“Dating” is a word I was not familiar with before coming to the United States. Especially with the advent of modern dating apps, it essentially means that you are trying out different people to see who “wins” the alleged honor of being your (next) partner. Except, of course, that you are playing the same game from the point of view of the other person, as the honor in question better be reciprocal. The dynamics of dating in this modern fashion are different from the traditional approaches, like meeting someone at a party, or — Zeus forbid — approaching a random stranger at a bar. And I have done enough app-mediated dating to be induced to reflect on the practice from a Stoic perspective. So, how should a Stoic look for a partner after having signed up on OKCupid, eHarmony, Match.com, or Tinder?
I am going to suggest three lenses, so to speak, through which to examine the question: the concept of preferred indifferents, the dichotomy of control, and the four cardinal virtues. I think they are best considered in that sequence if we want to get clear on how a Stoic should enter the dating game.
I. A partner is a preferred indifferent. Please don’t put things this way to your date, as it really doesn’t sound romantic, and it is labile to be seriously misunderstood if the other person is not a proficiens (as Seneca calls a student of Stoicism). Preferred (and dispreferred) indifferents, of course, include anything that is not concerned with the improvement of our character and our judgments, i.e., anything that does not have directly to do with virtue. But virtue makes no sense unless it is exercised in a particular context or situation: one cannot be courageous without doing anything, or temperate without moderating herself at something specific, and so on. Which means that even though being with a partner is, in itself, a preferred indifferent, it is nonetheless a very intimate interaction with another human being, an interaction that therefore offers countless opportunities to exercise virtue. (On this, see also my post on relationships.)
Moreover, take a look at what Seneca says about how a wise person regards having or losing friends:
“The wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbours, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself.” (Letters IX.3)
This is a crucial insight, which applies a fortiori to one’s romantic partner. We are supposed to be sufficient to ourselves, meaning that we don’t depend on others for our eudaimonia. That’s because a eudaimonic life — for the Stoic — is a life of virtue, and the exercise of virtue depends only on us. But we are human beings, so we very much desire, as Seneca says, friends, neighbors, associates, and especially romantic partners. There is no contradiction, then, in striving to be self-sufficient and yet desiring to share one’s life with someone. Indeed, I would argue that it is a very healthy attitude to bring into a relationship.
II. Whether she likes you or not is outside of your control. Now that we have concluded that of course Stoics would engage in dating, let us turn to one of the fundamental pillars of our philosophy: the dichotomy of control. Just as a quick refresher, here is Epictetus’ version of the doctrine:
“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Enchiridion 1.1)
Clearly, whether someone who agrees to go out with you for a drink or a coffee ends up liking you enough to go out a second time, and then a third, and so forth, and perhaps, eventually become a long term partner, is most definitely not up to you. It is up to her. What is up to you, however, is to do your best given the circumstances, which may include dressing appropriately in order to make a decent first impression, engaging the other person in interesting conversation, being attentive to her desires, and so forth.
None of this, however, guarantees you anything. At all. That is why Bill Irvine, in his A Guide to the Good Life suggests that one way to put into practice the dichotomy of control is to internalize our goals, shifting away from the outcome (which is not up to us) and focusing instead on the effort (which is up to us.) This is also Cicero’s advice, in the third book of De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum:
“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)
So, a repeat date is to be chosen, not to be desired, meaning that it is your target, metaphorically speaking, but you should not attach your worth as a person to actually hitting that target. If things don’t go well, there will be other people, and other dates.
One more thing: I mentioned above that a key ingredient is to engage the other person in an interesting conversation. Epictetus has a lot to say about this:
“When you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink — commonplace stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them. … In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them.” (Enchiridion 33.2 & 33.14)
I honestly don’t know what else to add here. Epictetus got it exactly right, two millennia before OKCupid and Match.com.
III. Engage in virtuous dating. As proficientes (the plural of proficiens above), of course, we are supposed to engage in anything, not just dating, in as virtuous a manner as we can muster. But we are talking about this strange 21st century meeting-for-mating ritual, so let’s be specific.
IIIa. Exercise prudence. I’m talking about prudentia here (or phronesis, for the Greeks), often translated as practical wisdom, not the contemporary English language sense of the word (though, of course, you may want to be “prudent” also in the latter sense, since after all you are going out to meet a stranger). Prudence is the knowledge of what is truly good or evil for you, and that knowledge is deeply rooted in the dichotomy of control: the only truly good things for you are your own good judgments, opinions, values, and goals. Similarly, the only truly bad things for you are bad judgments, opinions, values, and goals. The rest is, you guessed it, a preferred or dispreferred indifferent.
This means that while on a date you should be concerned not with whether you achieve your external goal (say, for the other person to agree to a second date, or whatever, depending on which stage of dating you are at). Rather, your goal should always — and only — be to express good judgments, opinions, and values while on the date. That’s it! Easy no? (No, not really, as the notion is simple to grasp, but exceedingly difficult to consistently put into practice.)
IIIb. Practice courageous and just dating. Courage, for the Stoics, isn’t just of a physical nature, but first and foremost moral. It often includes saying or doing things that make you uncomfortable, if it is the right thing to do. This means that you have to have a sense of what the right thing to do is in the first place, which is why I coupled the cardinal virtues of courage and justice in this section. According to the Stoics, you can’t really be courageous in an unjust fashion. (Technically, you can’t practice any of the four virtues in isolation, since the Stoics accepted the doctrine of the unity of virtue, but let’s set that aside for now.)
For instance, if you know you don’t actually like someone you are on a date with, as a person, and yet you find him attractive, resist the temptation to play around with him in order to get into bed once or twice. That would be using another human being as an object (that’s why the practice is called “objectification”), which is not nice, and you probably wouldn’t want it done to you. (You may think that you do, but trust me, you really don’t. It is never a good feeling to simply being used, under false pretense, by someone else.)
This means you may have to have the courage to do the right thing, thank your date for having come out with you, but abstaining from promising any follow-up if you don’t actually mean it, and even less so if said follow-up would be just to satisfy your sexual desires, and not because you are interested in the person in question.
IIIc. Temperance: go nice and easy. There is an old Frank Sinatra song that goes like this:
Let’s take it nice and easy
It’s gonna be so easy for us to fall in love
Hey, baby, what’s your hurry?
Relax ‘n’ don’t you worry, we’re gonna fall in love
We’re on the road to romance
That’s safe to say
But let’s make all the stops
Along the way
The problem now, of course
Is to simply hold your horses
To rush would be a crime
‘Cause nice and easy does it every time
Yeah, I know, Frank was most definitely not known for going nice and easy on anything. But the sentiment is right, and besides he didn’t write the lyrics (Alan Bergman, Marilyn Keith, and Lew Spence did).
The idea is to apply the fourth cardinal virtue: temperance, that is, doing things always in the right measure, neither too little, nor too much. My experience is that there is next to zero danger of doing too little in dating situations, but there is a constant temptation to do too much. Too much talking (especially about oneself, see above), too much drinking, or too much physical contact (especially if the other person has not given a clear go ahead signal or consent, and only up to the point where she hits the brake).
So, take it nice ‘n’ easy, enjoy some virtuous Stoic dating, and good luck finding your soulmate!
(Bonus material: did you know where the notion of a soulmate comes to begin with? It’s articulated by Aristophanes in the Platonic dialogue Symposium, where one even gets sex lessons from Socrates! Here is a lovely animated video about it.)