Stoics often get portrayed as ones being incapable of falling in love. The popular imagination sees them as emotionless people who resist falling in love for the fear that it will lead them to things that contradict their philosophy.
However, that is wrong. Stoicism and love are not incompatible or conflicting concepts, and Stoics can love.
In the first chapter of his book Meditations, Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 CE) describes the Stoic ideal to be free of passion and still be full of love. He wrote, “Not to display anger or other emotions. To be free of passion and yet full of love.” (1.9)
Many of Seneca’s essays deal with blind grief over the loss of a loved one. Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE) returns to love to move through grief and avoid being overwhelmed by the strong emotions of bereavement after the death of a loved one.
The Stoics believed it is a futile attempt to desire love from someone who does not love humanity. For the Stoics, love is an essential part of eudaimonic life—a life that is meaningful and virtuous, free from greed and passion.Let no man think that he is loved by any who loveth none.- Epictetus Click To Tweet
In contrast, the Epicurean view of eudaimonia holds it is not simply a neutral or negative condition but rather a form of pleasure in its own right. Epicureans believe excellence is natural because humans naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain.
What Does Love Mean To The Stoics
A Stoic must accept and embrace the impermanence of all they love. So when their cherished ones disappear, they rejoice in the togetherness they had with them rather than grieve their absence. Stoic love is not about getting overwhelmed or consumed while being honest with one’s tender feelings toward those they love.
Stoic philosophy has clumsily become synonymous with a life devoid of passion and emotion. When we say “Stoic” today, we point at someone who does not react emotionally to situations. But this idea is plain wrong because the Stoics can feel love and joy as the rest of us.
Given this erroneous stereotype, it is interesting to explore how the Stoic philosophers approached the idea of love, to understand more about the feelings of being in a romantic relationship that shaped their lives.
Stoic Love And Beauty
The Stoic sage must not, at least according to Arius, desire a person only for their outward appearance. For a Stoic’s love and desire, it is the character, personality, and moral righteousness that provide the fuel for maintaining rational and loving relationships.
So, in marriage, there must be, above all, perfect companionship and mutual love – both in sickness, health and under all conditions-it should be with desire for this (and children) that both entered upon marriage.” ― Musonius Rufus
Physical attractiveness as the starting point may be excused, as it is often the spark that kindles the flame of love. However, erotic love, the tendency to form bonds that arise from an impression of beauty, is not the definition from which many Stoics emerge.
Stoic Love And Physical Love
When the Roman Stoics spoke of Cupid, whom the Greek Stoics called Eros, they did not speak of the kind of romantic love found in the works of the elegiac poet Sappho. They did not recommend clinging to the indulgence of lust.
Love (amor) does not fit with passion (eupatheiai), which seems to be a bit in between.
They do not recommend clinging to the indulgence of lust. Seneca notes “the abandoned belly of lust bears the stain of shame,” and thinks people who are angry, greedy, and violent are the least of the sins of male fashion.
That does not mean Stoics should not feel pleasure. The pleasure of sexual intimacy is considered the preferred cardinal Stoic Virtue of Moderation, not an indifferent one, unlike lustful pleasure. Seneca respects love and meaningful relationships with other people.
Stoic Love And Moral Virtue
The key to cultivating “living with virtue” is to develop one’s own moral character and abilities, which make a person desirable from a Stoic point of view. It brings a person a step closer to developing the virtues of Prudence and Justice in their life.
If you live a good life according to Stoic standards, you will in most cases find an attractive partner and build a lasting relationship. The classical Stoics regarded romantic and erotic love, at least sometimes, as a feeling that people were good and valuable.
If someone is incapable of distinguishing good things from bad and neutral things from either – well, how could such a person be capable of love? The power to love, then, belongs only to the wise man. ― Epictetus (Discourses II.108)
Once we look beyond the “almost necessary” conditions of irrationality that come with powerful biological feelings, we become a little more rational in loving others, and our lives become more shareable and manageable.
For the Stoics, who are like any of us when it comes to going through emotions, a virtuous disposition, not the acquisition of love or sex, is the first basis of Stoic happiness.
