Compassion and Stoic Philosophy

by DT Strain, 2010

“No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. The goal which it assigns to us is to be useful, to help others, and to take care, not only of ourselves, but of everyone in general and of each one in particular.”  — Seneca, On Clemency 3.3

The notion of “Stoic compassion” may seem an oxymoron to some, but this all depends on our knowledge of Stoicism and our conception of compassion

When I refer to Stoicism I am talking about the ancient Hellenistic philosophy originated by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd Century BCE. The word ‘Stoic’ has since come to mean “emotionless” in our culture, but this leads to a great deal of difficulty when trying to understand the philosophy which did not, in fact, advocate suppression of all emotions (or suppression of any emotion really).

Nevertheless, many wonder if there is any role for compassion in the Stoic realm, seeing it as opening up a person to a type of distress of which Stoics would seek to relieve themselves. Scholar and philosopher Martha Nussbaum has even called Stoicism an “anti-compassion tradition” (see my Comments on Martha Nussbaum Interview).

Gaius Musonius Rufus was a Roman stoic philosopher in the first Century CE who taught philosophy under the reign of Nero. An accomplished philosopher in his own right, he is also well known for having been the teacher of the well known contributor to Stoicism, Epictetus. Musonius taught charity, pacifism, forgiveness, and love. As Richard Carrier in his 1999 essay on Musonius wrote:

Like Jesus, Musonius preached charity (Discourse 19), declaring that “to help many people” is “much more commendable than living a life of luxury.” But unlike Jesus, he also emphasized the importance of civic duty as well (Discourse 14). Again like Jesus, Musonius preached a concept of pacifism and forgiveness (Discourse 10):

For to scheme how to bite back the biter and to return evil for evil is the act not of a human being but of a wild beast, which is incapable of reasoning that the majority of wrongs are done to men through ignorance and misunderstanding, from which man will cease as soon as he has been taught,

And his student, Epictetus, relates this example of a parable used by Musonius which exhibits this concept of forgiveness, which is in my opinion wiser and more sophisticated than that of Jesus:

When [Lycurgus of Sparta] had been blinded in one eye by one of his fellow-citizens and had received the young man at the hands of the people to punish as he saw fit, he did not choose to do this, but trained him instead and made a good man of him, and afterward escorted him to the public theatre. And when the [Spartans] regarded him with amazement, he said: “This man I received from you an insolent and violent creature; I return him to you a reasonable man and a good citizen.”(Fragment 39)

This story was matched by a dictum (Fragment 41), “We say that the despicable man is recognized among other things by his inability to harm his enemies, but actually he is much more easily recognized by his inability to help them.” All of this stemmed from the fact that Musonius also taught love for one’s neighbor (Discourse 14), since “evil consists in injustice and cruelty and indifference to a neighbor’s trouble, while virtue is brotherly love and goodness and justice and beneficence and concern for the welfare of one’s neighbor.”

I submit, therefore, that Stoics can not only practice compassion, but that it is a central part of being a Stoic – so long as one understands Stoic compassion. Now to take a look at a few specific hangups some Stoics and students of stoicism may have regarding the use of the word compassion


First we’ll begin with commentary on some basic definitions. A contributor on the International Stoic Forum has found one definition with which he agrees as:

“A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”

The phrases “deep… sorrow”, and “strong desire” should quite easily trigger any Stoic’s warning bells. Deep sorrow is a good description of one of Stoicism’s “inappropriate feelings” – distress. Distress is deemed an inappropriate feeling because it is ultimately based on a false judgment. In this case, the false judgment would be a ‘bad’ has occurred when in fact one has not because Stoics judge only those things within their control to be good or bad, and all things outside their control to be indifferent.

Another option might be Merriam-Webster. Although it uses the word ‘distress’ in its definition, it defines compassion a little more generously to my thesis:

“A sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”

Here we see compassion as a ‘consciousness’ or awareness. We still are assumed to have a ‘desire’ by this definition – another inappropriate feeling for a Stoic, but it should be fairly easy to surmise that the author wasn’t meaning to use the word within the technical confines of usage that Stoics employ. The author might just as easily have written ‘wish’, which would have corresponded to the arbitrarily chosen English translation for what Stoics called an appropriate feeling – but only coincidentally so.

Using dictionary definitions for concepts in philosophy is often limited at best, flat out misleading at worst. Dictionaries are written to describe common usage, not prescribe it. Since the public commonly uses terms in a loose fashion and has a broad lack of information or concern for philosophy or technical Stoic terms, it should come as no surprise that dictionary definitions will be insufficient for making solid philosophic conclusions about important concepts.

