Epictetus on How the Stoic Sage Loves

                                                               William O. Stephens

                                                                   Copyright © 1996, William O. Stephens


While much excellent work has been done on the Stoic doctrine of the emotions in general,[1] and some work on the Stoic concept of friendship,[2] there has been little systematic study of the Stoic account of that spectrum of emotional dispositions covered by our term ‘love’.[3]  What kind of love is the Stoic Sage (φρόνιμος) capable of?  Cicero's Cato declares that ‘Even the passion of love when pure is not thought incompatible with the character of the Stoic Sage.’[4]  Seneca reports:


            I think Panaetius gave a charming answer to the youth who asked whether the wise man would fall in love: ‘As to the wise man, we shall see.  What concerns you and me, who are still a great distance from the wise man, is to ensure that we do not fall into a state of affairs which is disturbed, powerless, subservient to another and worthless to oneself.’ (Ep. 116. 5, trans. Long and Sedley)[5]


A rich but largely neglected source on Stoic love is the late Stoic Epictetus.  In Epictetus the Greek terms which comprise the concept of the kind of love of the Stoic Sage are the verbs στέργειν, φιλειν, and χαίρειν, the noun φιλοστοργία, and the adjective φιλόστοργος.  I wish to show that in Epictetus' view (1) the wise man genuinely loves (στέργειν) and is affectionate (φιλόστοργος) to his family and friends; (2) only the Stoic wise man is, properly speaking, capable of loving—that is, he alone actually has the power to love (φιλει̃ν); and (3) the Stoic wise man loves in a robustly rational way which excludes passionate, sexual, ‘erotic’ love (έρως).  In condemning all έρως as objectionable πάθος Epictetus stands with Cicero and with the other Roman Stoics, Seneca and Musonius Rufus, and against the Greeks of the early Stoa.  Epictetus' conception of love excludes erotic passion because of its intrinsic excessiveness and uncontrollableness, which inevitably endanger mental serenity, but includes and emphasizes the soberly rational, purely positive joy of interpersonal affiliation.  Epictetus' account of how the Stoic Sage loves is, I think, more consistent and less problematic than that of the Greek Stoics.

            Epictetus explains that the Stoic defines his own good as one and the same as the noble, the honourable, and the just.  Because of this, the preservation of the Stoic's natural and acquired relations becomes necessary for keeping his προαίρεσις[6] in a healthy state, i.e. one in accord with nature's norm.  Thus, virtuous conduct towards others is required for his own intellectual self-preservation and happiness (ευ̉δαιμονία).  Moreover, Epictetus holds that the Stoic ought not to be unfeeling like a statue[7] since he is indeed by nature affectionate (φιλάλληλος), gentle (΄ήμερος), faithful (πιστός),[8] helpful (συνεργητικός),[9] and loving, and so is and ought to be naturally drawn to fulfil all his social, familial, and civic roles as a healthy, mentally attuned human being.  None the less, he must not let his feelings for others disrupt his mental serenity, for


            the work of the philosopher is . . . that each passes his life in accordance with himself without grief, without fear, and without disturbance, at the same time maintaining with his companions both the natural and acquired relationships, those of son, father, brother, citizen, husband, wife, neighbour, fellow traveller, ruler, and subject. (Disc. 2. 14. 7-8)


But how can the Stoic maintain his relationships with other people without being unfeeling, and yet without becoming upset when those whom he cares about suffer or are lost?  Epictetus says not only that tender affection (φιλοστοργία) for our own children is natural,[10] but that once we have children, it is not in our power not to love (στέργειν) them.[11]  Yet how can the Stoic love his children in our usual sense of “love”, without also suffering emotional pain and distress when they are hurt?

            In order to resolve this dilemma we must first distinguish between the natural feelings which the Stoic has—affection, gentleness, helpfulness, etc.—which are entirely positive, and the feelings which disrupt his mental serenity.  For example, one would think that, from the Stoic's perspective, when one's child dies grief—a passion which destroys one's peace of mind—is not ‘natural’ in the sense of being appropriate.  Rather, such passionate grief is only ‘natural’ in the sense of being an affective response typical of non-Stoics.  Epictetus says that family affection (τὸ φιλόστοργον) and fondness (στερκτικόν) are natural human feelings which are compatible with what is reasonable,[12] and so he does not consider them to be ‘passions’ (πάθη).  The Stoic is not supposed to be devoid of these natural, positive feelings which Epictetus evidently would include among the classic ‘good feelings’ (ευ̉πάθειαι) of orthodox Stoicism,[13] but should be devoid only of the over-intense emotions or passions which destroy his imperturbability (α̉ταραξία; εύροια) and α̉πάθεια.  Michael Frede makes this same point by observing that the Stoics reject the Aristotelian view of the πάθη because ‘they also think it is grossly misleading to think of the affections of the soul as πάθη in the sense of passive affections.  They rather are pathē in the sense of illnesses, diseases.  Indeed, they are the diseases of the mind which we have to cure’.[14]  Thus, we could describe the Stoic as passionless but not unfeeling.

