Stoic advice: what do Stoics think of forgiveness?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

K. writes: “My question has to do with the concept of forgiveness as it pertains to Stoicism. My husband and I were married for over 20 years, but during the final few years, his behavior became abusive. This behavior coincided with his inheritance of a hefty trust fund. I filed for divorce after an incident that resulted in his arrest and my hospitalization. I immediately began seeing a psychologist for both myself and my children to deal with the trauma and move forward in the healthiest way possible. Little did I know I was receiving an introductory course in Stoicism. From the psychologist, I came to understand I had no control over my husband’s behavior (I was not to blame and didn’t ‘ask for it,’ he was responsible for his own actions), to value my self-respect over money or material possessions (my divorce settlement was peanuts, his inheritance was considered non-marital), and to focus on my own relationship with the children and the example I set for them.”

“Now, five years later, here is my question: what does ‘forgiveness’ mean to a practicing Stoic? My former husband has told people (including our kids) he’d like to be friends, but I am ‘bitter and refuse to forgive.’ This makes no sense to me. When the issue comes up, I’ve explained that if he were to ask for my forgiveness, I’d certainly give it, but it wouldn’t really change anything for me. Forgiveness is not a magical eraser that wipes away fact. To me, forgiveness is a kindness shown to someone who recognizes they did wrong, not an agreement to pretend it never happened. On the rare occasions I see him, I afford my ex-husband the same courtesy as any other stranger. I practice indifference and focus on my inner tranquility. We both have loving relationships with our children, but they are completely separate. Yes, we had three children and many good years together, but do the good years negate the bad? Does the bad negate the good? In my opinion, it really doesn’t matter. Were we to meet today, we would not have anything in common. I am a public school teacher, live simply, and hold my friends dear. He does not work, lives a life of indulgence, and clings to his money.

I have no interest in ‘being friends for the sake of the children’ because he and I have differing values. All the Stoic philosophers caution us to choose our friends wisely, lest we fall under poor influence. You tell me… am I a ‘bitter’ woman who ‘refuses to forgive,’ or a woman who stands by her principles, with the understanding that others may judge me poorly? My practice of Stoicism comes with the understanding that if I wish to improve, then I must be content to be thought foolish and stupid (or bitter and unforgiving!). Is it virtuous to compromise my own values, just to try to make others feel more comfortable or change their opinion of me? No. Why would I associate with someone who has proven they do not share my core values and beliefs?”

It seems to me that you have already a pretty clear idea of what a Stoic would do in your situation, and you are doing it. But let’s expand a bit on the general topic of forgiveness from a Stoic perspective.

To begin with, yes, you are correct that a proper way to think of forgiveness is as a kindness shown to someone who recognizes they did wrong, not an agreement to pretend it never happened. Accordingly, you then say that if he were to ask for your forgiveness, you’d certainly give it. I suggest that the Stoic thing to do is to go even further and to grant forgiveness to him regardless of whether he asks for it or not, on the general principle that people don’t do bad things because they want to be evil, but out of amathia, or lack of wisdom. As Marcus reminds us:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations II.1)

In a sense, I think, the Stoic position is that forgiveness is the automatic mode of operation of the wise person:

“An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.” (Enchiridion 5)

This passage by Epictetus seems to set a progression of moral self-improvement: from blaming others to blaming only oneself, to the pinnacle of not actually putting blame on anyone. If there is no blame to throw around, then there is no forgiveness to be handed out either.

This, I hasten to say, does absolutely not mean that your ex-husband’s actions were not wrong, or that you should not have resisted them. It simply means that once the thing is over, the legal aspect is settled, and you live your separate lives, there is no point in indulging into further thoughts about what happened. They simply get in the way of your pursuit of apatheia, which — let’s remember — means the development of a sense of equanimity leading to ataraxia (tranquillity of mind) — not a sense of apathy or a suppression of emotions in general.

