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Romantic Walk in Sunset

Stoic Love:
Altruism, Compassion, Benevolence, Goodwill


In the popular imagination, Stoics are often thought of as lacking emotions like love, generosity, and compassion. Practicing Stoics, of course, realize that stereotype is not true. But did you know that Stoicism actually helps us to become more compassionate and generous? You can see this, for example, when Marcus Aurelius, in his private thoughts, urges himself to love others and look past their faults: 

Love the human race. (Meditations, 7.31) 

Adapt yourself to the circumstances in which your lot has cast you; and love these people among whom your lot has fallen, but love them in all sincerity. (Meditations, 6.39) 

It is a special characteristic of human beings to love even those who stumble. (Meditations, 7.22) 

So what does it mean to love others in a Stoic sense? I’ve already written about Stoicism and romantic love in a blog post, so we’ll skip that here. For now, let’s focus on the sort of expansive humanitarian love that characterizes all the great wisdom traditions (Buddhism, Christianity, etc.). Like these other great traditions, Stoicism encourages us to love others as they are (not as we would wish them to be) with patience, kindness, and humility. 

To see how this works, we’ll look at Stoic love through the lens of concepts we are already familiar with: altruism and compassion. These are not ancient Stoic terms. But I think these two modern concepts can help us understand what Stoic love is and how to develop it. 


Altruism – Your Good, My Good, The Common Good


In the 21st century, many people think of altruism as doing good things for other people, animals, or natural entities: helping the homeless, protecting the environment, treating animals with respect, etc. The assumption is that for an action to be truly altruistic, a person must act without expectation of reward, except maybe for that warm, fuzzy feeling we get when helping others. If you help others with the hope of getting anything for yourself (even non-material things like social approval or networking connections), you are deemed to have selfish motivations, and the action is no longer altruistic. 

But Stoicism turns this notion inside out. Instead of clearly demarcating the line between self and others, Stoicism asks us to blur or even remove this line completely. Part of learning to see the world clearly is learning that we are not so separate from other people and natural entities. We are all small parts of the same whole.  

The famous metaphor used by the ancient Stoics is that we are all parts of the same body. Each of us has an important role to play—like the heart, the foot, the eye—but we function with reference to the body as a whole. An individual organ on its own doesn’t do much good; it must be integrated into the rest of the body in order to function properly. If you remove a single body part, it will fail, and it will probably cause the whole body to fail. 

Instead of seeing our own good as separate from that of others, we see our good as completely intertwined with the good of others. And not just the good of others nearest us, but the good of everyone. To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, what benefits the hive also benefits each individual bee. Without a healthy society—and a healthy environment—each one of us will be worse off. 

So not only do we align our good with other individuals (family members, friends, colleagues, etc.), but we align our own good with that of the whole. This is called the common good. Again, if you read through the Meditations, you will notice how often Marcus Aurelius talks about contributing to the common good. And not just because he was emperor and the “father” of his people. This is standard Stoicism, and it applies to all of us.  

It’s important to understand that the Stoics didn’t talk about the common good as utilitarians. Their argument was not “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” And their argument was also not based on reciprocity, as in “I’ll take care of you so you’ll take care me.” 

The Stoic argument is that as humans, we are designed to care for each other. That’s our human nature; it’s just what we are made to do. Anyone who acts selfishly destroys his own character, thereby harming himself as well as other individuals and the common good. Going back to the body parts metaphor, Marcus says that if we act against other people, it’s like cutting off a body part. He describes a battlefield full of severed hands and feet. When we consider only our own needs in isolation from others, we are cutting ourselves off from the body we should be attached to. Everyone suffers, including ourselves. 

Here’s another description of the links between human nature and the common good, courtesy of Seneca: 

Nature brought us to birth as kin, since it generated us all from the same materials and for the same purposes, endowing us with affection for one another and making us companionable. Nature established fairness and justice. According to nature's dispensation, it is worse to harm that to be harmed. On the basis of nature's command, let our hands be available to help whenever necessary. Let this verse be in your heart and in your mouth: "I am a human being, I regard nothing human as foreign to me." Let us hold things in common, as we are born for the common good. Our companionship is just like an arch, which would collapse without the stones' mutual support to hold it up. (Letters on Ethics, 95, 52-53) 

We are like the stones of an arch, as Seneca reminds us: without each other’s support, we would quickly collapse. If you stop to think about how much you depend on other people, you will quickly realize how true this is. For one thing, you would not have even survived without the care of your parents and other adults for the first 20 years of your life. And even as an adult, you depend daily on physical, material, and emotional support from hundreds of other people, many of whom you may not even know. Our society today is far more complex than in the past, so this is even truer now than it ever has been before. To be human is to be social. We are designed to be cared for by others and to care for others in our turn.[1] 

