This beautiful metaphor by Seneca sets the tone for the beginning of Margaret Graver’s treatment of friendship and love in her book on Stoicism and Emotion, which we have been discussing of late. The last stone in the arch represents human maturation: when our character is well formed we get to realize a number of potentialities that had been there from the beginning, but could not be actuated. Our opinions are brought into harmony with each other and with the world, we no longer assent to false notions, and we acquire inner stability and beauty. It is important to note that the mature human being – that is, the wise person – is still a human being: the finished arch is made of the same materials as the unfinished one. And yet the final state is quite different from the previous ones. The same holds true for mature relationships, including relationships with friends and lovers.
The Stoics thought that things like marriage and political action are in accordance with human nature. We are rational, communal, and gregarious animals, which means that we want relationships with others. Remember also that we have a natural tendency toward ethical and intellectual development, because of innate tendencies and preferences that are the starting point of virtue, and because of an natural orientation (oikeiôsis) toward others. Moreover, this sense of kinship with others is extended by way of reason to the entire membership in the human polis, the basis of the Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism. There is a problem, though:
“Until wisdom is actually attained … the usual epistemic limitations remain in force. The natural sense of attachment is subject to perversion, as are all the starting points, and for this reason the imperfect person’s sense of what is appropriate in dealing with others is quite unreliable.” (p. 177)
One consequence of this is that we can’t live a good life just by going with the strong emotions that come out of our personal relationships. As Epictetus told the sick child’s father, reacting emotionally to the situation sometimes gets in the way of the more truly human response, which is to think about what the other person actually needs. But it doesn’t follow that wise relationships have to be devoid of feeling. Some of the texts Graver looks at suggest that there is an affective dimension even in the ideal form of Stoic friendship. The point isn’t to suppress emotions, it is to develop the proper emotions:
“The ideal form of human relationship is conceived not only as a mutual disposition to act in one another’s best interests but also as a disposition to respond affectively to one another. We are to imagine the wise interacting with one another in daily life and, in the context of those interactions, experiencing feelings of warmth and affection.” (p. 179)
An important point made by Margaret is that for the Stoics friendship was an intrinsic good, that is, something that is good in and of itself, not just because it allows us to exercise our virtue (like other, instrumental goods do, such as wealth, education, and so forth). Stobaeus says that a friend is “choiceworthy for his own sake” (Ecl. II.7.11c; 94-95W), while Cicero states that among the wise each person “values his friend’s reason equally with his own” (On Ends II.70). When Zeno was asked “what is a friend?” he replied “another I” (Diogenes Laertius, VII.23). Indeed, in Zeno’s Republic the wise persons are all, naturally, friends, and each wishes good things for the others, for their own sake:
“The notion of a community of the wise was important in Stoic political thought at all periods, whether that community was conceived as in Zeno’s Republic, as an idealized version of existing Greek cities, or in a broader sense as comprising all wise persons wherever they happen to live.” (p. 182)
One radical claim made by the Stoics is that there is no trade-off between friendship and the self-sufficiency of the individual. Seneca makes two distinct arguments in this regard, one a bit more convincing than the other. They are both found in the ninth letter to Lucilius, on friendship.
The first argument is that the wise person can rise above the loss of a friend due to the knowledge, which the wise person possesses, of what is truly good. Seneca elaborates by way of a fascinating analogy:
“Here is what it means to say the wise person is self-contained: there are times when he is content with just part of himself. If infection or battle took off his hand; if an accident cost him an eye, or even both eyes, the remaining parts of himself would be sufficient for him; he would be as happy with his body diminished as he was with it whole. Still, although he does not feel the want of the missing limbs, he would prefer that they not be missing.” (Letters, IX.4)
A friend, here, is akin to a part of ourselves, obviously signifying a very intimate relationship indeed. And yet, though we do not prefer it, we can live a good life even without an eye or a limb. And so it has to be with the death or the departure of a friend. As Stoics, we accept what happens with equanimity, without foolishly wishing for things that cannot be had.
