The Fluidity of Eros and Philia

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Cross-posted from Catholic Authenticity

The BBC has an interesting story today on an “intense” friendship between John Paul II and philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. The story itself is quite beautiful, but it’s also interesting to see the reactions that circle around it. On the one hand, someone at the BBC seems to be doing their best to milk a little bit of salacious click-bait out of the matter (as a writer, I suspect the hand of an editor in this – the lines that hint at non-existent intrigue seem a little forced, as if they were added or augmented after the original draft.) On the other hand, some of the comments that I’ve seen on FaceBook make it clear that a certain portion of the Catholic world would have been scandalized even without the BBC’s help.

Opposite sex friendship is a fraught topic in some Christian circles. It’s looked on with the same kind of suspicion that get directed towards same-sex friendships involving gays or lesbians: there’s an assumption that “friendship” is being used as cover for a sexual relationship, or at the very least that such relationships always present a danger because they could become sexualized at any time.

In some cases this has resulted in a belief that men and women cannot be friends at all, but today it’s much more common to encounter a belief that opposite-sex friendship is possible – but only provided the friendship is fairly casual and ideally largely devoid of strong emotional content. It’s okay for a man to be friends with his wife’s friends, or even with women he meets in his professional or academic life, provided their friendship mostly involves mutual socialization with others or purely intellectual talk. As soon as words like “intimate,” “intense,” “personal,” or (worse) “love” are mentioned hackles go up.

I’ve long thought that this is deeply problematic. The counsel to avoid close opposite sex friendships seems to be based in the experience of people who are basically immature in their sexuality. I don’t mean that at all as an insult: maturity is a natural developmental process, not a personal accomplishment, and even if a person is unseasonably immature that’s generally not a choice they’ve made.

In any case, affective maturity involves learning how to direct sexuality towards fruitful relationships with members of both sexes without it devolving into lust. Theology of the Body, which discusses the proper use of sexuality both in marriage and in celibacy, provides a portrait of one celibate man’s engagement with the body and its sexuality – a very mature portrait in which the fact of lust is acknowledged without allowing it to grow out of proportion and fill the frame.

It should be no surprise then that John Paul II had intimate friendships with women. Indeed, his personalism would seem to demand such relationships as a sign of healthy spiritual and emotional growth. The man who cannot relate to women without lusting after them is prevented from having healthy opposite-sex friendships precisely because he is incapable of seeing women as persons. The same is true, of course, of a woman who cannot have chaste friendships with men.

Perhaps more troubling, however, to those who are disturbed by this story is the claim that it may have once involved erotic attraction. “Marsha Malinowski, a rare manuscripts dealer who negotiated the sale of the letters, says she believes Ms Tymieniecka fell in love with Cardinal Wojtyla in the early days of their relationship. “I think that it’s completely reflected in the correspondence,” she told the BBC.”

Critics will say that this is a cheap attempt to smear John Paul II’s chastity – but I honestly doubt that most secular readers are going to derive that from the text. It is much more likely to be the religious reader who is scandalized at the thought that the Pope would have maintained a maintained a friendship under these conditions, rather than cutting it off. After all, surely it’s one thing for two mature adults of the opposite sex, people who are secure in the sexuality and committed to their vocations, to entertain a close but appropriately dispassionate friendship – it’s quite another for a Catholic Cardinal to maintain a friendship with a married woman who has fallen in love with him. After all, what good could possibly come from such a relationship? After all, eros and philia are two different loves and the former is clearly inappropriate in this case.

I would be fascinated to know John Paul II’s thoughts on this matter. Since the letters themselves don’t seem to be easily accessible, I’m left to offer my own musings instead.

Basically, I think that the boundaries that we set up between philia and eros are artificial. I’m not saying that the two loves are the same, or that there aren’t valuable distinctions to be drawn. Rather, I’m suggesting that when it comes right down to it philia and eros are both expressions of the same primordial drive – not the biological drive to reproduce, but rather the spiritual drive to become one.

Eros directs this drive towards physical expression, a “one flesh” union, whereas philia directs it towards a union of souls, as expressed both in the Aristotelian formula of “one soul in two bodies” and in the scriptural example of David and Jonathan, where “Jonathan became one in spirit with David,” (1 Sam 18:1). As the Catechism makes clear, in both eros and philia are directed towards the end of spiritual communion: “Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one’s neighbor. Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion.” (CCC 2347) Likewise, “In marriage the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion.” (CCC 2360)

We know that it’s possible for the form in which this love is expressed to change over time: the story of the girl who finds that she is falling in love with her best friend is well-known, and my own marriage is of this type. If there were not an inherent fluidity between philia and eros, it would have been wholly impossible for me to fall in love with and marry a man.

The converse, then, is also true. It is possible for a love which at first longs for erotic expression to be directed towards nurturing and sustaining a deep, intimate and chaste friendship.

Such relationships are not, of course, without their dangers – indeed, the social, intellectual and linguistic boundaries that we’ve built up between the different kinds of love exist for precisely this reason. They serve the same purpose as a fence built to keep the children playing safely in their own yard. There’s a recognition that without a certain level of maturity, the hinterland beyond the fences is dangerous territory to navigate.

But it is not unnavigable, and I am thrilled to know that St. Pope John Paul II is among those who have blazed a trail.

Image credit: pixabay

One thought on “The Fluidity of Eros and Philia

  1. Pingback: Unchosen Gay Celibacy? | Spiritual Friendship

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