a translation.  One sentence left me wondering about the quality of the translation: “Their intoxication relieves the accumulated anxieties and tensions that their progeny has insinuated between them, husband and wife, mother and nanny.” Perhaps this is closest to the original French, but I would have been inclined to use “drunkenness” rather than “intoxication,” “”children” rather than “progeny,” and “brought” or “inserted” rather than “insinuated.” “Progeny” is surely the wrong word: it’s a rare and fancy word in English, and I don’t think that Slimani used complex language.

But the book is well worth reading. It reminded me a little of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, not just because of the subject matter but also because of its forensic style/

A few quotes from the book:

A few months before this, the two women had argued violently. The kind of argument that time does not erase, its words still echoing inside them for a long time afterwards whenever they see each other.

They all have shameful secrets. They hide awful memories of bent knees, humiliations, lies. Memories of barely audible voices on the other end of the line, of conversations cut off, of people who die and are never seen again, of money needed day after day for a sick child who no longer recognises you and who has forgotten the sound of your voice.

Children don’t care about the contours of our world. They can guess at its harshness, its darkness, but they don’t want to know anything more. They don’t pretend to feel sorry for those less fortunate than them.








The triangular theory of love

I recognise that every thought we have–whether on medicine, politics, human relationships, everything–depends on some underlying theory and that mostly we don’t think about or even recognise those theories. But I’d never thought about a theory of love until I read this morning about Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love. Sternberg is a professor of human development at Cornell University. I can see that it’s a useful theory, a model in that it helps explain what we observe and helps us think beyond our observations.

The model is very neat in that it can be shown in a picture:


As the name suggests and the diagram shows, there are three components to successful or consummate love: intimacy, passion, and commitment–and the words mean simply what you’d expect them to mean

Intimacy is sharing your most intimate thoughts, feelings, fears, and fantasies with another person. You might experience that with somebody you meet on a train, in which case Sternberg would call it liking. Or, I suppose, you might have it as part of a professional relationship with a therapist.

Passion is essentially sexual desire. Passion alone is infatuation, says Sternberg, although infatuation implies to me some degree of  commitment, something beyond a “one-night stand,” something that persists. Sternberg calls passion plus commitment “fatuous love.”

Sternberg writes of decision/commitment rather than simply commitment because consummate love begins when the couple decide they love each other. But love, and particularly marriage, is also about long term commitment, deciding to stay together..

Full blown consummate love–“a big love job”–depends on having all three components in balance. Passion tends to fade in long term relationships, leading to what Sternberg calls companionate love (intimacy plus commitment). In contrast, passion and intimacy without commitment Sternberg terms romantic love, although it seems to me that there must be some sort of initial decision/commitment to get the thing started.

Theories–no matter whether it’s evolution, microeconomics, or relativity–simplify and miss nuance, and that is probably more true of a theory of love than any scientific or economics theory–as humans are such tricky, fascinating, complex, irritating, and sometimes delightful things. But Sternberg’s theory seems useful to me. My next blog will explore whether his theory fits with how the Ancient Greeks saw love–and the one after that will describe Sternberg’s other theory of love, one based on stories.


Reading and writing The Great American Novel

It requires considerable chutzpah to write a novel called The Great American Novel, but you can see the fun that Philip Roth had in writing the novel even though it’s one of his less successful novels. At the end of the book he describes critical reaction to the novel written by Smitty, the sportswriter (another of Roth’s alter egos): “A real screwball, that one. Imagination up and run away with him, and the two just never come back. Cracked right down the middle, he is.” It’s an insightful criticism of Roth’s book in that much of it is out of control–but still mostly great fun and enjoyable.

A few days after finishing Roth’s book I read how B F Skinner, the great behavioural psychologist “discovered as a young man that he would never write the great American novel [and] felt a despair that nearly drove him into psychotherapy.” Two other leading psychologists, George Miller and William James, wanted to write the great American novel but discovered they couldn’t and turned to psychology as second best. I remember how our professor of psychiatry in Edinburgh said that psychiatrists were writing the novels of their patients’ lives.

Roth’s novel is a satire, and he eases any pressure he might have felt about writing the great American novel with this quote before the novel begins; “… the Great American Novel is not extinct like the Dodo, but mythical like the Hippogriff …” Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist.

Baseball is a more obvious subject for the great American novel than whaling (Moby Dick), adultery (The Scarlet Letter), or rural life in the South (Huckleberry Finn), all of which Roth satirises, because: “Do you remember what it is that links in brotherhood millions upon millions of American men, makes kin of competitors, makes neighbors of strangers, makes friends of enemies, if only while that game is going on? Baseball!”

Roth shows his virtuoso writing skills in a long prologue in which he plays with alliteration and other devices of eloquence and writes pastiches of Moby Dick and other classic novels.  It’s impossible not to be impressed and amused by his skills, but they do go too far.

