Valentine’s Day is coming up in just a few days, a holiday devoted in principle to all things romantic. For many the time leading up to the day – or more often, the evening – can involve a heady and confused mixture of emotions, expectations, imaginations, plans, capped off by elation or disappointment. It’s not unknown for couples to break up over how one or both of them (mis)handle Valentine’s Day. Some people take being alone – not in a romantic relationship – as a sign that there is something wrong, damaged, or missing in themselves (or in some cases, in others).
What should contemporary Stoics make of Valentine’s Day? That’s an interesting question by itself, but it depends upon and raises a number of other broader questions. What is the Stoic approach to relationships, romantic and otherwise? What does an ideal romantic relationship comprise or involve? How should a Stoic view sexual pleasure and desire, as well as other pleasures and desires infused by eros? Is there a Stoic approach, or guidelines, for matters ranging from old-fashioned courtship to late modern hookup apps, from flirtation to dating to committed relationships, and more?
Valentine’s Day offers us an excellent occasion to examine issues that really concern the entire year.
When we consider these issues, and bring in ancient Stoic texts and thinkers to help us think them through, cultural differences from classical antiquity to the late modern present become prominent. We can survey what ancient Stoics had to say about erotic love and desire, relationships, the body, and sexuality (which I plan to do here, at least in part). But a good bit of that is arguably dependent upon taking cultural assumptions made by those ancient writers as constants of nature (at least ideal human nature). And given the concerns of the present, there are understandably many gaps in the matters on which Stoic authors provide helpful advice or useful guidelines. Seneca doesn’t know smartphones or dating apps, for example. Epictetus didn’t discuss blind dates or workplace romances.
That is not to say, of course, that these classic Stoic thinkers don’t have anything useful to contribute. Were they brought into our present day – after they recovered from massive culture shock! – these authors would likely have a lot to tell us, derived from the same basic principles and practices their works teach us, but adapted to new situations, conditions, and challenges.
Classic Stoic Discussions of Erotic Love
“Love” is one of those words that in English covers a vast range of meanings. It has become a commonplace – spurred not least by C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves, but also by entire bookshelves of other popular literature pushing that point – to claim that the ancient Greeks rigorously distinguished between different sorts of love, denoting them by different names, and conceiving of them as having different bases. There is some truth to that – friendship (philia) is something distinguishable from erotic desire (eros) – but anyone who reads around in the many discussions of love in Ancient Greek literature quickly realizes that matters are much more muddled than that, conceptually and linguistically speaking. Those supposedly entirely different types of love blur and bleed into each other, and even the same term may be used in multiple ways by the same author.
One interesting example, particularly germane to Stoicism, comes from Arius Didymus’ Epitome of Stoic Ethics, where he tells us that the wise person – because that person lacks none of the virtues – not only behaves “sensibly” (nounekhtikos) and “dialectically” (dialectikos), but also “convivially” (sumpotikos) and . . . “erotically” (erotikos, 5b9).
For the erotic person is also spoken of in two senses. In one sense [the person is called “erotic”] with regard to virtue as being a type of worthwhile person, in the other with regard to vice as a reproach, as in the case of the person mad from erotic love. [Worthwhile] erotic love is [for friendship].
[T]hey also say that the person who has good sense will fall in love. To love by itself is merely indifferent, since it sometimes occurs in the case of the bad person as well. But erotic love is not [simply] appetite, nor is it directed at some bad or base thing; rather, it is an inclination to forming an attachment arising from the impression or appearance of beauty. (5b9, 10c, 11s)
This likely sounds odd to modern ears in some respects, but familiar in others. According to Arius, the Stoics distinguished between good and bad forms of love, setting them within an already long tradition (you will find, for example, discussing of this distinction from several different perspectives in Plato’s Symposium). We too often distinguish between different modes of this affect, that we may call by all sorts of names – love, attraction, desire, lust, passion, just to name a few – and many do make that distinction along moral lines of good and bad.
Notice another similarity – the good type of erotic love leads toward another closely related type of affection, i.e. friendship. The Stoic wise person – at least according to Arius – does not need to like or desire a person solely for his or her personality. Physical attractiveness can provide a starting point, a spark that ignites the flame of love. But the character, the personality, the moral condition of the one loved or desired – that provides the fuel to sustain a both rational and affective relationship.
