Five additional crucial words

Greek wordsI’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.

12 thoughts on “Five additional crucial words

  1. jbonnicerenoreg

    Many Stoic discussions seem to have two parts: first, what did the original Stoics say and second, how does that mix with modern religion, science and philosophy. It may be helpful to use the Greek words so as to indicate one is talking about the ancient conceptions and reference a dictionary of Stoic terms. Fine article.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. timbartik

    As an economist, I understand the Stoic view of the relative value of virtue versus indifferents by the concept of lexicographic ordering. A lexicographic ordering is an ordering such as alphabetical ordering. In such an ordering, the first letter’s place in the ordering will dominate all subsequent letters in determining the order. However, holding the first letter constant, the subsequent letters also matter. Stoicism is saying virtue is the first letter, and other goods collectively determine the value of the second letter. (Or at least I have heard no Stoic argument that there are lexicographic orderings among the indifferents.) Therefore, one should always prefer the state of one’s life that maximizes virtue; holding virtue constant, one could also logically prefer states of life that also increase other goods.

    Lexicographic orderings come up in economics because it turns out that if a consumer’s preferences are lexicographic, they cannot be represented by a utlility function that assigns some value to a vector of goods and services, because lexicographic preferences do not allow for any tradeoffs among the goods or services that are lexicographically ordered.

    Now, an interesting question is what the Stoics thought about the first letter in their ordering, virtue. Is virtue something that can be described by a utility function for which the arguments are distinct virtues? Are there tradeoffs among the virtues, where a little more of one offsets a certain amount of the other? Alternatively, are the Stoics assuming that one’s virtue is the minimum value among a set of different values? I don’t think either of these views is quite right, because the Stoics and virtue ethics in general seems to think of the virtues as somehow being an interdependent whole. However, I have never read any discussion in which the nature of this interdependence is pinned down and discussed precisely and technically.

    As for other goods, I assume the Stoics would have no objection to representing preferences over other goods by a utility function.


  3. Massimo Post author


    very interesting analysis. I think you are right on target, actually. As for virtue(s), the Stoics, like Socrates — but unlike other Hellenistic schools — believed that the virtues are either very tightly interconnected (Zeno) or are one thing with different facets (Chrysippus), so no utility function possible in that area.

    As for the preferred and dispreferred indifferents, right, I agree that they could be analyzed in terms of a utility function, though of course it remains to be established how such function might be constructed.


  4. Seneca (@Roman_Statesman)

    Speaking as a layman, I find that the Greek terms stand at a nice safe distance from modern usage. Too often, for example, modern associations can give the word ‘virtue’ a sense of prudishness that is thankfully not implied by the word ‘excellence’. I’m also grateful to Massimo for defining eudaimonia as a life worth living. To my mind, this definition makes excellence of character the backbone of a life worth living but leaves us free to conceive of the good or happy life as including much more, in the form of preferred indifferents.

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  5. Marcus Holmes

    I want to talk to this paragraph:
    “…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.”
    As I’ve claimed stoicism was for the privileged previously.
    Education is key and amathia as you’ve shown is not merely ignorance, but a want of wisdom. While wisdom can perhaps develop spontaneously, it seems we are much more the products of formative influence. If that influence is devoid of wisdom, steeped in resentment, or indeed ignorant in the ordinary sense (illiterate, inarticulate, vicious), it is likely to be emulated, or at any rate transcendence into stoic values is unlikely, since incomprehensible. The important point here is that in subscribing to the view that stoicism doesn’t discriminate, we forget education is not merely functional, but but a privileged spectrum. More importantly, this can translate into sophist politics whereby the “vicious” can be seen as ultimately responsible for their condition. Perhaps Aristotle’s view is not merely elitist, but an acknowledgement that the privilege is not available to everyone.


  6. Massimo Post author


    interesting points, thank you. However, I would maintain that one can be wise even if ignorant in the standard educational sense. It may be more difficult, but the sort of wisdom we are talking about comes of a basic understanding of what is and is not good for human as social animals, which I believe many people have the ability to grasp at the least intuitively, without the need for a formal education or philosophical training — though the latter may help, when it is the sort of training that Epictetus offered, as opposed to modern academic philosophy.