Then the novel proper begins, the story of a hopeless baseball team playing in a doomed league during the second world war. Accounts of baseball matches run right though the novel with all the jargon of the game, which is mostly unintelligible to those who don’t know the game well. This, I fear, might put off some readers, but I didn’t find it a problem. Through the device of baseball Roth covers many of the great issues of America, including immigration, race relations, politics, McCarthyism, attitudes to the disabled, capitalism, showmanship, the media, and much more. Much of it is very funny, and I particularly enjoyed the take-off of the horrors of talk radio.

There were more longeurs than is usual in a Roth novel, but I enjoyed it greatly.

Here are quotes I extracted:

Great American novel


… the Great American Novel is not extinct like the Dodo, but mythical like the Hippogriff … Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist


“O why must there be d for deceased! Deceit, defeat, decay, deterioration, bad enough – but d as in dead? It’s too damn tragic, this dying business! I tell you, I’d go without daiquiris, daisies, damsels, Danish, deck chairs, Decoration Day doubleheaders, decorum, delicatessen, Demerol, democratic processes, deodorants, Derbys, desire, desserts, dial telephones, dictionaries, dignity, discounts, disinfectants, distilleries, ditto marks, doubletalk, dreams, drive-ins, dry cleaning, duck au montmorency, a dwelling I could call my own – why, I would go without daylight, if only I did not have to die. O fans, it is so horrible just being defunct, imagine, as I do, day in and day out.”

Ninety-nine per cent of their baseball ‘memories,’ ninety-nine per cent of the anecdotes and stories they recollect and repeat are pure hogwash, tiny morsels of the truth so coated over with discredited legend and senile malarkey, so impacted, you might say, in the turds of time, as to rival the tales out of ancient mythology. What the aged can do with the past is enough to make your hairs stand on end. But then look at the delusions that ordinary people have about the day before yesterday.

‘State Home for the Aged, the Infirm, the Despondent, the Neglected, the Decrepit, the Incontinent, the Senile, and the Just About Scared to Death. Life creeps in its petty pace, Commissioner.’

Only listen, Nathaniel, and Americans will write the Great American Novel for you.

‘I am,’ wrote Hawthorne, ‘a citizen of somewhere else.’ My precursor, and my kinsman too.

The sea is no longer a fit place for habitation – just ask the tunas in the cans.

Has-beens, might-have-beens, should-have-beens, would-have-beens, never-weres and never-will-bes,

Which are you? A has-been, might-have-been, should-have-been, would-have-been, never-were, or never-will-be? You’re bound to be one. (Thanks to Philp Roth.)

Do you remember what it is that links in brotherhood millions upon millions of American men, makes kin of competitors, makes neighbors of strangers, makes friends of enemies, if only while that game is going on? Baseball!

And if he is elected, he will ring down the curtain on the American tragedy – a tragedy because it will have been made into a farce! And when that terrible day comes, Roland, when a President Mazuma is installed in the White House, they won’t need a Red Army marching down Trust Street to blow up the Industrial and Maritime Exchange; the poor bewildered American people will do it themselves

“From each according to his stupidity, to each according to his greed.”

‘I think you’re going to like it here, Gramps. We look after you and you look after yourself, and the world outside can just worry about its own problems for a change.’

‘A real screwball, that one. Imagination up and run away with him, and the two just never come back. Cracked right down the middle, he is.’

‘In battle with the lie,’ said Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, ‘art has always been victorious, always wins out, visibly, incontrovertibly for all! The lie can stand against much in the world – but not against art.’











A brilliant take-off of the horrors of talk radio

This extract, which made me laugh out loud, comes from Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel. The context is that a greedy, outrageous owner of a baseball club who will do anything to increase attendance has introduced a midget [no politically correct language in the 40s when the novel is set], Bob Yamm, into the team purely for effect; but Bob and his wife, Judy, turn out to be a huge hit–so much so that Judy is interviewed on the radio by Martita McGaff. Her name gives away her style.

“What one photo story after another revealed, and what was at first so difficult for their fellow Americans to believe, was that midgets were exactly like ordinary people, only smaller. Indeed, after Mrs. Bob Yamm had appeared on Martita McGaff’s daytime radio show, the network received letters from over fifteen thousand women, congratulating them for their courage in having as a guest the utterly charming wife of the controversial little baseball player. Only a very small handful found the program distasteful, and wrote to complain that hearing a midget on the radio had frightened their young children and given them nightmares.


‘I only wish all of you out there in radioland,’ Martita began, ‘could be here in the studio to see my guest today. She is Mrs. Bob Yamm, her husband is the pinch-hitter who has major league pitchers going round in circles, and she herself is cute as a button. Welcome to the show, Mrs. Yamm – and just what is that darling little outfit you’re wearing? I’ve been admiring it since I laid eyes on you. And the little matching shoes and handbag! I’ve never seen anything so darling!’

‘Thank you, Martita. Actually the sunsuit is something I designed and made myself.’