            Epictetus holds that only (Stoic) philosophy can in fact produce in us peace of mind by eliminating έρως, sorrow, envy, and other passions.[15]  Cicero reports:


            The Stoics actually both say that the wise man will experience love, and they define love itself as the effort to make a friendship from the semblance of beauty.  Which love, if there is any in the world without disquietude, without longing, without anxiety, without sighing, then so be it!  For it is free from all lust. (Tusc. 4. 72)[16]


Just as Cicero explains that the wise man loves without libido (lust), Epictetus holds that the wise man loves without έρως.  Bonhöffer rightly, in my view, states that Epictetus holds that since έρως is a πάθος, it must be rejected:  ‘Eros is therefore here interpreted as an emotion disturbing inner peace and true happiness’;[17] but he wrongly claims that in this Epictetus is in agreement with the early Stoa.[18]  Long and Sedley write:  ‘The term pathos includes not only the obviously turbulent emotions of sexual desire, ambition, jealousy etc., but also such states of mind as hesitancy, malice and pity, all classified under one of the four primary passions, appetite, pleasure, fear and distress.’[19]  Thus, even though they add that ‘Passion is . . . an unhealthy state of mind, not synonymous with emotion in ordinary language’,[20] Long and Sedley appear to agree with Epictetus that έρως, sexual desire, is a ‘turbulent emotion’ which the Stoic wise man must reject.  Epictetus criticizes the person who appeals to his ‘being in erotic love’ as an excuse for being incontinent,[21] and he pities the person who is compelled by έρως to act contrary to what appears best to him owing to weakness as seized by something violent and, in a way, divine.[22]  It may seem strange that Epictetus should dignify έρως by granting that it is ‘in a way divine’ while condemning it, but his remark is actually in keeping with the Stoic tradition according to which ‘the power of erōs is no petty evil, but an age-old cosmic power, a divine force’.[23]

            But the question remains:  How does the Stoic love others in a way which does not cause him distress and disquietude?  In other words, how does the Stoic love others without allowing his love to become an ‘unhealthy state of mind’?  Part of maintaining one's natural and acquired relations involves easing the pain of others by providing emotional support and comfort.  For example, Epictetus cites such deeds as faithfully nursing one's sick daughter[24] and bravely accompanying one's son on a dangerous sea voyage[25] as acts of love (φιλόστοργον).  Often enough our family members or friends are troubled, mourn, or grieve and it would be callously unfeeling of us to ignore their distress.  But what is the Stoic supposed to do, for example, when his mother misses him?  Should he be indifferent about it?


            But my mother mourns because she does not see me.—For why did she not learn these words?  And I am not saying this, that one ought not to pay heed to keeping her from lamenting, but that one ought not to want at all costs what is not one's own.  The grief of another belongs to another, but my grief is my own.  Therefore, I shall put an end at all costs to what is my own concern, for it is up to me; but that which is another's concern I shall try to check to the best of my ability, but my effort to do so will not be made at all costs.  Otherwise I shall be fighting against god, I shall be setting myself in opposition to Zeus, I shall be stationing myself against him in all respects.[26]


Since the lamenting of my mother is an external and not under my control, I should try my best to ease her pain and comfort her, since this much I can attempt and is appropriate for me to attempt.  Yet I should not want her to stop grieving at all costs because this is not under my control.  My mother's grief is her own concern, not mine, because it is the result of her own judgements about external events.  If I wish to have the power to end her suffering, then I am wishing for the nature of the universe to be different from what it is.  I would be wishing to control both my own judgements and hers, but this is simply not how Zeus has established the nature of things.  I can and certainly should attempt to relieve her distress, since the attempt is within my power.  The result of my attempt to console her, however, lies beyond my προαίρεσις and so is, properly speaking, not my concern.  If I am to be a rational Stoic then I must not sacrifice my own mental serenity to my desire to end my mother's grief.  Ultimately she will determine whether she can bear her troubles or whether she will continue to feel grief.  Her grief, then, is up to her, not me.

            Here the behaviour of the Stoic who endeavours to comfort someone in sorrow appears to be identical to that of the kind non-Stoic who not only tries to relieve another's sorrow but also shares in it.  The crucial difference between the Stoic and the kind non-Stoic in this case is not that the latter is sincere in wanting the griever's sorrow to end whereas the Stoic is not.  They both truly want the other person's suffering to cease, but the difference is that the Stoic does not ‘want it at all costs’—that is, he does not sacrifice his own imperturbability in the act of consoling.  The well-intentioned but misguided non-Stoic, on the other hand, does take on and share in the sorrow of the other person:


            When you see someone weeping in sorrow, either because a child has gone on a journey, or because he has lost his property, beware that you be not carried away by the impression that the man is in the midst of external ills, but keep at hand this:  ‘It is not what has happened that distresses this man (for it does not distress another), but his judgement [δόγμα] about it.’  Do not, however, hesitate to sympathize with him in speech and, if it so happens, even to groan with him; but be careful not also to groan within.[27]


Thus, the Stoic shows sympathy to the unfortunate wretch who, because he incorrectly judges some happening to be evil, makes himself sorrowful, but the Stoic does not feel sympathy for him because this would be to subject his own soul to a πάθος on account of the mistaken judgement of another.  So the Stoic empathizes by means of his words of comfort and external behaviour, while not making the mistake of succumbing to the pathological state of another by allowing himself to suffer internally.[28]

            On Epictetus' account, consequently, one should rejoice with and share in the happiness of others, but not share in their misery, which stems from misjudging an external to be evil:


            Do not let the thing of another which is contrary to nature become an evil for you; for you are born not to be humiliated along with others, nor to share in their misfortune, but to share in their good fortune.  If, however, someone is unfortunate, remember that his misfortune concerns himself. (Disc. 3. 24. 1-2; cf. 3. 24. 63)


Each person's misfortune and unhappiness are self-imposed, on Epictetus' view, and result from making the wrong judgements about things—judgements contrary to nature.  For example, since ‘it is impossible for one human being always to live with another’,[29] Epictetus reasons that to wish never to be separated from a loved one, and to weep and lament when one is so separated, is foolish and slavish.  It is to forget how things are and irrationally to wish for the impossible.  ‘“Yes, but I want my little children and my wife to be with me.”—“Are they yours?  Do they not belong to the giver?  To him who made you?  Will you not therefore give up what is another's?”’[30]  Everything extra-prohairetic belongs to Zeus, since he is the one who gives and takes away in exercising his control over them.  But only prohairetic things truly belong to the individual, so one is entitled to lay claim only to them.