Closely related to a dictionary approach would be an etymological one (an approach based on the common meaning of a word’s root words). When many Stoics see the word ‘compassion’, they break it down into ‘com’ and ‘passion’, and the latter word definitely catches their eye. That’s because, in English discussions of Stoicism, ‘passion’ is used synonymously with ‘pathos’ to mean the pathologies (sicknesses) of the mind – namely, all those inappropriate feelings by which we suffer (which, incidentally, include: lustfeardelight, and distress – all with very precise technical meanings).

All of these words were chosen at some point in the past as equivalents for very precise words in the ancient Greek language, which don’t actually match up in common usage. Therefore, we might just as legitimately have decided that ‘passion’ was going to be our English word for discussing the appropriate Stoic feelings and something like ‘obsession’ was to be used for the inappropriate ones. But alas, that didn’t happen to be the case among English-speaking scholars. It is unlikely the origins of the word ‘compassion’, or the connotations it has come to pick up over time, have been guided by the English Stoic Scholars’ precise usage of the term ‘passion’ in their field.  Let us then look to some philosophers, who tend to go a little deeper than dictionaries and circumstantial match-ups of sounds and words.

Thomas Merton, an English-speaking American philosopher, referred to compassion as “the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things”. Stoics, being the monists and materialists they are, accepted the world as one natural whole and would certainly fall more in line with this thinking.

Perhaps we could also look at developmental psychologist Arthur Jersild, who said “compassion is the ultimate and most meaningful embodiment of emotional maturity. It is through compassion that a person achieves the highest peak and deepest reach in his or her search for self-fulfillment”. Emotional maturity and self-fulfillment would seem to be key pursuits of the Stoic.

Here we can see that notions on what compassion is are complex and subtle (a motivation, an impulse, an act, an emotion, a perspective?). I would propose that compassion is:

“Feeling for others as you feel for yourself, with motivation to act accordingly.”

I plead guilty to leaving out certain words that have come to be ‘red flagged’ by English stoicism scholarship (such as ‘passion’, ‘desire’, and ‘despair’). But seeing as some dictionaries leave them out by chance, and these words are only coincidentally comparable to subjectively-chosen English equivalents for technical Stoic terms, I think my action is justified as a means for us to proceed without muddying the waters or getting hung up on linguistic irrelevancies.


If we are to accept that compassion is feeling for others as you feel for yourself, with motivation to act accordingly – then let us begin by considering how Stoic sages (hypothetical perfectly understanding and practicing Stoic masters) feel for themselves.

From Dr. Jan Garrett’s chart on Values in Classical Stoicism:

Good Feelings (hai eupatheiai)
1. Wish
2. Caution
3. Joy

Passions or Emotions, a.k.a. Violent Feelings (pathe)
1. Lust
2. Fear
3. Delight
4. Distress

When discussing feelings in the Stoic context, we recognize that feelings provide an impulse to action, but not all feelings are inappropriate. There are appropriate feelings (hai eupatheiai) and pathetic feelings (pathe). The latter mean feelings which are the passions or pathos because they arise from a false judgment. Appropriate feelings are those feelings based on true judgments; feelings which recognize the difference between what we control and do not control – and accordingly stem from a judgment that the latter are indifferent and only the former are good or bad. Further, that among that which we control, that the good is our virtuous choices and the bad are our vicious (pertaining to vice) choices.

The appropriate feelings are wishcaution, and joy. The Stoic sage may experience any of these feelings, as long as we understand their technical meanings. Wish is distinct from lust or desire in that it is a preference for something which is within our control. For example, a sage would not desire a promotion, but a sage would wish that he do the best job he can do. A sage would not desire that he not be rained upon, but would wish that he is best prepared for rain as he can be. Caution similarly must be distinct from fear, in that it is focused on what a Stoic can control. A Stoic would not be fearful of an asteroid destroying the planet, but he would be cautious that he not act destructively. Joy is another approved feeling, and is the pleasurable experience of living virtuously in accordance with Nature; the contented life of eudaimonia (flourishing) made possible through good Stoic practice. This is distinct from a delight in which we value an experience out of our control to a greater degree, becoming lost in it and attached to it.

In all of these things, the Stoic sage seeks to act virtuously. But in determining what it is that is virtuous, an inescapable attention to externals (indifferents) is necessary. Thus, virtue consists of the correct selection among indifferents. According to the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the prominent stoic philosopher Chrysippus alluded to the fact that we are disposed toward impulses (feelings) that fulfill our external needs by our nature. This is fine in the face of ignorance as to the larger plan of Nature, or in other words, this is fine with all else being equal. But where we know of the needs of Nature as a whole, it is more in tune with our own nature to select in accord with it than with alternate impulses we may experience.

