I’m going to conclude this week’s series of essays on the importance of looking at the meaning of crucial words in Greek philosophy (as opposed to their approximate, often inadequate or misleading English translation) with a whopping five more entries. And I promise I’ll stop there (though a much longer list of Stoic terms is available here).
We started the week with the least known, and arguably most important, of these words: amathia, essentially meaning lack of wisdom, though most unfortunately translated as ignorance. It doesn’t make much sense to say, as the Stoics did, that people do evil things because of ignorance, but it makes a lot of sense to say that they do it because they lack wisdom. Then we looked at the eudaimonia / arete pair, approximately rendered respectively as happiness and virtue, but that are better understood as a life worth living and excellence (which may be moral, but not only).
Finally, we get to a trio and another duo: the trio includes pathē, eupatheiai, and apatheia; the duo proēgmena vs apoproēgmena. What the heck am I talking about? Two of the most important topics in Stoic philosophy: the treatment of “emotions” (or, more properly, passions) and that of so-called “indifferents.”
Much has been written about the idea that Stoicism counsels a life devoid of emotion, with Mr. Spock from Star Trek often brought up as the caricature of the Stoic individual. This, incidentally, is apparently rooted in the fact that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, actually did consciously model Spock on the Stoics, but apparently neglected to do proper research, or simply hire a philosophical consultant. To be fair, though, the stereotype of Stoics as passionless individuals bent on going through life with a stiff upper lip seems to be the result of a much earlier misrepresentation of the philosophy, by Renaissance figure Justus Lipsius, a famous Neostoic.
The issue isn’t helped by the fact that the Stoics used apatheia to indicate their ideal state of mind, the same word from which, obviously, the English “apathy” comes from. But apatheia actually meant something closer to equanimity, or serenity of mind, especially in the face of situations that would cause distress in normal (i.e., non Stoically trained) people.
Indeed, apatheia is supposed to be the result of a balance between the other two words of the above mentioned trio: pathē and eupatheiai. Pathē indicates destructive emotions, such as irrational (the qualification is important!) anger or fear, while eupatheiai indicates positive emotions, such as desire for things that are truly worth having, or elation over such things if one achieves them.
So for instance, lust is an emotion (again, a better word is “passion”) that is rooted in the irrational conclusion that certain things (like someone else’s wife) are worth having. By contrast, wishing for justice, say in response to an instance of police brutality, or a terrorist attack, is a positive passion, since it stems from the cultivation of one of the four virtues, namely justice.
And remember that for the Stoics the passions aren’t simple automatic urges (e.g., the fear we feel in the present of a potential danger, triggering a fight-or-fly response), but rather always the result of a cognitive assent given to our automatic reactions or unconscious urges. We might “lust” for our neighbor’s wife because we can’t help find her attractive, but we can deny assent to such urge, first by simply deciding not to act on it, and over the longer term by training ourselves not to value such things at all — principles that find confirmation in modern cognitive science and in the practice of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and similar approaches.
So, Stoic training is not a Vulcan recipe for the suppression of emotions in favor of “cold” logic, but rather a re-shaping of our natural instinctual reactions, each of which is examined with equanimity and either given or withdrawn assent. Importantly, this isn’t a question of a one-time cognitive exercise, but rather a constant type of mindfulness that gradually alters our instinctive reactions and subconscious thinking under the direction of our volition. One might immediately cognitively understand that racism, say, is bad; yet it takes constant vigilance, probably throughout one’s lifetime, to check our natural xenophobia.
But what are the proper and improper objects of our passions? A strict interpretation of ancient Stoicism suggests that the only good thing for a Stoic is arete, or excellence of character, and anything that interferes with it is not good. Nonetheless, the Stoics — unlike their kins, the Cynics — did recognize that people (reasonably) want things other than virtue and dislike or avoid (again, reasonably) yet other things. Hence the deployment of the last two words of this series: proēgmena vs apoproēgmena, which respectively mean preferred and dispreferred indifferents.
I love the phrase “preferred indifferents” precisely because it is, at first sight, paradoxical. (Hey there is a reason why Cicero wrote an entire book called Paradoxa Stoicorum…) Obviously, if something is indifferent then it cannot be preferred. But in fact it can, because the two terms actually refer to two different ways of looking at the matter. Typical preferred indifferents include health, wealth and education. These are things that all normal human beings prefer to have, as opposed to their counterparts: sickness, poverty and ignorance. And the Stoics — unlike the Cynics — recognized that it is natural (meaning: it is part of human nature) and therefore reasonable, to want these things, if possible.
But they also recognized — and here is where they differed from the Peripatetics — that the “indifferents” are irrelevant to eudaimonia, if the latter is defined (as I did in my previous essay) as a life that one can look back on one’s deathbed and say that it was worthy of admiration.
This strikes me as a profound and highly valuable insight: if a eudaimonic life is a life of moral value, then it makes perfect sense to claim that one can be moral — and therefore a worthy human being, capable of a meaningful life — regardless of whether one is healthy or sick, educated or ignorant, wealthy or poor. The alternative is the aristocratic, elitist Aristotelian view that only healthy, educated, wealthy (and good looking) people can lead meaningful lives.
The “indifferents,” then, can be pursued (when they are preferred) or avoided (when they are dispreferred), so long as they do not interfere with one’s exercise of virtue. For instance, it is permissible to go after wealth, unless one does so by exploiting people. It is permissible to try to avoid sickness, unless one does so by unfairly taking advantage of others. And so forth. Practically speaking, this means that we need to be constantly mindful of the ethical dimension of what we do: every time we make a decision to pursue or avoid an indifferent (which is most times throughout our lives), we also ask ourselves if this somehow compromises our exercise of the cardinal virtues of courage, temperance, justice and wisdom. If no, go for it!
The three essays I put out this week were not meant as an exercise in learning ancient Greek. Nor did I intend to suggest that Stoics should go around throwing fancy words when they talk to others about their adopted philosophy of life.
But I do think that these seven words — amathia, eudaimonia, arete, pathē, eupatheiai, apatheia, proēgmena, and apoproēgmena — when taken together and properly understood in their original meaning, rather than through their approximate English translations, really encapsulate a lot of what is worth understanding about Stoicism.
So by all means let us talk about “ignorance,” “flourishing,” “virtue,” “emotions,” and “indifferents” in a colloquial setting. But let us always remember that these words have meanings that, if not properly understood or explained, lead to confusion and misconceptions. One doesn’t have to buy into Stoicism, nor is the philosophy written in stone anyway, so that a modern Stoic certainly is not compelled to do things “by the book,” regardless of whether such book was written by Zeno, Chrysippus, Seneca or Epictetus. But even when we are critical of Stoicism we owe it to our own intellectual honesty and integrity to be critical of it for good reasons, not because of what we may have lost in translation.