The thorny issue of Stoic emotions

emotional SpockStoics have a bad reputation when it comes to emotions. But is it deserved? What, exactly, is the connection between Stoic theory and what modern cognitive science tells us about the relationship between emotion and cognition?

These and a number of related questions are taken up by an in-depth treatment of the problem of Stoic emotion in a paper by Larry Becker, published in Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations, edited by Steven K. Strange and Jack Zupko for Cambridge University Press. The paper is well worth a careful read for any serious student of modern Stoicism, but I will attempt to give the gist of it by presenting some of its highlights.

Becker begins by acknowledging that modern Stoicism does face a problem in this respect: the modern Stoic has to show — at the least to her own satisfaction — that the philosophy she follows isn’t either impossible or at the very least unhealthy for a human being. This issue, according to Becker, originates from a combination of some debatable positions within ancient Stoicism (for instance, Chrysippus did think that we could muster far more control over our emotions than it turns out to be the case), an uncharitable reading of the ancient sources by critics of Stoicism, and the out of hand dismissal of the retort that the Stoics explicitly counseled the cultivation of positive emotions, on the ground that the ones they listed are “weird.”

Becker’s first point of rebuttal is to say that “Stoic ethical theory entails only that we make our emotions appropriate, by making sure that the beliefs implicit in them are true.” Moreover, since the Stoics explicitly argued that any advance in our understanding of “logic” and “physics” (i.e., science, epistemology and metaphysics) ought to affect the way we practice ethics, if it is the case that a healthy emotional life is necessary for the functioning of a human being — and hence for the pursuit of virtue — then Stoics are dedicated to cultivate a healthy emotional life. Follow nature, literally. Though, of course, much hinges on what exactly we mean by “emotional” and “healthy,” as we shall see in a moment.

The first substantive section of the paper articulates a conceptual clarification of “emotion.” Here Becker distinguishes among moods, feelings, emotions and passions, lined up along a circular continuum characterized by varying degrees of pure affect. Moods lie at one end of such a spectrum, often ensuing without our awareness of their roots (e.g., anxiety, serenity, being energized, being vaguely aroused); passions are positioned at the other extreme of the spectrum, where affect obliterates cognition and agency (strong anxiety, rage, or fear can make people go “out of their mind”); feelings are distinguished from moods because we are typically aware of their causes (e.g., full sexual arousal); finally, emotions are further differentiated by the fact that they incorporate a major cognitive component (this is in line with modern research in psychology).

(It should be noted that Becker is not using the word “passion” here in the way the ancient Stoics did. Their meaning would be closer to his “emotion.”)

Next, Becker tackles the degree of agreement between Stoic theory and modern psychology. He says — and I agree — that there is an impressive amount of convergence between the two, but he also admits that some adjustments will have to be made to the original Stoic take, something he claims both that the Stoics themselves would readily welcome, and that it is not of such magnitude as to render the use of the term “Stoic” inappropriate.

Take, for instance, the case of affective impulse. Chrysippus, as mentioned above, believed that Stoic training could remove excessive emotions at the source, while Posidonius argued that primal affect is an inevitable characteristic of being human and cannot be eliminated. Modern cognitive science leans decidedly on the side of Posidonius. As Becker wryly puts it: “affective arousal and its immediate emotional or passional consequences cannot be eliminated by cognitive (Stoic) training any more than Stoic training can eliminate perspiration.” Indeed, and that’s quite irrespectively of whether such elimination would even be a good thing to begin with. Again, follow nature.

This, however, poses no problem for the Sage: “After all, other things being equal, if potable water is freely available for the thirsty Sage, she will presumably drink it as a first remedy (reminding herself of its status as a preferred indifferent) rather than think away the thirst.”

I find that this strikes exactly the right chord: too often Stoics are caricatured as attempting the impossible and the unnatural, while in fact the essence of Stoicism is to go in the best way possible after what is good for us: applying reason to the resolution of our problems (as Seneca put it in De Tranquillitate Animi X.4).

Where there is an interesting compromise to be made is in the Stoic belief that cognitive understanding can always rectify our emotions. While modern psychology agrees that there is a cognitive component to all our emotional states except for the most basic instincts, and it furthermore agrees that one can cognitively affect the connection between emotions and actions (with cognition acting as a sort of “veto power” on our instincts), it is nonetheless empirically true that all of this can be done only imperfectly and with training. Therefore, Becker argues, the fundamental Stoic insight about the relationship between emotion and cognition is sound, but the Stoics turned out to be a bit optimistic on just what their training (or modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is partially derived from it) can achieve. So be it, follow the facts.