Stoic Love And Unrequited Love
Unrequited love is an absurdity from the Stoic point of view. A sense of future loss and potential betrayal, and the reality that our own feelings change over time, tempers Stoic love. They love with full knowledge they may lose their loved ones any day, and almost ritually practice memento mori.
Maintaining love beyond the initial rush of hormones means having a solid relationship based on trust, compassion, and friendship. It means one must be careful when committing. Once we have committed to someone, we have to respect it.
Stoic Love And Loss of Love
The truth is, there is no guarantee that any love will last a lifetime, a fact the Stoics know well and accept fully. So, they feel it might be unwise to commit one’s love to a relationship for permanence. To even promise to return to their love after a certain period is a false promise. To think of it, how can a warrior promise he shall return to his family after the battle?
The uncontrolled feelings of falling in love are not much different in Stoics than anyone else’s feelings of falling in love. But lovers come with virtues, and even when flowing in the rivers of “mad love,” the Stoics respect those virtues of others. They are careful about not trodding upon the virtue rights of their lovers.
“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.” — Marcus Aurelius
Stoic Love And The Pains of Love
Love can be painful, especially when it is lost to the hands of fate. A loss to fate might come as a loss of life, disillusionment in the relationship, or the finding of a better person.
On this, Maria Popova writes, “To retain the memory of love’s sweetness without letting the pain of parting and loss embitter it is perhaps the greatest challenge for the bereaved heart, and its greatest achievement.”
Epictetus (55 – 135 CE) offered the Stoics a solution to deal with the pain of separation from a loved one:
When you are delighted with anything, be delighted as with a thing which is not one of those which cannot be taken away, but as something of such a kind, as an earthen pot is, or a glass cup, that, when it has been broken, you may remember what it was and may not be troubled…
What you love is nothing of your own: it has been given to you for the present, not that it should not be taken from you, nor has it been given to you for all time, but as a fig is given to you or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year.
But if you wish for these things in winter, you are a fool. So if you wish for your son or friend when it is not allowed to you, you must know that you are wishing for a fig in winter.
Whether one experiences an endless streak of bad luck, or whether other people are rude, is irrelevant to a Stoic. As long as a Stoic reacts virtuously, they know they are living a good life. When they think well of themselves, and think and act on things that are in their control, they never feel the need to worry about the effects of external events that are beyond their control.
Stoics acknowledge people cannot control much of what happens in life. Many of us worry about things beyond our control, but the Stoics believe they should use their energies to find creative solutions to problems, not spend them on the problems themselves.
They stress it is unproductive and irrational to worry about things beyond one’s control, especially when a person’s mind would do better with rest. The Stoics remind us to distinguish between the controllable and the uncontrollable and to not waste our energy on the uncontrollable or undesirable events.
A better way to think about it is that we are all capable of a range of emotions, from destructive and unhealthy ones such as anger, fear, jealousy, and hatred, to constructive and healthy ones such as joy, love, humanity, and the longing for justice in the world. For example, it makes sense to cultivate feelings of joy and justice, to be happy, to have good friends and partners, and to do what is best for us.
But it is pointless for a Stoic to rejoice in having won the lottery, because wealth is the “preferred indifferent,” so wealth does not make one better. Through Stoicism, you can become a much better person.
That Stoics know how to feel and express joy, and that they sometimes describe their philosophy as one of love, should give pause to those who repeat the stereotype of the Stoic as Mr. Spock.
The Stoics challenge us to love others in an honest and realistic way, in terms of their mortality, our own transience, the impermanence of our relationships, and our lack of control over the relationships themselves.
The Stoics see themselves as advocates of a kind of affection for the rest of humanity, connected with what one might call a philanthropic and cosmopolitan attitude.
Do Stoic people fall in love?
Yes, Stoics fall in love, but without abandoning logic. To them, love is a strong form of friendship with a romantic component. Stoics value their loved ones and are concerned with their well-being and prosperity. They help their partner in living a better life and inspire them to a more virtuous existence.
Marcus Aurelius, Musonius Rufus, and Seneca were all deeply in love with their wives.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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