For example, wealth is an indifferent, yet a Stoic sage can act to increase wealth, so long as this is done without vice, including internal vices such as greed. Such wealth can be put to use for purposes ranging from the truly indifferent to the preferred indifferent. The feeling of ‘wish’ may be the impetus for any of these manipulations of externals on our behalf, as long as they are not based on mistaken attachments or put to unvirtuous ends; which will naturally be the case if the feeling is indeed that of wish and not of desire.

Feelings for others

Reminding the reader that our definition of compassion is: feeling for others as we feel for ourselves, we have now identified appropriate feelings for self. The next step is to see what in Stoicism advocates this same kind of feeling for others.

The philosophical cousins of the Stoics, the Cynics, included the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. Living in a time of the ‘city state’ he was asked from where he came and answered, “I am a citizen of the world”. This revolutionary concept of cosmopolitanism certainly relates with the Stoic philosopher Hierocles who was the source of the concept of oikeiôsis.

The beginning of Stoic oikeiôsis is the acknowledgment that all animals act out of self-preservation. They are aware of themselves and their relationship to other animals. This forms a basis that expands in sophistication in more intellectual animals, and in human beings includes an awareness of our social relationships to our fellow human beings. According to Hierocles the Stoic: Elements of Ethics, Fragments, and Excerpts by Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan, this description of the workings of animals and humans is not only a description of nature, but given the Stoic dictum to act in accordance with Nature, also provides prescriptive basis for behavior (p.xlii). This ultimately forms the basis of justice if not ethics as a whole (p.xliii).

Hierocles used concentric circles to explain the oikeiôsis, which could translate as appropriation. The first circle is our own minds, the next circle outward is our immediate family, then extended family, community, country, and the entire human race. The stoic endeavor is to draw these outlying people closer and closer toward the inner circles with respect to our concern. Thus, the process of oikeiôsis in human beings is one of expanding our identity of ‘self’ to encompass everyone. This has also been described as the stoic notion of brotherly love.

But does this mean that the Stoic has come to wish for, be cautiousof, or gain joy from something outside of the Stoic’s control – namely the actions of other people? A better way to describe appropriate feelings related to oikeiôsis would be that the Stoic identifies the other person as ‘self’. The feelings of wish, caution, and joy are not derived from the actions of the other person, nor do they provide impulse to control the other person’s behavior. Rather, the feelings are motivations for the Stoic to act on behalf of, or in the best interests of, the other person with regard to indifferents – in the same way they would act on their own behalf with regard to indifferents. Thus, just as the sage may experience a wish to manipulate external indifferents appropriate to himself (health, wealth, status), the sage will similarly experience a wish to manipulate them for the sake of another’s health, wealth, status, etc. – never assigning the status of good or bad to either the indifferents concerning himself nor the other person, and always within the demands of virtue (and, by proclamation, Nature). The sage will reach out to catch another falling human being, for the same reasons he will reach out to catch himself from falling, even though life or death for either are indifferents.

Perhaps a more sophisticated version of the golden rule “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” would be: “do unto others as you believe they would have you do unto them”. Oikeiôsis concerns that faculty we have that allows us to perceive the needs, wishes, and perspectives of others. Empathy, in the sense of understanding the feelings of others – even the pathos of others – is possible, without suffering that pathos ourselves. Dr. Jan Garrett has pointed out that this may properly include a sort of ‘pre-passion’ (propatheiai) as described by Seneca.

Thus we have ample cause to suggest that if a stoic sage can appropriately feel for himself, then he is not only permitted to feel for others, but is prescribed to. The last portion of our definition is, “…with motivation to act accordingly”. Given that feelings, be they appropriate or pathetic, are impulses which can lead to action, justification of proper Stoic feelings is enough to suggest motivation to act. Of course, many actions to help others fall under the concept of duty, which Stoicism strongly advocates, but to propose a Stoic compassion, we need to show that actions are not merely motivated by duty, but by sympathetic feeling which is simultaneously appropriate and not pathos.

As I have shown, proficient Stoics do feel for others just as they do for themselves, and those feelings are appropriate (and not pathetic) because they are based on true judgments regarding the interdependence of all things, and that pursuit of indifferents is within our nature if it is not vicious. Furthermore, they provide impulse to act both virtuously and according to duty.