            Even a person's own family members should not be claimed as one's own possessions because, since the god controls the external circumstances of life, a person's life does not really belong to anyone but the god.  For this reason Epictetus believes that one should not speak of losing something which one never truly owned in the first place.  ‘Never say about anything, “I lost it,” but only “I gave it back.”  Did your child die?  It was given back.  Did your wife die?  She was given back.’[31]  One's loved ones are not part of one's true self; they lie outside one's προαίρεσις.  Like all externals, then, they should be enjoyed if and as long as one has them, yet they should be taken care of as things that are not one's own, as travellers treat their inn.[32]  ‘And if you wish your children to live at all costs, or your wife, or your brother, or your friends, is it up to you?—No.’[33]  To remember that the lives of others are not up to oneself should suffice to prevent the sensible person from desperately wishing them to live no matter what.[34]


            If you want your children and your wife and your friends to live forever, then you are silly; for you want things that are not up to you to be up to you, and for things that are another's to be yours. (Ench. 14. 1)


The death of every person is inevitable because Zeus has made death the natural end to life.  To wish that one's loved ones were immune from death is ridiculous, because it is to wish that mortals were immortal.[35]


            Yes, but what if my friends over there die?—For what else is this than that mortals died?  Or how do you simultaneously desire to grow old and yet not see the death of any of your loved ones?  Do you not know that in the long run it is necessary that many and varied things happen? (Disc. 3. 24. 27-8)


Death ought not to be the cause of misery, Epictetus seems to reason, because it is a necessary and expected part of the natural course of events.  Therefore, the death of a loved one should never be viewed as a tragically sad surprise or a cause of alarm, because it is completely understandable.[36]

            But if the Stoic really loves his wife, children, and friends, then how can he help but be distressed when they die?  After all, the death of a loved one is not merely the death of a mortal.  It is the permanent end of a specific, flesh-and-blood, irreplaceable person who is the object of one's fondest adoration.  Does loving such people not necessarily entail always wanting them to be healthy, to flourish, to fare well, and above all to live, and thus does it not also necessarily entail being greatly upset when they fall ill, flounder in misery, fare poorly, and die?  Once again, Epictetus insists that the proper Stoic attitude must be exclusively positive:  to enjoy those who are with us while they are with us, but not to grieve when they are gone.  Quite prosaically, he states that the nature of the universe is such that ‘it is necessary for some to stay, and for others to go, all the while rejoicing [χαίροντας] with those who are with us, yet not grieving for those departing’.[37]  The object of the Stoic's love should be enjoyed as long as it is present.  Its absence should not be allowed to transform that joy into sadness.  The Stoic is supposed to rejoice in the associates that Zeus has seen fit to give him for the period of time he determines.  Yet when those people depart, as they eventually must, for the Stoic then to feel bitter would be contrary to his nature as a rational being, according to Epictetus, because it would be to fail to recognize and accept the nature of things.

            Now the way the Stoic prevents himself from being saddened and distressed by the absence of something or someone he loves is simply to remind himself constantly of the essentially impermanent, transitory nature of every external to which he could grow attached.  The Stoic must habituate himself to anticipate any and all natural events that can and do damage or destroy externals.  In this way Epictetus seems to think that the Stoic will not allow his relationships with externals to become involved attachments to them.  Such an attachment would become a chain which would eventually drag him down into misery and grief when the object of the attachment departs, dies, or disappears.  He calls this discipline of rational therapy, this self-training, άσκησις.


            Whenever you grow attached to something, do not act as though it were one of those things that cannot be taken away, but as though it were something like a jar or a crystal goblet, so that when it breaks you will remember what it was like, and not be troubled.  So also here; if you kiss your child, your brother, your friend, do not trust your impression in every particular, nor permit your exuberance to proceed as much as it wants, but hold it back, stop it, just like those who stand behind generals parading in triumph and remind them that they are human.  So too remind yourself that you love a mortal, something not your own; it has been given to you for the present, not inseparably nor forever, but like a fig, or a bunch of grapes, at a fixed season of the year, and that if you yearn for it in the winter, you are a fool.  If in this way you long for your son, or your friend, at a time when he has not been given to you, rest assured that you are yearning for a fig in winter.  For as winter is to a fig, so is every state of affairs in relation to the things which are destroyed in accordance with that same state of affairs. (Disc. 3. 24. 84-7; cf. Ench. 3)


Epictetus believes that if one remembers the fragility of the things one loves, one can then restrain one's natural affection and stop the feeling of love from intensifying into an uncontrollable πάθος.  The rational considerations of the temporariness of the liaison, the inevitable separations from the loved one, and her eventual death function to prevent the Stoic from being overpowered by his emotions and foolishly desiring his loved one ‘out of season’.  If the Stoic has the mental strength and discipline to restrain his exuberance, and can stop it from mutating into a πάθος, then he will safeguard himself from the frustration and misery of wanting grapes in winter or wishing that his deceased wife were still with him.  Of course, missing one's deceased spouse is a much greater anguish than having an unsatisfiable craving for grapes in winter, but the difference between these two desires is only quantitative—it is only a difference in degree.  For Epictetus these two desires are qualitatively the same because they are equally irrational, and so equally avoidable.

