Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.09.16

Catherine Osborne, Eros Unveiled, Plato and the God of Love. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. Pp. xiii + 246. $48.00. ISBN 0-19-826761-4.

Reviewed by Wendy Elgersma Helleman, Erindale College, University of Toronto (

With this study of Eros, Catherine Osborne challenges contemporary and widely held assumptions regarding eros and agape as two divergent, if not opposing forms of love. The position articulated by Anders Nygren1 has found a receptive audience for a number of generations. Osborne's argument, however, has to contend with more than popularized Christian teaching, for non-Christian popular understanding of erotic love is also far removed from the cosmic spiritual bond of true eros for which she is making her case. Her rehabilitation of eros proceeds by way of analysis of ancient and medieval documents, but her work is more systematic than historical in its attempt to account for divine eros in human relationships. Her primary thesis is that true love implies a relationship which cannot be based on either the need of the lover or the potential benefits to be derived from the beloved.

She defends her interpretation of "eros unveiled" by an appeal to the Platonic/Aristotelian philosophical tradition which has profoundly influenced Christian views of the love of God and human love. The position is developed in a series of nine studies which originated as independent studies and could be considered independently, yet are held together by a common theme and interweaving of arguments; they do reinforce one another, as is claimed in the preface (vii). All of them deal with the theme of love, approaching it in different ways, using text-critical and literary, or theological, historical and philosophical analysis; the arguments make frequent appeal to biblical statements, the history of christian teaching, and teachings of the church. The variety of approach makes for lively presentation and keeps the reader's interest, but makes honest assessment of its accomplishment a more difficult matter.

Osborne sets the stage for this discussion with the first chapter in which she introduces models from Greek philosophy for regarding God as both subject and object of love. She challenges the reader to consider God as a generous-spirited erastes whose love for the world was not withdrawn after the fall into sin, and is certainly inexplicable if analysed in terms of what he might stand to gain from it (22-3). His arrows of love, like those of Eros, strike without regard to the innate worth or beauty of the beloved. For God's role as object of eros Osborne points to Aristotle's unmoved mover who motivates by being loved (20-1), thereby as it were taking on a feminine role. Of interest in this discussion is Osborne's realization that this portrayal of lover and beloved needs to go beyond traditional Greek dualities of mortal and immortal, human and divine, to take into account the biblical narrative of original creation, fall into sin, and redemption in Christ (9-11) for an accurate qualification of divine love as it characterizes different situations. Nonetheless, Osborne's intent in this book is to arrive at a definition of love which transcends all particular instances of love as it characterizes relationships: friendly, sexual, romantic, or parental.

The second chapter focuses on the New Testament understanding of love as agape, providing analysis of the term and its cognates against the background of Septuagint usage. Osborne concludes that the ambiguous term "love of God" has three possible meanings: love for God, love from God, and that inspired by God (28-9) and can refer to 1) an emotion or feeling, 2) a type of behaviour or action, 3) a relationship or bond between two parties, and finally, 4) an external cause of loving relationships, such as an abstract concept or personification of "Charity" presiding over relationships. She emphasizes that none of these meanings threaten our understanding of God's nature as personal; nor are different kinds of love to be distinguished according to respective objects, since the various uses of the word cohere around loving relationships (51).

Recognizing that Origen considered eros and agape as interchangeable terms for love (73), Osborne in the third and fourth chapters examines Plato's Symposium and Lysis (56-61) for a non-acquisitive model in which love is not motivated by expectation of rewards. Here she most clearly challenges Nygren's claim regarding eros as appetitive love, finding support in John Rist's analysis of Platonism and Neoplatonism2 to argue that there is less asymmetry between God's love for us and our love for God than might be supposed (66). Origen's portrayal of love in terms of unselfish eros on the model of the bride and bridegroom in the Song of Songs (74-5) is to be understood in terms of Gregory of Nyssa's threefold analysis of virtue as motivated by fear of punishment, desire for rewards, or for its own sake, only the latter being a worthy motive (77-8). To make this claim she appeals to the portrayal of Socrates as an embodiment of eros, the philosopher who, as lover, demonstrates the balance of need and resourcefulness, the two parents of Eros according to the Symposium myth of his birth and role as daimon (108-111). Accordingly she argues that the very desirability of the object of love results from the capacity of Eros to transform ordinary mortals into philosophers yearning for what they perceive to be good; beauty is not perceived independently of love (116).