Buddhist compassion

In answering the issue of compassion for the Stoic, it may be enlightening to the subject to also take note of Buddhist notions of compassion. This, because there can be shown to be a great amount of overlap and similarity in early concepts between these two philosophies, and there can also be shown good cause for suspecting historical mutual influence between their development. Lastly, it is instructive to note that in Buddhism there are similar challenges to translation into English terms which can suggest consistent logical approaches.

The Buddha was asked once, “Would it be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is a part of our practice?” and he replied, “No. It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice.”

After a year or two of working on myself to be more compassionate, I began to notice how emotionally vulnerable I had become. I asked a Buddhist monk at the Jade Buddha Temple, “How do we reconcile the fact that Buddhist practice is about reducing our suffering, and yet is also about compassion – which may increase our suffering when we witness it in others?” He replied that proper Buddhist practice requires not only compassion, but both compassion and wisdom. I asked myself, what is the nature of this wisdom that I lacked? While I no doubt lack all manner of wisdom, one key form of wisdom which balances compassion, and to which I believe the monk referred, is that of non-attachment.

While many English-speakers equate compassion and mettā (loving kindness), the translation is crude. Another Buddhist concept is karunā (pity). While karunā is the wish to remove harm and suffering from others, mettā is the wish to bring well-being and happiness to others. Both of these could be looked at as elements of compassion.

Another reason the translation is crude is because Buddhist mettā is a particular kind of love without attachment – without clinging, greed, hatred, or delusion. This is certainly not the kind of compassion to which Nussbaum refers when she suggests it is incompatible with Stoicism. As currently stated on Wikipedia, “Traditionally, the practice begins with the meditator cultivating loving kindness towards themselves, then their loved ones, friends, teachers, strangers, enemies, and finally towards all sentient beings.” – this mirrors the concentric nature of Stoic oikeiôsis.

Yet, when discussing Buddhism in English, all of this is often bluntly translated as “compassion”. Just as is the case in Stoicism, we could quibble with the use of the word “compassion” to stand for this notion of intention to remove suffering and bring well-being to others without attachment. But this is resolved simply by explaining the nature of compassion in Buddhist thought. I propose a similar use of “compassion” when discussing Stoicism in English. This approach makes sense given the similarities of purpose and meaning in the concepts, and the shared cultural influences in Buddhism and Stoicism. While some interpretation might be needed to explain what is meant by “Stoic compassion”, the connotation would be far more misleading and create a great deal more misunderstanding were we to choose a different word and instead say that “Stoics don’t practice compassion” or “Stoics do not believe in compassion”.


Musonius, certainly an authoritative source on Stoicism, advises brotherly love and forgiveness. It is not all emotion and feeling which is forbidden to the Stoic, as there are appropriate feelings. These feelings can properly motivate the Stoic to act to manipulate indifferents on behalf of himself provided these choices are not vicious. Along with this, Stoic oikeiôsis prescribes that our sense of self encompass others. Thus, there is sound Stoic reasoning which supports “feeling for others as we feel for ourselves, with motivation to act accordingly” – a reasonable definition of compassion.

The Buddhists, who have similar concepts of concern for others without attachment, and a shared historic influence with the Stoics, often use the English word “compassion” although it is an imperfect translation. The choice to use “compassion” as a translation for Buddhist Karunā or Mettā is as close as using the word for Stoic oikeiôsis.  Surely there are differences between loving kindness and the attachments implied in the common usage of the word “compassion”. But it would be misleading to say “Buddhists don’t believe in compassion” simply because many Westerners practice compassion (and thus describe it) in non-Buddhist ways. The same applies to Stoic compassion.

Stoics do practice compassion, and their very focus on virtue must include it. But that doesn’t absolve the student of Stoicism from the need to investigate more precisely what Stoic compassion is, how it differs from common understandings of compassion, and how it is to be practiced.

Many thanks to Dave Kelly on the International Stoic Forum, who informed me of Richard Carrier’s essay. Thanks as well to all of the participants on that forum, who have helped to educate me on the similarities and differences between Buddhism and Stoicism, and many other topics, over the years. Much of this essay is the result of studies that originated from a detailed conversation [here] on Buddhism and Stoicism three years ago, and which has been giving me avenues of exploration over the past three years. Thanks to Charles, Dr. Jan Garrett, Paul, Robin Turner, Londonstoic, Amos, Sophia, Steve, and another unnamed conversant who all took part in that initial thread. Finally, many thanks to New Stoa Director Erik Wiegardt for reviewing this essay for accuracy.