How Compassionate is Stoicism?

The need to return to a philosophy of love and kindness

The need to return to a philosophy of love and kindness

Stoicism is for tough guys, right? It’s about looking out for number one and not giving a fig about other people. It means going around telling everyone else to “suck it up”, right? At least that’s what a lot of people tell me. One of the main reasons they believe this nonsense is because the word “stoicism” (lowercase s) long ago came to refer simply to an unemotional style of coping. It means having a stiff upper-lip or, more specifically, a way of coping that emphasizes suppressing or concealing painful, embarrassing, or unpleasant emotions.

Although many people on the Internet confuse Stoicism with being unemotional and uncaring… the truth is that it was originally a philosophy of love.

That’s not what Stoicism (uppercase S) means, though. When we capitalize Stoicism it means we’re talking about the ancient Greek school of philosophy, which differs from lowercase stoicism in two main regards:

  1. It teaches us a much healthier and more nuanced way of coping with our emotions

  2. It emphasizes the virtue of exhibiting genuine love and kindness toward other human beings

See my Medium article on The difference between stoicism and Stoicism for a more in-depth discussion of this first point. In this article, and in my Instagram video discussing it, I’m going to focus on the second point, and clear up a few things.

As I wrote in my book on Marcus Aurelius, it’s surprising that some people can read The Meditations without even noticing how important kindness actually was to the Stoics.

Although this social dimension of Stoicism is often overlooked today, it’s one of the main themes of The Meditations. Marcus touches on topics such as the
virtues of justice and kindness, natural affection, the brotherhood of man, and ethical cosmopolitanism on virtually every page. — How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Although many people on the Internet confuse Stoicism with being unemotional and uncaring, therefore, the truth is that it was originally a philosophy of love.

Stoicism as a Philosophy of Love

Nobody ever said “That guy’s so stoic; he really loves his kids”, right? Yet, the ancient Stoics did believe that their philosophy helps us to love and care for our children properly. Musonius Rufus, one of the most celebrated Roman Stoic teachers, asked his students “Who, more than a female philosopher,” by which he meant a female Stoic, “would love her children more than life?” He means that Stoicism helps a mother to love her children with wisdom and kindness. His most famous student, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, went as far as to say that “once a child is born, it is no longer in our power not to love it nor care about it.”

The Stoics, therefore, believed that it’s human nature to care about our own children. Indeed, long before Darwin, ancient philosophers realized that the survival of our species depends upon this because human infants are unusually vulnerable compared to the newborn of other species. This caring feeling was called philostorgia, which is usually translated “natural affection”, although it often simply denoted what we would call paternal love.

The Stoics claimed that this bond of natural affection will usually extend to our partners, and, to some extent, to the rest of our family — it encompasses our loved ones, in other words. Natural affection radiates outward, in concentric circles, encompassing our family, friends, countrymen, and ultimately all human beings, although the sense of affinity become weaker as the relations become more distant.

However, the ideal wise man or woman, according to the Stoics, sees beyond mere blood relations. Learning to rely more on reason than instinct, he or she comes to view all human beings as kindred at a much deeper level, insofar as they share self-awareness and the capacity for reason. In another sense, the Stoic Sage resembles Zeus, as father of mankind, who looks upon all his children with natural affection. Hence, another Stoic author writes:

Zeus is called “father of gods and men”, because cosmic nature caused these things to exist, as fathers give being to their children. — Cornutus

We are all equal citizens of the world, or cosmos, according the the Stoics. This ethical view that all human beings should be considered as though members of a single worldwide community, like children in the kingdom of Zeus, is therefore called cosmopolitanism.

However, adopting a truly cosmopolitan outlook on life requires effort. At first we feel alienated from strangers and foreigners, we have to choose to view them as akin to us rather than as other. The Stoics called the process of extending greater consideration to a wider range of people oikeiosis, which literally means bringing someone into your household — we would say “treating them like family”.

Funnily enough, the English word “kindness” is etymologically cognate with the word “kin” — they both derive from an early Germanic word for family. So even in modern English, when we speak of being kind to someone, we’re using language that implies treating them as if they were our kin, our brothers and sisters. That’s basically the Stoic concept of oikeiosis, viewing strangers as if they were our family.

It seems glaringly obvious to me that Stoic oikeiosis is related to the famous Greek concept of philoxenia, which my Greek friends still go on about even today. Philoxenia literally means love of hospitality, or friendship toward strangers and foreigners. Its opposite is xenophobia, fear or hatred of foreigners. It’s a very ancient tradition in Greece, central, for instance, to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Indeed, the entire Trojan war was sparked when Paris outrageously violated the accepted rules of philoxenia by running off with his host’s wife, Helen of Troy. Zeus, the god most associated with Stoicism, was even worshipped under the title Zeus Philoxenon, he’s the god of philoxenia or hospitality.

