What Would a Stoic Do? Dating

“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.)

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16 thoughts on “What Would a Stoic Do? Dating

  1. d y

    Excellent advice. Applying the guidelines above to your date as well can help us decide which people might not be a good fit fo rus.

    Someone said that you have to be the kind of person you’d like to meet. If you want someone kind, generous, and thoughtful (amongst other things), you must be these things yourself. If your date isn’t any of those things, not only will will they not fit into your life, more than likely, you won’t fit into theirs since they don’t value these virtues as much as you do. The point being, even if your date doesn’t know Stoicism from Adam (or Steve), we can, and should, expect certain character traits that we value as Stoics (in training).

    In a few years, I’ll be 60 and although my last spouse passed away nearly 5 years ago, I’m in no hurry to find someone new. I’ve learned what I want and I’m willing to wait. Perhaps I’ll never find anyone again. That doesn’t frighten me nearly as much as when I was young. It’s become more important to me that the person I’m with shares certain values because if they don’t, it can be worse than being alone.

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  2. Massimo Post author

    Paul,

    this post is about dating, which means the phase before one actually becomes a partner. What you are referring to was covered in my recent post on relationships, which is linked near the beginning of this essay.

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  3. sweethotdm

    These seem like solid guidelines for any social interaction that involves ego, emotions and impulses, so pretty much all of them, though dating is definitely an intense cocktail. The way dating apps present people as catalog items makes it even harder to get one’s ethical bearings. It’s helpful to be reminded that the ethics apply regardless of the norms. And that we really only want the results that come from sticking to our ideals anyway. So thanks for this post!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. jmyers8888

    Can a partner become more than a preferred indifferent? Can’t a partner influence or even shape you for better or worse? I am thinking about this as my wife and I approach our 45th wedding anniversary, and I can truly say that I wouldn’t be the person I am had I not spent so much time living my life with her. I suspect I would not have been a proficiens, to the extent that I am, without her. If your partner is your best friend and choosing friends wisely is important to your own character, then a partner, especially a lifelong one, can shape the course of your life. Of course, this goes beyond the subject of dating, of which I have little experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Victoria

    Great writing Massimo!! But your linked video didn’t have Socrates’ view on love…and I couldn’t find one on YouTube either! ☹️ i didn’t understand Socrates from just reading the Symposium. Do you think you’d be able to explain it to me? I’m curious as I have this very strong feeling towards Botticelli’s Primavera. I remember seeing it when visiting your home country (but maybe it was in Florence that I saw the painting) and stared at it for ages. Later I was told it was about plantoic love. I have no idea what Platonic love was? So I try to make something out of the Symposium but it seems to be a few guys having a chat about love over dinner. I especially didn’t understand what Socrates was on about? Nevertheless Primavera was so beautiful, I can smell that slightly humid spring air with a hint of flowers’ scent every time I see it. Yet it gave me the chills. and I guess I’m just trying to figure out why I was so attracted to it. 🤔

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  6. Massimo Post author

    jmyers,

    the answer it yes and no. Strictly speaking, for the Stoics the only thing that is more than a preferred indifferent is your own virtue, over which you have control.

    But they are also very very clear that the sort of thing you describe, your wonderful relationship with your wife, are in fact highly important, you could say the most preferred or the preferred “indifferents.”

    I wrote a bit about this when discussing the chapter of Liz Gloyn’s book about marriage: https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2018/05/14/the-ethics-of-the-family-in-seneca-iii-the-mystery-of-marriage/

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  7. Massimo Post author

    Victoria,

    ah, maybe I’ll write a separate essay on Socrates at the Symposium, particuarly because it features one of my favorite characters, the highly flawed Alcibiades — Socrates’ friend, student, and possibly lover.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. René López

    Great post, Massimo! Thank you.

    What if you make clear that you only want to have sex? I know this could be socially awkward and probably ineffective towards that specific goal, but at least I don’t find it unvirtuous. I think it is sincere and honest, and certainly courageous and just.

