On the wings of love – talk by Maria Bartels at the Symposium ‘The golden thread of the free mind’


In the castles of the Occitan nobility and in the houses of the Cathar faithful, in the hymns and the poetry of the troubadours and in the sermons of the “perfects”, there was a word that was perhaps at the very heart of Occitan culture and society in the 12th and 13th centuries: amor.

However, two distinct Greek concepts underlie the Latin term amor: eros and agape, concepts that originally had nothing what­ soever to do with each other and which are, in fact, opposed to each other. What worlds are concealed behind them, and in what way do they form the basis for Catharism and the fin’amor? How did these two kinds of love come together in the Occitania of those days? And how can they still come together in our own souls?

Greek Antiquity: eros

Let me take you back to the 4th century BC, to a lovely spot in the shade of a plane tree, by a river, just outside the city walls of Athens. There we find Socrates, engaged in a conversation with a certain beautiful young man called Phaedrus (which means ‘shining, radiating light’). In his eponymous dialogue Phaedrus, Plato gives an account of the conversation, which revolves around the theme of love, beauty and divine inspiration.

What is love? What is beauty? To answer these questions, Socrates realises that he must speak of the soul. But the soul cannot be spoken of in everyday terms. He therefore resorts to the imagery of a myth in which the soul is represented as a winged chariot drawn by a pair of horses: a white horse, ‘fine, noble, and of excellent breed”, and a black horse that is “exactly the opposite in character and breed”, steered by a charioteer. This team of horses is able to soar to a height from which it can contemplate the eternal, divine ideas.

It is the idea of Beauty which, with its dazzling brilliance, makes a deep impression on the soul. When the charioteer can no longer keep the black horse in line and is dragged down by him, the wings break off and the soul falls to earth. The soul is incarnated, becoming trapped in the dark dungeon of the body and forgetting its homeland and all that it has seen in those lofty realms. However, it may so happen that during its earthly life the human soul comes into contact with a certain kind of beauty, which, although only a vague reflection of absolute beauty, nevertheless manages to awaken in the soul the memory of its origin. This awakening and remembering gives rise to an intense longing for absolute Beauty and its dwelling place.

The places where once her wings were attached begin to itch and, desiring to be free from her prison and take flight again, her wings begin to grow back. An exciting, ecstatic and inspiring process, but also a painful experience of inadequacy, impatience and suffering which Plato likens to a baby cutting its milk teeth, and which inevitably accompanies the process of spiritual growth.

Plato calls this attraction, this ecstatic longing and nostalgia of the soul love, eros, a concept that originally signified sexual love, but which in its spiritual sense already had a long history in the Mysteries. But it is in Plato that it takes on its definitive cosmic-spiritual meaning denoting the soul’s endeavour towards reunification, and in particular the soul’s striving towards its divine origin.

By separating and pulling apart what was originally one, a field of tension has been created which forms the playing field of eros. Art, at least music and poetry as Plato himself says, but also the mystic’s path toward the divine – re-ligion in the sense of pursuing reunification with the divine – are the expression of the dynamics of eros. This dynamic leads the soul from the outward perception of the senses to the inward contemplation of Ideas, from oblivion to reminiscence. In the true sense of the word, therefore, Eros is a desire for wisdom, the driving force behind all “philo­sophy”.

Christianity: agapè

Just as the Greek concept of eros takes on its full and definitive meaning with Plato, so agapè, a concept that had already been used as a verb in the sense of showing affection, takes on its full meaning in Christianity. The word eros is absent in the Gospels and only the word agapè is used, as in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and in John’s statement ‘God is agapè, God is love.

Paul also describes his conversion, and the Christian love and grace that is bestowed on him without his deserving it as a persecutor of Christians, in terms of agapè, the aspects of which he elaborates in his letter to the Corinthians. The word thus acquires a content that distils the essential message of Christianity; a completely new and revolutionary concept of love in both Jewish and Greek culture, indeed one which is revolutionary in the entire history of humanity.

For the first time, love is described not from the human perspective, but from the divine perspective. This is not an aspiration for the divine born out of human inadequacy, but an absolute, healing love that descends from the divine to humanity in the form of Christ. Not only the righteous, those who obeyed the laws and were therefore, as the Jews believed, the only ones deserving of God’s love and approval, but especially sinners.

A love therefore that was not reserved for the chosen few, one’s own kind, but a love that embraced everybody, friends and enemies, believers and heathens. A love that makes no distinction, that is not based on obedience to the law, but a love that is given unconditionally, unmotivated, freely and spontaneously. A love that does not desire or pursue the beautiful, the perfect, and the sublime to increase its own worth, but which seeks out the insignificant and imperfect to give it value; a love reserved not only for those who have wisdom and knowledge, but one that is equally held out to the poor in spirit, to children, and to the ignorant.

In short, a complete reversal of all the values that prevailed in Jewish culture, which was dominated by the nomos, the law, and in Greek culture, which was dominated by value, by what can bring man eternal happiness, the desirable, good and truly beautiful.

And so, alongside the stream of eros, which had flowed for centuries and had become a great, broad and powerful river, the small, fresh young stream of agapè was born. But would it be able to resist the widespread influence and power of eros?

The Middle Ages: caritas

The two streams of eros and agapè met in the melting pot of the Jewish, Christian and Greek culture of the first centuries AD. It is easy to see how the thinkers of Greek origin tried to integrate the new Christian ideas into their own concept of eros, and vice versa. Depending on their cultural, religious and philosophical background, this gave rise to a fusion of concepts, which in turn were passed on as new concepts.

All this is, of course, far too complex to deal with here. Perhaps it will suffice to mention very briefly Augustine, who grew up in North Africa, right on that tangent between Christian and Greek culture. Initially, he was strongly influenced by the Greek idea that all philosophy is aimed at seeking happiness. This pursuit, eros, is aimed at the bonum, the ‘good’, that which, from a selfish point of view, is of value to someone and can satisfy his or her desire for happiness.

It can be directed downward in the form of cupiditas, or sensual desire, or towards the higher, spiritual plane, in the form of caritas. Later, when he converted to Christianity, this basic idea remained intact, only now caritas became the pursuit of God, the supremum bonum, the highest good that can give us complete fulfilment and eternal rest.

This caritas, or divine love, was the official Latin translation of agapè, divine love, but it is not difficult to see that this concept is actually based on the eros, in the sense of love for God rather than love from God. He does add, however, that we can never reach this highest level entirely by our own efforts and that this also requires divine grace, or Gratia, to reach out to us and descend on us out of love. Thus, Augustine achieves a synthesis between eros and agapè in the concept of caritas, which was used throughout the Middle Ages to to refer to divine love.


And so, after something of a detour, we have now arrived in the Occitania of the 12th and 13th centuries. The original streams of eros and agapè have converged to form new currents: amor and caritas. The first one is mainly to be found in courtly love, while the second one is found with the Cathars. But let us first take a look at fin’amor.

The cult of courtly love, which found its expression in the music and poetry of the troubadours, is the supreme example of the quest and initiatic path of eros, and was designated by the term fin’amor, or pure love. Awakened by beauty and motivated by the desire for union with the other, the ‘erotic’ cord is stretched between the lover and the beloved, between the sensual and the spiritual.

Courtly love is the cult, the art and the nurturing of eros which is the prerequisite for the inner path of the soul, a process that embraces pleasure, joy and ecstasy – Joie– but which also entails suffering, despair and frustration.

By renouncing immediate bodily gratification, the bow of eros remains tense, so that the soul is invited to pursue an increasingly profound spiritual path, which ultimately does not aim at approaching, possessing and knowing the other, but rather at purifying, developing and knowing one’s own soul. Maintaining this tension is not a state of being, but rather a dynamic; not a passive, static waiting, but an active, creative hoping, a looking forward, a reaching out that leads to a turning inward and insight. Like eros, fin’amor is a path of knowledge, a gai saber (literally, 5 “happy wisdom”), a philo-sophy.

Contrary to Platonic philosophy, in which women played no role at all, and eros was associated with the love between men, the fin’amor is a cult of love in which women take the lead and female eroticism is the determining principle.

It is therefore striking that the word amor in the Occitanian language is a feminine noun. It is the woman who spans the bow and holds it tense, who keeps her distance, who knows how to wait and keep the other waiting. She determines the rhythm, the time and the distance. The woman is always high-ranking, which means that the love relationship is characterized by reverence, respect and subordination to the woman. To love is to respect, as it is still expressed today in the Catalan verb estimar.

But above all it is the woman who embodies the value and the ideal against which man measures and attunes himself, striving to be worthy of her. This “value” did not simply mean being of high birth, but also implied merit as the result of effort, the pursuit of improvement, learning, civilization, refinement and knowledge. The development of the qualities of the soul, such as loyalty, faithfulness, generosity and self­control. Troubadours were the personification of the civilized human being, and typically they had received an excellent education.

Fin’amor was expressed through art. The art of trobar, namely music and poetry. These are the arts of eros par excellence, the art of the breath of desire, the art of tonus, of tone. The sensual desire for the other, sublimated in the beauty of sound, image, rhythm, metre, form and word, striving to bridge the gap separating the individual from that other dimension which is the home of the soul.

The pursuit of a perfection that always lies beyond the horizon invites the soul to travel still further, to fly even higher towards a still greater freedom and ecstasy. Fin’amor therefore is the art of loving in every sense of the word: the art of loving and of loving through art; of seeking and finding (trobar); the eros that contemplates and the eros that creates; the beauty that is longed for and the beauty that is given. And so the circle of eros is complete: being awakened by beauty, desiring beauty, and from this desire creating beauty which in turn awakens others and inspires longing in them.