            The goal of Stoic philosophy here, as always, is to learn how to control—i.e. rationally regulate—one's emotions so that they never subject the Stoic to painful, disturbing feelings which rob him of his mental quietude and inner harmony.  If he is successful at keeping his positive, healthy, rational feelings from becoming negative, unhealthy, and irrationally distressing, then his mental freedom and serenity will be ensured.  Epictetus believes that this άσκησις relieves the Stoic from the lapses in rational discipline that cause all emotional pain and mental disharmony.  By not trusting his impression in every particular and by stopping his enjoyment of an external from becoming a πάθος which destroys his mental serenity, the Stoic can both preserve his α̉ταραξία and allow himself to derive some modest, moderate, rational pleasure from that external.

            Thus Epictetus recommends the following method for mitigating one's pleasure in externals so that one does not choose to fall into the habit of depending upon them for one's happiness:


            Furthermore, in moments when you are taking delight in something, call to mind the opposite impressions.  What harm is there if you whisper to yourself, at the very moment you are kissing your child, and say, ‘Tomorrow you will die’?  So likewise to your friend, ‘Tomorrow you will go abroad, or I shall, and we shall never see each other again’? (Disc. 3. 24. 88)


One might object that the harm that lies in calling to mind the potential loss of the object of one's love every time one is currently enjoying it is that one is precisely robbing oneself of the full enjoyment of that loved one, that one is spoiling the sweetest, richest, and most pleasant feeling of love for another by reminding oneself of the precariousness of having the loved one around.  But despite the increased capacity of gratification which this unchecked absorption in an external affords, the Stoic considers this enhanced present pleasure not to be worth the future anguish resulting from the inevitable absence of the external which will accompany it.  By not soberly reminding oneself that one's loved one may at any moment leave, one is recklessly indulging in the external with such emotional abandon that one is unnecessarily risking the security of one's happiness.  One is inviting the mental pain which will result from separation from the external to which one has imprudently allowed oneself to become deeply and dangerously attached.

            By preparing himself to live on imperturbably when the object of his love is gone, on the other hand, the Stoic insulates himself from any possible future emotional distress.  He does not count on any externals, even his dearest family members, for his own happiness:


            This is what you ought to practise from morning till evening.  Begin with the smallest, the most vulnerable things, like a pot, or a cup, and then advance to a tunic, a paltry dog, a mere horse, a bit of land; next yourself, your body and its limbs, your children, wife, brothers.  Look about on every side and cast these things away from you.  Purify your judgements, lest something not your own have become fastened to you, or grown together with you, and cause you pain when it is torn loose. (Disc. 4. 1. 111-12)


Epictetus does not mean that one should literally cast away all these externals from oneself.  Rather, he is simply describing the ascetic method which will prepare him to remain steadfast in the face of the so-called ‘inevitable misfortunes’ of life.  He simply means that one should not acquire the disastrous habit of firmly fastening one's desire to externals by judging that one needs them to be happy.  Epictetus' warning is that to judge that one needs some external in order to be happy is effectively to make oneself dependent upon that external for one's happiness.

            The following objection to the Stoic attitude towards other people may be raised at this point.  In insulating himself from the loss of loved ones by reminding himself of their mortality, stopping short of becoming emotionally attached to them, and refusing to let his happiness depend upon them, does the Stoic not thereby emotionally isolate himself from everyone?  The answer to this objection seems to me to be a definite ‘Yes’.  Yet this is not to grant that there is a grave flaw in Epictetus' conception of the Stoic attitude towards other people.  There is no shortcoming in the external behaviour of the Stoic since he conscientiously performs all of his social, familial, and civic functions.  It is just that the Stoic refuses to subject his happiness to any external contingency.  Hence with respect to his inner state, his emotional isolation from others is simply a concomitant of his self-sufficiency (αυ̉τάρκεια), but it does not by any means lead to the neglect or abandonment of the people for whom the Stoic feels natural affection.  As evidence of this I need only cite the passage where Epictetus states that it may become ‘necessary for me to run a risk for my friend’, or it may become ‘appropriate [καθήκη˛] for me even to die for him’.[38]  So the Stoic may indeed be in a situation in which he would be compelled to risk his own life for another, but we must remember that his life is also an external which is strictly speaking an ‘indifferent’, and so while it itself is not an intrinsic good (α̉γαθόν), the use which he makes of it does matter, since that pertains to the morality of his character.  Thus, to preserve his virtuous character he may be required to sacrifice his life for a friend.  Yet he will endeavour to keep his rationality and moral integrity intact no matter what happens to him or to others, and in so doing preserve his mental serenity.

