I often learn about Stoicism by confronting what I think is a likely Stoic position on a particular issue with what other philosophies’ take is on that same position. Hence my ongoing series on Stoicism and its alternatives. (Not to be confused with my other ongoing series, on Stoicism and its critics.) Now, if there is a topic on which both ancient and modern Stoic authors don’t write a lot is love, romantic and otherwise. So let’s get to it, by way of comparing my views with those of my friend and colleague Skye Cleary, who has written a really nice essay about relationships and commitment in the latest issue of the New Philosopher. (Not yet available online, keep an eye on the site, and while you’re at it, subscribe to the magazine)
Skye’s piece, which won the New Philosopher’s Writers’ Award, is entitled “Can we make love stay?” and is written from an Existentialist perspective. (Spoiler alert: the answer turns out to be possibly, but it’s hard…) Skye begins with the commonsense observation that when we fall in love it feels like it will last forever. And yet, both demographic statistics and human neurobiology tell us that that’s far from guaranteed. Indeed, according to research by Helen Fisher on human hormonal profiles, the “high” of romantic love lasts on average between six and 18 months. After that, either the couple breaks up, or they move to a phase of attachment (which may last several more years, or a lifetime). That latter phase is, in fact, a more mature form of love, but it is definitely not the heady hormonal and emotional cocktail of the beginnings.
(Fisher’s Anatomy of Love contains lots of interesting science, but — as usual with contemporary mixes of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology — it needs to be taken with more than a grain of salt.)
So what’s the problem? As Skye summarizes it: “We keep promising ‘till death us do part’ even when we know there’s a pretty good chance love won’t last.” That, in a nutshell, is the problem, and Skye briefly lists a number of potential solutions: “not making any commitments, making short-term commitments, commit knowing that we might have to break our word, or commit with lots of caveats.”
She further nails the issue when she reasons that the problem, ultimately, is that there seems to be a contradiction between committing to future actions (and feelings) when that future is, in fact, uncertain. Should commitment be absolute, no matter what — which would seem a rather foolish way to proceed — or should it be conditional on future developments, which begins to sound like no commitment at all?
One of the early Existentialist philosophers was Søren Kierkegaard, who thought about this matter and arrived at one possible solution: leap into marriage (and, ultimately, religion), commit not to a lover, but to love itself. Skye, however, is duly unimpressed: “the problem is that there is something insidious and zombie-like about performing loving actions without passion for the beloved.” That is, pace Kierkegaard, it makes no sense to commit to the idea of love regardless of the particular person one happens to be implementing that idea with.
But Skye rejects also what she calls the “ultra-rational” approach, i.e., pledging commitment only if one is absolutely sure that things will work out. This is in a sense the opposite of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, and it is probably accurate to describe it as “ultra” rational. As such, it may be interpreted to be close to the Stoic position, given the emphasis of the school on reason, but I don’t think it is.
Allow me a short detour into a series of posts I have been running at my other blog, Footnotes to Plato (devoted to general philosophy). I have been writing about Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World, a must-read for anyone interested in the very idea of reason, its applicability, and its limits. Julian makes a profound distinction between reason and logic. Skye’s ultra-rational individual comes across as a Spock-like figure (remember, Spock is often misunderstood as a quintessential Stoic!) who acts in life on the basis of strict evidentiary and logical reasoning. And yet, even Spock, later in his career, had to admit that “logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”
Baggini’s point is that reason is far broader than formal logic, that to apply reason means to arrive at good judgments based on a combination of logic and evidence, but also personal experience and values. That’s why the Stoics thought that the study of “logic” and “physics” are both instrumental to ethics, but by themselves are insufficient to achieve wisdom. As Epictetus puts it:
“We know how to analyze arguments, and have the skill a person needs to evaluate competent logicians. But in life what do I do? What today I say is good tomorrow I will swear is bad. And the reason is that, compared to what I know about syllogisms, my knowledge and experience of life fall far behind.” (Discourses II, 3.4-5)
Let me recap so far: the Stoic position clearly cannot be Kierkegaard’s, which even Skye, as an Existentialist, rejects anyway. But it is not to be found in its opposite, “ultra-rational” extreme, either. What then?
