Some thoughts on love (revised)

[This post is a revision—an expansion and clarification—of a post originally published on Feb. 15, 2020.]

The ancients had plenty to say on love in all its forms. A couple of Plato’s most beautiful works are on the topic— the “Phaedrus” and the “Symposium.” Aristotle after him expanded on the notion of ‘love among friends’ in Books 8-9 of his Nicomachean Ethics. The Stoics took the insights from these works and combined them with their own psychological theory. Zeno and his students Persaeus and Chrysippus each wrote a whole treatises on love (DL 7.34, 36, 130), but sadly none of them survived. What we do have can be found primarily in Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers (DL), Stobaeus’s Anthology (Stob.), and Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (Tusc.). Also, modern Stoics like Massimo Pigliucci discuss some of this (see his How to Be A Stoic Ch. 13).

Here are some of the main points that I’ve summarized (keep in mind that summary often requires interpretation; I welcome comments and questions):

  1. THE GOAL: The best loving relationship is one in which each partner makes the other better. The overarching goal could be articulated as a kind of moral perfection— a perfection of each other’s moral character. Of course, that means that the two lovers are not perfect to begin with. If that was the case, there would be no work to be done and they would already be enjoying sagacious happiness.
  2. SEXUAL RELATIONSHIPS: What comes through most clear in the extant texts is that love should not be grounded in a desire for physical beauty and sexual pleasure. This is because the Stoics insist that true happiness come from the pursuit what is ‘good’ (agathón) But, the Stoics categorize physical beauty and pleasure not as ‘good’, but as ‘indifferent’ (adiáphoron)—that is, these things don’t make a difference to true happiness unless they come as a byproduct of pursuing ‘good’ things like wisdom and virtue (DL 7.113). It’s a matter of priority … and virtue is the priority. For example, if sex is undertaken with kindness, compassionate, and moderation, then it has value and should be pursued as a way to exercise wisdom/virtue; on the other hand, if sex interferes with our ability to be kind, compassionate, and moderate (or promotes meanness or intemperance), then it should be avoided and rejected.
  3. ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS: Romantic love in general is also an ‘indifferent’ that should be interpreted as secondary to wisdom/virtue. If it helps you promote good things like virtue, it has value; if it compromises your virtue, it should be avoided. Another important point in Stoic philosophy is that humans are naturally social and we all need to engage with other people to express and strengthen our virtues. An intimate and loving relationship is a perfect training ground to strengthen our wisdom, moderation, courage, and justice. But again, if a relationship is truly debilitating, an argument can be made to end it. Just remember that ending a relationship may be imprudent if it compromises what virtues we have. Again, it’s all a matter of priority… and virtue is the priority.
  4. BEAUTY“: Each person’s love should be directed at the ‘beauty’ of each other’s rational faculty and moral goodness (“inner beauty”). Love should not be transactional, utilitarian, or driven by pleasure. If there is something attractive about someone, the ancient philosophers thought that attention should be directed first at the moral and rational qualities expressed in the other and only second at physical qualities (see Point #2). Each person is then meant to be a mirror for the other— meant to reflect and bring out these beautiful qualities in the other.
  5. SOCRATES: It might be helpful to remember that Socrates himself was married to a seemingly imperfect woman, Xanthippes. We don’t know much about her, but she didn’t seem to have held him back from being a good and happy man. Socrates even implies that she made him better by helping him practice patience and understanding (Xenophon’s Symposium 2.10)
  6. FRIENDSHIP: Probably the best way to understand Stoic love is to compare it with friendship. And this is how the Stoic philosophers actually defined the kind of love that the sage may experience. Cicero reports that “[the Stoics] give as their definition of love ‘an effort to form a friendship, due to an impression of beauty.’ If such a love exists in the world—one without worry, without need, without care, without sighing—then so be it!” (Tusc. 4.72). And Stobaeus verifies this report in his anthology of Stoic ethics: “being worthy of love means the same thing as being worthy of friendship” (Stob. 2.5b9).

Those are some thoughts on the topic. Hopefully you can find something of worth that you can bring to your everyday experiences.

—Justin K.


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