Monday, June 16, 2014


Relationships & the Purpose of Life

According to Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne, ‘The greatest human well-being is to be found in friendship with good and interesting people in the pursuit of worthy aims.’[1] People of all faiths and none can probably find something within Swinburne’s description of ‘the good life’ to agree with, although as Christian Pastor and writer Timothy Keller recently tweeted: ‘Everyone says they want community and friendship. But mention accountability or commitment to people, and they run the other way.’[2] Swinburne’s vision of ‘the good life’ stands in stark contrast to individualistic beliefs such as hedonism and so-called ‘ethical egoism’, as well as to the rejection of objective value one finds in some atheistic and postmodern thinkers.

Swinburne writes as a Christian, and within the Christian tradition the best and most interesting person is of course God himself, who sets the context for how Swinburne’s description of ‘the good life’ is to be understood. First, Swinburne is surely including friendship with both God and with human beings within his description of ‘the good life’. Second, one might wonder why Swinburne puts an emphasis upon friendship rather than love, but the English word ‘love’ may be too vague for Swinburne’s purposes. A recent article in The Guardian pointed out that the question ‘what is love?’ is the most searched for phrase on google. Psychologist Philippa Perry responds to the question:

Unlike us, the ancients did not lump all the various emotions that we label ‘love’ under the one word. They had several variations, including: Philia which they saw as a deep but usually non-sexual intimacy between close friends and family members or as a deep bond forged by soldiers as they fought alongside each other in battle. Ludus describes a more playful affection found in fooling around or flirting. Pragma is the mature love that develops over a long period of time between long-term couples and involves actively practising goodwill, commitment, compromise and understanding. Agape is a more generalised love, it's not about exclusivity but about love for all of humanity. Philautia is self love, which isn't as selfish as it sounds. As Aristotle discovered and as any psychotherapist will tell you, in order to care for others you need to be able to care about yourself. Last, and probably least even though it causes the most trouble, eros is about sexual passion and desire. Unless it morphs into philia and/or pragma, eros will burn itself out. Love is all of the above. But is it possibly unrealistic to expect to experience all six types with only one person. This is why family and community are important.[3]

For Swinburne to simply say that the greatest human well-being is found in ‘love’ would readily bring to mind the exclusive and romantic sort of love that the ancient Greeks referred to as eros/pragma. Whilst valuing eros and pragma, the Christian tradition has always put the self-giving kind of love the ancient Greeks called ‘agape’ (i.e. charity) at the centre of its vision of ‘the good life’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8). It is thus two way relationship characterised by self-giving charitable concern for the good of the other person that Swinburne highlights by talking about friendship with ‘good’ people, for it’s obviously agape love that automatically characterise the friendship of a good person. Other kinds of love, including romantic relationships, find their proper place within this overarching vision of agapistic friendship. As Benedictine nun Catherine Wybourne writes in The Gurardian:

Love is more easily experienced than defined. As a theological virtue, by which we love God above all things and our neighbours as ourselves for his sake, it seems remote until we encounter it enfleshed, so to say, in the life of another – in acts of kindness, generosity and self-sacrifice… love is life's greatest blessing.[4]

Recommended Resources:

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (Fount, 1960)
The Guardian, ‘What is love? Five theories on the greatest emotion of all’, Thursday 13th December 2012,


[1] Richard Swinburne, ‘The Christian Scheme of Salvation’ in Michael Rea (ed.), Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology vol. 1: Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement (Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 294-307.
[2] Timothy Keller, Tweet 4:21 PM - 30 Apr 2014.
[3] The Guardian, ‘What is love? Five theories on the greatest emotion of all’, Thursday 13th December 2012,
[4] The Guardian, ‘What is love? Five theories on the greatest emotion of all’, Thursday 13th December 2012,


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