top of page

Stoic Compassion and Sympathy

Updated: May 18, 2021

As I've practiced Stoicism, one of the often neglected aspects of the philosophy is the practitioner's response to the suffering of others. I remember, in my early days, hearing Christian sermons on the subject of compassion and sharing the burdens of others. One common verse that came up was from 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us all in our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God." In this practice, God gives the Christian the ability to sympathize with others because one receives this insight from a heavenly source.

Interestingly, as a Stoic practitioner, Stoic philosophers see the importance of compassion and empathy in a different way. While the Stoics maintain that it is important to console others, they have a different mindset in which they think about others who suffer:

"When you see someone weeping in sorrow because his child has gone away, or because he lost his possessions, take care that you're not carried away by the impression that he is indeed in misfortune because of external things, but be ready at once with this thought, 'It wasn't what has happened that so distresses this person - for someone else could suffer the same without feeling that distress - but rather the judgement he has formed about it.' As far as words go, however, don't hesitate to sympathize with him, or even, if the occasion arises, to join in his lamentations; but take care that you don't also lament deep inside" (Enchiridion, 16, emphasis mine).

Offering consolation as a Stoic seems much a bit like a college advisor listening to the negative emotions of a student who just learns that he/she must stay enrolled for an extra year because they did not complete the college requirements to graduate. The advisor can show understanding toward the student's grievances, but the advisor cannot change the fact that the student does not have the credits needed to graduate. When someone is going through hardships, it helps them to have a person at their side that listens to their troubles. Epictetus warns us, though, that we should not lament as a emotional response; it should be purely outward and bodily.

Epictetus goes on to further explain why this "outward and bodily" response is important:

"With regard to those who are different from him [by the principles of their life], he will be patient, gentle, delicate, and forgiving, as he would toward someone in a state of ignorance, who missed the mark when it came to the most important things. He will not be harsh to anyone, for he will have perfectly understood Plato's words: 'Every soul is deprived of truth against its will'" (Discourses II.22.36).

Someone who suffers in a way that exceeds the temporal window of an automated response is someone who has not contemplated or accepted the nature of life and the universe. Seneca and Marcus Aurelius also have passages that imply similar conclusions. This fact, however, can be hard to bear in distressing times, and the Stoic practitioner must make sure that these types of philosophical corrections are placed on the back-burner (at least for the time being).

I have learned that it is important to simply be there for others while they suffer. In that situation, I am simply someone who listens and someone who is willing to offer insight where my commentary is requested. I always tell myself that humility and a willingness to listen is the most important thing when acting compassionately or sympathetically.

309 views0 comments