Stoicism, Friendship, and Grief

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels

Below are the first couple of paragraphs of a paper I have written about how Stoicism deals with friendship and grief. It is a response to a friendly-critical commentary by my Fordham University colleague and friend Brian Johnson, the author of The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life. You can download the full paper here.

Brian Johnson, in his commentary on my effort to update Stoicism, provides a cogent critique of ancient Stoicism and a reasonable suggestion for my attempt to define modern Stoicism. I do not (much) disagree with him in terms of his conclusions, which he applies to the specific cases of friendship and grief, but which also hold for all of the Stoic “preferred indifferents.” I do, however, want to push back on two points: (1) the path he takes to arrive at those conclusions, and (2) the notion that all ancient Stoics would have proposed the same approach to friendship and grief that Epictetus takes.

To begin with, Johnson points out that, for the Stoics, only virtue is good (agathos), while everything else is either worthy (axia) of choice or to be rejected. Hence the famous Stoic distinction between virtue, on the one hand, and preferred and dispreferred “indifferents” (i.e., everything else), on the other hand. However jarring the word “indifferent” may sound to modern ears, we need to be clear about what it means on the Stoic view. Things like wealth, health, education, friendship, love, and so forth are indifferents in the specific sense that they do not make us morally better or worse persons.

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Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

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