This article is part of a series of modified excerpts from the introduction to our book "On Virtue." 

Article 8 - Stoic Love, Part 1 of 2

Zeno’s Stoic School discovered that there are four fundamental loves that can move humans to beneficial action, but two of them can be harmful.


The first Stoic love is Agape. Agape is what is humane in humanity. At its basic level, agape is acting according to what is best for humanity.

This love must be chosen. It does not exist in all people. Being the product of well-trained reason, agape is the love that most people mean when they speak about unconditional. It is chosen by the giver, not earned by the receiver.

The greatest possible expression of agape is for a man to lay down his life for a friend, but not just anybody. This is an important concept in Stoic teachings about human love. Even Cicero parted ways with the Stoics on this point. Nevertheless, the phrase in Greco-Roman culture for a couple thousand years is, “Greater love (agape) has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (philon).” Contrary to popular opinion, there is no Virtue in “fighting to the death” for another person’s right to pursue vice, such as slander or unpeaceable assemblies.

Do not be misled about another common adage related to agape: “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." There is a lot of meaning under the surface of that admonition. Snorkeling deeper into the language, we find, "I tell you, love (agapate) your enemies (echthrous [haters]),  and pray for those who persecute (diokonton [pursue]) you.” Did you catch all that meaning submerged in the English translation?

Taking a closer look, “your enemies” are identified as those who hate you. So, complying with it requires acknowledging who is hating whom. Similarly, your persecutors are identified as those pursuing you, or, shall we say, “getting in your face.” So, complying with this admonition also requires acknowledging who is pursuing whom. Who acts like a wolf and who acts like a sheep?

In the adage about loving enemies, the first repetition is “your enemies” and “those persecuting you.”  It makes sense that the same thing is being talked about. Enemies and persecutors could be the same group of people. But the next repetition is more interesting. It makes agape parallel with “pray for.”


Love toward a friend has a fundamentally different posture than does love toward haters.

The West has traditionally shown agape toward their enemies through treaties such as the Geneva Conventions. By being humane toward captured soldiers and refraining from targeting civilians, civilized nations have shown agape based on the principle of the inherent dignity of each human, but with no allusion that it is virtuous to treat all humans as loyal friends and confidants.

Agape love is shown in a human’s choice to be humane. It is the inner choice to act kindly, benevolently. Agape enables a person to identify with others and yields fellow feeling. Agape also is shown in the inner choice to refrain from being envious, from bragging, and from thinking of yourself as elitist. This is because agape leads an individual to focus on what unites them with their fellow man, rather than what divides them.

Agape moves an individual to not act in socially unbecoming ways (aschēmonei) and is the love of mankind that moved Zeno to separate from the cynics. This humaneness moves a wise person toward a way of life that benefits others as well as self, since he himself is a blood relative of the other human. Agape is, therefore, the source of the “win-win” way of thinking. It moves a person to avoid shredding basic civility. A person moved by agape is not exasperated by others, giving up hope for them.

Agape prevents an individual from keeping an emotional account of the injuries that others inflicted on him, real or perceived, especially when long ago. This is what moved the Stoic, and former slave, Epictetus to say about those who criticized him, “he did not know me well or he would have said worse things about me.” That is how fast Epictetus blotted out the injustices of others and of the world, since he was physically deformed as well. Instead, Epictetus became one of the leading teachers in the Stoic School’s history.

A person filled with agape does not delight in injustice even when it goes in his favor, since it is an injustice to a fellow human, and when one member of the family suffers the others suffer also. An individual shows agape when he “congratulates” truth, whether good, bad, or ugly, thinking, "It's okay; we can handle it; it is what it is." Being a choice, agape can endure anything, as long as a person keeps choosing it.


Philia is both rational and emotional, as the love for a friend. In English, “emotion” comes from the Latin word emovere, which means “move out.” It is easy to see, because “emotion” retains the word “motion” in it.

Philia is what can make you feel warm when you accompany or think about a good friend. Since, philia love includes a pleasant feeling related to the company of another, it is the driving force of socialization and public manners. A shortened form of philia is often used to mean “to hug” or “to kiss” indicating the physical, and not only emotional, closeness that characterizes this love. The foundation of philia is trust. Therefore, a friend is someone in whom you can confide, and who will keep your confidence.

Modern research has indicated that some persons develop philia love for what is bad, in other words, that some individuals feel better when they do what is wrong than when they do what is right. For example, philargyria is often translated as, “love of money,” which criminology and forensic sciences prove can make men murder, torture, and everything else, when they would not do such things without being paid. Philia for fame, for lies, and for adultery have led many to vice. 

Stoics speak of Providence, meaning that Nature seems to have philia for the virtuous alone, even though it seems to have agape for both the virtuous and the vicious, since even those practicing vice can have material prosperity and hearts filled to the full with cheer. But Stoics consider it obvious that the Cosmos confides in the virtuous in a way it never will to the vicious.

The next article will consider the Stoic loves of storge and eros.