You are also absolutely right in refusing to “be friends” with him, even for the sake of your children. As you say, not only the two of you have nothing in common, but he doesn’t seem like the sort of person that it would be good to hang around with:

“Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers [i.e., people that don’t care about wisdom]. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.” (Enchiridion 33.6)

At the same time, though, try to rephrase your thoughts about your ex-husband’s behavior, shifting from a tone of (justified, no doubt) moral condemnation to a more neutral, matter-of-fact one:

“Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious? This will save you from perceiving one thing clearly, but then assenting to something different.” (Enchiridion 45)

Let’s try it out. Instead of saying, as you did: “He does not work, lives a life of indulgence, and clings to his money,” rephrase your thoughts in descriptive terms: “He does not work, seeks pleasures, and is preoccupied with his source of funds.” This exercise should help you to let go of negative emotions, a goal that is for your sake just as well as for your children’s, not to benefit him. In your case, this will, again, help you develop and maintain a sense of serenity; in the case of your children, it will hopefully strike them as magnanimous of you to talk of their father in non judgmental ways, giving you the high moral ground.

You are also correct that neither the good years somehow erase the bad ones nor vice versa. Twenty years is a large chunk of anyone’s life, and it would be highly unusual if they were full of just positives or just negatives. Since the relationship ended with abuse, it is natural that the negatives have a tendency to outweigh the positives in your recollection. But, again, practice distancing yourself from the whole affair, good and bad alike. Focus instead on your three children, something very good that came out of the relationship, and that is going to be an important part of your future yet to come.

As Seneca tells us to do every night, so we can do also with events in our distant past: ask ourselves where we went wrong, what we did well, and what we could have done differently. As a result:

“Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat. … How calm, how sound, and careless is it when our spirit has either received praise or reprimand, and when our secret inquisitor and censor has made his report about our morals?” (On Anger, III.36)

In your case, it sounds like you have actually done good by deciding to seek the help of a therapist for your own and your children’s sake. And you have probably learned quite a bit from the experience so not to repeat it in the future. Your position on how to deal with him now is, then, exactly right: afford him the courtesy of a stranger, because that’s who he is to you. His opinions about your behavior and recalcitrance to engage with him are his, and not under your control. And you don’t even need to forgive him, you can just think of him as an unwise person who deserves your pity, not your anger or resentment.


26 thoughts on “Stoic advice: what do Stoics think of forgiveness?

  1. E. O. Scott

    I’m curious what you think if Martha Nussbaum’s critique of forgiveness as tending to have a retributive view of justice baked into it as an assumption, as it were.

    Are we better off replacing the concept with related words (generosity, gentleness, a positive approach to reconciliation) that are more compatible with the common Greco-Roman view that “payback” is antithetical to justice in the first place (and that forgiveness is thus redundant for the wise person)?


  2. Massimo Post author


    Yes I tend to agree with Nussbaum. The Stoics don’t blame anyone for anything, but try to approach situations with equanimity. The latter, rather than forgiveness, seemt to be the way to go. What are your thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nanocyborgasm

    I like the advice but dispute the notion of forgiveness itself in Stoicism. Forgiveness implies resentment which is withdrawn. If a stoic forgives, that implies he is not progressing but rather succumbing to passion in judging another. If you have been wronged by someone, there is no point in becoming angry with that person. Pity is the more appropriate reaction as the other person didn’t know right from wrong. And if you have misjudged someone bad as good, it’s your misjudgment that is to blame. I would say the more appropriate reaction is not to be concerned with the malice that others may or may not have against you, and carry on with your own business — the practice of your own virtue. If any forgiveness is needed, it is to yourself, forgiving of your faults and misjudgments.


  4. E. O. Scott


    I’m on board with Nussbaum too. I think the commonplace idea of “forgiveness” is a fascinating example of how Christianity has shaped our modern way of thinking. One of those things where looking to the ancients gives us a new kind of “critical distance” from our own culture!

    I do appreciate, though, that while she criticizes what she sees as the primary meaning of “forgiveness” in modern (and Judeo-Christian) tradition, she acknowledges that the word is used in a variety of ways.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. jbonnicerenoreg

    Heirocles’ circle includes love for enemies. Is an ex-spouse outside of the circle and is just ignored as a stranger. Personally, I have the same problem but shouldn’t a Stoic be able to go beyond avoidance?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Massimo Post author


    I don’t think I disagree with you, thought perhaps only the Sage can get to that level, not any regular prokopton.


    I don’t really see Stoicism as preaching unconditional love. Seneca explicitly says that if necessary we need to be prepared to go as far as to kill an enemy or a criminal. Hiercoles’ circles are about how in principle we should be concerned with all humanity, I don’t see love for every human being regardless of what he has done to follow from it.