The next two chapters turn to the contribution of Aristotle in this tradition of thought. The fifth chapter looks at his unmoved mover as object of love and ultimate explanation for the movement of the heavenly bodies. Using Aquinas' discussion in the Summa Theologica 126-33, Osborne concludes that the Aristotelian position commits one to attributing life and consciousness to the stars inasmuch as they are influenced by God. This discussion is not as clearly relevant to the basic thesis as that of the next chapter, where Osborne explores philia, comparing Aristotle's discussion of a politically or economically qualified cooperative relationship in which reciprocal contributions were expected (162-3) with that of Aquinas who recognized that Christian caritas was more altruistic.

Chapter seven examines use by Clement of Alexandria and Origen of the term philanthropia for aspects of God's love which have little precedent in other religions or philosophies: the incarnation of Christ (175, 177), and the process of God's self-revelation (165, 176). Hellenistic thought frequently connected the concept with the ruler cult, referring to (condescending) interest of the ruler in his less fortunate subjects. Stoics used the term for divine providence (171-3). Osborne notes that both Porphyry and Plotinus avoided use of the term, and thus anticipates a point made in the next chapter regarding Dionysius the Areopagite's use of philanthropia to indicate special events undertaken by God on behalf of the human race (197-9).

Turning to more recent questions of theodicy, Osborne in this eighth chapter uses Moltmann's discussion of suffering love in action as limitation on God's omnipotence (186-9), to contrast Dionysius' discussion of divine love. Apophatic theology leads the latter to affirm, with Origen, the interchangeability of eros or agape for divine love. However, Dionysius does make a clear distinction between downward flowing, creative love and the kenotic self-emptying love of the incarnation and atonement (191-2). Osborne differs from Rist in her position that Dionysius' views are not to be traced back to Proclus and other earlier Platonists; she argues that when Dionysius speaks of God's love (as eros) he does not mention the incarnation (195) since for him it is not part of God's creative love but reflects humiliation and vulnerability on the part of God.

Osborne's discussion comes to a climax with the ninth chapter where she returns to Dionysius' Divine Names to discuss the meaning of love (eros) when properly used to refer to a cosmic bond or unifying force (209-10). The attempt made here to distinguish genuine erotic love from more particularized or partial love as it is connected with bodily eros most clearly reveals the philosophical conditions to be met for accepting eros and agape as fundamentally indistinguishable when applied to divine love (207-8). According to Osborne the term eros is used properly only when applied to unified and unifying divine love; when applied to partial or divided love at the bodily level it is used in a secondary or transferred manner.

A concluding chapter brings together the main argument that love and needy desire are not to be equated; rather, desire for good things follows on love. Indeed, "the good" becomes attractive only with the eyes of love (220). In this way Osborne has attempted to reconstruct the traditional reading, based on the Symposium, which presents love in terms of desire. Turning the tables on this tradition Osborne argues that blinded and whimsical eros promotes a positive perception of those who in themselves are not lovable. Without eros we could not recognize God for who he is, nor could he "see in us anything to merit his attention" (221).

This collection of essays represents a noteworthy effort to rehabilitate Eros as a symbol of divine love and a cosmic unifying force which transcends more particularized relationships. Osborne can certainly count on scholarly support for her effort to add nuance to the differentiation between agape and eros as, respectively, Christian and pagan concepts of love. Indeed, her discussion helps to call attention to the varied kinds of relationships of love characterizing Greco-Roman society in antiquity, and is helpful for understanding the views of Origen and Dionysius. Numerous features of the argumentation are attractive: the consistent effort to avoid devaluing love to the level of a prostitution which focuses on benefits or rewards expected, as well as the depiction of the blindness of divine love to the inherent worth of its object, a blindness from which many of us may derive comfort.

