These are my rough notes for the “Stoicism & Love” workshop I did at the Stoicism Today conference in London, 2014…
To recap from earlier: Christopher Gill mentioned that some modern commentators, such as Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum, question whether there’s much room for love in Stoicism, which they describe as involving “detachment” from other people. He notes that this was not a criticism that was commonly levelled against Stoics in the ancient world, though. The Stoics saw themselves, and I think were generally seen by others, as a philosophical school advocating a kind of affection for the rest of mankind, bound up with what is often called a philanthropic and cosmopolitan attitude. Chris notes that the Stoics do challenge us nevertheless to love others in a way that is brutally honest and realistic about their mortality and our own, the transience of our relationships, and our lack of control over others.
So, on the one hand, many people, and possibly even a few academics, assume that Stoicism and love are somehow incompatible or at least in conflict. On the other hand, Marcus Aurelius, in the very first chapter of The Meditations, describes the Stoic ideal as being “free from passions and yet full of love” – meaning irrational and unhealthy passions. I think he later uses a similar expression to describe his own goal in life as a Stoic. Marcus actually says he should love other people, not just superficially, but from the very bottom of his heart (Meditations, 10.1). He seems pretty serious about the whole idea of loving mankind as if they were his brothers. Likewise, Cicero explicitly says of the Stoic concept of love:
The Stoics actually both say that the wise man will experience love, and they define love itself as the effort to make a friendship from the semblance of beauty. (Tusculan Disputations, 4.72)
I’m pretty sure that by “the semblance of beauty” he means here inner beauty or virtue, as Socrates and the Stoics understood it. So the Stoic Sage definitely experiences love, and presumably loves the virtuous in particular, although the “seeds” of wisdom and virtue are within everyone. So he potentially loves all mankind in that respect.
Indeed, to start with, I’d just like to point out that philosophy, of course means “love of wisdom”, and that it seems to me the Stoics were very aware of that meaning and took it fairly literally. Wisdom is more or less synonymous with virtue in Stoicism and love of wisdom is therefore synonymous with love of virtue, which is something the Stoics certainly appear to advocate. Indeed, the supreme “healthy passion” they describe, rational “Joy” (chara), is basically a kind of rejoicing in the presence of virtue. So ancient Stoicism entailed rejoicing in virtue and, literally, loving wisdom – and I think those themes are pretty clear in some of the texts, especially Marcus Aurelius.
In the translations of Marcus Aurelius I checked, incidentally, the word “love” is used about 40 times, far more than “virtue” for instance. He talks about love all the time. The Stoic literature is actually full of positive references to love, friendship, affection, and similar concepts. Some of them very emphatic about the central role of “love for humanity” in Stoicism. For example, Seneca wrote:
No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. (Seneca, On Clemency, 3.3)
Big Questions from Thursday’s Stoic-Week Discussion
- What does Marcus mean by being full of love, or natural affection, and yet free from (irrational or unhealthy) passions?
- To what extent does love or natural affection seem to play a role in Stoic philosophy?
Although some people perhaps read the Stoics in different ways on this point, Pierre Hadot thought Stoic philanthropy and cosmopolitanism were very similar to the Christian notion of brotherly-love:
It cannot, then, be said that “loving one’s neighbour as oneself” is a specifically Christian invention. Rather, it could be maintained that the motivation of Stoic love is the same as that of Christian love. […] Even the love of one’s enemies is not lacking in Stoicism. (Hadot, 1998, p. 231)
There are many Stoic passages that support this, e.g., Marcus wrote:
It is a man’s especial privilege to love even those who stumble. And this love follows as soon as you reflect that they are akin to you and that they do wrong involuntarily and through ignorance, and that within a little while both they and you will be dead; and this above all, that the man has done you no harm; for he has not made your “ruling faculty” worse than it was before. (Meditations, 7.22)
So the Stoic loves others because they are his kin, as citizens of the cosmos, and rational beings. What if they don’t love us back, though? The Earl of Shaftesbury wrote that Stoic love was “disinterested” and not dependent on reciprocation from the people loved:
Come on, let us see now if thou canst love disinterestedly. “Thanks my good kinsman (brother, sister, friend), for giving me so generous a part, that I can love though not beloved.” (Shaftesbury, 2005, p. 108)
There’s a nice passage in Seneca (Letters, 9) where he says that the Stoic wise man naturally prefers to have friends but that he doesn’t need or crave them, and he is perfectly contented within himself if fate denies him the company of other people.
