What The Stoics Thought About Love

Of course the image of the Stoics is of a passionless, emotionless life. The reality was far different.

Both Marcus Aurelius and Seneca write lovingly of their wives. Seneca, who lost his only child, captures the joy of parenting so beautifully in his writing that it’s clear how much he cared for his family. Cato, the towering Roman Stoic who challenged Julius Caesar, clearly had great affection for his daughter (and she for for him). And Epictetus would argue that only the lover of wisdom and rationality can truly appreciate and understand love.

“Whoever then understands what is good, can also know how to love; but he who cannot distinguish good from bad, and things which are neither good nor bad from both, can he possess the power of loving? To love, then, is only in the power of the wise.”

Seneca, the more emotional writer, returns to this theme repeatedly in his Epistles.

Joy comes to us from those whom we love even when they are absent …; when present, seeing them and associating intimately with them yields real pleasure … (35.3).

… let us enjoy our friends avidly, for how long this blessing will fall to our lot is uncertain. (63.8).

“Nature bore us related to one another … She instilled in us a mutual love and made us compatible … Let us hold everything in common; we stem from a common source. Our fellowship is very similar to an arch of stones, which would fall apart, if they did not reciprocally support each other.” (95.53)

The point is: The Stoics loved deeply and unashamedly, this is impossible to argue against. However, they did so in their own unique way. In contrast to the Romantic, who understands love basically as unrequited love, the Stoic approaches the emotions, love included, from within a philosophical outlook. For a Stoic, always concerned with the distinction between the free man, master of himself and in control of his mind and actions, and the slave, conquered and overpowered by external circumstances, loved but wanted to make sure they were not driven to madness by this love.

For instance, a man obsessed by the love for a young woman might do embarrassing, irrational things. As Epictetus wrote, “Unhappy man, who are the slave even of a girl… Why then do you still call yourself free?” The passions Epictetus describes here are of the unruly lustful type that the Stoic philosopher Arius Didymus refers to when speaking of “excessive impulses which are disobedient to reason.” Many of Seneca’s essays are about the blinding grief that one feels at the loss of a loved one—whether by distance or by death. But he’d return to love as the way to move forward in grief and not get overwhelmed by the heavy emotions of grief: “You have buried someone you loved. Now look for someone to love. It is better to make good the loss of a friend than to cry over him.”

So while the Stoics loved, they also worried that this love might lead to things at odds with their philosophy. Stoic happiness (eudaimonia) is a life lived with apatheia, free from desire, pain, grief, or fear, without passion. For this reason, when Stoic thinkers speak of love it is often in relation to high principles, extolling virtue and comparing the love of glory, wealth, pleasure, luxurious living, and other indifferents to a feverish thirst, irrational and impossible to quench.

They also practiced many of their Stoic exercises as a way to balance and mitigate that love, talking through and exploring their feelings so as not to give in to excess. Epictetus recommended practicing premeditatio malorum when it comes to love.

“With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.”

Marcus Aurelius struggled to follow these exact words from Epictetus. It feels like tempting fate, he wrote, to let the thought of such a loss enter your mind. But fate can’t be tempted. Fate isn’t in our control. What happens will happen. We have to be prepared for that. After all, Seneca lost both a son and possibly his first wife. His own mother temporarily lost her son when Seneca was exiled from Rome to a faraway island. The point is: Loved ones can leave us. The strength of our feelings won’t prevent that—they will only serve to torture us in that person’s absence if we cannot control them.

Focus on what is under your control, the Stoic would say, even in love. Accept the human condition and the bounds set for you by nature. Understand that you cannot possess what you love. We have our loved ones on loans and should rejoice in them as long as they are present. But when they are gone, we should not allow their absence to fill us with sorrow or distress.

Epictetus reminds us that the person we love is a mortal like ourselves, and that there is an allotted time for love – as for everything. Your love,

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.

These are undoubtedly hard pills to swallow. At the same time, we need to remember that moderation is an integral and indispensable part of Stoic virtue.

Although the Stoics never compromise with philosophic principle, they may still allow themselves a wide range of emotional responses as long as they are moderate and based on correct understanding and judgment.

Therefore, it is appropriate to speak of the Stoic wise person as dispassionate rather than apathetic in the modern sense of the term. Remember, the Stoic disposition is to be always active and in control, always vigilant and never passive. Not allowing yourself to be moved and emotionally manipulated does not necessarily amount to passivity or heartlessness. It certainly isn’t mutually exclusive with love either.

Stoic love is moderated by a sense of future loss, by the potential for betrayal, for the reality that our own feelings might change over time as well. Having accepted these basic condition, the irrationality of these powerful, biological feelings we have becomes a little more rational—and life a little more manageable.

As a lover of virtue, the Stoic recognizes virtue in the other. And since my virtuous disposition—and not the attainment of love or sex—is the foundation for my happiness, unrequited love is simply an absurdity from the Stoic standpoint. Due to his active disposition, the Stoic lover will prioritize the giving of love over the receiving of it. Attuned to the whole—the world, the universe, mankind—and in a sense “loved” by it, the lover can relinquish the love of the particular. Individualized love is not unimportant, far from it, but it is not the extent or essence of love.

Equipped with this philosophical armor, the Stoic can now return to the battlefield of love. He will approach it like a general—with a cool head and a strategic plan. Among the Stoic precepts he carries are the antidotes to Romantic excess. He is ready to love again, but this time he will not fall in love. And if he falls, as we humans are inclined to do, he will know how to pick himself up again.

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