Love in Catharism

The Cathars describe the origin of the human soul, or to be more precise, the human spirit, in the form of a myth which is very similar to Plato’s myth. The Good True God created the divine world and the angels. However, one of the angels, Lucifer, rebelled against God, along with a group of angels whom he persuaded to follow him, whereupon God cast him out of his world, along with the angels who had followed him.

However, the angels regretted having followed Lucifer, or Satan, and began to sing the Song of Songs, the Canticle. Enraged, Satan wanted to erase their remembrance of the Song of Songs as well as their memory of the divine world. To this end he created the material world and imprisoned the angelic souls in the form of human spirits in a human body. Thus, parallel to the original divine world, the world of evil, the material world under the rule of Prince Satan, came into existence.

The only element that remained divine in that world of evil were the spirits of human beings, who, however, were imprisoned in the body and, every time the body died along with the soul, were immediately incarnated again in a new body. Thus Satan hoped to perpetuate the captivity of the spirits forever. But the original good God, also called the God of the good spirits, of those who had remained faithful to God in heaven, was a God of love who took pity on the fallen souls. He therefore sent his son Jesus Christ to bring the good news in the form of the Gospels.

Through his message of salvation, he awakened the minds of human beings from their deep sleep and reminded them of their origin. Through their longing and renewed hope, they repented and turned to God and followed Christ’s teachings and way of living. By following his path until the moment when, through purification or just before their death, they could unite their spirit again with the Holy Spirit in Heaven, and receive the consolamentum, the baptism by the Holy Spirit. In this way the re-unification took place and reparation of original separation was achieved.

In this myth we see a beautiful synthesis of eros, or human love for God, and agapè, God’s love for the fallen souls. This is the healing love of the Paraclete, the saviour and comforter, which descends in the form of his son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

As with Plato, there is a separation of what was originally one, namely, the separation between the divine soul and the divine world, when the soul falls to Earth and is incarnated, forgetting its knowledge and origin.

In this case, it is not beauty that awakens the soul, but the joyful tidings of Christ, which, in the form of the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, the Acts of the Apostles and the Book of Revelation, reminds the soul of its origin, the kingdom of God that is not of this world. These joyful tidings not only awaken the soul, but also give insight and instructions on how to follow the path that can restore the soul to God. As in fin’amor, this path implies chastity, humility and subordination, now not to the Lady, but to God. Not a desiring, egoistic love that seeks perfect beauty, but a generous caritas that loves the flawed. Not the individual song of love, but the collective prayer of the Our Father.

We see, then, how in Catharism eros and agapè come together, eros striving upwards, the other descending; the one desiring, the other redeeming. Although this seems similar to Augustine’s concept of caritas, in my opinion there is a difference. With Augustine, the focus is on the desire for God, the eros aspect of caritas, on which charity could not really be properly founded. The Cathars, on the contrary, in shunning all excesses and the corruption and greed of the Church of Rome, returned to the origins of Christianity to find the concept of pure agapè as it is described in the Gospels.

Although they used the concepts of amor and caritas for divine love, simply because they were the only ones known in the Middle Ages, they intuitively understood the original sense of Christian love. It is this original agapè which they place at the heart of their faith and their church. Not only did they believe deeply that God was a God of love, but most of all they professed and practiced this belief with great integrity, conviction and purity. It was agapè that gave them the strength to liberate themselves from the culture of fear spread by the mighty Church of Rome.

Thus, without really being aware of it, they lived eros and agapè in their pure, original form. In my opinion, the turning point at which eros and agapè converge takes place in the sacra- ment of consolamentum, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, where the human spirit and the Holy Spirit are reunited. When the believer has completed this path of purification of eros, at the end of the stretched bow, duality is resolved in unity.

The word consolamentum is derived from the verb consolari, which is composed of cum and solus (meaning whole). Etymologically, therefore, “to console” means ‘to make whole’. The human spirit is healed and perfected by the Holy Spirit descending from above. In the consolamentum we find not only the wings of the human spirit ascending to the divine realm, but also the wings of the white dove, the Holy Spirit descending.

The believers, now baptized by the Holy Spirit and therefore become perfects, did not remain aloft in their grotto, but descended again into the world like Christ to awaken others from their sleep through their words. From their own divine wholeness

they could heal others, and through the divine love that they now had within them, they could console and liberate others. A return to the world, not to covet what is valuable or brilliant, but to bring the love that illuminates everything and everyone in the dark- ness, and in so doing gives them value.

