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'Eros' and 'Ethos' meet and bear fruit in the human heart 

47 (of 129) - Catechesis by John Paul II on the Theology of the Body
General Audience, Wednesday 5 November 1980 - in French, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

After the catechesis, Papa Giovanni Paolo II greeted the pilgrims in various languages:

Ai partecipanti al VI Congresso internazionale degli acconciatori

Volontiers, je salue les participants au sixième Congrès International Intercoiffure. Votre rencontre à Rome, Mesdames, Messieurs, manifeste la vitalité de votre association, cinquante-cinq ans après sa fondation. Je forme le vœu qu’elle vous stimule toujours à réaliser au mieux votre noble profession, l’élégance de votre art au service du monde féminin, et qu’elle vous aide aussi à développer des relations d’amitié et de solidarité, au delà des frontières. Je prie le Seigneur de bénir chacune de vos familles.

Ai dirigenti del "Serra International"

I extend a very cordial welcome to the elected officials of Serra International who have assembled in Rome. I have already in the past expressed my great esteem for your zealous activities on behalf of religious vocations. In particular I have noted the love that motivates you, as well as your constant commitment to a Christian witness in your own daily lives. The world needs this love and this commitment. Christ is counting on you to help the youth to follow him. You have an important contribution to make in furthering the very mission of the Church, the mission of evangelization: "that the word of the Lord may speed on and triumph". May our Blessed Mother Mary sustain all Serrans in these ideals of holiness and service.

Ad un gruppo di Sacerdoti Slovacchi

Pozdravujem skupinu slovenskych kňazov, ktorí sa zišli po tieto dni v Ríme na svoje pracovné stretnutie. Venujete pozornost rodine a jej úlohám v dnešnom svete, vo svetle Biskupskej Synody. Viete dobre, aké dôležité miesto má rodina pri udržaní a zveladení viery a náboženského života. Nech aj Vaša činnost prináša takéto ovocie v slovenských rodinách! Dávam Vám zo srdca svoje požehnanie a posielam svoj pozdrav s požehnaním aj všetkým rodinám, ktorým venujete svoju kňazskú službu.

Ai membri dell’Associazione Cattolica Operatori Sanitari

Rivolgo ora il mio saluto cordiale ai membri dell’Associazione Cattolica Operatori Sanitari che, interrompendo il Seminario residenziale che li vede attualmente impegnati qui a Roma, hanno voluto prendere parte all’Udienza.

Carissimi, desidero esprimervi il mio compiacimento per l’entusiasmo, con cui cercate di rendere sempre più viva e dinamica la vostra Associazione, che persegue l’importante finalità di portare un’efficace testimonianza in favore dei valori umani e cristiani nell’ambito del mondo socio-sanitario. E’ uno scopo nobilissimo, per il quale avete tutto il mio incoraggiamento, insieme con la mia Apostolica Benedizione.

Ai "Focolarini"

Sono presenti all’Udienza di stamani anche i rappresentanti di numerosi Gruppi parrocchiali italiani, che si ispirano al Movimento dei Focolari.

Carissimi, mi compiaccio con voi per l’impegno che vi siete assunto, di animare la vita delle vostre rispettive parrocchie con la testimonianza concreta dell’amore. E’ un impegno che non può mancare di portare i suoi frutti. Gesù stesso con la sua parola indistruttibile ci rende certi, come ha ricordato il Concilio Vaticano II, che "è aperta a tutti gli uomini la strada della carità e che gli sforzi intesi a realizzare la fraternità universale non sono vani". Perseverate, dunque, nei vostri generosi propositi. Il Papa vi accompagna con la sua preghiera e con la sua Apostolica Benedizione.

Ai giovani

Nel porgere a voi, cari giovani, un cordiale saluto, esprimo la mia viva gratitudine per la vostra presenza, con la quale voi intendete manifestare il vostro reverente affetto al Papa, sentire la Sua parola e ricevere la Sua benedizione.

In sintonia con la presente stagione autunnale, vi invito a riflettere su quanto dice l’apostolo Paolo: "Tenete in mente che chi semina scarsamente, scarsamente raccoglierà e chi semina con larghezza, con larghezza raccoglierà". Seminate, dunque, nei vostri cuori ideali di virtù, di sapienza, di bontà, di amore per tutto ciò che è bello, nobile, puro, santo, al fine di poter raccogliere, a suo tempo ed in proporzione dell’impegno posto, frutti che vi renderanno graditi al Signore e, altresì, capaci di costruire un mondo più umano, più cristiano. Confermo talli voti con la mia Benedizione.

Agli ammalati

Il mio animo si apre ora con spontanea tenerezza a quanti, sofferenti nel corpo e nello spirito, partecipano a questa Udienza.

A voi carissimi ammalati, porgo il mio vivo grazie per tale presenza, con cui volete far comprendere che siete persone aperte e generose, unite in preghiera col Papa ed operanti nella Chiesa e per la Chiesa. Ricambio il filiale ossequio, esortandovi a confidare sempre in Cristo, il quale, avendo sperimentato la condizione umana, sa comprendere e valorizzare la vostra sofferenza.

Vi conforti la mia particolare Benedizione.

Alle coppie di sposi novelli

Desidero, infine, rivolgere un paterno benvenuto a tutti gli Sposi novelli, qui presenti.

La vostra unione, che si è iniziata ai piedi dell’altare del Signore è il "grande Sacramento", che san Paolo paragona all’unione intima e profonda di Cristo con la Chiesa; sia essa sempre ispirata ad amore delicato, fedele, generoso e paziente!

Vi assicuro una particolare mia preghiera, affinché possiate compiere bene la vostra missione, e tutti di cuore vi benedico.


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.

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