How can a Stoic Comfort Someone?

Even though Stoic literary tradition is virtually built around the concept of offering comfort and a “healing balm” to the emotionally “shipwrecked,” I think a lot of people find the idea of “Stoic consolation” a little odd.

In contemporary culture, the whole idea raises the image of a stern Spock-like figure trying to offer bumbling advice about human affairs that he neither understands nor really quite cares about.



In actuality, however, the Stoics had a pretty solid handle on this whole “human” thing, and far from devaluing the important things that tend to get us so emotionally worked up, they weren’t afraid to jump in and get their hands dirty to help make the external world a better place.

And to be fair, Spock could also hop to when duty called.

Here’s my take on how Stoics would (and did, and do) offer comfort to our fellow shipwrecked motes on this small blue orb we call a cosmopolis.

First, Stoic would comfort someone much the same way that other people might comfort someone: by 1) expressing empathy, and 2) by offering some advice and ideas, when the person in need of encouragement is ready to hear them, always striving to meet them where they are intellectually and emotionally.

On the empathetic side, perhaps the most famous piece of Stoic advice for comforting others comes from Enchiridion 16, where Epictetus suggests that we “accommodate ourselves” to others and “if need be, to groan with them:”

When you see any one weeping for grief, either that his son has gone abroad, or that he has suffered in his affairs, take care not to be overcome by the apparent evil; but discriminate, and be ready to say, “What hurts this man is not this occurrence itself,- for another man might not be hurt by it, – but the view he chooses to take of it.” As far as conversation goes, however, do not disdain to accommodate yourself to him, and if need be, to groan with him. Take heed, however, not to groan inwardly too.

Beyond this, however, the Stoics recognized that we need different tools of encouragement for different people. Ultimately, it’s true, they believed that the emotions that overwhelm us arise from improper beliefs about what is good and bad for human beings—but they recognized that when someone is emotionally overwhelmed right in this moment, it is hardly appropriate to begin an extended philosophical debate!

Starting with Chrysippus, then, it seems that the Stoics distinguished between a sort of emotional “first aid” on the one hand, and more extended philosophical treatments on the other (which, they would claim, get at the root of the problem):

The man who is troubled by passion should not worry about the doctrine which has gained possession of his mind at the moment when the passions are at their height, lest somehow he should be concerned at the wrong moment with the refutation of the doctrines that have gained possession of his soul, and possibility of cure is lost.

—Chrysippus, as quoted by Origin, Contra Celsum, 8.51.

But secondly, the Stoics also recognized that we’ll want to take a different approach depending on whether or not the person we want to encourage already accepts the Stoic world view and value system.

Putting it all together, Chrysippus is reported to have claimed that he could help anyone with their emotional distress, and later Stoic literature attempted to do just this. Accordingly, we can identify four different kinds of Stoic encouragement in the surviving texts:

  1. First Aid for non-Stoics: your basic emotional triage. It might involve expressions of empathy (Epictetus’s “groan with him”), and the beginnings of some very simple philosophical arguments that would make immediate sense to just about anyone.For example, I have sometimes found myself paraphrasing the Dichotomy of Control to a friend, or leading them through a brief “view from above” meditation to help them calm down (though it helps if they are already familiar with the latter).
  2. Advice for non-Stoics: Stoic consolation literature is packed full with little nuggets of advice and argument that are not “specifically Stoic.” A lot of this takes the form of generic arguments about the shortness of human life, how satisfying one desire for wealth or pleasure just leads us to be tormented by more desire, how little we actually need in order to live a happy life, how difficult emotions like anger are to control once they get away from us, and how much damage they can do if we give them free reign.It can also involve recommending certain meditation practices like the premeditation of adversity, which can help improve people’s emotional resilience in advance through training. This premeditation technique was shared by many Greek schools, and doesn’t explicitly depend on the Stoic world view (in fact, Cicero tells us that it was invented by the Cyrenaics).

    Going further, we might try and persuade the suffering person to accept some of Stoicism’s value claims: virtue is the highest good, externals are indifferent to our moral character, etc. One of my personal favorites to use when a friend is upset about some injustice is to argue that the person who has offended them doesn’t know any better: everyone who does wrong is, in some sense, ignorant of what is truly good for them. This Socratic-Stoic idea makes natural sense to a lot of people, and can help to rapidly replace anger with a sense of kindness, tolerance, or pity.

    But when a Stoic-informed approach doesn’t seem promising, the Stoics aren’t above arguing from an Epicurean or Aristotelean toolbox if they can benefit someone.

    I am more than happy, for instance, to appeal to key Bible verses or theological beliefs if doing so will help me encourage a Christian friend or family member—even if those verses slightly contradict my some of my Stoic beliefs. “Consider the lily!

  3. First Aid for Stoics: I once met a modern Stoic who struggled to control his own anger, but who had a deep affection for Seneca’s book, On Anger. When his temper flared up, he told me, his wife had learned that she could quickly help him regain his senses by simply shouting the word “Seneca!” in his presence.Those of us who regularly read and embrace Stoic literature develop lots of little associations and shortcuts like this that can come in handy. If you can reference one of my favorite Stoic texts while trying to comfort of encourage me, it can be quite powerful! Personally, I often use the phrases “do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live” and “work is not a good, so what is? Not minding the work” to jar myself out of procrastination (reference to Meditations 4.17 and Letters to Lucilius 31, respectively).

    Epictetus is a master of this kind of “first aid.” Modern Stoics like to say that we turn to Epictetus when we need someone to “shout at us.” “You wretch! Externals are nothing to you. Why call yourself a Stoic! Why mislead the crowd! Get ahold of yourself, and look to your ruling center!”

    We’d never use this approach with non-Stoics, of course. Such remarks wouldn’t even make sense to the average person, and without context they are easily misinterpreted as being stern and inhumane. But these rebukes aren’t really rebukes, per se: they are compact, often hyperbolic remindersof the principles of Stoic virtue ethics that we aim to live by, intended to help snap us to attention.

  4. Advice for Stoics: this is all the rest of Stoic literature, including its meditation practices, training exercises, theory, terminology, justification, and so forth. When we have time and space from other concerns, immersing ourself in this system of thought and practice can help prepare us for the hard times. If we do our homework, it can make it much easier to face future trials.

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