John Sellars: Stoicism and Emotions
Here John Sellars explains the relationship between Stoicism and emotions, and why the use of the word ‘emotion’ itself is problematic in this discussion. Enjoy this fascinating talk! A text version is included below.
Stoicism and Emotion
One of the most common popular ideas about Stoicism is that the Stoics deny the value of emotions. This might be formulated in a number of different ways – the Stoics repress their emotions, or reject them, or overcome them – but the shared idea behind these different ways of putting it is that the Stoics think the emotions are not important for a good life. Indeed, not only are they not important, they are in fact an impediment to living a good life.
That’s a common view. Equally common is the objection that this Stoic attitude towards the emotions is deeply unattractive. This objection might also take a number of forms: a healthy human life must involve a healthy emotional life; the emotions are an essential part of what it means to be a human being; denying or repressing emotions will only generate longer-term negative consequences; the emotions (anger in the face of injustice, for instance) are valuable insofar as they spur us on to act in positive ways; and so on.
What I want to do in what follows is to challenge, or at least to qualify, this way of describing the Stoic view, with the aim of undermining the sorts of objections I have just noted that are based on that view. My main point will be that Stoics ought not to talk about emotions at all. That isn’t supposed to be a bad joke about repressing emotions; instead my main point is that we do a disservice to the Stoics when we talk about their attitude to the emotions, for the Stoics never spoke about the emotions in the way we do.
What do I mean by this? The ancient Stoics never spoke of emotions in the way we do because they didn’t speak English, and the English word ‘emotion’ is perhaps not the best word to use to translate the Greek and Latin terms that the Stoics did use. The Stoics never spoke of an emotion but rather a pathos or, in Latin, a passio and the English word ‘emotion’ isn’t quite the same. Emotion in English is a much a much broader notion and covers a much wider range of things (the Oxford English Dictionary defines it simply as a ‘mental feeling’ and contrasts it with reason). The statement that we ought to overcome our emotions is quite different, I suggest, from the statement that we ought to overcome our pathê. The Stoics did make the second statement, but not the first. Traditionally, in the early modern period, the terms the Stoics used were translated not as ‘emotion’ but as ‘passion’, and I think this is closer to the mark, although it has fallen out of favour in some quarters because it sounds a bit archaic. But that is no bad thing and it helps to underline that we are dealing with a technical notion here and not a very general and loose notion like ‘emotion’. So, my first point: the Stoics do not reject emotions, they reject passions, and that is quite a different thing.
So, what is the difference between emotions and passions? I want to give a definition of a Stoic passion so we have a clearer idea of precisely what it is that they think we ought to avoid, and I also want to mention a number of other things that the Stoics do not reject but that might well fall under the much broader English notion of emotion. In particular I want to distinguish between four different types of what we might call emotional response that the Stoics address.
- Emotions of Affinity. The Stoics say that each of us is born with an inherent, natural instinct for our own self-preservation (Diogenes Laertius [DL] 7.85). They also say that this instinct extends beyond our self. We are naturally predisposed to care for our close family relations and, if we develop into well-rounded adults, we shall extend that circle of care to include our neighbours and, ideally, to include all humankind. When we take an interest and concern in the well being of others we are acting according to a perfectly natural instinct. When a mother puts her own wellbeing at risk for the sake of her child she is doing the same. The Stoics of course suggest that we ought to live a life in harmony with nature and so these sorts of natural instincts will be part of the ideal Stoic life. Indeed the Stoic ideal is not to close ourselves off from caring for others; on the contrary it is to expand our circle of concern so that we care for not just those who happen to be nearest to us but for everyone, everywhere. The claim that Stoics are indifferent to the wellbeing others is false.
Emotions of Shock. Part of the popular caricature of a Stoic is that they are unmoved by external events, a block of stone in the face adversity, and that this is inhuman, or superhuman to point of being an impossible ideal. This caricature was evidently already current in antiquity because there is a story in which someone on a boat is surprised to see a Stoic philosopher reacting in apparent fear to a storm at sea (Aulus Gellius 19.1). The Stoics do not claim that the ideal person will be completely unmoved by events, like a block of stone. Instead they fully acknowledge that we jump when there are sudden loud noises, we flinch when we think we might get hurt, we blush in embarrassing situations, we get pumped up on adrenalin in exciting or stressful situations, and so on. All of these sorts of reactions the Stoics call ‘first movements’ (or ‘pre-passions’), and they are natural, unthinking, physiological responses to external events that are out of our control. They will be part of an ideal Stoic life because, of course, they are automatic natural responses and so part of any human life.