Skye turns to another giant of Existentialism, Albert Camus, who also rejected Kierkegaard. As she summarizes it: “what’s important is being able to stand on the ‘dizzying crest’ of absurdity. Sisyphus embraces his torture of endlessly push the rock up the hill only to watch it roll back down again. Just as the absurd hero finds revolt, freedom, and passion in his lucidity, this is how we ought to approach relationships: we embrace the absurdity of love and give it our best shot.”
I never understood why Camus and the Existentialists are so fond of Sisyphus. If they actually took a look at the myth as it is usually recounted, they’ll discover that he is no hero at all. To begin with, Sisyphus was a bit of a rascal, to put it mildly. He was the king of Ephyra (Corinth) and very much devoted to self-aggrandizing and deceit. He was punished by Zeus for, among other misdeeds, performing the impious act of killing travelers passing by his city. Because of that Sisyphus was forced to eternally roll the boulder up, a constant reminder of the hubris of thinking himself cleverer than Zeus. He didn’t have a choice, he didn’t revolt, and he had no passion for the task. Indeed, he was supervised by Persephone in the Underworld, to make sure he did what he was supposed to do.
At any rate, a Stoic informed by modern science would say that there is absolutely nothing absurd about love. Its biological origins lie, of course, with the need for reproduction and the raising of a family (it may be no coincidence, as Fisher points out, that many relationships last 4-5 years, the time it took in human prehistory to get a child to be sufficiently independent as not to need both parents to stick around). But the modern concept has evolved culturally a great deal, to represent and satisfy a wide range of human needs for companionship, sharing one’s goals and projects, and so forth. The fact that it doesn’t (always) last is a fact of nature, which the Stoic would accept rather than indulge in Disney-like wishful thinking (not that that’s what Skye does in her piece). Here is Epictetus on wishing things to be different when they cannot be:
“If you long for your son or your friend [or your partner], when it is not given you to have him, know that you are longing for a fig in winter time.” (Discourses III, 24.86)
While Stoicism is most definitely not a passive philosophy (along the lines of “que sera, sera”), it is one founded on realism, meaning that we try to differentiate between the things we can actually control and change and those we cannot (as in Enchiridion 1.1, and analogously to the famous Christian Serenity Prayer). Which means what, exactly, in terms of love and commitment?
I think a more productive way to address the issue Skye (and a lot of us) is concerned with is not by asking “how do I make love last?” or “should I commit till death us do part”? Nor is the solution to think in terms of conditional commitments, commitments with caveats, or commitments until things change. Rather, we should ask ourselves what, exactly, should we commit to.
My answer is: justice, as in one of the four Stoic virtues. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t sound very romantic, but hear me out. “Justice” for the Stoics doesn’t mean (only) social justice, though it can and should also be interpreted that way. It is, rather, the idea that we ought to treat others with fairness, as human beings with their inherent moral worth. That applies to all our relations, but especially to the close ones, and therefore to love for a partner.
This means, for instance, no cheating (contra to what some modern psychologists seem to think). It also means to treat our partner kindly and lovingly, to do our best to be helpful and supportive. This is what is known as the discipline of action, which regulates all our dealings with others:
“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself.” (Seneca, Letter III. On True and False Friendship, 2)
Seneca is talking about friendship here, but this goes a fortiori for a loving relationship. He also says, again about friendship, but mutatis mutandis:
“When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment.” (Letter III. On True and False Friendship, 2)
Meaning that one needs to be careful whom one commits to, but once you do commit, you have to do it wholeheartedly. And, I maintain, that is what love is, after Fisher’s initial rush of hormones: a solid relationship based on trust, compassion, and friendship. Of course there is no guarantee that it will last a lifetime. Some do, others don’t. Therefore, it is unwise to “commit” to a specific length of time, come what may. But we can, indeed ought to, commit to be as good to that person as we can. To use the old Stoic metaphor of the archer:
“If a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate end,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’” (Cicero, De Finibus, III.22)
To aim for our relationship to last until death us do part is within our power. To make sure it does is not. Commitment is to the goal, not the outcome, and the commitment is difficult enough work for a mere human as it is. Let the goal come (or not) as it pleases the universe.