Stoicism on romantic love and commitment

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.

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Categories: Modern Stoicism, Social living, Stoicism & other philosophies

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10 replies

  1. There is also the dance factor. Each partner must be “in step” for the relationship to be successful. One person acting Stoically in a relationship would be problematic, so the outcome, as you said, is not up to you.

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  2. It might be useful to distinguish between “love”, “relationship”, and “commitment” in this discussion, as they are not the same thing semantically or pragmatically. Being in love; being in a relationship; committing through a legally or religiously binding relationship; all of these are different things requiring different logical analysis, physical acceptance, and ethical assent. Marriage as commitment, for example, is quite a complex cultural and legal phenomenon–as the current debates over same-sex marriage show clearly, for example. Add to that the legal and religious complexities surrounding divorce (not to mention the pragmatic aspects of becoming a single mom or dad in various and culturally wildly different societies) makes the issue of commitment much more complex than that of romantic love or the kind of friend relationships (with or without privileges) of which Seneca speaks in your quote.

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  3. Robert,

    All those dimensions are certainly interesting and relevant, but not really to the Stoic (or the Existentialist) position. Legal and cultural components are what they are (complicated, as you say), but this article, as well as Skye’s, deal with the ethics of the ideas of love and commitment.

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  4. I agree that we should not be looking at psychological studies on normative questions.

    We can learn all the biases humans have and avoid them using practical reason like it’s so elegantly laid out in this post.

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  5. Massimo, nice article especially as I have had a very interesting discussion with you about this topic before.
    I like you’re stoic account of commitment, but I feel there may be a hidden problem for stoics that has not been unpacked. It is highlighted by the idea that there is nothing absurd about love. I think it is easy to explain why there is, although it’s not simple to grasp. To love someone is to experience them as an end-in-themselves. An end-in-itself, by definition, is not meaningful in virtue of some further end but is self-justifying. So, the absurd problem is how you come to adopt that person as end in themselves. There can be no further purpose such an adoption serves, otherwise the end you are adoting is not self-justifying. Hence, there is a kind of ‘catch-22’ situation or rational impasse. There needs to be a rational leap, an absurd leap.
    The same reasoning goes, I believe, for movements between Kierkegaard spheres of existence. To become ethical, is to adopt the ethical as a chief good, an end-in-itself, thus, involves a rational leap.
    The adoption of an individual as an end-in-themselves is to posit an external good, and so not stoic.
    Does this mean stoics do not view others as ends in themselves? Quite possibly, according to Kierkegaard the leap of faith is the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’ (Fear and Trembling), thus, arguably only by suspending the ethical can we be committed to the individual as a genuine end-in-themselves, rather than as an end that is subservient to the ethical chief good. (I presume the choosing love idea is from Either/Or, and so represents an ethical sphere which is not necessarily Kierkegaard’s final position. We must pay regard to the point that he often writes under pseudonyms).
    But, can I suggest that Kierkegaard is writing for people for whom passion is everything, stoics maybe are not. I.e. A philosophy may suit some people, but not others. Or indeed some people at a certain time of life.
    Regards, Pete

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  6. Pete,

    You are certainly right that different philosophies may speak to different people. But of course this is a blog about Stoicism, so I defend the Stoic position as reasonably as it can be done.

    “To love someone is to experience them as an end-in-themselves. An end-in-itself, by definition, is not meaningful in virtue of some further end but is self-justifying.”

    Indeed, but I think it is a mistake to say that we love others as end-in-themselves. We plainly don’t, and any psychologist would like confirm this. Rather, we love others because of what they bring into our life, which is why I made the parallel between love and friendship. I don’t think they are very different, as a lot that can be said for one goes for the other.

    Now the Stoics were very much into friendship. But that’s because they saw friendship as both an exercise in our own virtue as well as a means to improve our virtue, because the friend (or lover) make us a better person.

    Seeing this way, there is absolutely nothing absurd about love, no catch-22, and no rational impasse at all.

    “The same reasoning goes, I believe, for movements between Kierkegaard spheres of existence. To become ethical, is to adopt the ethical as a chief good, an end-in-itself, thus, involves a rational leap.”

    But I find Kierkegaard very much unconvincing on that as well. Morality clearly evolved in order to foster pro-social behavior, and still has that function, as the Stoics clearly understood. But we are rational animals, so we don’t behave ethically just by instinct, we can think about stuff and take a broader perspective. It is not by chance that the roots of both “ethics” (Greek) and “moral” (Latin) have to do with habits, customs and ways to behave in society.

    So for ethics too, no need for a leap of faith. To be ethical is the reasonable thing to do, just like the Stoics maintained. That’s what they meant when they said we should “live according to (human) nature.”

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  7. Massimo – I love this piece, thanks for writing it! I had wondered about the Stoic approach to romantic love. Question: Why commit only to justice? I imagine temperance could also be a good one to commit to. Sure, it might be the least compatible with romantic love! Nevertheless, committing to being a lover who doesn’t yield to, for example, sexual excesses with other people seems as worthwhile as committing to justice. I can see a case to be made for courage, e.g. to (dare I say) ‘leap’ into a relationship and/or to make a commitment. And practical wisdom in a mutual commitment to eudemonia perhaps?

