Stoic Q&A: on the limitations of the Stoic approach to human relationships

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]

Beginning this week I am starting a new column at the blog, aimed at both people who are just beginning with Stoicism and at more advanced prokoptontes who have questions on either Stoic theory or practice. If you have a question, or more than one, as in the case of the reader featured this week, feel free to submit it at the email address above.

So, to inaugurate the column, K. asks a whopping four, interrelated, questions:

I) I recently went back to school to become a psychotherapist, and have now been practicing for three years. To better help my patients I have been thinking about how philosophy can tell us what constitutes the good life, the mentally healthy life, and what are the best ways to get there. My intuition is that Stoicism and Stoic-derived therapies (CBT, mindfulness based therapy, etc.) offer value in the short term, but only very limited value over the long term. And from what I can tell, the research on the long term efficacy of CBT is mixed and not particularly impressive. This all makes me wonder if people improve clinically and also get closer to the good life by having stronger relationships, by becoming more attached, not by becoming more able to reduce the passions or subjugate them to rational thought.

Yes, therapy typically offers short term solutions, but a philosophy of life is much more than a therapy. Think of the difference as analogous to the distinction between going to a doctor because we have developed a physical problem (say, high cholesterol) due to a bad diet, and adopting a healthy eating style as a regular, day to day feature of our lives. The doctor can help you fix the cholesterol problem, by making emergency adjustments to your diet, telling you to exercise, or giving you pills. But if you simply return to your old habits once the cholesterol levels are down, you will gradually inch your way up to the problem again. The only long term solution is to make a permanent shift to a healthy eating regime. Similarly with therapy vs philosophy. A therapist may be able to help you with a specific problem, like a certain degree of depression, but once your mental faculty are restored to a normal level of functionality you still need to make decisions about what to do in your life and how to set your priorities. That’s where philosophy comes in.

Regarding your concluding remark, the Stoics think that human nature is fundamentally social, so of course the good life includes friends and other relationships. Seneca says that even the Sage can do without friends but prefers not to:

“In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I say “can,” I mean this: he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity.” (Letter IX. On Philosophy and Friendship, 5)

But relations are “preferred indifferents” in the strict sense that they may be morally good or bad. For instance, an abusive relationship is not good, and so it is better to do without it; by contrast, a true friendship is to be sought out. Also, and I will return to this below, the Stoics most definitely do not seek to suppress emotions, only pathē, the unhealthy passions, such as fear, hatred, and anger. Indeed part of the goal is to nurture eupatheiai, the healthy emotions.

II) More generally, out of the clinical realm, I wonder if Stoicism is always correct about the good life. Are not extreme emotional reactions to attachment losses good (not just unfortunately hard or impossible to avoid), even in cases where one can truly say “it is not and was not in your control that you lost so and so or such and such” or “it is your reaction to the loss which is painful, not the loss itself, and you can control your reaction over time.” You seem to think Epictetus’ view on the irrationality of grief over losing a child is too extreme, which is obviously wise, but is there a principle within Stoicism that states when extreme, prolonged emotional reactions are part of the good life and when they aren’t? Or are you stating we need to limit how and when we should be Stoic. Is the answer that some extreme emotional reactions are unavoidable so therefore understandable and not ideal, but the person would be better off without them? If so, if a pill could remove, say, grief from a parent who has lost a child, before any grief is felt, would Stoicism imply the pill should be taken? That seems clearly wrong, no? Or is a Stoic attitude to minimize and gain control over the passions only one part of a good life that needs to be done only some of the time — which seems more correct to me — where the other part consists in (somehow) valuing extreme emotional reactions and extreme attachments even to things that will be taken away?

Different Stoics had a distinct take on this, and I find Seneca to be the most compassionate as well as the most reasonable by modern standards. When he writes to Marcia in consolation for the loss of her child he strikes a good balance between the sternness of Epictetus and the danger of letting oneself go entirely by actually wallowing in one’s emotional distress:

“Let others use soft measures and caresses; I have determined to do battle with your grief, and I will dry those weary and exhausted eyes, which already, to tell you the truth, are weeping more from habit than from sorrow. … What, I pray you, is to be the end of it? All means have been tried in vain: the consolations of your friends … literature … [etc.]. Even time itself, nature’s greatest remedy, which quiets the most bitter grief, loses its power with you alone. Three years have already passed, and still your grief has lost none of its first poignancy … and has now dwelt so long with you that it has acquired a domicile in your mind. … All vices sink into our whole being, if we do not crush them before they gain a footing; and in like manner these sad, pitiable, and discordant feelings end by feeding upon their own bitterness, until the unhappy mind takes a sort of morbid delight in grief.” (To Marcia, On Consolation, I)

These aren’t the words of an uncaring individual who just tells you to get over and be done with it. Seneca is worried that his friend has descended into what we today would call depression, and he is trying to shake her up and bring her back.

But this isn’t really a clinical question. The point isn’t whether we feel better by indulging in grief, saying, or by overcoming it. It is a philosophical choice one is making: that of accepting that death, even of loved ones, is a fact of life, and can be approached with equanimity, which does not mean not caring, but rather accepting what happens when it is inevitable. This, in turns, leads to a degree of serenity in the face of adversity. Moreover, according to Seneca, we have a duty toward others, which is why in the same letter to Marcia he tells his friend that she has to emerge out of her grief and re-engage with society, with her other children, and with her husband.

