Stoic moral psychology

Inside Out emotionsContinuing my survey of the excellent Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (see examples here, here, and here), it’s time to discuss Tad Brennan’s chapter on Stoic moral psychology. This is an interesting field in and of itself, since psychology is a descriptive discipline, while ethics is prescriptive, so moral psychology is precisely the sort of interface between theory and practice that the Stoics made central to their philosophy. As Brennan puts it: “Because they all embrace some type of naturalism in their ethical foundations, ancient theories tend to begin their ethical theorizing along with their psychology, not prior to it.”

Brennan reminds us that Stoic epistemology asserts that ethical judgment begins with “impressions,” perceptions that are caused in us by some object in the environment. Rational human beings do not respond automatically to impressions — as animals do — but rather attempt to assess them: “One possible attitude takes the content of the impression to be an accurate representation, saying, as it were, ‘yes, things really are as this impression shows them to be’; this is called assent (sunkatathesis). … Otherwise, one can withhold or suspend one’s assent, taking the impression to be a ‘mere’ impression, not an adequate representation of the world.”

If you assent to an impression, for the Stoics, you thereby form a belief, of which they recognized a variety of types: mere opinions (doxai), which can be true, false, or “cataleptic.” The latter is an impression that according to the Stoics comes with a special mark that makes it possible for us to distinguish a true impression (e.g., I’m seeing you) from an unreliable one (e.g., I’m hallucinating or dreaming of you). Needless to say, the Skeptics were, ahem, skeptical of such claims.  (There is also knowledge, which is a form of strong assent to cataleptic impressions, and which only the Sage is capable of having.)

This epistemological preamble is necessary because the Stoics granted that people are not misinformed about most ordinary beliefs, but they are, as Brennan puts it, affected by a massive pandemic error when it comes to matters of evaluation: we (and our institutions) are often wrong about what is good or bad for us, constantly going after “preferred indifferents” (health, wealth, etc.) rather than cultivating virtue. “These false beliefs – which are also the operative psychological motivations for the agent’s intentional actions – are known to the Stoics as pathê, or emotions, one species of impulses.”

According to Brennan the core concept in Stoic moral psychology is that of rational impulse, or hormê (the modifier “rational” acknowledges that animals too have impulses). Impulses are a type of assent, and as such are also a type of belief. The crucial bit here is that “impulses on the Stoic view are psychological events that eventuate in action (provided that externals cooperate).”

Next, Brennan moves to consider emotions. (Throughout this, please keep in mind that terms like “passion,” “emotion” and so forth are technical Stoic terms, and need to be interpreted accordingly. It would be a blunder to assume the modern meaning of these words.) “What distinguishes emotions from other impulses is the fact that they include a characterization of their objects as good or bad, and that they are constituted by beliefs that fall short of knowledge. Typically what makes them fall short of knowledge is the fact that they are false; in most of the examples, an agent picks out an indifferent object, such as money or pleasure or death, and falsely predicates goodness or badness of it.”

There are four primary emotions with which the Stoics were concerned, with all the others being subtypes of these:

Desire is an opinion that some future thing is a good of such a sort that we should reach out for it. Fear is an opinion that some future thing is an evil of such a sort that we should avoid it. Pleasure is an opinion that some present thing is a good of such a sort that we should be elated about it. Pain is an opinion that some present thing is a bad of such a sort that we should be downcast about it.”

Here is a crucial point that generates endless misunderstandings about Stoicism: the Sages (i.e., the ideal human beings) do not have emotions. Meaning, they do not have those four negative emotions. What they do have, however, are eupatheiai, which literally means good emotions. There are three eupatheiai: joy (not pleasure), willing or volition (not desire), caution (not fear). Notice that there is no positive analogous of pain, “because the Sage does not have any vice present to himself at all, and so a fortiori none at which he might feel downcast.”

Where do, in this scheme, fall the “preferred” indifferent? Remember that an appreciation for preferred (and dispreferred) externals is what distinguishes Stoicism from Cynicism, as the Stoics tried to recover the Aristotelians’ feeling that there are things that people want outside of virtue without conceding to the Aristotelians that one’s eudaimonia (flourishing life) in any way depends on such externals. I’m going to quote Brennan extensively on this, since it seems to me he gets it exactly right [comments in brackets are mine]:

“When I take a clear-eyed view of my next meal, I think of it as an indifferent thing but nevertheless one that it is reasonable to pursue because of its positive planning value [i.e., it is something that helps me pursue the practice of virtue]. An impulse of this sort is a selection; that is, I think of the food as a preferred indifferent of such a sort that it is kathêkon [for Epictetus for something to be kathêkon it means that it is appropriate, reasonable, or advantageous] that I should pursue it, or I think of my falling from a cliff as a dispreferred indifferent of such a sort that I should avoid it, thus having the impulse of disselection.”

And, introducing another example: “We can see that our happiness and misery are completely unconnected to the fate of this paper cup and that nevertheless there may be perfectly good reasons to use this cup to drink from, or to forgo using it, or to give it to someone else without feeling the least emotional attachment to it. The ancient equivalents of paper cups were ceramic pots, which is why Epictetus tells us to start from our experience of what it is like to treat something the way we treat a little pot (i.e., a familiar object of indifference). Using this model, we can come in time to see even life as an indifferent thing [again, “indifferent” in the Stoic sense, not the modern one!], and the most important component of our ethical progress comes in the replacement of emotions by selections (i.e., the correction of our false beliefs about values).”

As usual, the rest of Brennan’s chapter is well worth reading in full, but a comprehensive treatment is beyond the scope of these short summary essays.

3 thoughts on “Stoic moral psychology

  1. I have only just read your essay on a meeting with a sophist and must complement you on a delightful story. Yes, we do know more than one Hippias. I liked your point about the Axiom of Futility but would like to mention its corollary, the Third Party Axiom. This says that the real target we should reach is the reasonable, fair minded audience that is watching/listening, the third party. Because they are not emotionally involved in the contest they are open to reasoned argument. We should be content with making a clear and careful argument, not worrying about the obfuscations of the sophist since the third party will see past the obfuscations and value coherent reasoning.

    Another tactic is not to make one’s own case but to concentrate on the sophist’s case, harrying him, questioning his facts, his reasoning and generally engaging in a form of intellectual guerilla warfare. Make him do all the work while you find all the loopholes. Bring in some gentle irony and use humorous retorts to expose his puffery. And then make generous use of reductio ad absurdum arguments and your sophist is reduced to a seething, steaming jelly. Gentle mocking humour, especially irony, is the key to managing a sophist.

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