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  8. Skye,

    Thanks for your comment! You are absolutely right, all the four virtues are at play, always. Some of the Stoics thought of them as four aspects of the same fundamental thing anyway. I simply focused on justice because it seemed the most obviously relevant given the context.

    Now it’s interesting you write that temperance may sound weird when applied to romantic love. But it depends on what you mean by that term, right? If you mean the initial phase of falling in love, the one that Fisher says lasts 6-18 months, yes, sure. But that’s not “real,” meaning that it is an obvious result of a flood of hormones, bound to pass.

    “Real” love is what comes after, if it comes. But for that phase of long attachment I’d say that temperance is in fact crucial. Living with someone, or even having a long-term relationship without sharing a home, requires a lot of compromise and flexibility, i.e., temperance.

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  9. I do think the comments on love are somewhat oversimplified. Viewed through the lens of evolution, the straight forward purpose of love seems to be reproduction. However, I can imagine that love can be a by-product of feelings that help create a stable community, something that can help species in survival beyond just reproduction. Even more importantly, just because evolution has developed/favoured love because of one function, it does not mean it is the only way it is, has been, or can be used. Like you, I am cautious of explanations based on evolutionary psychology.
    I also hope that stoicism can be of more help than the idea of justice. Not cheating on each other, and being honest with each other is not really ground breaking advice. Ester Perel, the indirectly linked psychiatrist, is not pro-cheating. She is trying to raise the question whether the ideal of monogamy (which she recognises as an ambiguous term) is realistic and whether it fits today’s society, and people’s nature. I think it fits Stoicism to question unrealistic ideal visions of society/love/etc and instead focus on dealing with reality. The other thing she says is not to regard cheating as a necessary end of the relationship, and instead, use it as an opportunity to improve the relationship. Again, does not seem to me that it clashes with stoicism. Also, I think she raises some interesting points on that honesty has different emphases in different cultures in some of her interviews.
    I believe the hard question for most people is whether to break off a relationship that is currently not working. How do you know whether to end it or to try harder to make it work? How do you know that after you have decided to trust someone, that this trust and relationship is not worth it anymore? How do you determine whether you or your partner has changed so much that it is not the same relation that you started?
    In addition, many people describe that a partner is very active and courteous in the beginning of a relationship, but stops this after a while and link this to love fizzling out. If this identified pattern reflects a causal mechanism of disappearing love, the advice to fully trust after awhile and commit to a relationship, might actually be lead to relationships losing their ‘love’ and ‘magic’, as people do not take that extra step anymore and now see the relation as a given. (This is not what the advice says, but it could easily follow from people trying to follow the advice)
    I have tried to look for advice that could be applied to relationships in stoic teachings, and I cannot seem to get Seneca’s “I say, let no one rob me of a single day who isn’t going to make a full return on the loss” out of my head. I do not think many relationships would survive this advice.

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  10. Jop,

    As I hope I made clear, I share your caution about evolutionary explanations, but there is little reason to doubt that lust and what we call “romantic” love are the result of evolutionary processes aiming at insuring reproduction.

    That said, of course they are now much more complicated and nuanced, because of cultural evolution. But the point of the OP is to talk about long-term relationships, the post-romance phase in Fisher’s classification.

    “Not cheating on each other, and being honest with each other is not really ground breaking advice”

    Nothing in Stoicism is ground breaking advice. But it is hard to practice. Hence Epictetus’ insistence on the latter.

    “She is trying to raise the question whether the ideal of monogamy (which she recognises as an ambiguous term) is realistic and whether it fits today’s society, and people’s nature”

    But “realism” too often becomes an excuse for being morally lazy and do whatever it is we want to do. I don’t think that’s the Stoic position.

    “I believe the hard question for most people is whether to break off a relationship that is currently not working”

    Indeed, for the Stoic that’s an exercise in prudence (i.e., practical wisdom), and of course the answer depends on the specific circumstances.

    “the advice to fully trust after awhile and commit to a relationship, might actually be lead to relationships losing their ‘love’ and ‘magic’, as people do not take that extra step anymore and now see the relation as a given”

    I don’t believe in magic, of course, and I think it’s a mistake to use that term in the context of love, even metaphorically, because it reinforces a Disney-type view of love that truly is unrealistic.

    I think “fully trust” here means that you are not constantly second guessing the other person. But even Seneca would agree that if the behavior of your friend or partner changes dramatically and consistently for the worse then it is time to revise things.

    “I cannot seem to get Seneca’s “I say, let no one rob me of a single day who isn’t going to make a full return on the loss” out of my head. I do not think many relationships would survive this advice.”

    I don’t know. That’s a poetic way of putting things. I simply interpret it as meaning that we want to be with people (again, friends or partners) that is worth being with. Precisely because our time is limited and we want our relationships to be of high quality.

    Incidentally, I think it is not by chance that the Greeks had four distinct words for “love” (http://tinyurl.com/ycv8gtkr), but none of them precisely maps to the modern conception of romantic love. It may be they missed something, or maybe they were onto something we are missing.

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