The philosopher Hierocles, in a lost book called Elements of Ethics, explained ways in which Stoics would train themselves to adopt a more cosmopolitan attitude toward mankind. He says we should try progressively to bring those in the outer circles of our natural affection closer to the centre, rather than pushing them further away. Hierocles said we can help ourselves get into the habit of viewing things this way by referring to friends as “brothers” or “sisters”, and so on. We can see Marcus Aurelius putting this into practice, quite frequently, when he refers figuratively to others as “my kin”, “my brother”, and “my son”.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s one of the most obvious precursors of the Christian notion of brotherly love. Indeed, in his Epistle to the Romans, Saint Paul writes that Christians should exhibit both natural affection (philostorgia) and brotherly love (philadelphia) toward one another (Romans, 12.10). However, Stoic philosophy predates Christianity by roughly three centuries, and the Stoics were already well-known for making the love of mankind one of their main ethical ideals.

It cannot, then, be said that “loving one’s neighbour as oneself” is a specifically Christian invention. Rather, it could be maintained that the motivation of Stoic love is the same as that of Christian love. […] Even the love of one’s enemies is not lacking in Stoicism. — Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel

There was a resurgence of interest in Stoicism during the Renaissance, which saw attempts to combine it with Christian values. Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, a 17th century Stoic, wrote in his Philosophical Regimen:

What is it to have Natural Affection? Not that which is only towards relations, but towards all mankind; to be truly philanthrôpos [philanthropic, a lover of mankind], neither to scoff, nor hate, nor be impatient with them, nor abominate them, nor overlook them; and to pity in a manner and love those that are the greatest miscreants, those that are most furious against thyself in particular, and at the time when they are most furious? — Shaftesbury

It’s worth pausing to reflect on this for a moment because although many people today think of Stoicism as unemotional and indifferent to the welfare of others that’s the opposite of the truth. Early Christian ethics was inspired by Stoicism, they have similar ideals, and nobody would accuse Christians of being cold-hearted and uncaring. Yet for some reason they say this about the Stoics. Once again, this seems to be a common misinterpretation of Stoic philosophy due largely to people confusing it with lowercase stoicism, the unemotional coping style.

What Stoics Mean by Kindness

The Stoics believed that while it’s wise and virtuous to show friendship and affection toward other people, it’s nevertheless foolish to join them in their misery. We should care about others but, despite what Shaftesbury said, we should not pity them. In psychotherapy, my own profession, this is a very familiar problem. We tend to say the therapist should try to empathize with clients, understanding how they feel, but be careful not to start sympathizing with them, by joining them in their anxiety.

So words like “compassion”, which originally implied mutual “passion”, pathos, or suffering, don’t quite sit right with Stoic philosophy. Translations of ancient Stoic texts refer instead to kindness, benevolence, affection, or friendship, toward others. Today, though, in many of these instances, modern readers would probably just use the word compassion.

The wise are motivated, instead, by kindness toward their friends and enemies alike….

Another issue with translation affects the famous “cardinal virtues” of Stoicism: wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance. We think of justice today as being largely impersonal, formal, and mainly about fairness. That’s not what the Greek word dikaiosune means, though. It refers to a wise and virtuous way of treating other people in general. For instance, it might include the way a mother treats her children. Sometimes, in the past, it used to be translated as “righteousness” but that sounds anachronistic and a bit pretentious now.

The ancient doxographer, Diogenes Laertius, straight-up tells us that the Stoics divided this virtue, dikaiosune, into two main elements:

  1. Impartiality or fairness (isotes)

  2. Kindness or benevolence (eugnomosune)

The first ingredient is similar to what we mean by “justice” today but the second part got lost in translation somewhere along the line. However, we can definitely see the Stoics talking about the importance of kindness as a virtue many times in the surviving texts. So, incidentally, I think it’s probably better to translate dikaiosune not as “justice” but simply as “social virtue”.

In part, this confusion also has to do with the misconception that the Stoics thought we should root out all of our emotions (scholars use the word “extirpate”). That’s definitely not what they said, though. The Stoics thought our unhealthy emotions were based on underlying errors of reasoning. Hence, they invented a rational or philosophical approach to psychotherapy. The goal of Stoicism isn’t to suppress what they describe as our irrational, excessive, and unhealthy emotions but rather to transform them into more rational, moderate, and healthy ones.