            A second difficulty can be couched in these terms.  In making himself invulnerable to emotional pain does the Stoic not also make himself incapable of genuine, heartfelt human compassion for others?  Here we must be clear on our understanding of ‘compassion’.  In so far as this is an inner feeling of pity that the commiserator has for the sufferer, the Stoic does indeed experience it.  He feels sorry for the person suffering, not because he believes the sufferer to be burdened by real evils, but because the sufferer is enslaved by his own mistaken judgement that his current woes derive from external things and not from his own judgement about those things.  Bonhöffer's comments on Encheiridion 16 are apt here:


            The Stoic who sighs with someone need not therefore also renounce his correct conception; rather, he will do everything in order to soothe the one suffering and to encourage him to steadfastness.  Where this is not possible, he will show his philanthropy in this way, that he puts himself at least seemingly in the standpoint of the one suffering.  Moreover, the Stoic will indeed feel with the sufferer a certain regret, less on account of his external suffering than on account of his internal weakness and blindness.  This rational regret, that is, so to speak, only intellectual, not emotional, is often expressed by Epictetus.[39]


So once again we can say that the Stoic acts with compassion by trying to remove the misery of the sufferer.  Yet in making this attempt he will not allow himself to be ensnared by the sufferer's πάθος.  That is, the Stoic is careful to stop short of feeling the pathological sorrow of the sufferer and thus internally being disturbed as the sufferer is.  Stoic compassion, therefore, consists in the rational regret or pity Bonhöffer describes coupled with a sincere urge to help the person in sorrow.

            We now have a fairly complete account of Epictetus' model of Stoic love.  The Stoic loves other people in a very free, giving way.  His love is not at all conditional upon its being reciprocated by the person loved.  The Stoic does not compromise his own moral integrity or mental serenity in his love for others, nor is his love impaired by his knowledge of the mortality of his loved ones.  Rather, the Stoic's love and natural affection are tempered by reason.  His love and affection serve only to enrich his humanity, never to subject him to psychic torment:


            How, then, shall I become affectionate [φιλόστοργος]?—As one who is noble, as one who is fortunate; for reason never accepts that one be wretched, or that one depend on something else, or even blame either god or human being.  Thus be affectionate so as to maintain these things; if, however, by virtue of this natural affection [φιλοστοργίαν], whatever it is you call by that name, you are going to be a slave and miserable, it does not profit you to be affectionate.  And what keeps you from loving [φιλει̃ν] someone as a mortal, as one who may leave you?  Did not Socrates love [ε̉φίλει] his own children?  Yes, but as a free man, as one who remembers that it is necessary first to be a friend to the gods. (Disc. 3. 24. 58-60)


The Stoic loves freely in the sense that he does not allow his love to enslave his happiness.  The Sage does not permit his love of others to become such that his happiness depends upon always having his loved ones with him.  This is because the Stoic Sage does not allow his love ever to be a cause of loneliness, bitterness, or sorrow.  Rather, having someone to love is always and only a joyous gift for which he should be grateful.  Yet it is a gift which he should neither expect to receive nor count on keeping once he has it.  Life promises no such gifts, nor are they necessary for him to enjoy a happy, i.e. virtuous, life.  Loved ones are simply added bonuses over and beyond his self-secured happiness.  Losing those bonuses, however, in no way detracts from his happiness since it in no way compromises his virtue, which is the sole necessary and sufficient condition of his ευ̉δαιμονία.

            Epictetus rejects passionate, erotic love (έρως) because it makes one vulnerable to a kind of coerced manipulation and can easily drive one to sacrifice one's dignity in order to appease one's beloved.  Epictetus considers such a condition to be a terrible form of emotional servitude:


            Were you never in love with [η̉ράσθης] anyone, a pretty little girl, or little boy, a slave, a free man?—What, then, has that to do with being either slave or free?— Were you never commanded by your sweetheart to do something you did not want to?  Did you never sweet-talk your little slave?  Did you never kiss his feet?  Yet if someone should compel you to kiss the feet of Caesar, you would regard that as insolence and excess of tyranny.  What else, then, is slavery? (Disc. 4. 1. 15-18)


Erotic love enslaves a person's reason and better judgement to his passionate desire to gratify his beloved; it results in a state of emotional bondage.  The Stoic values his personal dignity and self-respect too much to let his affection take his προαίρεσις hostage in this way.  Consequently, he takes deliberate steps to prevent his dignified and rational love (φιλία) of others from degenerating into this debilitating, coercive erotic love which, as an irrational πάθος, overpowers his reason and throws him into the described psychic slavery.

            The difficulty of regulating one's love and affection so that they provide only positive, joyful feelings without making one emotionally dependent upon loved ones should by now be clearly manifest.  Epictetus' awareness of this difficulty is evident in his fascinating argument that in fact only the φρόνιμος really has the power to love (φιλει̃ν).  I shall conclude with a brief examination of this bold argument.


            Whatever one is earnest about [ε̉σπούδακεν] one naturally loves.  And therefore are people earnest about evil things?  Not at all.  But are they earnest about things which do not concern them?  No, not about these either.  It remains, therefore, that they are earnest only about good things; and if they are earnest about them, they also love [φιλει̃ν] them.  Whoever, then, has knowledge of good things, would also know how to love [φιλει̃ν] them; but if one is unable to distinguish good things from evil things, and what is neither good nor evil from both the others, how would this one still be able to love?  Accordingly, the power to love [τὸ φιλει̃ν] belongs to the wise one [του̃ φρονίμου] alone. (Disc. 2. 22. 1-3)


This argument can be reconstructed as follows:

1.         People are earnest about evil things, or things that in no respect concern them, or good things.

2.         People are earnest neither about evil things nor about things that in no respect concern them.

3.         Hence, people are earnest only about good things. [From 1 and 2]

4.         If one is earnest about a thing, then one loves that thing.

5.         Hence, people love good things. [From 3 and 4]

6.         If one has knowledge of good things, then one knows how to love (good things).

7.         If one is unable to distinguish good things from evil things or from things that are neither, then one does not know how to love (good things).