Big Questions from Thursday’s Stoic-Week Discussion
- How does love for others in Stoicism compare to the idea of love for others in Christianity, compassion in Buddhism, or brotherly-love in other philosophical or religious traditions?
- Also: How does Stoic love compare to the way romantic love tends to be portrayed in Hollywood films or in romantic novels?
The Stoics emphasise the concept of “natural affection”, the kind of love a parent has for their children, as the basis of their ethics. Shaftesbury calls this attitude, extended to everyone as fellow citizens of the cosmos, Stoic “philanthropy” or love of mankind:
What is it to have Natural Affection? Not that which is only towards relations, but towards all mankind; to be truly philanthrôpos [philanthropic, a lover of mankind], neither to scoff, nor hate, nor be impatient with them, nor abominate them, nor overlook them; and to pity in a manner and love those that are the greatest miscreants, those that are most furious against thyself in particular, and at the time when they are most furious? (Shaftesbury, 2005, p. 1)
Shaftesbury compares this Stoic attitude of natural affection for mankind to the loving attitude of a mother or nurse toward a sickly child. The Stoics often sought to emulate Zeus, as their ideal, and the paternal affection Zeus was supposed to have for mankind, his children. Musonius Rufus therefore describes the Stoic Zeus as the patron god of friendship and familial affection. For the Stoics, to be philanthropic, to love mankind as one’s brothers and fellow world-citizens, is to be godlike, in a sense.
Musonius famously argued that women as well as men should study Stoic philosophy. He claimed that Stoicism would actually make women more able to properly love their children, rather than somehow repressing their affection for them. “Who, more than she [a female Stoic] would love her children more than life?” (Lectures, 3). Indeed there are several places where Stoics suggest it would be fundamentally unnatural to suppress feelings such as parental love, and therefore irrational to do so. Epictetus actually says that “when a child is born it is no longer in our power not to love it or care for it”; it’s natural for parents to care, for instance, if their child is hurt (Discourses, 1.11; 1.23). We actually have a whole Discourse (1.11) from Epictetus dedicated to the topic of “Natural Affection” or philostorgia.
This natural affection, though, is clearly to be somehow transformed in Stoicism. Epictetus asked his students: “How, then, shall I become loving and affectionate?” (Discourses, 3.24). His answer was that Stoics should become affectionate in a manner consistent with the fundamental rules and doctrines of their philosophy. In particular, we’re to love while bearing in mind the distinction between what’s up to us and what is not. He also suggests that if what we’re calling “love” or “affection” makes us enslaved to our passions and miserable, then it’s not “good” for us, and that’s a sign something is wrong. Put another way, this presumably means that Stoics should love in accord with the “reserve clause”. So we should wish that others flourish and become wise and virtuous, but we should do so lightly, completely accepting that our wish may not be realised – accepting them as they are, in other words, warts and all.
Exercise: Love as Acceptance versus Well-Wishing
The Stoics wanted others to flourish, become wise and virtuous,
- Repeat the word “love” to yourself.
- Contemplate first, the attitude of love as acceptance, accepting yourself despite your imperfections, seeing your current situation as the only one possible given your nature and your past environment and experiences.
- Next contemplate the attitude of love as one of wishing yourself well, wanting yourself to flourish and attain goodness, virtue, and wisdom, now and in the future, fate permitting.
- Now try to do the same for another person, begin by contemplating love as acceptance of their flaws, even their follies or vices, etc.
- Now try to contemplate love as wishing for them to flourish and attain goodness, virtue, and wisdom, fate permitting.