Stoicism therefore had an entire system for classifying healthy emotions (eupatheia), which the doxographers Stobaeus and Diogenes Laertius both describe. These include a healthy form of desire, which encompasses:

  • Goodwill or benevolence (eunoia)

  • Kindness or graciousness (eumeneia)

  • Acceptance or welcoming (aspasmos)

  • Contentment or affection (agapesis)

Unfortunately, terms describing different emotions happen to be particularly difficult to translate from certain languages, such as ancient Greek, into English. Their ancient culture makes different distinctions between emotions than we do today. For comparison, though, in one scholarly translation, the words I’ve translated above are given as “goodwill, kindliness, acceptance, and contentment” by Inwood and Gerson. In another, they’re rendered as “kindness, generosity, warmth, and affection” by Long and Sedley. You get the idea, though. These and related terms are used repeatedly throughout the surviving texts of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca used equivalent Latin terms. Emotions like these describe the prosocial ideals of Stoicism, such as the value it places on what, for simplicity, I’ll just call kindness.

It’s actually very easy to define what the Stoics meant by kindness: it’s the opposite of anger. Although we might call kindness and anger emotions, the Stoics classed them both as desires. For ancient philosophers, anger, to a large extent, is about revenge. It’s the desire to inflict harm on others in response to a perceived injustice, known as lex talionis or the law of retaliation. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.

I like to say “There’s no such thing as angry Stoicism.”

The Stoics, following Socrates, argued that this way of thinking is both foolish and vicious. The wise are motivated, instead, by kindness toward their friends and enemies alike, the desire to make others better not worse, by helping instead of harming them. For this reason, I like to say “There’s no such thing as angry Stoicism.” When you come across people on the Internet getting into heated arguments about Stoicism, you can try explaining that to them!

Kindness in Marcus Aurelius

I could spend all day going through obscure Stoic writings, pointing out one example after another of the emphasis they place on kindness and suchlike. For instance, here’s Seneca talking about the role of brotherly love in Stoicism:

No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. — Seneca, On Clemency

We’ll also find similar things in the writings of important precursors to the Stoic school, such as the Socratic dialogues of Plato and Xenophon. However, we don’t have all day, so I’m going to settle for giving a few more examples from the most famous Stoic of all, Marcus Aurelius.

In the very opening sentence of The Meditations, Marcus praises his grandfather, Marcus Annius Verus, for his exceptional freedom from anger. Indeed, one of the main themes that runs through the entire book is Marcus’ personal struggle to overcome anger and replace it with kindness, through philosophy — to turn himself away from the desire to harm others and toward the desire to help them.

At one point, Marcus describes the Stoic ideal, as exemplified by one of his tutors. He says this man, Sextus of Chaeronea, “never displayed even a hint of anger or of any other [unhealthy] passion” but rather he showed himself to be “free from [irrational] passions and yet full of love”, or philostorgia.

Marcus mentions learning to overcome anger and replace it with love and kindness many times. For example, some of the key lessons he attributes to his other Stoic teachers include:

  • Junius Rusticus: “…with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled.”

  • Claudius Maximus: “He was accustomed to perform acts of kindness, and was ready to forgive.”

  • Claudius Severus: “to love my family, and to love truth, and to love justice… to believe that I am loved by my friends.”

  • Cinna Catulus: “…to love my children sincerely.”

Throughout The Meditations, as we’ve seen, Marcus emphasizes the Stoic virtues of justice and benevolence. Perhaps that’s not surprising given his status as Roman Emperor. However, he was writing these words at Carnuntum and other legionary fortresses along the Danube frontier. With that in mind, it’s striking that Marcus never talks about showing kindness specifically toward Roman citizens or subjects. In every instance, he’s talking more generally about human beings, the whole of mankind. That appears to include the Germanic and Sarmatian tribes he was fighting against at that time, in what historians call the Marcomannic Wars.

In the mornings, Marcus would hold official meetings with foreign envoys. A great deal of his time was spent in negotiating complex peace treaties. The Romans often felt betrayed by tribal chieftains, who conspired against them, and frequently violated these agreements. Nevertheless, in the evenings, Marcus sat down and wrote, in private, to himself…

It is a man’s especial privilege to love even those who stumble. And this love follows as soon as you reflect that they are akin to you and that they do wrong involuntarily and through ignorance, and that within a little while both they and you will be dead; and this above all, that the man has done you no harm… — Meditations, 7.22

Compare that passage from his private journal with what the historian Herodian claims he said on his deathbed. Marcus is talking about why his policy, as emperor, was to favour clemency and forgiveness:

The ruler who emplants in the hearts of his subjects not fear resulting from cruelty, but love occasioned by kindness, is most likely to complete his reign safely. For it is not those who submit from necessity but those who are persuaded to obedience who continue to serve and to suffer without suspicion and without pretense of flattery. — Marcus Aurelius, quoted by Herodian