Erotic love as an “inclination to forming an attachment arising from the impression of beauty” – that’s not a definition many of us would naturally come up with. It does appear to be one that Stoics consistently used. You will find a very similar formula in Diogenes’ Laertes summary of Stoic doctrine (7.13), varying just a little in the wording (though English translations diverge from each other considerably). Cicero also confirms this formula in the Tusculan Disputations – in fact, the Latin translation makes any ambiguity of meaning in the Greek perfectly clear. It is an endeavor to form a friendship (conatum amicitiae faciendae), and it arises from the appearance of beauty (ex pulchritudinis specie, 4.34)
When we compare them, an interesting tension arises from these three discussions, which may reflect disagreements or at least worries in the Stoic school about this emotion or affect of erotic love.
Diogenes Laertes sets out what we might call a pessimistic position. He tells us that the Stoics thought that erotic love was just one of the modes of desire (epithumia) – Stoic classifications of affect make desire, fear, pleasure, and pain the four main passions or emotions – and that good people will not feel this emotion. It is only the rest of us who are affected by it. Given this, the Stoic prokopton then will simply have as little to do with erotic love as feasible.
Cicero expresses a more nuanced position. He affirms that the Stoics do think the wise person will be lovers (and presumably feel erotic love), and suggests that this love will be “free from disquietude, from longing, from anxiety, from sighing” – disentangled from all sorts of negative emotions and their characteristic signs – and thereby entirely distinct from the affect of lustfulness (libido). He considers this type of pure love rare, and says that most examples of “love” are really simply the passion of lust. )Even many instances of “love of friendship” (amor amicitiae) are really infused with lust(33. He cautions against the “madness” (furor) of love, and says that there is no disturbance of the mind so violent (45). Erotic love might remain within limits, but those are limits that it gives to itself. (33)
As we have seen, Arius expresses a much more positive evaluation of eros. He distinguishes between two distinct senses of erotic love. The problematic one that is among the desires, he qualifies as “violent cases of erotic love” (erotes sphodroi, 10b). When it comes to the better type of erotic love, it is not merely something a good person or wise person can feel and be motivated by. Love is not simply understandable, or even “normal”, but ultimately an indifferent. As Arius represents the Stoics, they teach that the wise person ought to have “erotic virtue”. In fact, he says:
The wise person is erotically inclined [erotikon einai] and will fall in love with those who are worthy of erotic love [axieraston]. (11s)
Which of these three perspectives on the place erotic love might have in Stoic philosophy and practice should we adopt?
Stoic Views on Love and Relationships
How the Stoic should conduct him or herself within the context of romantic or erotic relationships, once they are established, is another area that is rather underdeveloped in the classic Stoic literature we do possess. We can’t be sure what teachings or discussions might be found within lost texts like Zeno’s Of Life According to Nature or Chrysippus’ Of the Good, and it’s not entirely clear what we ought to make of claims that Zeno advocated a community of wives and children in his Republic.
We do know (from Diogenes Laertes) that Zeno’s students did thematically study the matter. Ariston authored a Dissertations on Love, and Cleanthes works Of Marriage, Of Love, and Of Friendship. The latter’s own student, Sphaerus, reportedly wrote Dialogues on Love. If we possessed these writings, no doubt, we would have a much more complete picture of Stoic teachings about erotic love and relationships.
Still, we do possess some useful discussions. For instance, in lecture 13 Musonius Rufus focuses on the “chief end” (or you might say, “main point”) of marriage. A hasty read of this lecture might construe Rufus as subordinating sexual desire and intercourse entirely to the purposes of procreation. But let’s look closely at what he does say:
[T]he primary end of marriage is community of life with a view to the procreation of children. The husband and wife, he used to say, should come together for the purpose of making a life in common and of procreating children, and furthermore of regarding all things in common between them, and nothing peculiar or private to one or the other, not even their own bodies.
What a committed relationship ought to involve – a relationship that really is “in accordance with nature” – is a developed and ongoing intimacy, a common life lived and experienced together. In fact, as he points out, you don’t even need a marriage to make babies. Just having heterosexual sex will do that
The birth of a human being which results from such a union is to be sure something marvelous, but it is not yet enough for the relation of husband and wife, inasmuch as quite apart from marriage it could result from any other sexual union, just as in the case of animals.
What else is needed? He tells us a good marriage involves companionship, mutual love, and a constancy of action and affection
Where, then, this love for each other is perfect and the two share it completely, each striving to outdo the other in devotion, the marriage is ideal and worthy of envy, for such a union is beautiful.
