Eros and Ethos Meet and Bear Fruit in the Human Heart

Author: Pope John Paul II

Eros and Ethos Meet and Bear Fruit in the Human Heart

Pope John Paul II


On Wednesday, 5 November, the weekly audience was held in the Paul VI Hall. The Holy Father delivered the following message.

1. In the course of our weekly reflections on Christ's enunciation in the Sermon on the Mount, in which, in reference to the commandment, "You shall not commit adultery," he compared lust (looking lustfully) with adultery committed in the heart, we are trying to answer the question: do these words only accuse the human heart, or are they first and foremost an appeal addressed to it? Of course, this concerns an appeal of ethical character, an important and essential appeal for the ethos of the Gospel. We answer that the above-mentioned words are above all an appeal.

At the same time, we are trying to bring our reflections nearer to the routes taken, in its sphere, by the conscience of contemporary men. In the preceding cycle of our considerations we mentioned "eros." This Greek term, which passed from mythology to philosophy, then to the literary language and finally to the spoken language, unlike the word "ethos," is alien and unknown to biblical language. If, in the present analyses of biblical texts, we use the term "ethos," known to the Septuagint and to the New Testament, we do so because of the general meaning it has acquired in philosophy and theology, embracing in its content the complex spheres of good and evil, depending on human will and subject to the laws of conscience and the sensitivity of the human heart. Besides being the proper name of the mythological character, the term eros has a philosophical meaning in the writings of Plato,(1) which seems to be different from the common meaning and also from what is usually attributed to it in literature. Obviously, we must consider here the vast range of meanings. They differ from one another in their finer shades, as regards both the mythological character and the philosophical content, and above all the somatic or sexual point of view. Taking into account such a vast range of meanings, it is opportune to evaluate, in an equally differentiated way, what is related to eros(2) and is defined as erotic.

Connotation of the term "eros"

2. According to Plato, eros represents the interior force that drags man toward everything good, true and beautiful. This attraction indicates, in this case, the intensity of a subjective act of the human spirit. In the common meaning, on the contrary—as also in literature—this attraction seems to be first and foremost of a sensual nature. It arouses the mutual tendency of both the man and the woman to draw closer to each other, to the union of bodies, to that union of which Genesis 2:24 spoke. It is a question here of answering the question whether eros connotes the same meaning in the biblical narrative (especially in Gn 2:23-25). This narrative certainly bears witness to the mutual attraction and the perennial call of the human person—through masculinity and femininity—to that unity in the flesh which, at the same time, must realize the communion-union of persons. Precisely because of this interpretation of eros (as well as of its relationship with ethos), the way in which we understand the lust spoken about in the Sermon on the Mount takes on fundamental importance.

Danger of reductivism and exclusivism

3. As it seems, common language considers above all that meaning of lust which we previously defined as psychological and which could also be called sexological. This is done on the basis of premises which are limited mainly to the naturalistic, somatic and sensualistic interpretation of human eroticism. (It is not a question here, in any way, of reducing the value of scientific researches in this field, but we wish to call attention to the danger of reductivism and exclusivism.) Well, in the psychological and sexological sense, lust indicates the subjective intensity of straining toward the object because of its sexual character (sexual value). That straining has its subjective intensity due to the specific attraction which extends its dominion over man's emotional sphere and involves his corporeity (his somatic masculinity or femininity). In the Sermon on the Mount we hear of the concupiscence of the man who "looks at a woman lustfully." These words—understood in the psychological (sexological) sense—refer to the sphere of phenomena which in common language are, precisely, described as erotic. Within the limits of Matthew 5:27-28, it is a question only of the interior act. It is mainly those ways of acting and of mutual behavior of the man and the woman, which are the external manifestation of these interior acts, that are defined "erotic." Nevertheless, there seems to be no doubt that—reasoning in this way— it is almost necessary to put the sign of equality between erotic and what derives from desire (and serves to satisfy the lust of the flesh). If this were so, then the words of Christ according to Matthew 5:27-28 would express a negative judgment about what is erotic and, addressed to the human heart, would constitute at the same time a severe warning against eros.

Many shades of meaning of "eros"

4. However, we have already mentioned that the term eros has many semantic shades of meaning. Therefore, wishing to define the relationship of the enunciation of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:27-28) with the wide sphere of erotic phenomena, that is, those mutual actions and ways of behaving through which man and woman approach each other and unite so as to be one flesh (cf. Gn 2:24), it is necessary to take into account the multiplicity of the semantic shades of meaning of eros. It seems possible, in fact, that in the sphere of the concept of eros—taking into account its Platonic meaning—there is room for that ethos, for those ethical and indirectly even theological contents which, in the course of our analyses, have been seen from Christ's appeal to the human heart in the Sermon on the Mount. Also knowledge of the multiple semantic nuances of eros and of what, in the differentiated experience and description of man, at various periods and various points of geographical and cultural longitude and latitude, is defined as erotic, can help in understanding the specific and complex riches of the heart, to which Christ appealed in Matthew 5:27-28.