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  9. Massimo Post author

    Reneˋ,

    if you are open about only wanting sex it certainly makes it honest, but I don’t think that’s enough to make it virtuous, from a Stoic perspective. You are basically using another human being for pleasure, as an instrument to your own satisfaction. I’m having a hard time seeing how that could improve one’s character.

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  10. Victoria

    Hi Rene and Massimo,

    It’s great that the question of what is virtuous and when is brought up. This has bothered me for months. I’ve gone to the extent of spending days trying to understand some of the original Greek words (sophrosyne – temperance ; Phronesis – practical wisdom).

    I mean, it’s all good that Stoicism is about living the so called “virtuous life”, but surly anyone can argue for any act to be virtuous from some perspective, right? One can argue s/he is “courageous” to make clear to someone s/he is interested to be in a sexual relationship not an emotional one; one can take revenge on someone who hurt him/her after waiting and preparing for 10 years and be called “temperant”; heck, even Hitler can call claim that he was doing the German people great justice!

    So when does one draw the line between “using virtues to guide a good life ” and”using virtues to justify any action?”

    I don’t think I’ve got a good answer yet. However, the best I can say at this stage is that Stoic virtues have to be practiced all at the same time, and one really need hold judgements until all aspects are carefully examined.

    A drunk soldier can be courage but s/he is certainly not wise. Similarly, a man asking a woman to enter a purely sexual relationship could be courage for asking, but is it wise? What if the woman actually falls in love with him?

    I think questions around “living virtuous life” are not simple, so I’d really like to hear everyone’s opinions. 😊

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  11. Massimo Post author

    Victoria,

    So when does one draw the line between “using virtues to guide a good life ” and”using virtues to justify any action?”

    One of the points of virtue ethics is precisely that there are no one-size-fits-all answers to moral questions, contra the assumption made in utilitarianism and deontology. Which means it can be fuzzy and frustrating, as you say.

    But no, I don’t think the examples you brought up (Hitler, etc.) are virtuous at all, and it would take a few minutes to dismantle them from a Stoic perspective. Part of the answer given by the Stoics is the study of role models: as Seneca says, we learn how crooked we are by comparing ourselves to a straight ruler (the role model). That’s why I have an ongoing series on role models on this blog: https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/category/stoic-role-models/

    A drunk soldier can be courage but s/he is certainly not wise. Similarly, a man asking a woman to enter a purely sexual relationship could be courage for asking, but is it wise? What if the woman actually falls in love with him?

    Correct, which is why the Stoics, like Socrates, believed in the unity of virtue: you can’t be courageous but unjust. I mean you can, but that’s not “courage” in the Stoic sense. The idea is to practice all four virtuous as if they were different aspects of the same thing, as explained here (see especially the second figure): https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2017/12/11/disciplines-fields-and-virtues-the-full-stoic-system-in-one-neat-package/

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Victoria

    Massimo,

    Nice diagrams! 🙂

    I do remember reading “The Inner Citadel”and struggling to follow the relationship between physics and desire through temperance and courage.

    I’m going to read your article again later as it requires a bit of thinking haha. I struggle very much with virtues as every time a discussion related to virtues comes up I think of a lot of important decisions made by historical figures. I mean Hitler could be claimed to be virtuous by his supporters. Note that this NOT my view – I think Hilter was evil.

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  13. Massimo Post author

    Victoria,

    we are getting pretty far from the topic of dating here, but okay, anyone can claim whatever, that doesn’t mean they do it with good reason.

    Take Hitler and virtue. The most obvious reason he was not virtuous is because he started a war and committed genocide out of a deeply misguided belief in the superiority of the German people. The Stoics were adamantly cosmopolitan, disbelieving in the relevance of state borders, nationshood, and so forth. It is unvirtuous to commit murder, on whatever scale, in order to further a cause that is not a universal human cause.

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  14. Victoria

    I’m in totally agreement with you. And yes we are drifting away from the subject of dating at a rapid pace. Let’s save this for another day! 😊

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