But where each looks only to his own interests and neglects the other, or, what is worse, when one is so minded and lives in the same house but fixes his attention elsewhere and is not willing to pull together with his yoke-mate nor to agree, then the union is doomed to disaster and though they live together, yet their common interests fare badly; eventually they separate entirely or they remain together and suffer what is worse than loneliness.
In Rufus’ view – and I think this can be regarded as a more general Stoic view – this requires character and commitment on the part of both members of the relationship. One’s family or birth, one’s wealth or possessions, even whether one is physically attractive or not – these do not matter so much. In fact, just being healthy or being of “normal appearance” is good enough. What then is important?
With respect to character or soul one should expect that it be habituated to self-control and justice, and in a word, naturally disposed to virtue. These qualities should be present in both man and wife. For without sympathy of mind and character between husband and wife, what marriage can be good, what partnership advantageous? How could two human beings who are base have sympathy of spirit one with the other? Or how could one that is good be in harmony with one that is bad?
When it comes to love, erotic relationships, and friendship, there is considerably more that could be drawn out and discussed in a systematic way from other Stoic thinkers and texts. Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus each have some points to contribute. Even Persius the poet – among other sources – might have something interesting to incorporate. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to leave that project for another time. What is most relevant here is that Stoics maintain scope for erotic desire and enjoyment within relationships.
A relationship will not be durable, deep, or even (in other respects) enjoyable, if all one or both of the partners have to contribute lies entirely on the level of sexuality desire, attraction, activity, or pleasure. But within the framework of an erotic or romantic relationship, it is possible – or better put, desirable – to integrate the sexual side of the relationship with companionship, moral character, and friendship. This is where the good kind of erotic love – and perhaps even “erotic virtue” – would have its opportunity to develop most fully.
What does all of this have to say to us in the present? Some of us might take this Stoic ideal of an excellent marriage between a woman and a man and extend it in two directions. On the one hand, it might be extended beyond the limits of heteronormativity to encompass a range of other coupling relationships in which sexual attraction and activity are carried out within a context of intimacy. On the other hand, perhaps it does not require being a legally married couple but just long-term committed partners, to live that sort of common life.
Stoicism For The Single Person
What about those who have not found a suitable person with whom to build and enjoy that sort of relationship? What would the Stoics have to say to the single person? This is an important question, and it raises many others.
For example: Is feeling and acting on erotic love something good or bad for the single person? Is sexual desire something to be indulged? Or is it a distraction? What about being the object of someone else’s desire? Is that something one ought to desire, view as indifferent, or even be averse to? Are we better off being in a relationship that includes or might involve sexual desire and activity? Is it problematic from a Stoic perspective to simply “hook up” or to have “friends with benefits”. Should a Stoic put him or herself “out there,” in the proverbial pool, going on dates?
You’ll notice that in classic Stoic literature, there does tend to be a wariness about sexual desire and pleasure. The body, after all, is supposed to be an indifferent. And pleasure – although it does accompany the proper activities of our nature, both body and mind – is not the good. We can easily be led astray, into vice, unfreedom, being disturbed, finding ourselves “hindered”, when we allow our minds and bodies to be drawn along by natural sexual desire. Add in the effects of human culture, which interfuse sexual desire and pleasure with all sorts of other matters presented as goods or evils to us, and things get even messier.
Several passages in Epictetus’ Enchiridion that bear directly on sexuality. He tells us, for instance:
In the case of everything that happens to you, remember to turn to yourself and see what faculty you have to deal with it. If you see some attractive man or woman, you will find self-control as the faculty to employ. (10)
And he counsels:
When it comes to matters of sexuality [aphrodisia], keep yourself pure as much as you can before marriage. If you do indulge, then do so only in those pleasures that are lawful. But don’t be offensive or critical with those who do use [those sexual pleasures]. Nor make frequent mention of the fact that you yourself don’t use them. (33)
The governing idea is that sexuality is something to be properly managed by the Stoic. It is not something necessarily to entirely dissociate oneself from, but one ought to maintain it within a rational perspective in relation to more important priorities. There are many other passages just from that short work that can be readily applied to contemporary dating, desires, relationships, and to the emotions and thoughts that frequently arise from erotic love (and again, a fuller treatment would similarly incorporate and interpret passages from Epictetus’ longer Discourses, as well as works of Seneca, Musonius, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, and others).