So the concept of altruism is quite different for Stoics than it would be for someone who thinks only in terms of isolated individuals. When we benefit others, we also benefit ourselves. It’s not a zero-sum interaction. It’s a win-win-win. As Epictetus puts it: 

In general [Nature] has constituted the rational animal to have such a nature that he cannot attain any of his own particular goods without contributing to the common benefit. And so in the end it isn't antisocial to do everything for one's own benefit. (Discourses, 1.19, 13-14) 

Furthermore, Stoic altruism—also known as the virtue of justice—goes beyond mere actions. It implies a particular attitude, a mental and spiritual state of kindness and generosity. We are not talking simply about doing your duty and being grumpy about it. As Marcus says above, we must love others “in all sincerity.” He spends a lot of time in the Meditations trying to do this. But we all know how hard it is to love others when they are so annoying, petty, mean, foolish, and, well, selfish.  

That’s where our second concept comes in handy: compassion.  


Compassion, Not Empathy 

A Stoic form of compassion is useful in two senses. On the one hand, we can use it in the sense of bearing with people with patience and kindness, understanding that we share many of their faults. We are non-judgmental and compassionate because we understand that everyone is doing what they think is right. When you start to judge others harshly, Marcus says, remind yourself that you are prone to the same errors in thinking. We can recognize that someone is mistaken—we can even take action to correct or discipline them when appropriate, as a parent or magistrate does—while still showing a sympathetic understanding. 

The ancient Stoics, following in the Socratic tradition, believed that people act wrongly not because they want to be bad, but because they simply don’t know any better. They may have wrong ideas about the world, resulting in wrong actions. That means they deserve our compassion, not our condemnation. In Epictetus’ words: 

In his relations with others, [a wise person]...will be tolerant, gentle, forbearing, and kind with regard to one who is unlike him, as likewise to one who is ignorant and falls into error on the matters of the highest importance; and he will never be harsh with anyone because he fully understands the saying of Plato, that “no mind is ever willingly deprived of the truth.” (Discourses, 2.22, 36) 

And by the way, this compassion also extends to ourselves. We’re not perfect, and we don’t always behave as virtuously as we would like to. Sometimes we have to be compassionate toward ourselves, just like as should be toward others who make mistakes. 

Stoic compassion is also useful in a second sense, at the opposite end of the spectrum: compassion as a contrast to empathy. In a way, both of these English terms (compassion and empathy) are problematic for Stoics because they imply “co-feeling,” or feeling the same thing another person is feeling. Many times when you see someone suffering, you suffer alongside them.  

This is not what we mean by compassion in Stoicism. Stoicism is about overcoming negative emotions, including the natural suffering we might feel when another person suffers. Sympathetic sorrow is still sorrow. I’ve decided to continue using the word compassion, though, because there is a more nuanced sense—also used in Buddhism—which removes the emotional response to suffering and instead focuses on the cognitive response. This is exactly what we aim to do in Stoicism: be sensitive to the suffering of others, but in a way that allows us to respond helpfully without suffering ourselves. 

Because this concept is so misunderstood in Stoicism, I would like to call in an expert witness from Buddhism, a tradition that is (in the Western mind, at least) closely associated with compassion. In his voluminous scholarly work called Altruism, the Buddhist monk (and translator for the Dalai Lama) Matthieu Ricard [2] explores the relationship between emotional empathy and cognitive compassion. 

Empathy can lead to an altruistic motivation, but it can also, when we find ourselves confronted with another person's suffering, give rise to a feeling of distress and avoidance that leads us to close in on ourselves or turn away from the sufferings we're witnessing. (p. 40) 

Empathy, in the traditional sense of “feeling alongside,” can result in so much negative emotion that the would-be helper simply turns away or shuts down. The person feels so distressed that their primary concern is getting rid of their own distress rather than helping others. This kind of empathy is actually a form of selfishness. Pity, too, is a related emotion that implies selfishness on the part of the pitier: 

Pity is an egocentric, often condescending, feeling of commiseration, which in no way testifies to an altruistic motivation. One might give alms, for instance, full of a feeling of superiority...The Swiss philosopher Alexandre Jollien is more precise: "In pity, there is a humiliation for the one receiving. Altruism and compassion stem from equality, without humiliating the other." Paraphrasing Spinoza, Alexandre adds, "In pity, sadness comes first. I am sad that the other is suffering but I don't really love him. In compassion, love comes first." (p. 51)


A better strategy, Ricard suggests, is “becoming aware of the other’s needs and then feeling a sincere desire to come to his or her aid” (p. 50). In this case, what is felt is not suffering, but a desire to help. The object of the action is no longer yourself or your own emotions, but the other person’s needs: 

“The more altruistic love and compassion are cognitive, the more amplitude they give to altruism, and the less they are affected by emotional obscurations like the empathic distress aroused by seeing others' suffering” (p. 34).  


