Love, Lust & Stoicism 📽️

Video script of ‘Lust, Love & Stoicism’

You might be wondering; how did the ancient Stoics view love and lust? Were they hopeless romantics or rather cold and distant? Were they pleasure-seekers enjoying polyamory or did they value the duties of marriage? In this video, I will explore lust, love, and Stoicism.

So, there’s a big difference between love and lust, although in today’s day and age we often mix them up. We could say that unconditional love is the purest form there is and something that’s completely in our control. 

Stoic philosopher Epictetus described the things in our control as “by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered.” That’s why we can give this type of love away freely, and don’t need anything in return so the quality of it doesn’t depend on what outside forces are up to. 

Lust, on the other hand, is a desire for something that is not in our control. When we’re lustful, we crave for the body of another human being. And when this body, for some reason, isn’t available, we suffer. Epictetus described the things not in our control as “weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others.”

Living in a Western culture I see the great emphasis put on ‘romantic love’. The romantic love ideal has become such an important pursuit, that we have elevated it to an ultimate concern. More often than not, in secular countries, romantic love rises above any form of religion and spirituality. Some people live for romance, making this mesmerizing experience the focus of their lives. 

Unfortunately, there’s a problem with this pursuit. When two people fall in love, they reside in a period of infatuation called the ‘honeymoon phase’. Whether or not nature meant this to be simply an incentive to procreate; the honeymoon phase doesn’t last. After the intense euphoria decreases, it’s not unlikely that people feel cheated. 

Without the rose-colored glasses, they see a human being with, probably, the many flaws that they initially overlooked. As a result, many people rather seek another romantic high and abandon those that ´aren’t doing it´ for them anymore. Such love is self-serving, rather than serving others.

In many ways, romantic love is built on clinging and aversion. We cling to someone immensely and are averse to the idea that we get separated from this person. “He who fails to obtain the object of his desire is disappointed, and he who incurs the object of his aversion wretched,” said Epictetus.

The experience of being wretched is very commonly seen in individuals that are in a romantic love affair, in the form of jealousy. Jealousy between lovers can be quite destructive; it’s a fear-based emotion that our lover will leave us for another lover. 

it’s an emotion based on the fear that our lover will leave us for someone else.

This often results in possessiveness; the need to control the movements of another human being to assure ourselves that they won’t do things we don’t like, which is just another form of clinging. Such relationships don’t seem very virtuous nor do they lead to inner peace.

Still, as opposed to what some might think, the Stoics did not disapprove of relationships. Yet, they did not recommend clinging or indulgence in lust.

Seneca, for example, saw the indulgence in lust as worst of the sins, and I quote:

..among the worst cases I count also those who give their time to nothing but drink and lust; for these are the most shameful preoccupations of all.

Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life, 7-1

Seneca stated that the those who are abandoned to the belly and lust, bear the stain of dishonor, and thought that people who are quickly angered, greedy and violent at least sin in a more ‘manly’ fashion.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t experience lust at all. The joy of intercourse can be seen as a preferred indifferent, which is a subordinate to the Stoic virtue called moderation.

As opposed to lustful indulgence, Seneca respected love and meaningful relationships with other people. In fact, they concerned him a great deal. He valued marriage and the duties involved and expressed his dislike towards divorce and adultery. Such a stance is congruent with Stoic ethics, that point to living a virtuous life above everything else.

Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus also valued marriage a lot and saw mutual care a the cornerstone for a successful union.

In marriage, there must be complete companionship and concern for each other on the part of both husband and wife, in health and in sickness and at all times, because they entered upon the marriage for this reason as well as to produce offspring.

Musonius Rufus, Lecture XIII A

Musonius also observed that when in a marriage people only look to their own interests and neglect their partners, it is doomed to fail. We can see this happening in some affectionless marriages in which people share a roof together while perpetually seeking pleasure outside the house. Musonius called this an ‘existence worse than loneliness.’ 

Even though the Stoics considered love to be important, they also recommend us not to cling to the things we love. At the end of the day, a spouse, a friend, a child or a pet is not in our control, and we can lose them in a heartbeat. Epictetus put it this way:

Never say of anything, “I have lost it”; but, “I have returned it.” Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 11

This attitude might come in handy for people that worry about their partners cheating in the future; if that happens, remember that this isn’t a loss. It’s just a return.

To keep things simple, I would say that the core of Stoic love is the facilitation of virtue. A union between two people like marriage can be seen as a potential vessel for good, like caring for each other and raising children. This idea echoes through religions like Christianity and Islam, in which marriage is also seen as the correct way for two people to practice love as well as lust. 

Although the Stoics are not cold and distant towards human affection, they value virtue the most. Intimate relationships and virtue do not have to contradict each other. Even lust can be part of a virtuous life, as long as it isn’t overdone. But, hey, let’s face it: aren’t there higher things to pursue than some fun between sheets?