8.         The wise one has knowledge of good things, evil things, and things that are neither.

9.         Hence, the wise one knows how to love (good things). [From 6 and 8]

10.       The non-wise are unable to distinguish good things from evil things or from things that are neither.

11.       Hence, the non-wise do not know how to love (good things). [From 7 and 10]

12.       Therefore, only the wise one knows how to love (good things). [From 9 and 11][40]

It seems that the intermediate conclusion in step 5, that people love good things, should be construed to mean that people want to be able to love good things, or that people try to love good things.  But Epictetus is arguing that if one succeeds in loving good things, then one must know what things are really good, and what things really are not.  If one cannot discriminate between good, evil, and indifferent things, however, then this ignorance will preclude one from successfully loving that which one wants to be able to love.  In other words, since the non-wise do not know that only the virtues are good things, they will not have the power to love the virtues, and so will not have the power to love at all, properly speaking.  The non-wise can only attempt to love.

            The suggestiveness of the verb σπουδάζω in this argument is missed by most translators.  Oldfather[41] and Matheson[42] considerably weaken its force by rendering it ‘take an interest in’, while Hard[43] does little better with ‘set one's heart on’.  σπουδάζω has the stronger sense of ‘be earnest about’ or ‘pursue seriously’.[44]  Epictetus holds that only the Stoic wise man pursues things seriously and with the correct attitude because only the wise man has knowledge of what is truly good (the virtues), what is truly evil (the vices), and what is indifferent (extra-prohairetic things).  This leads the wise man to be really earnest about what is noble, just, and honourable, and to pursue the virtues with the proper zeal.  Understanding that these are the things to be taken seriously empowers the φρόνιμος with the capacity to love.  The certainty of disposition enjoyed by the φρόνιμος stems from a firm grasp of the knowledge of good, evil, and what is neither, not from a mere belief in the apparent good.  The Stoic wise man commits himself to loving others without expecting that his love be reciprocated since, if the people he loves are not wise, then after all they do not even have the power to return his love.[45]  As non-Stoics they fail to recognize what they ought to be serious about.  In contrast, the Stoic Sage (φρόνιμος) or ‘wise man’ (΄ο σοφός), is σπουδαι̃ος;[46] he alone is both ‘serious’ and ‘excellent’.[47]  The Sage has an expertise in living and loving which non-Stoics lack.[48]

            In conclusion, I suggest that the love of the φρόνιμος for others manifests itself not primarily in his striving to improve their material, economic conditions of living, but rather in the transmission to them of his inner wealth, i.e. his wisdom.  It seems reasonable to think that beyond the minimal necessities of water, food, clothing, and shelter[49] which are arguably necessary conditions for striving for virtue at all,[50] the Stoic wise man could perhaps better offer his humanitarian aid by educating, assuming he possessed the talent to teach.  This is because although economic aid provides basic subsistence, it does not constitute what Epictetus conceives of as true happiness.  True happiness consists in internal goods, i.e. the virtues of character and mental freedom which come from wise judgements.  Happiness can thus be seen as the fruit of Stoic education.

            Accordingly, Epictetus, who was himself a teacher, was committed to doing all he could to eliminate the mental and spiritual poverty which is the source of the misery of non-Stoics.  It is revealing that his favourite model of the Stoic wise man is the heroic teacher Socrates, who is mentioned no fewer than sixty-nine times in the Discourses.  Epictetus' portrait of the wise man is nowhere more detailed than in his chapter on Cynicism.[51]  Bonhöffer remarks[52] that the activity of the wise Cynic, the king of the κόσμος, is much more important than political activity pertaining to taxes and revenue.[53]  Epictetus regards the Cynic as the greatest benefactor of the human race because of the morally improving and ennobling influence he has on his fellow beings.[54]  And though being a Cynic is sufficient for the virtuous, philanthropic life, it is not necessary for the Stoic to embrace snow-covered statues nude[55] and to live without a home and a family.  Epictetus, like his master Musonius Rufus, demonstrated that the Stoic wise man, the φρόνιμος, can love in an eminently practical way by trying to teach Stoicism to others and encouraging them to achieve his own hard-won Stoic wisdom.


Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska


[1]. A. M. Ioppolo, ‘La dottrina della passione in Crisippo’, Rivista critica di storia della filosofia, 27 (1972), 251-68; A. C. Lloyd, ‘Emotion and Decision in Stoic Psychology’, in J. M. Rist (ed.), The Stoics (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1978), 285-46; Michael Frede, ‘The Stoic Doctrine of the Affections of the Soul’, in M. Schofield and G. Striker (eds.), The Norms of Nature (Cambridge, 1986), 93-110; Martha C. Nussbaum, ‘The Stoics on the Extirpation of the Passions’, Apeiron, 20 (1987), 129-77.

[2]. J.-C. Fraisse, Philia: La Notion d'amitié dans la philosophie antique (Paris, 1974), 348-73; Glenn Lesses, ‘Austere Friends: The Stoics and Friendship’, Apeiron, 26 (1993), 57-75.