This cognitive compassion is exactly what the ancient Stoics advocated: helping others while not suffering alongside them. Epictetus, for instance, classes pity as one of the passions alongside anger and envy: 

Epictetus: Who wishes, then, to fall into error?  

Student: No one does.  

Epictetus: Who wishes to live as one who is subject to deception, and is impetuous, unjust, dissolute, petulant, and base? 

Student: No one. 

Epictetus: No one who is of bad character lives as he wants, and accordingly, he isn’t free either. And who wants to live in sorrow and fear, and feel envy and pity, desiring things without being able to attain them, and wanting to avoid things and yet falling into them?  

Student: No one at all. (Discourses, 4.1, 1-5) 

Epictetus considers pity—and what we today call emotional empathy—to be a form of mistaken belief like all other negative passions. It is a natural human response, just like those other bad emotions. And just like the other passions, it must be eliminated. But that doesn’t mean we should stop caring about other people. It just means we need to learn how to love without feeling those negative emotions. We need to learn how to love wisely. 

Unfortunately, this nuanced stance has been wildly misunderstood, and Stoicism has been branded as an uncaring philosophy. That is extremely unfortunate. Stoicism actually offers us the cognitive tools to care about other people—both those we live with and those on the other side of the world—with true altruism and compassion. It teaches us how to interact with other people, appreciate them, forgive them, and love them, without suffering from negative emotions. And when we are able to do that, we experience a whole new mode of being. 


Benevolence and Goodwill 

One of the so-called “good” emotions that would be experienced by a sage is eunoia, which Margaret Graver translates as good intent [3]. Cicero translated eunoia as benevolentia, and of course in English today we use the Latinized term benevolence and the Germanic equivalent goodwill. It all comes down to the same thing: good wishes for another person for that person’s sake (p. 58). Not for any selfish reasons, and not tinged with envy; just being completely happy for another person because you love them. 

Our discussion of altruism and compassion has now prepared us to understand how this emotion works in Stoicism. As humans, we are made to love others, and we flourish when we do so wisely. The key word is “wisely.” Being overcome by a romantic passion that leads you to do crazy things is not a wise type of love. Neither is selectively loving only a few close family members and not caring about anyone else.  

Instead, our natural disposition to love our nearest kin can be perfected into a true, deep, and expansive love for other people. The ancient Stoics believed our biological instinct to love our own children is the starting point for all types of love. This has an almost exact parallel in Buddhism (and other traditions), as described by Matthieu Ricard: 

The Dalai Lama distinguishes two types of altruistic love: the first manifests spontaneously because of the biological disposition that we have inherited from evolution. It reflects our instinct to take care of our children, those close to us, and more generally whoever treats us with kindness... 

Extended altruism, however, is impartial. In most people, it is not spontaneous and must be cultivated. "The social instinct, together with sympathy, is, like any other instinct, greatly strengthened by habit," wrote Darwin. Whatever our point of departure, we all have the possibility of cultivating altruism and transcending the limits that restrict it to the circle of those close to us. (p. 30) 

This passage could almost have been written by an ancient Stoic. The Stoics too believed that we all have the possibility of developing our natural social instinct into an altruistic love towards everyone. They called this process oikeiosis. It requires growing closer to other people, bringing them within the sphere of what you consider your own. Oikeiosis is the opposite of alienation. You could call it oneness or belonging. We don’t feel that we are separate from others; we feel close to them, like they belong to us, and we all belong together. 

One practical method for doing this is presented by the Roman Stoic Hierocles. You can read quite a few versions of this throughout the Stoic community. Here is a very straightforward one from the Practical Stoic website. The idea is to use our natural social endowments to cultivate a benevolent disposition toward everyone in the world. 

A true well-wishing, though, is not applied in the abstract but in the immediate and living present. This is the hard part (as Marcus Aurelius can attest!). Remember how Marcus said we should love even those who stumble, and Epictetus said we should be especially patient with those who are mistaken? Even when others are annoying, insulting, or vicious in some other way, we can still offer them our goodwill. 

When we sincerely love, we are not calculating what we get from the relationship or whether the other person loves us back. We are wishing for good things for that person’s sake. As Ricard suggests, 

Love is altruistic when it manifests as the joy of sharing life with those around us—friends, companions, spouses—and contributing to their happiness, moment by moment. Instead of being obsessed by the other, one is concerned with the other's happiness...Instead of anxiously expecting gratification from them, one can give and receive with joy and kindness. (p. 67-68) 

It may seem strange that, as Stoics, we would think about other people’s happiness or find joy in being with other people. Isn’t our happiness supposed to only depend on ourselves? What about only caring about things we can control? 

