Stoic Q&A: is love part of what is true, good, and desirable?

Jason and Medea - John William Waterhouse

Jason and Medea, by John William Waterhouse

L. writes: I recently stumbled upon your article/essay “Stoicism on Romantic Love and Commitment” and while it was a marvelous read (you even got me to agree with Camus, which was a first) it hasn’t answered the questions that made me look up how Stoicism handles love.

The initial spark stems from this Wikipedia article on Marcia, Cato the Younger’s second wife, particularly the final passage which states: “In her Masters of Rome series of novels, Colleen McCullough suggests that Cato gave Marcia to Hortensius simply because he could not reconcile his passion for her with his Stoic ideals, that he never let her go emotionally, and that he took her back at the first opportunity.”

Love, to me, is a possessive act of visualization and to some extent even reverence. The cruelest acts can be justified for love, and it makes me wonder how a Stoic would harmonize his many-headed temperate virtues, being Charybdis, with the Scylla that makes love. Is love part of what is good and true and desirable, despite it being the root of much unhappiness?

Cato the Younger is a Stoic role model, as repeatedly emphasized by Seneca, but he was not a Sage, just someone with an exceptional integrity of character and a commitment to his philosophy of life. Another famous instance in which Cato behaves not exactly as a Stoic is expected to was his breakdown when his half brother Caepio, to whom he was very close, died.

Are Stoics, then, supposed not to feel normal human emotions, like love and grief? No, as Seneca himself explicitly writes:

“For one must indulge genuine emotions; sometimes, even in spite of weighty reasons, the breath of life must be called back and kept at our very lips even at the price of great suffering, for the sake of those whom we hold dear.” (Letters to Lucilius, CIV. On Care of Health and Peace of Mind, 3)

Or consider Epictetus:

“I must not be without feeling like a statue, but must maintain my natural and acquired relations, as a religious man, as son, brother, father, citizen.” (Discourses III, 2)

That said, the love of another person is, strictly speaking, a preferred indifferent in Stoicism, meaning not that it doesn’t matter, but that it does not make you, per se, a more (or less) virtuous person. Why? Because one can love virtuously or unvirtuously, which implies, logically, that love cannot be the highest good (only wisdom is). Indeed,from this perspective, love is yet another arena in which the Stoic can exercise her character, for instance by being lovable to her companion, trustworthy, and so forth. All of which requires at the very least the virtues of courage (to do the right thing), justice (to know what the right thing is), and temperance (to do things in right measure). And, very likely, the fourth virtue as well, prudence (practical wisdom), which tells us how to navigate complex situations, such as those often arising in relationships, in the most ethical way possible.

The problem with certain (romantic) conceptions of love is that it is made into an absolute. “Love conquers all” is one of the silliest phrases in popular culture. Not only because it is obviously empirically false, but because it leads us to subvert our priorities: people do all sorts of bad things for love, or what they think is love.

The classic example in Stoic lore is, of course, Medea, the tragic character of one of Euripides’ tragedies, later rewritten by Seneca. Here is what Epictetus says about her:

“I want something and it doesn’t come about: who could be more wretched than I? I don’t want something and it comes about: who could be more wretched than I? It was because she was unable to endure this that Medea murdered her children.” (Discourses II.17.18-19)

What is it that Medea wanted to come about? That Jason (the Argonaut) married her, a “barbarian,” which he didn’t. What did she not want to come about? That Jason married a “proper” Greek princess instead, which he did. Of course most of us are not going to react as madly as Medea, but, as you say, how much suffering does love actually bring? Yes, it can also bring much joy. Which is precisely why it is classed by the Stoics among the “indifferents,” those things that can be used either for good or for bad, depending on one’s character.

So in answer to your question: is love true, good, and desirable? Love may or may not be true, depending on circumstances; it is good only insofar as it is preferred to its absence, but not as the overarching goal of your life; and it is desirable to the extent that it does not make you an unvirtuous person. Some may find this picture unappealing and cold, but I think it is actually liberating. Love is an important component of a flourishing life, but it doesn’t determine whether we are good people or not, and it should not control us to the extent of turning us away from the path of virtue.


Categories: Stoic Q&A

6 replies

  1. Very good post and I agree completely. I feared that I would see some Westernized romantic version of stoicism but I think this accurately reflects the Stoic philosophy. Love is a preferred indifferent. Really this flies in the face of Western culture in the 20th and 21st centuries where romantic love of the Walt Disney sort and the seeking thereof seems to be the end-all and be-all of many peoples lives.

    And of course stoics do not eschew real attachments; in fact our stoic approach allows us to appreciate them and be present in them in a way that we otherwise could not.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. To broaden a little the discussion on love, I was thinking that love is extremely important for a person to build a moral character, especially in developmental stages like childhood. But I guess it is possible for someone to come out as a psychopath even from a loving family, and to emerge as a virtuous person even from the worst circumstances we could imagine. Although I’m finding it hard to conceive of a life with absolutely no love at all, and still manage to be willing to practice, for example, justice towards others. Maybe the Sage can do this.


  3. Rene`,

    I think normal development is necessary even for Stoics, so love in the sense of attachment to other humans is needed in order to avoid psychopathic behavior. And there is pretty good empirical evidence that this is the case.

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  4. @massimo this is confusing to me and I may just be misunderstanding what you wrote, but I always thought that true love, especially romantic love, has nothing to do with attachment or possession – any thoughts on this? I may also just be confusing Stoicism with Buddhism here, but it is my understanding that if you truly love someone there is no sense of attachment or entitlement or expectation; keeping the onus on the lover, their happiness in tact as they love because it is in their true nature to do so.


  5. According to Plato’s symposium, Socrates considered, or he said he was taught by a wise woman, that “Love itself is not wise or beautiful, but is the desire for those things.” My interpretation is that Socrates meant love was not an object to be desired or avoided, but the action is desiring for things such as wisdom or beauty.

    I don’t think I fully understand what Socrates said. However, I can certainly relate to the feeling of desiring /loving someone who is wise, courageous, just and temperat. I think it’s these virtues I love (I can only speak for myself here), rather than the person’s physical appearances as such (once again, only speaking for myself).

    As to beauty, again a person with virtues is beautiful. My mother used to tell me that everyone looks more or less physically the same after the age of 30 (she was from a different generation that people aged earlier). The Romans would only consider 30 years and over to be a grown,matured man who’s capable of rational thoughts ; the Chinese has a term that says “30 years old there stands a real man”. I think perhaps we see much physical beauty when we are young because our rational faculties aren’t mature yet.

    Such a great topic to have a discussion on! Thank you Massimo for another interesting read!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Therese,

    I’m not really what true love is supposed to be. I wrote about the concept here:

    But yes, if love comes with no sense of attachment, as I understand the Buddhist position is, then that’s similar to the Stoic take. But the common understanding of romantic love very much is linked to attachment, as in “my love,” “my wife,” “my husband,” and so forth. It also easily degenerates into jealousy, for instance, none of which makes sense from either a Buddhist or a Stoic perspective.


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