So where does that leave us? A good summary is in the article “Epictetus on How the Stoic Sage Loves”, by William O. Stephens, in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 14, 193-210, 1996.
The Stoic loves other people in a very free, giving way. His love is not at all conditional upon its being reciprocated by the person loved. The Stoic does not compromise his own moral integrity or mental serenity in his love for others, nor is his love impaired by his knowledge of the mortality of his loved ones. Rather, the Stoic’s love and natural affection are tempered by reason. His love and affection serve only to enrich his humanity, never to subject him to [psychological] torment.
Some of the key concepts here:
- The Stoic ideal of wisdom and virtue definitely included loving other people – the Sage loves others and seeks friendship.
- The Stoic Sage’s love is unconditional; it doesn’t require reciprocation, which would be an “indifferent” for Stoics because it’s not up to us.
- The sort of love the Stoic Sage experiences is neither unhealthy nor excessive but healthy and consistent with virtue.
- This sort of love is inherently realistic about the transience of external things and the mortality of those loved.
- The love of the Stoic is fundamentally rational, meaning it’s consistent with reason and doesn’t lead to irrational behaviour.
Exercise: Hierocles and Metta Bhavana
The Stoic philosopher Hierocles, a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, described psychological practices for expanding oikeiôsis, our sense of “affinity” for others. He says our relationships can be represented as a series of concentric circles, radiating out from ourselves and our closest kin. Stoics should attempt to “draw the circles somehow toward the centre”, he said, voluntarily reducing psychological distance in their relationships. He even suggests verbal techniques, not unlike calling acquaintances “friend” or calling close friends “brother”. Hierocles elsewhere recommends treating our brothers as if they were parts of our own body, like our hands and feet. Zeno’s saying that a friend is “another self”, perhaps likewise encourages us to take others deeper into the circle of our affinity and natural affection. Hierocles’ comments about oikeiôsis might be turned into a contemplative exercise.
There’s a popular Buddhist meditation exercise called metta bhavana, which means “expanding loving-kindness”. We might use this as a basis for developing Hierocles’ advice into a modern contemplative practice.
- It helps to prepare by choosing your examples in advance to visualise in a moment: yourself, a loved one, an acquaintance, an enemy,
- Close your eyes; take a few moments to relax and focus your attention inward.
- Picture a circle of light surrounding your own body and imagine that it symbolises a growing sense of rational self-love or affection toward yourself as a being capable of wisdom and virtue. If you like, repeat a phrase such as “May I flourish and be happy” to yourself, to help focus on this attitude.
- Now imagine that circle is expanding to encompass a member of your family, a loved one or close friend, whom you now project natural affection toward, as if they were somehow part of your own body. Focus on the seeds of virtue within them, and wish them well, perhaps repeating a phrase like “May you flourish and be happy”, while accepting that this is beyond your direct control.
- Next, imagine that circle expanding to encompass an acquaintance you encounter in daily life, toward whom you normally feel more neutral, perhaps colleagues you work alongside, and project feelings of natural affection toward them, as if they were members of your own family.
- Again, let the circle expand further to include even someone you dislike, perhaps someone who sees you as an “enemy”, and focusing as much as possible on their positive qualities or virtues, wish them well, picturing the sphere of your affection spreading to include them.
- Now let the circle encompass all of you together, allowing your feelings of affection to spread over the whole group.
- Imagine the circle now progressively growing to envelop your surrounding area and finally the entire world and the whole human race as one, allowing your feelings of rational affection to spread out to every other member of the human race, developing a sense of kinship with them insofar as they possess reason and therefore the capacity for progressing toward wisdom.
Try to continue this attitude throughout your daily activity. Seneca argued that expanding natural affection into a philanthropic attitude that encompasses the rest of mankind teaches us to love more philosophically, without over-attachment to any specific individual. He goes so far as to say: “he who has not been able to love more than one, did not even love that one much” (Letters, 63). The Sage is not infatuated with anyone. He loves everyone as much as he is able, while accepting that they are changeable and that one day they will die.