The second argument is that it is not a particular friend that is good, but friendship itself. Which means that friends can be replaced by new ones. Again, Seneca deploys an analogy, this time less successfully:
“But in truth he will never be without a friend, for it rests with him how quickly he gets a replacement. Just as Phidias, if he should lose one of his statues, would immediately make another, so this artist at friend making will substitute another in place of the one who is lost.” (Letters, IX.5)
Phidias was a famous Greek sculptor, whose statue of Zeus at Olympia was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. The problem with the analogy, as Graver points out, is that statues are objects, for which one does not have the sort of affection that can compare to friendship (unlike, again, the regard we have for parts of our own body). Following the analogy, friends are passive recipients of our practice of virtue, and not therefore valuable in themselves.
What does work, however, is the general argument to which the analogy with Phidias’ statues does not render justice. It is true even for us non-wise people that there is a value in friendship that transcends the individual friend, just like there is a value in love that transcends the individual lover. Several people can be our friends, or our lovers, and yet that does not diminish their importance to us, both intrinsically, for who they are, and in terms of the general relationship (friendship, love) that we have with them. (See this post for the difference between True Love and fungible love.)
Speaking of love, the last part of Margaret’s chapter is devoted to that topic, and there too we find a number of notions that would surprise the naive outsider, like the fact that a number of the early Stoics, including Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus, wrote treatises on erotic love. Just like friendship, love is obviously a matter of affective response, but it has to be of the right, that is, virtuous, kind:
“There are two senses in which one may speak of the ‘erotic person’; one in reference to virtue, as one quality of the righteous person, and one in reference to vice, as if blaming someone for love-madness.” (Stobaeus, Ecl. II.7.5b9; 65W)
The vice aspect of eros manifests itself whenever someone is uncontrollably drawn to someone else. While this notion has been romanticized ever since Sappho, it is of course an emotion akin to strong hunger, and it is not what the Stoics are after.
But there is a normative type of eros, which is a kind of resolve, a future-directed impulse, the object of which is not intercourse per se, but rather friendship of a special kind:
“It is [the Stoics’] doctrine that the wise person behaves not only in the manner of a thoughtful and philosophical person but also in the manner of a convivial and erotic one. … The wise person is also an erotic person and will fall in love with those worthy of love.” (Stobaeus, Ecl. II.7.5b9; 65-66W and 2.7.11s; 115W)
Graver goes into some detail in explaining why such love is often directed at a young person, who will be guided by the wise one toward the acquisition of virtue. And no, in context it doesn’t sound at all like what you may be thinking here.
The important point is that the object of virtuous erotic love is the forming of a friendship, which the wise person recognizes as a good to be realized in the future. Such love is not just something that is selected because it exercises our virtue; it is a genuine affective response, one of the eupatheiai or positive emotions:
“If love is indeed eupathic then there is no reason to deny that it, like other eupathic responses, involves feelings similar in kind and intensity to the feelings ordinary people experience in emotion. In general what distinguishes the eupatheiai from the pathē [i.e., the unhealthy emotions] is not the kind of the psychophysical change they produce but their correctness as judgments: pleasure is irrational uplift, joy a rational uplift. As a judgment, eupathic love is very different from desire, for it is directed at an object that really is a prospective good according to the Stoic theory of value. … Eros does not require justification; it is a good thing in its own right, as are all the eupatheiai. The wise fall in love for no other reason than that it is their nature to want to be intimate with those whom they see as beautiful.” (p. 188-89)
What about the rest of us, non-wise people? Margaret concludes the chapter by remarking that what is proper for every human being is not just concern for others, but affectively engaged concern. That’s a fundamental component of human nature. The problem arises because the non-wise may make mistakes about the object of their affective responses, which is why at times we may be able to do more good by setting aside our feelings. But having strong feelings is not, per se, an indication of error of judgment.