Classically Inclined

October 16, 2018

Can you be a Stoic and be in love?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:47 pm
Tags: , ,

We’ve established how the Stoics thought emotions worked, and the problems they saw with the irrational passions. So where does love fit into all of this? Did the Stoics think that you should try and get rid of love?

This is where we get into the question of what precise words the Stoics use to talk about these kinds of emotions. Love, amor, does not fit into either the passions or the eupatheiai, so seems to be a bit betwixt and between. However, when the Roman Stoics talk about amor, they are not talking about the kind of romantic love you might find in the elegaic poets (or indeed in Sappho), but what the Greek Stoics called erōs. Our Greek sources are very clear that the Stoics did not think erōs was irrational, although the reasons they gave for this may not always have made a great deal of sense. They defined erōs as a wish to create a friendship with another person based on that person’s moral and physical attractiveness – so not inherently heterosexual, or indeed inherently sexual at all. The key element in erōs is that it is aroused by the promise of virtue (which is good for all of us proficientes, as otherwise we’d be stuck). The early Stoics also seem to have been very comfortable with same-sex erōs, provided of course that it came from a mutual appreciation of each other’s virtue.

By the time we get to Seneca, what was originally a quite queer position had been framed in terms of the heterosexual marriage relationship; Seneca talks, for instance, of married couples experiencing amor as a positive thing which draws on this idea of an affection grounded in appreciation for each other’s potential for virtue. However, another important word begins to appear, which is affectus. We get a bit of what this means in De Matrimonio V 26:

Furthermore, Seneca reports that he knew a certain distinguished man who used to bind up his chest with his wife’s fascea when he was about to go into public, and could not be without her presence for a moment; man and wife used to drink no drink except one touched by the lips of the other, performing other no less foolish actions in the same manner, in which the thoughtless strength of burning affectus used to burst out: the beginning of this love (amor) was indeed honourable, but its extent was shameful. Indeed, it makes no difference how honourable the reason is from which someone goes mad.

It’s the affectus which comes under fire here, and it’s the affectus that is the irrational drive or passion, drawing the couple into silly over-the-top romantic behaviour. The amor itself was originally quite rational and under control, but it has somehow lost its footing and spiraled into these kind of excessively sentimental antics.

What V26 tells us is that Seneca is quite happy with relationships which are based on a Stoic amor/erōs that takes as its foundation the beloved’s potential for virtue, but that he deplores those relationships where amor has turned to affectus, because reason (and a sense of perspective) has been lost. We come back again to the idea of the indifferents – love in and of itself is neither good nor bad; it’s how you use it that matters. In the case of affectus, where being in love becomes more important than the pursuit of virtue, things have gone pretty badly wrong – but that doesn’t mean that relationships based in grounded, rational amor can’t exist.

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