The "ethos" of redemption

5. If we admit that eros means the interior force that attracts man toward what is true, good and beautiful, then, within the sphere of this concept, the way toward what Christ wished to express in the Sermon on the Mount, can also be seen to open. The words of Matthew 5:27-28, if they are an "accusation" of the human heart, are at the same time, even more, an appeal to it. This appeal is the specific category of the ethos of redemption. The call to what is true, good and beautiful means at the same time, in the ethos of redemption, the necessity of overcoming what is derived from lust in its three forms. It also means the possibility and the necessity of transforming what has been weighed down by the lust of the flesh. Furthermore, if the words of Matthew 5:27-28 represent this call, then they mean that, in the erotic sphere, eros and ethos do not differ from each other. They are not opposed to each other, but are called to meet in the human heart, and, in this meeting, to bear fruit. What is worthy of the human heart is that the form of what is erotic should be at the same time the form of ethos, that is, of what is ethical.

Ethos and ethics

6. This affirmation is important for ethos and at the same time for ethics. A negative meaning is often connected with the latter concept, because ethics bears with it norms, commandments and prohibitions. We are commonly inclined to consider the words of the Sermon on the Mount on lust (on looking lustfully) exclusively as a prohibition—a prohibition in the sphere of eros (that is, in the erotic sphere). Often we are content merely with this understanding, without trying to reveal the deep and essential values that this prohibition covers, that is, ensures. Not only does it protect them, but it also makes them accessible and liberates them, if we learn to open our heart to them.

In the Sermon on the Mount Christ teaches us this and directs man's heart toward these values.


1) According to Plato, man, placed between the world of the senses and the world of Ideas, has the destiny of passing from the first to the second. The world of Ideas, however, is not able by itself to overcome the world of the senses. Only eros, congenital in man, can do that. When man begins to have a presentiment of Ideas, thanks to contemplation of the objects existing in the world of the senses, he receives the impulse from eros, that is, from the desire for pure Ideas. Eros, in fact, is the guiding of the "sensual" or "sensitive" man toward what is transcendent: the force that directs the soul toward the world of Ideas. In the Symposium, Plato describes the stages of this influence of eros: the latter raises man's soul from the beauty of a single body to that of all bodies, and so to the beauty of knowledge and finally to the very idea of Beauty (cf. Symposio 211; Repubblica 514).

Eros is neither purely human nor divine: it is something intermediate (daimonion) and intermediary. Its principal characteristic is permanent aspiration and desire. Even when it seems to give freely, eros persists as the "desire of possessing." Yet it is different from purely sensual love, being the love that strives toward the sublime.
According to Plato, the gods do not love because they do not feel desires, since their desires are all satisfied. Therefore, they can only be the object, but not the subject of love (cf. Symposio 200-201). So they do not have a direct relationship with man. Only the mediation of eros makes it possible for a relationship to be established (cf. Symposio 203). Therefore, eros is the way that leads man to divinity, but not vice-versa.
The aspiration to transcendence is, therefore, a constituent element of the Platonic concept of eros, a concept that overcomes the radical dualism of the world of Ideas and the world of the senses. Eros makes it possible to pass from one to the other. It is therefore a form of escape beyond the material world, which the soul must renounce, because the beauty of the sensible subject has a value only insofar as it leads higher.

However, eros always remains, for Plato, egocentric love. It aims at winning and possessing the object which, for man, represents a value. To love good means desiring to possess it forever. Love is, therefore, always a desire for immortality, and that, too, shows the egocentric character of eros (cf. A. Nygren, Eros et Agapé: La notion chrétienne de l'amour et ses transformations, I [Paris: Aubier, 1962], pp. 180-200).
For Plato, eros is a passing from the most elementary knowledge to deeper knowledge; at the same time it is the aspiration to pass from "that which is not," and is evil, to what "exists in fullness," and is good (cf. M. Scheler, "Amour et connaissance," Le sens de la souffrance, suivi de deux autres essais [Paris: Aubier], p. 145).

2) Cf., e.g., C. S. Lewis, "Eros," The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960), pp. 131-133, 152, 159-160; P. Chauchard, Vices des vertus, vertus des vices (Paris: Mame, 1965), p. 147.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 November 1980, page 3

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