[3]. D. Babut, ‘Les Stoïciens et l'amour,’ Revue des études grecques, 76 (1963), 55-63.  Malcolm Schofield, The Stoic Idea of a City (Cambridge, 1991), ch. 3, discusses Zeno's account of the place of erotic love in his Republic.  See also Martha C. Nussbaum, ‘Eros and the Wise: The Stoic Response to a Cultural Dilemma’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, 13 (1995), 231-67.  I thank Prof. Nussbaum for her helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

[4]. Fin. 3. 68 ‘Ne amores quidem sanctos a sapiente alienos esse arbitrantur’, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge, 1983), 289.

[5]. A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, i. (Cambridge, 1987), 423.  The Latin reads: ‘eleganter mihi videtur Panaetius respondisse adulescentulo cuidam quaerenti an sapiens amaturus esset. “de sapiente” inquit “videbimus; mihi et tibi, qui adhuc a sapiente longe absumus, non est committendum ut incidamus in rem commotam, inpotentem, alteri emancupatam, vilem sibi.”’

[6]. In my doctoral dissertation, ‘Stoic Strength: An Examination of the Ethics of Epictetus’ (diss. University of Pennsylvania; May 1990), I argued that in Epictetus the term προαίρεσις can be construed to refer not just narrowly to the faculty of judgement or ‘moral purpose’ (Oldfather's translation), but more broadly to the locus of personal identity and a person's true moral character, i.e. the real (inner) ‘Stoic self’.

[7]. Disc. 3. 2. 4 ου̉ δει̃ γάρ με ει̃ναι α̉παθη̃ ΄ως α̉νδριάντα.  I thank Geoff Bakewell for helping to smooth my translations.

[8]. Disc. 4. 1. 126.

[9]. Disc. 3. 21. 9.

[10]. Disc. 1. 23. 3 πω̃ς ου̃ν έτι κοινωνικοί ε̉σμεν, οι̃ς μὴ φυσικὴ έστι πρὸς τὰ έγγονα φιλοστοργία;

[11]. Disc. 1. 23. 5.  Here Epictetus is emphasizing the compelling power of the social οικείωσις that parents feel toward their children; cf. SVF iii. 179, ii. 724.

[12]. Disc. 1. 11. 17-19; cf. 2. 10. 22-3.

[13]. Namely joy (χαρά), caution (ευ̉λάβεια), and rational wishing (βούλησις).

[14]. In Schofield and Striker, The Norms of Nature, 99.

[15]. Disc. 3. 13. 10.

[16]. ‘Stoici vero et sapientem amaturum esse dicunt et amorem ipsum conatum amicitiae faciendae ex pulchritudinis specie definiunt.  qui si quis est in rerum natura sine sollicitudine, sine desiderio, sine cura, sine suspirio, sit sane; vacat enim omni libidine.’

[17]. Die Ethik des Stoikers Epiktet [Die Ethik] (Stuttgart, 1894), 66:  ‘Der Eros ist also hier als eine den inneren Frieden und das wahre Glück störende Gemütsbewegung aufgefaßt.’

[18]. Ibid.:  ‘Um so gewisser stimmt er darin mit seiner Schule überein, daß er den geschlechtlichen Eros als Pathos verwirft.’

[19]. Long and Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, i. 419-20.

[20]. Ibid. 420.

[21]. Disc. 2. 21. 7 κὰν α̉κρατη̃ που παρομολογη̃˛ τις αυτόν, έρωτα προσέθηκεν, ΄ώστε συγγνωσθη̃ναι ΄ως ε̉π α̉κουσίω˛.

[22]. Disc. 4. 1. 147 καίτοι τὸν μὲ ΄υπ έρωτος α̉ναγκαζόμενόν τι ποιει̃ν παρὰ τὸ φαινόμενον καὶ άμα μὲν ΄ορω̃ντα τὸ άμεινον, ΄άμα δ ου̉κ ε̉ξευτονου̃ντα α̉κολουθη̃σαι αυ̉τω̃˛ έτι μα̃λλον άν τις συγγνώμης άξιον ΄υπολάβοι, άθ ΄υπό τινος βιαίου καὶ τρόπον τινὰ θείου κατεσχημένον.

[23]. Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire (Princeton, 1994), 461.  For her compelling discussion of Seneca's argument against έρως see esp. 448-58.

[24]. Disc. 1. 11. 19-26.

[25]. Disc. 3. 7. 3.

[26]. Disc. 3. 24. 22-4.

[27]. Ench. 16.

[28]. Epictetus' account of how the Stoic should console someone in grief can be compared to Cleanthes' and Chrysippus' accounts as reported by Cicero at Tusc. 3. 76.  Cleanthes holds that the only task for the consoler lies in showing him that the object of his pain is not at all bad.  Chrysippus instead emphasizes that the consoler's main task lies in removing the griever's belief that it is appropriate for him to grieve.  Troels Engberg-Pedersen sees Chrysippus' approach as the more fruitful one since according to it the consoler is speaking to the griever's ‘considered view (or as much of such a view as he may have), by asking him whether in addition to taking the experience to be bad he is also prepared to claim his passionate reaction to it to be right, required, appropriate, something that should be done’ (The Stoic Theory of Oikeiosis [Aarhus, 1990], 204). 

[29]. Disc. 3. 24. 20.

[30]. Disc. 4. 1. 107.

[31]. Ench. 11.

[32]. Disc. 1. 24. 14-15, 2. 23. 36-8; Ench. 11.

[33]. Disc. 4. 1. 67.

[34]. Cf. Sen. Ep. 63. 11-12 ‘quem amabas, extulisti; quaere, quem ames.  satius est amicum reparare quam flere.’