  7. E. O. Scott


    “I don’t really see Stoicism as preaching unconditional love”

    I hope that claims swings on how we define “love?” If it means “spend all your resources investing indiscriminately in relationships” then even most Christians don’t believe in “unconditional love.”

    But if “unconditional love” means “view all humanity like a doctor views a patient,” or other such things like retaining a natural affection for them at all times (if from a distance), then surely Stoicism calls for it?


  8. jbonnicerenoreg

    I agree with E.O. Scott that unconditional love is too strong but surely concern means more than “treating as a stranger” especially if the opposite party is being reasonable.


  9. Massimo Post author

    E.O., jbonni,

    Yes, of course. But we were talking about people doing awfgul things, like abusing one’s spouse, which is not reasonable behavior.


  10. dsferrara

    If I’m not mistaken, the verb perdonaro, perdonare wasn’t part of Classical Latin; it appeared lately in the Empire, probably in a Christian context, being translated in English via a calque as ‘to forgive’. This verb was composed of the prefix per-, meaning ‘completely, until the end’, and the verb donare, meaning ‘to give’. So the idea was something like ‘to give someone who has wronged us a sort of pacific/acceptance feeling, surrendering to it’.

    Early Romans would have prefered to use the verb ignosco, ignoscere, which was closer to the idea of ignoring a bad deed, simply disregarding it, or expressions like concedere veniam or concedere gratiam, akin to the notion of doing someone a favor, being condescending.

    I think this piece of etymology can help us in the present case. When somebody has wronged us, forgiving (with its outburt of negative, confusing emotions) isn’t the only option available or at least it isn’t an obligation. We may disregard the fact as an act of kindness, knowing that we don’t owe that person anything. We’re in control, in a certain sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Daniel Mann

    WHY ARE WE SO BLAME-ADVERSE? This is a response to just about everyone:

    While I come down in just about the same place as everyone else, my Christianly-informed understanding is slightly different. For one thing, there are two aspects of personal forgiveness – (1) what we do in our hearts where we must forgive, and (2) what we do interpersonally.

    Therefore, I totally agree with K. and Massimo about her course of action. It seems that her Ex is still in denial, which puts the kibosh on any form of restoration. Therefore, keep the abuser at arm’s-length.

    “Abuser?” Yes! Even if he has legally paid for his crime! But where does Christian compassion come in? It is certainly not based upon denying that he is responsible of his heinous offense, when he clearly is responsible. Instead, compassion is based upon seeing ourselves as we really are – in need of forgiveness ourselves.

    What is missing here? I think that we need to first judge ourselves before we can judge anyone else. We all have a tendency to judge our mates more severely and quickly than we do ourselves. At some irritation, our first response is usually, “There she goes again. She never changes.”


  12. E. O. Scott


    The Stoics agree with you there. They are quite clear that looking at our own faults is a great way to cultivate a generous spirit toward others’ errors (Seneca and Marcus wrote some especially beautiful passages to this effect. You’ve reminded me that I’d meant to memorize them…).

    They are also clear that we are responsible for our choices.

    Plus, remember that the Stoics claimed there are no degrees of virtue (one of their “paradoxes”). In a sense, we are all equally vicious, and there is no sense in viewing ourselves as ‘better-than.’

    Point being, I don’t think Stoicism is “blame-averse.” We are all to blame, and we all need wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Daniel Mann

    E.O. My comment to you disappeared. I had affirmed what you had said and added that it takes great courage to be truly self-examining. In fact, it is so painful, that, generally, we run from it. It is only through the assurances of Christ’s love and forgiveness that I have been enabled to face myself.


  14. E. O. Scott


    It’s alright—I got & read your full comment via email notification.

    (I suspect it crossed Massimo’s threshold for “proselytizing” or what-naught.)


  15. Massimo Post author

    Exactly, Daniel, that was a comment that I interpreted as Christian proselytizing, not really pertinent to any discussion of Stoicism. As I said in the past, please refrain from such comments on this forum. Thanks.


  16. Daniel Mann

    What a double-standard! When someone puts forth their view, you find that acceptable, even if it disagrees with your own. However, if I mention Stoicism from Christian perspective or “Christ,” you deem that as unacceptable.