Consider for example how easily some people get hurt feelings when matters don’t go the way they would like, or expect, or hope. A common example of this is when one person is attracted to another, and proposes a relationship, or perhaps just a date, or (setting the bar lower) “hanging out” – and the other person is just not interested. Another common example happens with “nice guys” (or girls) who invest a lot of time and effort into what they hope will become eventually a romantic relationship, but end up getting “friend-zoned”. What advice might Epictetus give?
Remember that you ought to behave in life as you would at a banquet. As something is being passed around it comes to you; stretch out your hand and take a portion of it politely. . . Or it has not come to you yet; do not project your desire to meet it, but wait until it comes in front of you. (15)
Relationships are similarly offered to us, and although our own choices and efforts can play a catalyzing role, they occur with the rhythm and on the timetable of their own development. Patience coupled with receptive readiness – rather than actively trying to take or push for the desires one allows to run far out ahead of one – may be precisely what one needs.
Has someone been honored above you? . . . Now if these matters are good, you ought to be happy that the person got them; but if bad, be not distressed because you did not get them; and bear in mind that, if you do not act the same way as others do, with a view to getting things which are not under our control, you cannot be considered worthy to receive an equal share with others. (25)
Imagine you are attracted to someone, but they prefer another person, to whom they are attracted. Does it make sense to view the other person as a rival, to think they have in some way harmed you, or to look at the object of your erotic love as depriving you of affection? From a Stoic standpoint, the answer will inevitably be No – though it certainly might require a good bit of work and time to arrive at that point for some people.
This is also a good passage to reflect upon when one feels or exhibits a sense of entitlement to the affection or desire of other people. Has one earned it? Keeping in mind, of course, that human beings are not actually automatons whose buttons we can just push, activating their programming – if it really is the case that this or that person feels erotic desire towards those who have assets, talents, or capacities to offer that one doesn’t, then isn’t it irrational to expect that person to feel and exhibit the same sort of affection towards us? As he says a bit later in that same chapter:
You will be unjust, therefore, and insatiable if, while refusing to pay the price for which such things are bought, you want to obtain them for nothing.
As a last example, let us come back to a common concern that becomes intensified for some on Valentine’s Day but which can plague a person throughout the year – the feeling that not being in a romantic relationship reflects that there is something wrong with oneself. Of course, some people do possess traits or make assumptions that do tend to push away potential romantic partners – for example, heading into dates complaining about how “all men” or “all women are . . . ” – but people do have the potential to change those sorts of “deal-breakers”.
What I’m referring to is the person who feels bad about him or herself because they are not (as far as he or she knows) the object of anyone else’s erotic desire. They may feel unattractive, unloved, isolated and lonely. This can be particularly difficult when one is single after a relationship ends, with a breakup or a divorce. There are two passages that might be particularly helpful to bring up here.
It is not the things themselves that disturb people, but their judgements about these things. . . When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed , or grieved, let us never blame anyone but our ourselves, that means, our own judgements (5)
Notice that Epictetus is not suggesting that a person simply get down on him or herself, but that instead he or she examines their own judgements, which include and result from lines of reasoning. The second passage is about examples of mistaken lines of reasoning.
These statements represent bad reasoning: “I am richer than you are, therefore I am superior to you”, or “I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am superior to you”. But the following conclusions are better: “I am richer than you are, therefore my property is superior to yours; or “I am more eloquent than you, therefore my elocution is superior to yours”. But you are neither property not elocution. (44)
A person might reason badly along similar lines with him or herself. “I don’t have a romantic partner, so I’m inferior to others who do.” Or for those who are in a relationship, “my partner is not as attractive, or as witty, or as (substitute whatever you like here) as someone else’s partner, so I’m inferior to that person.”. Or, “my life is not as good as that person’s,” or “I’m missing out” – one might come up with all sorts of similar lines of reasoning, all of them equally flawed from the Stoic perspective. Liberating
oneself from those erroneous assumptions, inferences, and conclusions doesn’t just make one feel better – or at least less bad. It also gets the person a bit closer to developing the virtue of prudence, a genuine good for one’s life.
To bring this already long post to a close – admittedly, just scratching the surface of a complex and rich topic about which Stoic philosophers have much to contribute – what can we say by way of conclusion?
Classical Stoics did view romantic or erotic love – at least in some cases, and as felt by some people – as something good and worthwhile. One can, however, live a good life by Stoic standards whether one does find an attractive partner and form a lasting relationship, or not. What really is key is the cultivation and living out the virtues, the development of one’s moral character and capacities, and that – in the Stoic view – is what renders a person truly desirable.
Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog. He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources. He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.