Anxiety is not appropriate for a grateful mind. On the contrary, all worry should be dispelled through deep self-confidence and an awareness of true love.
—Seneca, On Benefits 6.42.1
The modern stereotype of Stoics being cold and unfeeling just isn’t true. The Roman Stoics, in fact, took love and affection to be the primary human emotion. They put love, as an emotion, in a category all by itself. In the view of Seneca (4 BC–65 AD), the Stoics had more love for humanity than any other philosophical school. Love and affection, they maintained, forms the very basis of human society. They realized that parents instinctively love their children. They also thought that this kind of primary affection could be extended outward to encompass all of humanity. That is why Seneca wrote, “Society can only remain healthy through the mutual protection and love of its parts.” Because of this, it’s no exaggeration to say that Stoic ethics is ultimately based on love. The fact that people love one another is an aspect of natural law, which provides a natural basis for human community and society.
As the most humane of the Stoic writers, Seneca frequently mentions the importance of love, affection, and gratitude. While we all can relate to love as an emotion, the Stoics stressed a specific kind of love, philostorgia. This term could be translated as “family love” or “human affection.” This is the kind of love the Stoics applied to humanity as a whole, which is also a form of philanthropy or love for all mankind. Marcus Aurelius (121–180 AD) mentions this kind of love repeatedly. As he reminds himself often, we are born to love others and humanity itself. “Love those people with whom destiny has surrounded you,” he wrote, “but love them truly.”
Marcus also wrote to express his gratitude to his various teachers. But in a comment Marcus made about one teacher, the philosopher Sextus, he seemed to sum up the entire Stoic attitude toward love and the emotions. Marcus tells us Sextus never showed the slightest sign of anger or any other negative emotion. Instead, “he was totally free of passion (pathos) and full of human affection.” This, indeed, is the Stoic ideal: to be full of love for others and totally free of violent, negative emotions.
In some cases, gratitude can be a form of love. If you tell another person, “I am grateful for your existence,” it’s equivalent to expressing a kind of love.
Central to Stoicism, as a philosophical way of life, is a deep sense of appreciation, from which both love and gratitude emerge. We can deeply appreciate the beauty of a sunset even though it’s changing every moment and will soon disappear. Its transience adds to its unique beauty. Similarly, a Stoic can understand that everything in nature is changing, transient, and impermanent, including our own lives, without reducing his or her depth of appreciation.
Stoics don’t seek out external things in order to be happy because happiness comes from within. (Happiness also comes from how we decide to perceive the world, based on our inner judgments.) But a Stoic can find a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude in life’s simplest gifts: a sunset, holding the hand of a loved one, or even the most basic meal. While our real goods lie within, we can still feel a deep sense of gratitude for every gift the universe offers to us. At the same time, we can come to see, through the eyes of appreciation, that the finest gifts from the universe are often free, or freely given. Because of that, we can take pleasure in simple things, like a cup of tea on a sunny morning. We can also experience profound happiness and satisfaction without seeking out an endless flow of expensive luxuries. As Seneca pointed out, someone who has enough is already rich. When we view the world with a sense of appreciation, even the most simple experiences have value.
For Seneca, someone who has found happiness or well-being will be able to look back on life with gratitude for everything the universe has given, as he or she is facing death. Similarly, the Stoic Epictetus (c. 50–135 AD) repeatedly described life, and the world, as resembling a festival. In his view, when we reach the end of life, we should be grateful for the time we were alive, thankful for the chance we had to participate in the festival. He also said a philosopher should be full of gratitude for the opportunity he had to behold the wonders of the universe and to investigate nature’s underlying order. He told his students, “May I be thinking, writing, and reading such thoughts when death overtakes me!”
Marcus Aurelius left us with an even more graphic image of the kind of gratitude a Stoic might feel at the end of life. As he reminded himself in his Meditations,
Pass through this short moment of time living in accord with nature, and make your end cheerful, just as a ripe olive might fall, blessing the earth that bore it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.
For Marcus, the fact that we will one day die is part of nature’s providential order, which we should accept without complaint but with gratitude. The Stoics realized that our lives are tiny, and in some ways insignificant, in relation to the immensity of the entire cosmos. But the very fact that we have been given a chance to participate in such a remarkable universe, and in human society, should be seen as both a gift and an honor.
In the end, we experience gratitude for something good or beautiful we receive — either from a person or from nature, which continually delivers such gifts. Like the light given off by the sun, this generosity is unearned by us, but it’s freely given to everyone. The sun, while giving everyone the gift of life, greens the meadows of the earth. But it demands nothing in return. Perhaps in this way, as the Stoics suggested, nature, life, and every gift we receive, all reflect a radiance of generosity, given freely by the universe itself.