    This is your blog and this is certainly your choice. However, I think that you need to be transparent about your anti-Christian bias and not simply dismiss what I say as “proselytizing.” Let me know! If I cannot be transparent about my perspective, then I’m out-of-here.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Massimo Post author


    Can you give me an actual example of double standard? You comment here all the time from a Christian perspective, much more than do Buddhists, Confucians, Epicureans and all the rest. But I do draw the line at phrases like “I can do this only because of Christ.” And yes, it’s my blog, so…


  18. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    Massimo hasn’t erased every single post you have mentioning Christ or Christianity, Daniel. He only seems to object to the ones where you spend more than a sentence or two talking about how His grace or forgiveness has saved you, and especially if you go further on about how you can hardly imagine anyone being saved without it.

    That said, I actually do have a vision for a non-religious way to deal with the pain of self-blame: think of how I as an ordinary human striving to be decent would approach confessions of similar problems in a loved one, and offer the same level of patience to myself. For instance, I see many of the vices of others in my circle, including some I share, as being fairly typical results of growing up in a corrupt, hyper-consumerist society. If this society has weakened others, why would it not have weakened me in the same way? If I can be patient with others for being that way because it’s so hard not to be, why wouldn’t I be similarly patient with myself as I work on ways to solve or minimize those problems?

    Liked by 2 people

  19. E. O. Scott

    @Julie: “think of how I as an ordinary human striving to be decent would approach confessions of similar problems in a loved one, and offer the same level of patience to myself.”

    That’s a lovely way of putting it.

    It helps that, in Stoicism, a degree of “patience” (or generosity, or forgiveness) is baked into the definition of “Justice.” Being kind to people who have messed up isn’t a suspension of Justice, or a gift of something they don’t deserve: people deserve to be treated with a sort of kindness no matter what they’ve done.

    And so, we “deserve” to view our own failings with compassion as well, even as we hold ourselves to a high standard.

    I’ve written a post on handling set-backs in Stoic practice that you might find relevant:

    Liked by 1 person

  20. viennahavana

    “Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VIII, 59 Forgiving can be a form of teaching (especially for one’s children). Also, editing out offensive content can be a form of teaching.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    Hi Eric.

    Thanks for the link. The struggle does sound quite familiar, and it makes me wonder what it would have been like had I taken Modern Stoicism seriously in grad school. I had heard about it by then, but given how I’d heard about it and my attitudes back then, I was not yet ready to even take it seriously, let alone study and practice it with some degree of persistence, which didn’t happen until about 4 years ago and 6 months ago, respectively. But given your recent continued struggles, maybe it wouldn’t have been that much different apart from shorter bouts of despair and frustration at an earlier stage of my career. Anyway, I guess the Stoic perspective on that matter was that it was not my fate to take it seriously until 4 years ago or to practice it until much more recently, and it has not yet been my fate to advance beyond frequent study and writing and short successful field trials.

    The shining image of the ideal philosopher feels a bit too distant and unreal as a motivation to keep me trying again and again…it’s hard knowing that I’ll never actually be a sage alternative vision from the “negative visualization” side, (because no Stoic ever declared him or herself a sage), nor save the world (because that’s beyond my control). My more pessimistic phrasing, trying to be closer to the kind of person that any future “post-apocalyptic” society will need to not end up as self-destructive as this one, also doesn’t seem to be quite enough in its current form. I might need to make the vision of the ideal more specific, in terms of “this is the self-destructive societal tendency you’re bravely fighting against in yourself when you practice that virtue in this situation.” Otherwise it’s too easy to slip into “harmless fun” and further into “serious loss of focus on the stuff that matters in life.”

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    Oops, my second paragraph ended up a bit jumbled. It should have gone like this:

    The shining image of the ideal philosopher feels a bit too distant and unreal as a motivation to keep me trying again and again…it’s hard knowing that I’ll never actually be a sage, nor save the world (because that’s beyond my control). My more pessimistic phrasing, trying to be closer to the kind of person that any future “post-apocalyptic” society will need to not end up as self-destructive as this one, also doesn’t seem to be quite enough in its current form. I might need to make the vision of the ideal more specific, in terms of “this is the self-destructive societal tendency you’re bravely fighting against in yourself when you practice that virtue in this situation.” Otherwise it’s too easy to slip into “harmless fun” and further into “serious loss of focus on the stuff that matters in life.”


Comments are closed.