There is much more to the paper, on the etiology of affect, the naturalness of emotions, the relationship between emotions and health as well as between emotions and the concept of a good life. But let me comment on just two more related aspects: love and detachment.

The conundrum is familiar, but it is sharply set out by Becker: “Stoic insistence that virtue, rather than any external person or thing, is the only thing that is ultimately any good at all contributes to the impression that Stoics would resist becoming attached to externals — would resist, in that sense, a fundamental aspect of what we call love.”

He then develops an instructive contrast between Stoics and what he calls “romantics,” turning the table around on the latter. To begin with, he argues, it is human nature to always keep an eye on what else is going on around us (third-order assessment, in Becker’s lingo) and not just get lost in the moment (first-order awareness), as the romantics suggest we should do: “‘Kiss me you fool.’ — Not now. The attic is on fire.”

Another example is that of a tennis player who, even while being “in the zone,” focused on his first-order awareness of what is going on during play, is still perfectly capable (and willing!) to switch to third-order assessment and properly react to a spectator attempting to assault him, or to a sudden earthquake.

As Becker puts it: “Where there is a striking difference on these matters between Stoics and at the least some non-Stoics (call them romantics) is in how willingly they embrace the complexity of intention in actively monitoring emotional states and the distancing it involves. … Romantics seem dismayed and regretful about the necessity of such monitoring and are likely to make persistent efforts to avoid it.”

Love involves attachment, but isn’t Stoicism about detachment? Well, it’s complicated. Becker reminds us of the doctrine of oikeiosis, which constitutes the Stoic developmental account of regard for other people, and which certainly does not counsel a cold detachment from others’ affairs and emotions.

The Stoic position is certainly unusual, but in a different fashion from the common caricature. Stoics care, ultimately, about virtue. But this implies a number of things: in order to pursue virtue, for instance, it is better to be healthy, both physically and emotionally. That is why physical and emotional health are “preferred indifferents,” that delightful only superficially oxymoronic Stoic phrase. Virtue and oikeiosis (which literally means “appropriation” of other people’s concerns and welfare) also imply a care for life and liberty, and even the desire to acquire, if possible, material possessions that will facilitate our virtuous behavior on behalf of humanity.

Becker concludes with a provocative question: is Stoic love therefore austere? He denies so, even though it certainly doesn’t look like the love that the romantics are after. He invites us to contemplate a simple thought experiment by imagining a person who truly means it when he says: “You are my love, my life, my whole life. If I were to lose you my life would be ruined, over.” And he comments: “Those sentences are not about loving you for your own sake; they are ultimately not about you at all. They are rather the declaration of a medical emergency and a plea for help (or a threat).” That is, the romantic view is pathological, not healthy.

Ultimately, “the only austerity in Stoic love comes not from its lack of attachment (there is plenty of attachment) but rather from its readiness to sacrifice everything except virtue for love.”

22 thoughts on “The thorny issue of Stoic emotions

  1. I wonder if a modernized Stoicism might be more in accord with the findings of modern psychology, and the sensibilities of our society, by adding a fifth virtue, that of compassion, to the classic four virtues of practical wisdom, moderation, courage, and justice.

    I think one can argue that compassion is consistent with Stoicism, but it might help to more explicitly highlight its role.

    I think that adding compassion is more consistent with the findings of modern psychology, as these suggest that a person who lacks compassion will have trouble finding their way to justice with reason alone.


  2. I have a simpler answer.
    Pain is real suffering is a judgement
    therefore it is proper to be in pain when you lose a loved one but suffering because of it is what stoicism can help you with.
    Accept the pain but reject the suffering, pain becomes bearable and suffering ceases when it aquires meaning.
    For instance losing a limb is painfull but if its done in order to save anothers life then its acceptable, the pain is the same but our ability to bear it is radically different, we might even feel proud of our pain.
    We should fel pain when we lose a loved one but it should be bearable because we should know we have done all we could to be as good to them as we could be while we had them on loan from Fortune.

    The bad reputation comes from people not understanding that pain and suffering are two different things and pain does not automatically cause suffering.

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  3. Jasper, interesting point, I tend to agree.

    timbartik, well yes one could add virtues (Aristotle had 12!), but I’m not sure that would solve the problem. Stoics subscribed to the idea of the unity of virtue, there is only one virtue — excellence of character — and all others are aspects of it (courage, temperance, justice, practical wisdom).