There is no precise metric of just how much one should concede to natural emotion and when it is time to intervene, but that is true in modern psychology as well, no? We think it normal for someone to feel sad at the loss of a loved one, but if that sadness continues for a long time and begins to get in the way of the individual’s ability to function, we call it depression and being to intervene. The Stoics may have set the threshold differently, but the concept is very similar.

As for pills, they are the sort of urgent intervention we may use in therapy, if needed, but no, they are not a philosophical answer. Part of the point of philosophy, and in particular Stoic philosophy, is that virtue lies in overcoming our shortcomings. No pain, no gain. Think of it as the difference between a body builder who works hard at the gym vs one who takes a shortcut and pumps a lot of steroids into his body. Which one is doing the right thing? Which one is going to be healthy?

III) Is it not a good thing for children that their parents feel attachments that a Stoic might argue are bad for the parents? Is it not good for children to have parents who are concerned and emotionally moved to be concerned about the child’s well-being, even when that is out of the parent’s control?

Again, nothing in Stoicism says one should not feel for one’s children, friends, etc.. Indeed, Seneca explicitly says that not having those feelings is inhuman:

“Am I advising you to be hard-hearted, desiring you to keep your countenance unmoved at the very funeral ceremony, and not allowing your soul even to feel the pinch of pain? By no means. That would mean lack of feeling rather than virtue.” (Letter XCIX. On Consolation of the Bereaved, 15)

The idea, rather, is to internalize the notion that everything we have in life is not really ours, it is on loan from the universe, as Epictetus puts it. This means two things: that we should be willing to let it go when the universe reclaims the loan, but also that we should enjoy it all the more while we have it, precisely because it will not last forever and we have no idea when it will go away. Impermanence is what makes life meaningful, and an awareness of impermanence is what allows us to live our life to the fullest:

“You must remind yourself that you love a mortal, and that nothing that you love is your very own; it is given you for the moment, not for ever nor inseparably.” (Epictetus, Discourses III, 24.86)

As I write in my book, I have actually experienced the difference between a pre-Stoic and a Stoic attitude when my parents died. My father passed away more than a decade ago, way before I embraced Stoicism as a philosophy of life. It was a traumatic experience that I did not handle well, particularly because I was in denial until very late into his struggle with cancer. As a result I postponed visits, feeling that there will always be another time, until there suddenly wasn’t.

When a similar thing happened to my mother several years later, I reacted very differently. I was consciously present because I knew the universe was about to reclaim her. So I made an effort to spend time with her and to come back to visit with urgency, precisely because I knew time was running out. As a result, her death was less traumatic to me (not in the sense that I cared less, but in the sense of less emotionally distressing), and I got to tell her things that I didn’t get to tell to my father.

IV) In general, I agree with your conclusion that Stoicism does not imply that we should avoid emotion entirely, like Spock. But I don’t see how Stoic principles logically cohere with our strongly intuitively motivated beliefs about the value, the goodness, of certain intense attachments (e.g., mother and baby,) that are bound to create passions that the Stoic seems to think the good life seeks to always, always avoid.

Well, strong intuitions can be wrong. That’s the whole point of using reason to guide our action, right? I don’t think there is a necessary contradiction between a natural attachment to a child or a partner and the ability to react with equanimity to our losses. Stoicism is certainly not the only philosophy to teach that, the other big one being Buddhism, though I understand that Taoism has similar tenets. Even the Abrahamic traditions have something like that. People in many manifestations of those traditions focus on celebrating the life of the departed, and say things along the lines of “it was the will of God,” to console each other. None of this is meant to turn people into robots. It is instead meant to provide us with better tools to handle the human condition.


4 thoughts on “Stoic Q&A: on the limitations of the Stoic approach to human relationships

  1. Shane Sullivan

    Taoism does have a similar attitude regarding death and grief. Here’s one of the better-known passages from the Zhuangzi:

    Chuang Tzu’s wife died. When Hui Tzu went to convey his condolences, he found Chuang Tzu sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing. “You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old,” said Hui Tzu. “It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing – this is going too far, isn’t it?”

    Chuang Tzu said, “You’re wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.

    “Now she’s going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate. So I stopped.”

    Although framed somewhat fancifully, the passage evokes a number of themes familiar to Stoicism: A certain amount of grief is unavoidable, being dead is comparable to not yet being born, the dead wouldn’t want us to weep for them, Marcus’ meditations on change and transformation, Epictetus’ fig-out-of-season, etc.

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  2. David Craig

    I wonder if some of the difficulties in the above questions stem from the conventional meaning of ‘stoic’ in English. And the fact that our current popular culture regards ‘passion’ as a good thing, which is perhaps another definition problem. Didn’t the ancients mean ‘passion’ as emotion that is out of proportion?


  3. Massimo Post author


    Yes, there are always issues with s-toic vs S-toic, as you point out. And yes, the ancients — and certainly the Stoics — used the word “passion” to refer to unhealthy emotions, not to all emotions.


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