Among the criticisms of Stoicism I have seen is that one of the emotions it wants to suppress is compassion. From a certain perspective, compassion is always good and non-compassion is always hard-hearted and bad.
But Stoics tend to say that since we cannot do anything about the plight of people in, say, Syria or Kenya, we should not allow ourselves to feel too much for them.
I am reading Sharon Lebell’s free translation of Epictetus, The Art of Living. I am struck that the book often treats compassion as a positive emotion in a certain sense. For instance, Epictetus advises against allowing the negative emotions of others to become contagious and infect you. If you are with someone who is bemoaning what they see as their misfortune, you should remind yourself that they are reacting to their own interpretation of events. As a Stoic, Epictetus’ pupil should have a different–or perhaps one should say, an indifferent–interpretation. Nevertheless, the pupil can feel compassion.
Yet this kind of compassion will seem arrogant to many. What you are feeling sorry for is not the misfortune of another, but their ignorance in misinterpreting events. If you were to tell them that what you have compassion for is their unenlightened state, they would probably be offended.
But you don’t have to express it that way.
Stoicism does deal with a real problem. You are not going to help someone if you allow his or her pain to get to you. Professionals in the so-called helping professions face this all the time. They deal with people in trouble. They have to maintain some distance from their client’s troubles or else they will get overwhelmed and burn out.
In my experience the problem is to deal with people in trouble and allow them to hang on to some dignity. I administered an emergency relief fund for most of the 1990s. I have run food pantries in several places. People who come in asking for help often show a lot of stress. Government agencies and sometimes charities treat them like cogs rather than human beings. My thought was that even though I could not always help materially, I could at least treat people with dignity.
But you have to keep some distance. You can’t lay awake at night thinking about the predicaments of others. Depressed, anxious, angry people do have contagious emotions. So over-identification with such people can disturb your own equilibrium.
And this is not just true when dealing with strangers. My experience being a caregiver for my wife when she was going through the diagnosis, surgery, and treatment for cancer showed me that being overly compassionate can get in the way of being helpful. If you are an emotional wreck, you will be a poor caregiver.
There is a tendency today, particularly in liberal churches like mine, to see compassion as a moral emotion. The more compassion you have, the more moral you are. But it seems to me that being overly compassionate is a real problem. What good is compassion about things you can do nothing about? What good is compassion if it debilitates you as a helper?
Sometimes Lebell makes Epictetus sound like someone who does not think the physical world is quite real (like a Christian Scientist or a believer in the Hindu concept of Maya). That was not my impression when reading more literal translations of Epictetus (these are available on-line, here, for instance). It is not that people in distress interpret non-events as real, it is that they tend to “awfulize” (neo-stoic psychologist, Albert Ellis’s term) events. They tend to see unfortunate events and circumstances like illness, death, and poverty as awful and unacceptable. Well, you have to accept reality and find some kind of serenity in the midst of it all. The contribution of Stoics like Epictetus is to give some perspective to help us do this.