Stoics love, but they are often imagined as worrying that love might lead to things at odds with their philosophy.
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 not be overwhelmed by the heavy emotions of grief after burying a loved one.
In the first chapter of his 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)
On the other hand, many people and even some scholars think Stoicism and love are incompatible or in conflict with one another. For the Stoics, happiness is eudaimonia—a life best lived free from desire, pain, grief, fear, and passion.
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.
Stoics in Love
Stoic philosophy has clumsily become synonymous with a dispassionate and emotionless life. When we say “Stoic,” we point at someone who does not react to situations with much emotionality. 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.
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.
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.
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.
And 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.
But the truth is, there is no guarantee that love will last a lifetime, a fact the Stoics know well and accept fully. So, they feel it might be unwise to commit oneself to a relationship for life. To even promise to return to their love after a certain period is a false promise. Think of it, how can a warrior promise he shall return to his family after the battle?
The point of Stoic love is not getting overwhelmed and consumed by love and to be honest about their tender feelings with their close ones.
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
Pains of Love
A Stoic must accept and embrace the impermanence of all they love. So when their cherished ones disappear, they can rejoice in the togetherness they had with them, rather than grieve their absence.
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.
• • •
Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder and chief editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.
• Our story: Happiness Project
√ If you enjoyed this, please share it on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn.