Explaining Epictetus on Love and Friendships: A Stoic Paradox
by Greg Sadler
Practically every time I’ve taught Stoic philosophy — whether in an Ancient Philosophy class, or more often in an Ethics or an Introduction to Philosophy class — among other texts, I’ve assigned my students Epictetus’ Enchiridion, literally, his “Handbook” — a selection of passages compiled from the much longer set of his Discourses, those hopefully being more or less representative sample of Epictetus’ oral teachings, recorded by one of his pupils and friends. Invariably, perhaps because it is early on in the text, so it catches the eye of a reader not yet wearied, section three catches their attention, or at least the end line of it.
With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.
To many — including myself — this seems so harsh a sentiment, rigidly consistent, but somehow unduly, unforgivably harsh. This is a point where, I think, many people, repulsed, conclude that Stoicism is definitely not for them. If it means abandoning the affection one feels ought to circulate within the family, between wife and husband, parent and child, then perhaps the perfectly free, untroubled, fully rational life that Stoicism holds out as a model is purchased at too high a cost.
Epictetus’ actual position is caricatured in the last line of that section — or rather in our inferences from it — but one would only know that by reading one’s way into his Discourses, rather than by confronting that passage with another chosen from the Enchiridion. That fact may tell us something important about what was regarded as most important to communicate, to have ready at hand to remind oneself, to meditate upon — what selections made it into the shorter and much more widely read work.
But as it turns out, Epictetus very clearly does think that affection for spouses, children, even for friends or one’s country, is a component of the fully Stoic life — both as part of what the ideal of having one’s moral purpose in accordance with nature demands, and as something that befits our roles, our personae, and the offices and duties aligned with them.
First, though, consider a bit of his wisdom about costs, choices, commitments, and comprehensive ways of understanding and ordering one’s life:
To the rational animal only is the irrational intolerable; but that which is rational is tolerable. . . . In short, if we observe, we shall find that the animal man is pained by nothing so much as by that which is irrational; and, on the contrary, attracted to nothing so much as to that which is rational.
But the rational and the irrational appear such in a different way to different persons, just as the good and the bad, the profitable and the unprofitable. . . . But in order to determine the rational and the irrational, we use not only the of external things, but we consider also what is appropriate to each person. For to one man it is consistent with reason to hold a chamber pot for another, and to look to this only, that if he does not hold it, he will receive stripes, and he will not receive his food: but if he shall hold the pot, he will not suffer anything hard or disagreeable. But to another man not only does the holding of a chamber pot appear intolerable for himself, but intolerable also for him to allow another to do this office for him.
If, then, you ask me whether you should hold the chamber pot or not, I shall say to you that the receiving of food is worth more than the not receiving of it, and the being scourged is a greater indignity than not being scourged; so that if you measure your interests by these things, go and hold the chamber pot. “But this,” you say, “would not be worthy of me.” Well, then, it is you who must introduce this consideration into the inquiry, not I; for it is you who know yourself, how much you are worth to yourself, and at what price you sell yourself; for men sell themselves at various prices.
So, one might reason, the price of contentment, the cost of employing my rational faculty or faculties to progressively make my own self, my way of life, my circumstances and relationships more and more fully in line with reason — for none of us start out entirely rational — is that I disentangle myself from whatever natural affections I’ve come to feel.
There certainly is a common image out there of Stoicism that interprets that philosophy, that deliberate mode of existence, along such lines. A Stoic of that sort effectively withdraws his or her desires and aversions, fears and hopes, loves and hatreds, into him or herself, withdrawing from social or even familial bonds.
But, could that really be the good life, the more rational life, the life in which human beings are most fulfilled? Epictetus himself doesn’t think so. As a matter of fact, he addresses the issue of familial affection (philostorgia) at length in one of what might be called his “chew-someone-out discourses. One of the people who came to consult him confesses:
I am so wretched about my children that lately, when my little daughter was sick and was supposed to be in danger, I could not endure to stay with her, but I left home till a person sent me news that she had recovered.
Epictetus asks him in response:
Well then do you think that you acted right?
And when the father attempts to excuse himself by saying that he acted naturally, he follows up:
But convince me of this that you acted naturally, and I will convince you that everything which takes place according to nature takes place rightly.
The father tries the tack of saying that most fathers behave similarly, to which Epictetus responds:
I do not deny that: but the matter about which we are inquiring is whether such behavior is right; for in respect to this matter we must say that tumours also come for the good of the body, because they do come; and generally we must say that to do wrong is natural, because nearly all or at least most of us do wrong.
Several different senses of the term “natural” are in play here. The father means by “natural” what most people — good or bad — tend to do. One can also in this case speak of “natural” affection, concern, or fears towards or for one’s own child. Then, there is the sense of “natural” as what ought to be the case, what would be most human, most rational, what would lead to or represent full development of a person.
Epictetus leads the man through dialogical question and answer to a point of realization:
Does affection to those of your family appear to you to be according to nature and to be good?
Well, is such affection natural and good, and is a thing consistent with reason not good?
Is then that which is consistent with reason in contradiction with affection?
You are right, for if it is otherwise, it is necessary that one of the contradictions being according to nature, the other must be contrary to nature. Is it not so?
Whatever, then, we shall discover to be at the same time affectionate and also consistent with reason, this we confidently declare to be right and good.
Well then to leave your sick child and to go away is not reasonable, and I suppose that you will not say that it is. . .
This conclusion itself is an important achievement. To fail to behave in an affectionate manner, along the lines that, even if one does not feel the appropriate emotion, one ought to act, one would be expected to act . . . to fail in that respect is actually to depart from the Stoic path. In fact, one ought to feel affection — even though that does lay one in for possible loss, fear, trouble, when one’s child falls ill, or even dies.
Epictetus then continues the line of questioning. He wants to know whether the father’s action is consistent with feeling affection towards his daughter, an emotional attachment which renders him vulnerable precisely because of the equal vulnerability of the one for whom he cares.
Did you, then, since you had an affectionate disposition to your child, do right when you ran off and left her; and has the mother no affection for the child?
Ought, then, the mother also to have left her, or ought she not?
And the nurse, does she love her? Ought, then, she also to have left her?
And the pedagogue, does he not love her? Ought, then, he also to have deserted her? and so should the child have been left alone and without help on account of the great affection of you, the parents, and of those about her, or should she have died in the hands of those who neither loved her nor cared for her?
Now this is unfair and unreasonable, not to allow those who have equal affection with yourself to do what you think to be proper for yourself to do because you have affection. It is absurd. Come then, if you were sick, would you wish your relations to be so affectionate, and all the rest, children and wife, as to leave you alone and deserted?
And would you wish to be so loved by your own that through their excessive affection you would always be left alone in sickness? or for this reason would you rather pray, if it were possible, to be loved by your enemies and deserted by them? But if this is so, it results that your behavior was not at all an affectionate act.
This highlights a critical point, passed over quickly above. If it is not correct — at least in the case of Epictetus — to say that the Stoics regarded every emotion, every feeling, every affection as bad, it would be equally incorrect, or perhaps even more incorrect to swing to the opposite extreme and claim that every emotion or affection is therefore good.
A measure, a criteria, a sort of weighing and assessing is needed — one teased out by considering what being in accordance with nature really looks like — and Epictetus brings this concerned but off-base father to realize the irrationality of his own emotions, or, more properly, his response, what he does with and from his emotions.
This is far from an isolated or singular discussion, and Epictetus raises and explores similar issues, having to do with affection, familial or otherwise — in ways that display a much more favorable attitude towards such bonds than the first passage might seem to suggest — in many other portions of the Discourses.
Consider then that line again:
If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.
Epictetus is not telling us: hold yourself back from your spouse, your child — or by extension, your parent, your friend, your family-member, your comrade, your lover, your companion, even your pet.
He is not counseling a cold prudence that calculates affection in the coin of probable loss, and therefore is never really there, present to the other, bonding with her or him.
He is emphasizing that we ought not imagine things — and likewise people — to be otherwise than they are, even if that fantasizing helps stave off the awareness that everything could be taken away at any time, the anxiety that this realization can produce or reveal. We should look reality in the face, but also look our loved ones in the face in doing so, lovingly if we can, or affectionately at the least — to look at them as human, in the way a human ought to.
This post was originally published in Orexis Dianoētikē, Dr. Sadler’s main blog.
Gregory Sadler is a philosophy professor, speaker, ethics educator, and philosophical counselor. He also directs the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences for the Global Center for Advanced Studies, and is the president and cofounder of ReasonIO, a company devoted to putting philosophy into practice. He produces popular YouTube videos on philosophy, and his main academic channel recently passed 24,000 subscribers and 2.3 million views.