[35]. Cicero relates the story that Anaxagoras, upon hearing the news of his son's death, said: ‘I knew all along that I had begotten a mortal’ (Tusc. 3. 30).

[36]. See Nussbaum's interesting discussion of Nikidion's grief over her lover's death: The Therapy of Desire, 375-86.

[37]. Disc. 3. 24. 11.

[38]. Disc. 2. 7. 3.

[39]. Die Ethik, 102-3: ‘Der Stoiker, der mitseufzt, braucht also dabei seine richtige Anschauung nicht zu verleugnen, vielmehr wird er alles thun, um den Leidenden zu beruhigen und zur Standhaftigkeit zu ermuntern.  Wo dies nicht möglich ist, wird er seine Menschenliebe dadurch zeigen, daß er sich wenigstens Scheinbar auf den Standpunkt des Leidenden stellt.  Zudem wird der Stoiker ja mit dem Leidenden immerhin ein gewisses Bedauern empfinden, weniger wegen seines äußeren Leidens als wegen seiner inneren Schwäche und Verblendung.  Dieses vernünftige Bedauern, das also sozusagen nur intellektueller, nicht gemütlicher Natur ist, äußert Epictet nicht selten.’

[40]. The suppressed premiss is of course the exclusive disjunction that one is either wise or non-wise.

[41]. Epictetus: The Discourses as Reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments, trans. W. A. Oldfather (Harvard, 1925), i. 391-3.

[42]. Epictetus: The Discourses and Manual together with Fragments of his Writings, trans. with introduction and notes by P. E. Matheson (OUP, 1916), i. 226.

[43]. The Discourses of Epictetus, ed. Christopher Gill, trans. rev. Robin Hard (London, 1995), 132.

[44]. George Long recognizes this by translating σπουδάζω as ‘apply oneself to earnestly’ and ‘employ oneself earnestly about’: The Discourses of Epictetus, 2nd edn. (Chicago, 1990), xi. 158.

[45]. That is why Epictetus observes at 3. 22. 62-3 that one must be a Cynic oneself to be worthy of being counted the friend (φίλος) of a Cynic.

[46]. Cf. Sextus, PH 2. 83, on the Stoics: διόπερ τὴν μὲν α̉λήθειαν εν μόνω˛ σ π ο υ δ α ί ω˛ φασὶν ειναι, τὸ δὲ α̉ληθὲς καὶ ε̉ν φαύλω˛· ε̉νδέχεται γὰρ τὸν φαυ̃λον α̉ληθές τι ει̉πει̃ν.  Cf. Stob. 2. 111. 18, lines 4-8 (SVF iii. 548) διττὰς γὰρ ειναι δόξας, τὴν μὲν ακαταλήπτω˛ συγκατάθεσιν, τὴν δὲ ύπόληψιν α̉σθενη̃· ταύτας {δ’} α̉λλοτρίους ει̃ναι τη̃ς  τ ο υ̃  σ ο φ ο υ̃  διαθέσεως· δι’ ὸ καὶ τὸ προπίπτειν πρὸ καταλήψεως {καὶ} συγκατατίθεσθαι κατὰ τὸν προπετη̃ φαυ̃λον ει̃ναι καὶ μὴ πίπτειν ει̉ς τὸν ευ̉φυη̃ καὶ τέλειον άνδρα καὶ  σ π ο υ δ α ι̃ ο ν.

[47]. Stob. 2. 99. 3-8 α̉ρέσκει γὰρ τω̃˛ Ζήνωνι καὶ τοι̃ς α̉π’ αυ̉του̃ Στωϊκοι̃ς φιλοσόφοις δύο γένη τω̃ν α̉νθρώπων ει̃ναι, τὸ μὲν τω̃ν

σ π ο υ δ α ί ω ν , τὸ δὲ τω̃ν φαύλων· καὶ τὸ μὲν τω̃ν σπουδαίων διὰ παντὸς του̃ βίου χρη̃σθαι ται̃ς α̉ρεται̃ς, τὸ δὲ τω̃ν φαύλων ται̃ς κακίαις· ΄όθεν τὸ μὲν α̉εὶ κατορθου̃ν ε̉ν ΄άπασιν οι̃ς προστίθεται, τὸ δὲ ΄αμαρτάνειν.

[48]. Sextus, M. 11. 200-1, reports that the Stoics say:  ‘The virtuous man's function is not to look after his parents and honour them in other respects but to do this on the basis of prudence.  For just as the care of health is common to the doctor and the layman, but caring for health in the medical way is peculiar to the expert, so too the honouring of parents is common to the virtuous and the not virtuous man, but to do this on the basis of prudence is peculiar to the wise man.  Consequently he also has expertise in his way of life, the peculiar function of which is to do everything on the basis of the best character’ (Long and Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, i. 362).

[49]. Although for Diogenes the Cynic, as the story goes at D. L. 6. 23, even the tub in the Metroon was sufficient, at least for a time.

[50]. Cf. Sen. Ep. 88. 31 ‘quia nec sine cibo ad virtutem pervenitur, cibus tamen ad virtutem non pertinet.’

[51]. Disc. 3. 22.

[52]. Die Ethik, 95.

[53]. Disc. 3. 22. 84; cf. 1. 10. 1-2.

[54]. Bonhöffer, Die Ethik, 105.

[55]. Compare Disc. 3. 12. 2. with D.L. 6. 23.