Having said this much, however, we must also examine some of the implications of this position which are less attractive. In an arena of discussion which has, as it were, newly discovered the motivating power of desire against a long tradition emphasizing reason as the pinnacle of human achievement, Osborne's spiritualized, if not intellectualized portrayal of true eros will strike many readers as an attempt to turn back the clock, refurbishing an antiquated Neoplatonic understanding of divine love for the present. Osborne's reading of the texts, and particularly the reinterpretation of the role and speech of Socrates in the Symposium is crucial to her position. In the attempt to come to a definition of love which suits a variety of human and divine relationships equally, I believe Osborne has underestimated the powerful role of beauty in the dialogue, and neglected the strong tradition connecting goodness and beauty, represented in the ideal of kalokagathia by which the Athenian aristocracy measured itself. The result of her work is most clearly articulated in the last chapter which presents divine love as a polar opposite to bodily love, characterized as particularized and inferior, or divisive (209); "earthly minded thinkers" can surely demand a more nuanced discussion of the links between what is more commonly considered the domain of eros and the domain of the divine. Yet the presentation here is clearly consistent with earlier presentations where Osborne also refused to develop recognizable and legitimate distinctions in love as it operates in varied fields of human experience, in marriage, the family, or political and social alliances.

It is my understanding that the different terminology given for love in the original texts, whether eros, agape, or philia is precisely significant in this way, alerting the reader to different factors qualifying the nature of love in the varied circumstances or stages of human life, whether we regard the love of a parent for the child, romantic love or love for a spouse, for a friend, a city or pet animal. Expressions of love cover the spectrum of human life, and each kind of love has its own validity. The kind of divine love identified by Christian mystics of late antiquity was strongly influenced by an ascetic tradition incorporating significant aspects of Neoplatonic thought, and accepting the language of eros to express its love for God; in opposition to Osborne I would contend that sound Christian use of such language should not force us to neglect valid application of a differentiated terminology for love as it functions in the varied spheres and stages of human life. Sexual expression of erotic love has its legitimacy, no less than the love of a mother for her child, or the patriotic love of a citizen for his homeland. The peculiar jealousy which characterizes such love must also be acknowledged. The strong emotional intensity and particularizing focus of such love was the vehicle by which Old Testament prophets like Hosea expressed God's devotion for his people and his desire that they remain faithful to him as a bride to the groom to which she has pledged her love; this imagery is picked up repeatedly in the NT, especially in Revelation.

And finally the central symbol of Eros. Accenting the blindness of love has its advantages. There are also clear disadvantages in representing the generosity of divine love by appealing to a whimsical use of the arrow of love. Surely the unpredictability of eros as it arises in this way would undermine the stability of the love which is desired. Human beings have real needs, wants, and vulnerabilities. Although true and lasting love is ultimately not to be qualified in terms of needs being met, it is also significant that central Christian teachings do not ignore those needs. To my understanding it is significant that the biblical portrayal of love depicts it not only as a relationship which seeks the good, but also a command to be obeyed. The possibility of such obedience is best expressed in 1 John 4:19, "We love because he first loved us." A development of this theme is probably one of the more significant lacunae in a book which seeks to revitalize an understanding of divine love in terms of a Christian tradition.

The book has been attractively produced, and benefited from exceptionally careful proofreading. It is complete with an appendix on the positions of A. Nygren and G. Vlastos, a bibliography and useful indices.


  • [1] A. Nygren, Agape and Eros (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953). The work was originally published in Stockholm, Sweden in two volumes, 1930 and 1936.
  • [2] J.M. Rist, Eros and Psyche, Studies in Plato, Plotinus and Origen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964) 70-87, 213-16.