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Starting last month, we are publishing a monthly set of answers from a panel of Stoicism experts on a given question. This month the question is: What can Stoicism teach us about love? Answers were provided by Christopher Gill, Chuck Chakrapani, Piotr Stankiewicz, Massimo Pigliucci, and myself.
Here’s Christopher Gill’s response to that first question:
“I focus on a specific kind of love regarded as especially important by the Stoics; this is parental love or more broadly love for one’s family (in Greek, philostorgia). The Stoics see this as being a basic instinct in-built in all human beings (and indeed all animals), just like the instinct to preserve yourself and maintain life. (These are prime examples of the core human, and animal, motives to take care of oneself and others of one’s kind.)
In human beings, if we develop fully, this basic instinct is extended and diversified into more complex forms of social involvement and concern, including recognizing all human beings as part of a broader family, fellowship or state, in that we all share the central human capacities for rationality and sociability. But this does not mean that Stoics stop loving their children, their partners or their close friends; they see these relationships as an integral part of a wider set of connections they have reaching across humanity and indeed nature as a whole, of which human beings form a part.
Two discourses of Epictetus are especially worth reading for this topic. 1.11 is a dialogue with a father who is so anxious about his daughter’s illness that he cannot bear to stay at home and feels he must stay away – and claims this is a ‘natural’ reaction to her illness. Epictetus argues, by contrast, that the ‘natural’ thing for a loving father to do in this situation is to stay at home and help to look after the child. The discourse explores the difference between love as a kind of irrational ‘passion’ and as an emotion or motive shaped by reason and virtue.
3.24 is a longer and more complex discourse, which includes advice about the best way to express love of one’s family (philostorgia). One – rather tough – piece of advice is that we should express our love in a way that recognizes that, in the nature of things, our relationships to our loved ones can be broken by death, one’s own or the other person’s (3.24.84-8, and in abbreviated form, Handbook 3). These passages are sometimes taken out of context as suggesting that Stoics should remain detached from loving relationships. However, taken in context, the meaning is quite different.
Stoics should live in a way that is shaped by loving concern for other people; but they need to do so in a mature, humane way that acknowledges central facts of existence such as temporary absence from those we love and indeed death.”
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