‘You didn’t! Well, watch out, Paris – there’s a little lady in Kakoola, Wisconsin, who just may run you out of business! Have you ever thought of designing clothes specifically for women midgets, Mrs. Yamm? Am I correct – it is “women midgets”; or does one say “Midgetesses”? Our announcer and myself were talking that over just before the show, and Don says he believes he has heard the term “midgetesses” used on occasion … No?’

‘No,’ said Mrs. Yamm.

‘Tell me then, what do women midgets do about clothes? I’m sure all our listeners have wondered. Do most of them design and make their own, or are you out of the ordinary in that respect?’

‘Yes, I guess you could say I was out of the ordinary in that respect,’ replied Mrs. Yamm. ‘But since I’m rather thin for my height, and most children’s clothes just swim on me, I took to making my own – I guess as a matter of necessity.’

‘It is the mother of invention, isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ agreed Mrs. Yamm.

‘And may I say,’ said Martita, ‘for the benefit of our radio audience, you are marvelously thin. I’m sure the ladies listening in, some of whom have my problem, would like to know your secret. Do you watch your diet?’

‘No, I more or less eat whatever I want.’

‘And continue to remain so wonderfully petite?’

‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Yamm.

‘Oh, that we were all so lucky! I just look at a dish of ice cream – well, let’s not go into that sad story! Now – what is it like suddenly being the wife of a famous man? Do you find people staring at you now whenever you two step out?’

‘Well, of course, they always stared, you know, even before.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t doubt that. You are a darling couple. How did you meet Bob? Is there a funny story that goes with that? Did Bob get down on his knees to ask for your hand – or just how did he pop the question?’

‘He just asked me if I’d marry him.’

‘Not on bended knee, eh? Not the old-fashioned type.’


‘And just what do you think it was that made you attractive to a man like Bob Yamm?’

‘Well, my size, primarily. My being another midget.’

‘And a very lovely midget, if I may say for the benefit of the radio audience what Mrs. Yamm is too modest to say herself. Just to give our radio audience an idea of how lovely I’m going to run the risk of embarrassing our guest – I hope she won’t mind – but coming into the studio today, for the first moment I did not even realize that she was real. I had seen photographs of her, of course, and knew she would be my guest today – and yet in the first moment, seeing her in that darling outfit, with matching purse and shoes, sitting straight up in the corner of my office sofa with her legs out in front of her, one demurely crossed over the other, I actually thought she was a doll! I thought, “My granddaughter Cindy has been here and she’s left her new doll. She’ll be sick, wondering where it is, such a lovely and expensive one too, with real hair and so on” – and then the doll’s mouth opened and said, “How do you do, I’m Judy Yamm.” Well, you’re blushing, but it’s true. I was literally and truly in wonderland for a moment. And I wouldn’t doubt that Bob Yamm was, when he first laid eyes upon you.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Was it love at first sight for you, too? Did you ever expect when you first met him that Bob would be a major league baseball player?’

‘No, I didn’t.’

‘What a thrill then for two young people who only a few months ago thought of themselves as just an ordinary American couple. By the way, are there any little Yamms at home?’

‘Pardon? Oh, no – just Bob and myself.’

‘Uh-oh, I’m being told to cut it short, time for only one more question – so at the risk of being as ultracontroversial as your ultracontroversial husband, Bob Yamm, brilliant pinch-hitter for the Kakoola Reapers, I’m going to ask it. Do you think a midget can ever get to be President of the United States? Now you don’t have to answer that one.’

‘I think I won’t.’

‘Well, I’m no political pundit either, but let me say that I’ve been talking to a midget who could certainly get to be First Lady in my book – and that is the utterly delightful and charming and beautiful Judy Yamm, wife of the famous baseball star, and clothes designer in her own right – and I only hope our granddaughter Cindy isn’t waiting outside here, because one look at you, Judy Yamm, and she’s going to want to take you home for her own! This is Martita McGaff – have a happy, everyone!’




Louis Pasteur fundraising

Fundraising is a crucial part of every scientist’s life, and even the great Louis Pasteur had to fundraise. I was very taken by this story that I read this morning in Jules Renard’s journals.

Louis Pasteur presented himself at the house of Madame Boucicault, the widow of the owner of Bon Marché. They were reluctant to let him in.

“It’s an old gentleman,” said the maid.

“Is it the Pasteur of the dog rabies?” asked Madame Boucicault.

The maid went to ask. “Yes,” answers Pasteur.

They let him in, and he explains that he is going to found an institute. Little by little he becomes animated, clear, eloquent. “And that is why,” he says, “I’ve taken on the duty of bothering charitable persons like yourself. The least contribution.”

“Why, of course,” says Madame Boucicault, as embarrassed as he is. After a few trivial remarks, she takes her chequebook, writes a cheque, and hands it folded to Pasteur.

“Thank you, Madame, you are too kind.” He glances at the cheque and bursts into tears.  She does too. The cheque was for a million francs.

PS. A million francs in 1900 is the equivalent of something between $5m and $11m today.