Teach yourself Stoicism: Love & Friendship in Stoicism

Brief excerpt from the chapter on love and friendship in Stoicism from the forthcoming book “Teach yourself Stoicism”, due for publicaiton in 2013 by Hodder.

Teach Yourself Stoicism

Love & Friendship in Stoicism

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson 2012.  All rights reserved.

New book, due out next year from Hodder…  Sneak preview of the contents of the chapter on love and friendship in Stoicism…

In this chapter you will learn:

  • That, far from being completely unemotional, Stoicism can be viewed as a philosophy that emphasises the concept of love or “natural affection”.
  • That the Stoics were apparently one of the first major Western philosophical schools to encourage women to become philosophers as well as men and that they taught both men and women how to maintain a philosophical attitude toward their family and children.
  • That they encourage us to develop our own natural instinct for self-preservation into a more profound love of flourishing, in terms of our essential nature as rational animals, “love of wisdom” being the original meaning of the word “philosophy”.
  • That they also encourage us to expand our natural affection for ourselves into a kind of family affection and affinity or kinship with all mankind, aspiring to be true “philanthropists”, or lovers of mankind.
  • That Stoicism involves learning to love Nature as a whole – or God, if you’re religiously inclined – by serenely accepting events outside our control as causally determined by Nature, or fated by the Will of God.
  • That the Stoics taught one can only truly love others, rather than being irrationally and unnaturally attached to them, by accepting the fact that everyone and everything we love is inevitably transient and subject to changes beyond our control.
  • That, according to this view, to love others is more valuable than to be loved ourselves; and to show friendship is better than to receive it, because the strength and wisdom that resides in our own character is more intrinsically important than how other people happen to treat us.

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 psychic torment.  (Stephens, 1996)

How, then, shall I become loving and affectionate? – As a man who is noble and fortunate; for it is against all reason to be abject, or broken in spirit, or to depend on something other than yourself, or even to blame either God or man.  I would have you become affectionate in such a way as to maintain at the same time all these rules [of Stoicism]; if, however, by virtue of this natural affection [philostorgos], whatever it is you call by that name, you are going to be a slave and miserable, it does not profit you to be affectionate.  And what keeps you from loving someone as mortal, as one who may leave you?  Did not Socrates love his own children?  Yes, but as a free man, as one who remembers that it was necessary first to be a friend to [or love] the gods. (Epictetus, Discourses, 3.24)

In what way, therefore, shall I love my children or relations?  As strongly and affectionately as is possible for me to love them, but so as that nature may [not] be accused; so as that whatever happens, I may still adhere to nature and accept and embrace whatsoever nature sends.  This is the foundation.  This is all.  Consider this and it will be easy to find the true measure of all affection, and what discipline and rules must be followed to reduce our affection to nature and to affect [i.e., to love] as becomes a rational creature. (Shaftesbury, The Philosophical Regimen)

Epictetus on Natural or Family Affection

A short account of Epictetus’ discussion of natural affection (philostorgia) in Stoicism, in relation to a magistrate who flees when overwhelmed by distress over his young daughter’s ill health and the risk of her dying, based on notes for the forthcoming book Teach yourself Stoicism.

Epictetus on Natural or Family Affection

This is a story recorded in the Discourses of Epictetus, in the chapter on philostorgia, meaning “natural affection” or “family affection” (Discourses, 1.11).  A magistrate came to see Epictetus one day and mentioned that his experience of married life had been miserable.  Epictetus replied that we marry and have children to flourish and be happy (eudaimon) rather than to be miserable, and so he was curious what had gone wrong.  The man said that recently when his young daughter was dangerously ill, he found it so unbearable that he ran from her bedside in distress, only to return when someone brought word that she had recovered.  He also said he believed being overwhelmed with distress was a natural response and that this was the right thing to do because “this is the way most fathers would feel” if their beloved child were dying.  Epictetus maintained the Stoic view that what is done according to nature is right but he questioned whether this man’s response was genuinely the most natural one, despite the fact that it might be what most fathers, in that period, would feel like doing.  Epictetus notes that although to err is common, and that physical tumours are common, we don’t assume that these occur for our own good or that they’re what our natures intended.  Being common and being natural are two different things.  When Epictetus then asks the man what criterion he would use to determine whether some action is natural and rightly done, or not, he says he has no idea.  Epictetus sees this lack of a criterion for the good, for what is natural, as the greatest harm that can befall someone, and he therefore beseeches the magistrate to discover this criterion and to then use it to decide each individual case that confronts him in life.

However, in the meantime, Epictetus gave him the following advice about the case of his child.  He first asks whether family affection (philostorgia) seems to the magistrate both to accord with nature and to be good or noble, which it does, without question.  This is a premise they can both agree upon for the time being: that family affection is both natural and morally good.  Epictetus also established that he takes for granted the view that what is rational with regard to life is good.  He adds that if both family affection and living rationally are genuinely morally good then they should not contradict each other.  Moreover, if they were in conflict, at least one of them would have to be unnatural but living rationally and loving one’s family are both assumed to be natural by the magistrate.  Family affection and living rationally are therefore both agreed to be morally good and consistent with each other.  However, the magistrate admits that fleeing his child’s bedside is not rational, although he feels it may have been an expression of his love and affection for her.

Epictetus invokes what modern cognitive therapists call the “double-standards” strategy by asking the magistrate whether he would consider it loving and affectionate of others, such as the child’s mother or nurse, to act as he had done and flee her bedside.  Would it make sense to say that those who love his daughter the most should, because of their great love for her, leave her potentially to die in the arms of others who do not love her as much?  Likewise, the magistrate admits that if he had been dying himself, he would not want those who love him the most, including his wife and children, to express their affection by running from his bedside and abandoning him to die alone.  Epictetus points out that if this is how love manifests itself, it would make more sense to wish that one’s enemies loved one more than one’s friends, and that they would keep their distance as a result.  This is what philosophers call a reductio ad absurdum, the favoured debating technique of Socrates, in which careful questioning leads an individual to recognise that their position is inherently contradictory and nonsensical.  It leads to the revised conclusion that the magistrate’s flight from his daughter’s bedside was not really an act of love or family affection at all but rather something else.    The act of running away was a form of avoidance, like covering your eyes, and the result of a fundamental decision to concludethat escape is preferable to endurance of the painful situation.  As Epictetus put it, “the cause of your running away was just that you wanted to do so; and another time, if you stay with her, it will be because you wanted to stay.”  It is not external events that cause our actions but our own opinions and decisions, otherwise everyone would respond in the same way to the same events.  Therefore, Epictetus concludes, the magistrate should attribute his actions not to external events, like the illness of his child, which are outside his direct control, but rather to his own voluntary decisions, and that it should become his priority in life to study these closely and patiently and determine whether they are natural and morally good or  not.