Indeed, the Roman histories refer several times to the fact Marcus was known for his kindness and benevolence as a ruler. The historian Cassius Dio clearly states that Marcus’ rule was synonymous with euergesia, which can be translated as kindness, philanthropy, or beneficence:

Most of his life he devoted to beneficence, and that was the reason, perhaps, for his erecting a temple to Beneficence on the Capitol, though he called her by a most peculiar name, that had never been heard before. — Cassius Dio

The histories of his rule as emperor show that Marcus was known not only for having a kindly disposition but for imperial policies showing his clemency and beneficence as a ruler. However, it wasn’t just an act. In his private notes, he repeatedly emphasizes to himself that such outward actions must be accompanied by heartfelt and sincere feelings of brotherly love.

Adapt yourself to the circumstances among which your lot has been cast, and love the people among whom your lot has fallen, but love them sincerely. — Meditations, 6.39

Again, the people among whom his lot had fallen, at the time of writing, were mainly Roman soldiers and Germanic tribesmen. He’s telling himself to love them all regardless. As we’ve seen, though, this didn’t come naturally to Marcus. For most of his life, he struggled to cope with feelings of anger and frustration. That’s probably one of the main reasons he turned to Stoicism in the first place.

Ten Gifts from Apollo

In one of the most remarkable passages of The Meditations, Marcus lists ten “Gifts from Apollo and the Muses” (Meditations, 11.18). Apollo was the Greek god of healing, and Marcus is listing ten psychological remedies for anger. This master-list contains individual strategies which are repeated many times throughout The Meditations.

It begins with his favourite way of coping with anger, which is to remind himself that all men are his kin, an that nature designed human beings to collaborate with one another by banding together in families, building cities, and forming societies, etc. He therefore tells himself to remember:

What is my relation to men, and that we are made for one another. — Meditations, 11.18

His penultimate strategy, is to tell himself that kindness (eumenes) can never be conquered, as long as it’s not fake but sincere and from the heart. He means that even those who would seek to harm us cannot take away our freedom to choose kindness over hatred and anger. He even imagines saying to someone who is angry with him:

“Not so, my son; we are constituted by nature for something else; I shall certainly not be injured, but you are injuring yourself, my son.” — Meditations, 11.18

He is careful to warn himself that one must say these words with great tact and sensitivity. He adds: “you must do this neither with any insincerity nor in a reproachful way, but with natural affection [philostorgia] and without any bitterness in your soul.” Elsewhere, Marcus says that correcting someone’s moral flaws is like telling them that they have bad breath or smelly armpits — it requires diplomacy.

He might be using the phrase “child” or “son” figuratively, in the passage above. As we’ve seen, Stoics would call others “brother” or “son”, as though treating them like family, in order to practice oikeiosis. However, it’s also possible that he was literally addressing his son, Commodus, who would probably have been aged around 10–13 when The Meditations was being written.

At the mere mention of Commodus’ name, a lot of people will jump on their keyboards and start making snarky comments about how Marcus’ kindness didn’t do much to stop his son becoming a monster and one of the worst emperors in history. Well that would miss the whole point of what he just said, wouldn’t it? Stoicism advises us to remember the fundamental distinction between what’s up to us and what isn’t. Stoic kindness, or compassion, means wanting to help others, by educating them, and trying to show them a better way of looking at events. It’s really the desire to share wisdom with others, or at least to collaborate with them in seeking wisdom. As the saying goes, though, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

Stoic kindness is resilient, it cannot be conquered as Marcus puts it, because the wise person accepts that the outcome they desire isn’t directly under their control. Shaftesbury puts this quite beautifully when he says that a perfectly virtuous person would show kindness toward others unconditionally without expecting it to be reciprocated:

Come on, let us see now if thou canst love disinterestedly. “Thanks my good kinsman (brother, sister, friend), for giving me so generous a part, that I can love though not beloved.” — Shaftesbury

How far removed is that from what lowercase stoicism means to people? And yet, Marcus describes this generosity of spirit as what it really means for a Stoic philosopher to be resilient and unconquerable.

He goes on to say that although some people will sneer at the notion of love and kindness, and call it weakness, these people are so confused that they actually have the whole thing back to front. Anger, of course, is nothing but weakness. Strength and moral courage, by contrast, are required for the sort of kindness Marcus Aurelius studied in his inner meditations, as philosopher, and then exhibited in his outward life, as emperor. It’s for this reason that I think we need to return to a philosophy of love and kindness… and to what I would describe as Compassionate Stoicism.

If you enjoyed this article, check out my video discussing it on our verissimusgraphicnovel Instagram profile.

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