The notion of sexually-decoupled or disentangled eros is something I’ve discussed with friends over the years. This often comes up when I make the distinction between erotic desire and venereal desire. Our hypersexualized culture today generally misnames and conflates these two things.
Let’s allow the classic mythological imagery to show us the distinction which will serve all our needs. The emblematic figure of modern Valentine’s Day is Cupid. We all know him by that Latin name. But his Greek name is Eros. He is one of several winged gods who attend the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation named Aphrodite in Greek and Venus in Latin. Eros personifies erotic love or romantic desire as we might call it today. However, romance traditionally meant something more like adventure or excitement. Venus personifies venereal love or sexual desire, which traditionally finds its end and glory in procreation.
The first thing I’d like to say about this terminology is that it’s downright profane that the word erotic in our day essentially means pornographic or exhibitionistic sexuality. It’s truly a sad bastardization of our language and our thinking. The fact that the only place you’ve probably heard the adjective venereal is in reference to STDs is likewise a maddening degradation. Again, debased from the gloriously procreative down to the sordidly pornographic. Hyper-sexualization has, well, fucked up our language and our thinking. This is a problem, which will take great effort to overcome and recapture the correct meanings of these words and the correct form of thinking that they shape.
So, Eros serves Aphrodite. But does he have an exclusive contract with her? In the old mythology, perhaps he does. In reality, erotic desire is not in the exclusive service of sexual desire. Erotic desire by its very nature is anything but sexual desire itself — no more than Eros himself is Aphrodite herself. They are two different gods. Christian philosophers and ethicists of all ages are quite certain of this in the lives of the saints.
Erotic desire or romantic love is, at its cores, an excitement or arousal (not sexual but holistic) to beauty, leading to pursuit of the beautiful. Disentangled romantic love or eros is centered is a desire for its object to be present in one’s life in some way so that the presence of the beloved shapes and directs the possibilities of the life of the lover. The lover desires life together in some way with the beloved so that the imagined life to come is a vision of the Good Life specifically brought about by the sustained unity of the two.
If the exhilaration commanded by beauty is the essence of eros or romance (and it is), and if the Beauty beyond beauty is interchangeable with Goodness and Truth (and it is as the one simple Substance of God), then there are plenty of people and occasions to stir each of us to this love by the beauty, goodness, and truth they mediate. A lifelong friend. A mentor. A grandchild. A godparent. A little eros can heighten many sorts of relationships.
I don’t think a lot of conservative modern Christians give eros its due in settings outside of marriage or the pursuit thereof. I do believe in there being different genuses of love (e.g. storgē, philia, eros, agapē; or gift-love v. need-love) and those can come in different species (e.g. Aristotle’s philia as friendships of pleasure, of utility, and of virtue). So, eros can come in species as well. Alastair Roberts has talked about the desire of women for political leaders as erotic desire. If Song of Songs is an allegory for the love between God and his people, then some of our love for God is erotic desire. And that all makes sense given my definition in bold above. Even thought we can create a taxonomy of different loves, that doesn’t mean that they only occur in their isolated pure forms in any given relationship. I doubt that’s true most of the time in most relationships. Any give significant relationship is likely going to be characterized by the convergence of multiple loves.
When living faithfully by denying and mortifying (as best we can by God’s grace) our venereal desires and abstaining from fornication, it opens up one’s awareness of the distinctions and realities of eros as something distinct. Now, I don’t necessarily advocate actively looking to foster it, but it can and does simply happen sometimes. Even epic friendships of the ancient world show signs of eros-enhancement. Perhaps think of the thick bonds that form between men who go out to war together.