Passions. This leads us on to passions proper, the things that the Stoics do think we ought to overcome. For the Stoics a passion is an emotional response to an external state of affairs based upon a value judgement. In this sense it is something quite complex, even though for most people they are generated almost unconsciously. Let me give an example: if I hear a loud explosion and I jump and hide behind the nearest wall, that is not an instance of the Stoic passion of fear; instead we might say that it is a ‘first movement’, perhaps combined with a response reflecting my natural instinct of self-concern (a combination of types 1 and 2 above). It is not a passion proper because it is too quick and instinctive. Let me give another example: if I hear that I might lose my job and I start to dwell on the all the negative consequences that such an event might lead to, and then I start to get very anxious about the future, even though I have not lost my job and nothing bad has actually happened at all, that would be a Stoic passion: a negative feeling about the future based upon a value judgement that something terrible is about to happen.
The Stoics of course think we can overcome these kinds of negative responses by examining and challenging the values on the basis of which we make our value judgements. And they think that they can offer us arguments about what we should and should not value, and this is where what the Stoics offer becomes distinctively philosophical therapy. Although the Stoics will recommend that we overcome negative responses such as fear because they can be unpleasant and sometimes debilitating features in our lives, it is worth stressing that the real reason why the Stoics want to avoid these passions is because they are the product of mistaken value judgements. It is not a question of whether anger is a good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant feature of a human life; the Stoics will want to argue that it is false, mistaken, wrong, the product of a judgement made according to a false set of values. The Stoic attitude towards the passions is not one of personal temperament or preference; it is instead the consequence of a series of philosophical arguments. The person who reacts to an event with an extreme passion has made a mistake.
Let me try to give an example: if I am anxious about losing my job (to borrow the example from earlier) then I am fearful because I have judged that something terrible might happen. I have judged that the loss of income will adversely impact my ability to live a happy life. I will have made that judgement holding the view that a certain level of material prosperity is necessary in order to be happy. That’s the belief or value judgement that ultimately grounds the passion of fear in this case. The Stoics will respond with a philosophical argument. They will ask the question whether material prosperity is necessary for a happy life. They will point to counter examples: people with little who are perfectly content, and people with much who are thoroughly miserable. They will acknowledge that although it might be nice, preferable, much better to be wealthy rather than poor, these counter examples show that it is not necessary or sufficient for a happy life (DL 7.104). Knowing that, we shall realize that our fear is unfounded – it is indeed perfectly possible to be happy even after losing one’s job – and when we correctly judge that this is not a terrible thing we shall not generate the negative passion of fear. While avoiding the negative passions is a welcome consequence, the most important thing here is not making mistaken value judgements.
- Good Passions. So far I have talked about bad passions, unpleasant emotional experiences based on mistaken value judgements. The Stoics also acknowledge what they call good passions, positive emotional responses based on correct value judgements (DL 7.116). In the last example we saw the Stoics deny that wealth is a good because it is possible to be miserable with it and happy without it, and part of their definition of a good is that it is something that always and necessarily benefits (DL 7.103). The same sort of analysis applies to all external things, which although they benefit us sometimes, do not always and necessarily benefit us. The only thing that they suggest does always and necessarily benefit us is virtue, which we might gloss as an excellent and healthy state of mind. This is the only genuine good, the only thing that guarantees happiness, the only thing the absence of which guarantees misery.
With this in mind, a good passion is an emotional state produced by a positive value judgement that is not mistaken. If, for the sake of argument, I possess an excellent, virtuous, healthy state of mind, and I judge this to be a good thing, then I shall be judging correctly, for this virtuous state is indeed good. When I make such a judgement I shall generate a positive emotion – a good passion – of joy. So the ideal Stoic life is not one devoid of emotions or passions, far from it. Indeed the life of the ideal Stoic will necessarily involve these good passions, insofar as the ideal Stoic will have an excellent, virtuous state of mind. And just to underline a point that should be clear already, the reason why these good passions are welcome and the other passions are not, is that these good passions are the product of correct value judgements rather than mistaken ones.
I have considered four different types of reaction that the ancient Stoics considered and that might fall under our usual thinking about emotions. As we have seen, the Stoics suggest we overcome just one of these four types. The other three they acknowledge as part of an ideal human life: care and concern for others, natural human responses to sudden events, and positive passions based on correct judgements about what is most important for human life. The ideal Stoic life is thus far from unemotional in the English sense of the word. Indeed, what the Stoics propose we reject are not emotions in the English sense of the word at all, if emotions are defined as feelings that contrast with reasoning. Instead what the Stoics propose we reject is faulty reasoning based on confused value judgements and the unpleasant consequences that this generates.
John Sellars is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His principal area of research is Ancient philosophy, but he is equally interested in its later influence and have wide interests in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern philosophy. He has written two books on Stoic philosophy:Stoicism and The Art of Living. Read more about John’s work on his website.