  7. viennahavana

    I must say, I’m enjoying the ancient Greek lessons, Massimo! And I also think preferred indifferents are one of the BEST parts of Stoic philosophy. Since I started using that concept, my time has been so easy to manage by discontinuing pursuits that are not leading directly to some sort of practice of arete. And I feel the results as a direct increase in my pleasure of what I am choosing to spend time doing (not feeling pulled to do the things I “should be” doing), even things that may not be “fun.”

    Also, the way I understand amathia now is as a “moral illness.”
    It has been helpful to me to see individual people or societies as “morally ill,” which may have to do with education in the broadest sense of the word. In this broad sense, a moral education has nothing to do with privilege. Children (indeed, anyone at any age) have a potential to be educated about “what is good for human as social animals.”
    I hope you keep going with the Greek concepts, you’re on a roll.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Massimo Post author


    thanks, much appreciated. The next two essays (tomorrow and Thursday) are going to be articulating my first somewhat thought out comprehensive proposal to update Stoicism for modern times. Stay tuned…

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  9. labnut

    I hope you don’t mind me sneaking in this comment since the previous post is closed.

    Eudaimonia, all ancients agreed, is “the good composed of all goods,”

    Somehow that does not capture my understanding of eudaimonia. It seems to me to be somewhat bloodless, rather bland.

    When you said:

    eventually arete came to describe excellence of character

    I felt you were getting close to a better interpretation of eudaimonia. To my mind at least, eudaimonia carries implications of a passion for skill and excellence in all that one does, especially in the pursuit of the virtues. With that passion comes pleasurable enjoyment in the exercise of skill and in the pursuit of excellence in all things, especially moral good. The pleasurable enjoyment experienced in the deployment of skill and the pursuit of excellence, especially of character, is what I call eudaimonia.

    The craftsman experiences pleasurable enjoyment as he deploys his skills to make an outstanding cabinet, the doctor experiences pleasurable enjoyment as he deploys his skills to save his patients’ lives and the nun experiences pleasurable enjoyment as she labours to help the suffering in the shantytowns. Those are eudaimonic experiences. Woven into these experiences, and inseparable from them, is the desire for moral good. Thus the craftsman will charge a fair price, the doctor will treat his patients with integrity and the nun will exercise compassion and love.

    However eudaimonia can only be felt if you experience its negation, suffering, failure or rejection. These experiences expose eudaimonia by showing it up in vivid contrast. A state of continuing eudaimonia ceases to be eudaimonia. And this brings me to my next qualification. Resilience and hardiness are the qualities that carry one from suffering, failure or rejection to recovery and triumph where one once again experiences eudaimonia. And so resilience and hardiness are inseparable from eudaimonia.

    These moments of recovery and triumph are the peak moments of eudaimonia and it is at times like this we experience the glowing spirit.

    The eudaimonic life is then, I believe, a challenging life of purpose, one where you take on great goals, expose yourself to great risk, sometimes losing, sometimes winning but always animated by a glowing spirit.

    These two links, below, are wonderful examples of a glowing spirit:

    They gambled all and lost, but their glowing spirit is a beacon to the rest of us. I am overcome with admiration for them. Their examples, in some small way, motivate us to be better than ourselves and when we do that, we experience eudaimonia.


  10. demand2democracy

    I have been into the teachings of Epictetus, his teacher M. Rufus for awhile. Of course Senaca, who is possibly known 4 meeting PAUL, since his brother is in Acts, judging him, Seneca admits to being so wealthy, slaves ect., He could not keep track.


  11. Massimo Post author


    “Of course Senaca, who is possibly known 4 meeting PAUL, since his brother is in Acts, judging him, Seneca admits to being so wealthy, slaves ect., He could not keep track.”

    There doesn’t seem evidence that Seneca and Paul were ever in touch, though it is true that Seneca’s brother is mentioned by Paul. As for wealth, that’s a long discussion that we keep having from time to time. Stoicism has nothing against wealth per se, but it does warn about the negative ethical effects (on both onself and others) of amassing external goods. So, yes, Seneca was far from perfect.

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