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The Stoics on Relationships

""When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love." — Marcus Aurelius
Dr JC Coetzee Clinical Psychologist, Ponsonby, Auckland Couples Therapy

The Stoic view on relationships can be discerned through the works of prominent Stoic philosophers: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, and Musonius Rufus. This article delves into their teachings to understand how Stoicism addresses the complexities of human connections and how we can best approach relationships.

Marcus Aurelius: Relationships as Part of the Cosmic Order

Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, wrote extensively on Stoic principles in his personal reflections, now known as the "Meditations." He emphasised the interconnectedness of human beings, viewing relationships as integral to the cosmic order. According to Marcus, every individual is part of a larger whole and must fulfil their role within this universal framework.

In "Meditations," Marcus Aurelius often reflects on the nature of relationships, urging individuals to accept others’ faults and imperfections with patience and understanding. He writes, "When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil" (Meditations, 2.1). This passage suggests that recognising and accepting the limitations of others is crucial in maintaining harmonious relationships.

Moreover, Marcus highlights the importance of empathy and the recognition that everyone is driven by their internal principles and struggles. He advises, "Teach them better if you can. If you cannot, remember that the ideal must be kept intact. Don't be angry with him" (Meditations, 6.27). By adopting a compassionate perspective, we can foster better relationships and contribute to the Stoic ideal of a harmonious community.

Dr JC Coetzee Clinical Psychologist, Ponsonby, Auckland Couples Therapy

Seneca: The Art of Loving Wisely

Seneca, a prominent Stoic philosopher, statesman, and advisor to Emperor Nero, explored the dynamics of personal relationships extensively in his letters and essays. Seneca’s writings offer practical advice on how to navigate friendships, familial bonds, and romantic relationships through the lens of Stoicism.

In his essay "On Anger," Seneca discusses the detrimental effects of anger on relationships and the importance of self-control. He asserts, "We are born for cooperation, as are the feet, the hands, the eyelids, and the upper and lower rows of teeth. To act against one another is therefore contrary to nature" (On Anger, 1.12). By highlighting the natural tendency for cooperation, Seneca underscores the Stoic belief that relationships should be rooted in mutual support and understanding rather than conflict.

In his letters to Lucilius, Seneca often advises on the nature of friendship. He argues that true friendship is based on virtue and mutual respect, rather than on superficial benefits. "The wise man is self-sufficient," he writes, "yet he desires friends if only for the purpose of practicing friendship and ensuring that noble actions are not without a witness and reward" (Letters, IX). For Seneca, friendship is an opportunity to practice and reflect virtue, reinforcing the Stoic ideal that relationships should elevate both parties involved.

Regarding romantic relationships, Seneca advocates for a balanced approach, warning against the dangers of excessive passion. In "On the Shortness of Life," he advises, "No man is crushed by misfortune unless he has first been deceived by prosperity" (On the Shortness of Life, 10). By maintaining an even temper and not becoming overly attached to external circumstances, individuals can cultivate healthier and more resilient relationships.

Dr JC Coetzee Clinical Psychologist, Ponsonby, Auckland Couples Therapy

Epictetus: Mastering Desire and Aversion

Epictetus, a former slave turned Stoic philosopher, emphasised the importance of mastering one’s desires and aversions to maintain tranquility in relationships. His teachings, recorded in the "Discourses" and the "Enchiridion," provide practical guidance on how to navigate social interactions with equanimity.

Epictetus believed that much of the suffering in relationships stems from misplaced desires and expectations. He famously advised, "Don't demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well" (Enchiridion, 8). This principle of acceptance is crucial in managing relationships, as it encourages individuals to focus on their own reactions rather than trying to control others.

In the "Discourses," Epictetus discusses the importance of self-awareness and the role it plays in relationships. He teaches, "If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things" (Discourses, I.3). By prioritising internal virtue over external validation, individuals can develop more authentic and stable relationships, free from the need for constant approval.

Epictetus also highlights the importance of understanding the nature of others and their limitations. He advises, "When someone is properly grounded in life, they shouldn’t have to look outside themselves for approval" (Discourses, I.6). By recognising that others are also striving to align their actions with their principles, we can approach relationships with greater empathy and patience.

Dr JC Coetzee Clinical Psychologist, Ponsonby, Auckland Couples Therapy

Regarding the upbringing of children, Musonius stressed the importance of parental example and education. He asserted, "The best way to educate children is to set a good example, for children are naturally inclined to imitate their parents" (Lectures, XI). This emphasis on leading by example aligns with the broader Stoic principle that actions, not words, are the true measure of virtue.

Musonius also addressed the challenges of balancing personal ambitions with familial responsibilities. He taught that one’s duty to family and community should not be neglected in the pursuit of personal goals. "The truly wise person," he argued, "will not neglect their family duties but will integrate them into their broader practice of virtue" (Lectures, XIII). This holistic approach ensures that personal development and familial responsibilities are not seen as mutually exclusive but rather as complementary aspects of a virtuous life.

Musonius Rufus: The Stoic Approach to Marriage and Family

Musonius Rufus, a lesser-known but highly influential Stoic philosopher, offered detailed insights into the Stoic perspective on marriage and family life. His lectures emphasize the importance of virtue and mutual respect in maintaining healthy and fulfilling relationships.

Musonius believed that marriage should be based on a partnership of equals, where both parties support each other’s moral and intellectual development. He argued, "The husband and wife should come together with the purpose of living harmoniously and raising their children well, which can only be achieved through mutual respect and virtue" (Lectures, XIV). By grounding the relationship in shared values and goals, couples can foster a stable and supportive environment for themselves and their children.

Dr JC Coetzee Clinical Psychologist, Ponsonby, Auckland Couples Therapy

The Stoic Legacy in Modern Relationships

The teachings of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, and Musonius Rufus offer timeless wisdom on the nature of relationships. Stoicism emphasises the importance of virtue, self-control, and empathy in fostering healthy and fulfilling connections with others. By accepting the imperfections of others, prioritizing internal virtue over external validation, and balancing personal ambitions with familial duties, individuals can cultivate relationships that contribute to a tranquil and meaningful life.

In the modern context, these Stoic principles remain relevant as they provide a framework for navigating the complexities of human interactions. In a world where relationships are often tested by external pressures and internal conflicts, the Stoic emphasis on self-awareness, acceptance, and mutual respect offers valuable guidance. By integrating these ancient teachings into our daily lives, we can build stronger, more resilient relationships that withstand the test of time.

The Stoic view on relationships underscores the belief that true happiness and tranquility are achieved not through the external circumstances of our relationships but through the cultivation of inner virtue and wisdom. This perspective encourages us to approach our interactions with others not as sources of validation or fulfilment but as opportunities for personal growth and the practice of Stoic principles. Through this lens, relationships become a vital part of the Stoic journey towards a life of reason, virtue, and harmony.

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