Well, when Epictetus says we should focus on the things within our control—opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and some of our actions—he isn’t saying we should abandon our human nature and stop loving people. In fact, in several of his discourses he explains how we should love in a wise way. The dichotomy of control means we don’t let our happiness depend on what other people are doing. We don’t become upset when a lover rejects us, or when a beloved spouse passes away, or when a child does something annoying. We can still love these people, while recognizing that our happiness does not depend on their actions (or their continued existence). Our love comes from within and does not depend on anything else. 

Love is appropriate to our nature. Since our ability to love is part of our character, it can remain constant no matter what other people do. Therefore love, like happiness, is the result of your own character and is internal to you. (Just a caveat: that does not mean you should maintain personal relationships that are harmful to you. Loving wisely means not allowing yourself to be abused or taken advantage of. If a friend or romantic partner proves toxic, you can part ways with that person while still wishing them well as a person.) 

Some people might be wondering why we would bother to do all this goodwill and benevolence stuff. What do we actually get out of it? What if we keep loving others and no one else loves us in return?  

The simple is answer is that loving others makes us happy. Of course, we all naturally feel happy when others love us, and much of human behavior is designed to seek approval and affection from others. But if we really understand human nature, as the Stoics did, we can see that giving love can provide as much happiness—or more—than receiving love. 

That’s because love is appropriate to our nature, and we find our greatest happiness when doing what is appropriate to our nature. Remember the Stoic arguments above that we are made to be with other people? We flourish when we are able to express our social nature to the fullest. Our social instinct is inborn, but it our choice whether to develop it to its fullest capacity. We develop our sociability through true goodwill towards others. 

Again, Buddhism can help us flesh out this point a bit. The ancient Stoic literature hints at this conclusion, but since Buddhism is a living tradition with a well-developed system of oral transmission, we can broaden our understanding of how this works in practice. Here is Ricard on goodwill and joy:   

Rejoicing consists in feeling from the bottom of your heart a sincere joy at the accomplishments and qualities of others, toward those who work for the good of others, whose beneficial projects are crowned with success, those who have realized their aspirations at the cost of persistent efforts, and also those who possess multiple talents.  

This joy, appreciation, and celebration are accompanied by the wish that their happiness and qualities never diminish, but persist and increase. 

This ability to be pleased about the qualities of others also serves as an antidote to competitiveness, envy, and jealousy, all of which reflect an inability to rejoice in the happiness of others. Rejoicing also constitutes a remedy to a somber, despairing view of the world and humanity. (p. 27) 

To me, this “sincere joy at the accomplishments and qualities of others” sounds a lot like the good intent, goodwill, cherishing, and wishing that characterize the Stoic sage. It also sounds a lot like Marcus Aurelius when he says: 

When you want to gladden your heart, think of the good qualities of those around you; the energy of one, for instance, the modesty of another, the generosity of a third, and some other quality in another. For there is nothing more heartening than the images of the virtues shining forth in the characters of those around us, and assembled around us, so far as possible, in close array. So be sure to keep them ever at hand. (Meditations, 6.48) 

For all of us who are not perfect—and who struggle to show goodwill towards others—this is excellent advice. But I think even the sage would celebrate the virtues of other people. The sage wouldn’t actually become happier when she sees the good qualities of others because she already possesses the most complete happiness, and she would not become unhappy if she witnesses vice. Her perfection and her happiness don’t actually depend on other people. But would be appropriate for her to celebrate virtue in another person for that person’s own sake.  

Returning to the paradigmatic parent-child relationship, this is the way parents love their children. (Or I should say this is the ideal parent-child relationship, although it does not always happen this way.) Parents naturally want good things for their children for the child’s own sake. We don’t want our kids to be happy because there’s something in it for us. We want them to be happy for their own sake. We want them to be happy because we love them. 


Conclusion: Wise Love 

Through the lifelong process of oikeiosis, we can all perfect and expand this instinctual capacity to love. We can develop our ability to sincerely wish good things for other people. We can bring all sorts of people—those on the other side of the world, those in our own countries who disagree with us politically, those close to us who annoy us on a daily basis—into the sphere of our own concern. We can recognize that we are made to go together, like the upper and lower teeth, and that we are incomplete if we do not love and cooperate with others.  

It’s almost ironic that we can only truly love other people after we realize our happiness does not depend on them. But this is what it means to love wisely. We realize that our own capacity to love is determined by our own character, and we find a deep happiness by fulfilling our own nature as a human through the highest expressions of goodwill and love. Just as a parent loves a child for the child’s own sake, Stoic wisdom allows us to love other people for their own sake and not because we expect to receive something in return. Only then can we flourish, because we only find true happiness by loving others. 


[1] I just want to note that this is an ethical and not a political argument. This applies to a properly functioning civil society and does not imply a particular stance on political governance. 

[2] Ricard, M. (2015). Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

[3] Graver, M. (2007). Stoicism and Emotion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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