The encounter between fin’amor and Catharism, eros and agapè

From the preceding it is clear that Catharism and courtly love were not opposite or strangers to one another. In the course of time the concepts of eros and agapè became somewhat merged together. Behind their Latin translation as amor and caritas, they had lost their original, pure meaning and their clear mutual differentiation. In the Cathars’ Christian concept of love, we find not only the Christian agapè but also the spiritual and religious elements of eros, often in the form of caritas.

Fin’amor is based on eros, starting with the sensual and bodily, but ultimately aiming at the spiritual or heavenly and religious eros. The meeting point and recognition between Catharism and fin’amor is therefore to be sought above all in the spiritual­religious pursuit of eros, which is, as it were, the common overlap between the two. In fin’amor it is directed towards the beloved Lady, while in Catharism it is directed towards God the Father, or the Holy Spirit.

Apart from the conceptual fusion, the society of 12th and 13th century Occitania shows not only that Catharism and courtly love tolerated each other well, but also that it was often the same people who were associated with both the culture of courtly love and Catharism. To return to our image of the two currents, we might say that they both mingled in the same body of water. That there was a meeting between the two is certain. The question is therefore how we can understand the encounter between these very different forms of love within the context of fin’amor and Catharism.

Both currents assume that our soul is of a spiritual nature, that it is our spirit which forms the essence of our being. This spirit is, as it were, the starting point in ourselves from which the path of purification can begin and which lays the spirit bare, liberating it from everything that hinders and imprisons it. In this sense, both courtly love and Catharism can be regarded as a ‘cult’. As such, they both contributed to the civilization of Occitan society as a whole.

The Latin word colere originally meant to cultivate and work, but also to worship. It implies careful development, civilization and refinement. In Catharism, this is expressed in the observance of the Christian way of life, and in fin’amor it finds its expression mainly in the art of poetry and music. In both cases woman, or the feminine ideal, played an important role. Fin’amor focused on the Lady, while Catharism was centred on the love of the Holy Spirit, which was traditionally seen as feminine, as Sophia, or wisdom, and associated with healing, comforting, soothing qualities. The Cathars also called their church the church of love, la Dame, or Joana.

The spirit as starting point places the emphasis on what is noblest in a person, that which should be respected and honoured in everyone. This spiritual core therefore not only connects us with the highest, with the Holy Spirit and with God, but also forms the basis of all humanity, of brotherhood and sisterhood between people, without distinction of sex, origin or culture. Social life, sharing and celebrating together was therefore highly developed, both in the noble circles where courtly love flourished, and in the Cathar community. In fact, they both involved communion in the spirit.

This was expressed in two important Occitan concepts: the first, paratge, was the idea that all society should be founded on true nobility of body and soul and that there was equality between people in all domains, and the second, convivéncia, was the art of living together in complete equality while respecting the mutual differences between people.

Another important value arising from the spirit which was shared by Cathars and troubadours was freedom. The spirit is by definition free and unfettered, so it is not surprising that this free spirit is reflected in their notions of love. Both the Platonic image of the winged chariot and the Christian image of the white dove of the Holy Spirit are characterized by wings. Agape is a completely free, spontaneous, unlimited and unconditional love, which needs no church or any other intermediary or limiting authority. Similarly, the fin’amor of the troubadours dispensed with the constraints and obligations of marriage, which often did not allow free choice of partner. For Cathars and troubadours, love was a free and personal matter, involving the unhindered relationship from soul

to soul, from spirit to spirit; a love that never allowed itself to be dictated to, and which in turn respected the freedom of others, thus creating a culture of equality, tolerance and harmony.


Fin’amor and the pure love of the Cathars therefore do not oppose each other, but rather they go hand in hand, like a loving couple who complement one another. And as often happens with lovers who live together for a long time, they adopt certain characteristics of each other. Thus we find in both of them aspects of eros and of agapè, the ascending and the descending, desiring and giving, the divine and the human.

Through their partnership they combined the qualities of their
love to bring about a better, more enlightened and peaceful society and a nobler, more spiritual and loving humanity. That is something that could inspire us today, when those qualities are more necessary than ever before. But they also show us that this is only possible by reminding ourselves of our own soul, of our spiritual humanity. Because it was in the spirit that Cathars and troubadours, croyants (believers) and lovers recognized and understood each other, regardless of their different forms of expression. Only at that point of union in the spirit, where all is quiet and stillness, can eros and agapè meet.

It is there that the complete and perfect integration of consolamentum takes place, where need transforms into abundance, where striving ends and unreserved giving is witnessed. When death or discarding of the body gives life to the spirit, when the butterfly emerges from its chrysalis. And it happened not only then, in the grottoes and castles of Occitania. Even now we can experience that mystery in our own inner being: the mystery of the soul that takes wing.

Maria Bartels is Dutch philosopher and author of Zijn in ontmoeting (Being in encounter), 2000 and Zin in kwaliteit (The sense of quality), 2005

Translation: Jacqueline Minett
© Maria Bartels 2021



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