On the positive value of pity in Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius

Bringing them the plague
7 min readMar 6, 2023
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The Stoics are still today accused of heartlessness. A figure as renowned and learned as Martha Nussbaum has situated the Stoics as the key progenitors of an ancient “anti-pity” tradition, leading up to the fierce hostility to anything like pity we find in Friedrich Nietzsche.

One way to assess the Stoic stance concerning pity, and to see whether this popular, simple story is also true, is to look at the key texts, to see how this subject is developed.

The hostility to pity is for instance quite a central theme in Nietzsche, and it is tied to his radical aristocratic opposition to forms of egalitarian politics. Is opposition to pity in the Stoics such a central preoccupation? Should we really be aligning the Stoics with a philosopher like Nietzsche, who claimed that reflection on pity should lead us to

a tremendous new prospect …, a new possibility … like a vertigo, [where] fear leaps up, [and] … belief in morality, in all morality, falters … (Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, “Preface”, 6)?

Clearly, if Nussbaum’s assessment holds up of the Stoics as the philosophers in whom “the assault on pity finds its most sustained and careful philosophical development”, we could expect pity to feature alot, and to feature highly negatively, in Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

But sometimes life brings surprises, and it is good to look at the texts ourselves, before taking others’ words, when it comes to philosophy or the sciences. Let’s do that, first with Epictetus’ Discourses and then with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and see where we arrive.

Pity in Epictetus

“Eleos” or derivatives appears some 24 times in Epictetus’ Discourses; the most concentrated cluster of considerations comes in IV, 6. This highly curious section is entitled in some editions, “Against those who lament being pitied”.

All in all, pity or being the object of pity (the term eleos in different forms can be active or passive) is therefore considered in just 7 out of the 95 sections of the four books of the Discourses (I 9, I 18, I 19, I 28; III 22 (on being a cynic); IV, 1, and IV, 6. This does not bespeak a central preoccupation of our author.

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Bringing them the plague

Freud's response on arrival in America, some Camus; blogs of philosophy, psychology, culture and politics. (Formerly Castalian Stream, now less pretentious)