    So one could argue that if compassion is a trait of a good character then it is part of wisdom. I doubt that would convince the naysayers though…


  4. “Becker is not using the word “passion” here in the way the ancient Stoics did. Their meaning would be closer to his “emotion.””

    Is it different, though? In Seneca’s “On Anger”, he mentions that a major downside of anger is that it takes over the reasonable thought, and that it can’t be controlled. Either I’m misreading Seneca, Seneca’s views on anger are not representative of the general Stoic view, or Becker’s use is indeed in concordance with the general Stoic view. Which is it?


  5. cmplxadsys,

    well, the Stoics use of the word that normally is translated as “passion” comes in degrees: there are proto-passions and then there are eu-passions. Maybe Larry can clarify the relationship between his terminology and the original Stoic one.


  6. I guess I do need to clarify. I didn’t spend much time in the paper trying to match my English usage of emotional language to the Greek and Latin ones. As  Massimo points out,  since the Stoics identified proto-forms and eu-forms  of patheia,  whatever those are they apparently come in degrees. So it follows that we have to be careful about what the Stoics might’ve been recommending when they discussed  (usually favorably) the absence of patheia in the sage –  that is, her apatheia.  

    We have a lot of resources in English for making such distinctions. All of this has to do with what we generally call the emotions – marking various distinctions within that category with special terms that indicate not only basic varieties of emotion (anger, sexual arousal, etc.) but various levels of intensity, connections to bodily sensations, degrees of disruption of our cognitive and agentic functioning, etc.   (So did the ancient Stoics.  but translation is always a problem. For example, Seneca’s essay on anger (De Ira)  is largely about what I would call wrath or  rage rather than mere anger. And in the Latin Mass, Ira  is usually translated  into English as wrath.  In English, we usually understand wrath or rage as a  passion that is a very intense form of anger  – one that is likely to disrupt one’s self-control. That would be my usage also.)

    But as for Stoics, as long as  they were commending some forms of patheia, namely eupatheia, it is hard to believe that they  could have consistently  recommended  extirpating all of them. And if they made the point about the proto-passions, which the later Stoics  certainly did, they certainly would’ve been sympathetic to  current neuropsychological studies on the same topic. 

    Did Chrysippus actually mean to recommend the extirpation of all the patheia generally? I don’t think so, and in writing my book I was heavily influenced by an article  by John Cooper on Posidonious’s views on some of these matters. But I thought then, and over the next two years while I was writing the article on stoic emotion under discussion here, that Chrysippus probably held much more rigid views on the extirpation of the emotions than I think are warranted. After all, lots of good scholars (admittedly, most of them critical of stoicism) were saying that in the canonical version of Stoicism, all the especially intense “passions”  were to be extirpated. 

    But I think some intense emotions (passions), under some conditions, and subconsciously monitored, are just fine. And I think modern Stoics can recognize this as a legitimately stoic position with an ancient lineage. But I did think my views on the matter were speculative. At least about the Old Stoa. Until 2007, when Margaret Graver’s wonderful book Stoicism and Emotion  appeared. I think it generally supports my speculations, and I wish it had been available earlier!  I highly recommend it.

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  7. Becker’s provocative question described at the end of the above piece is, in my view, exactly to the point. It is the pivotal question as to whether I can fully accept stoicism or not. Can I suggest another thought experiment? If you love someone for their own sake, would you sacrifice your life to save theirs? I want to say I certainly would (and this is appropriate love and not pathological), but surely a stoic must say ‘no’ because he is more attached to his virtue than an external good, even if it is love of another. Hence stoicism leaves us with an inadequate account of love.

    Ps: I don’t think an adequate stoic reply to this is to suggest the self-sacrifice for another could be the virtuous thing to do. Since then, the act of sacrifice is not motivated by love of the person but by the desire to be virtuous. And hence would not really be love of the person for their own sake at all.

    (An existentialist experimenting with stoicism)

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  8. Pete, this is a really good question. My take on it is actually precisely along the lines you pre-emptively reject: to die for someone else, loved one or even stranger, is something that should be done if it is the virtuous thing to do, and to be resisted if it isn’t.

    For instance, should one die to save one’s child? Banning very specific circumstances, yes.

    But should one die to “prove” to a loved one that one truly loves her? Hell not. And it is sick of her to even ask.

    Most real cases, of course, would fall somewhere in between, and will require the exercise of wisdom to decide.

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  9. Massimo, thank you for your reply.

    I think it is really important to be clear on the stoic position here, as, for me, it is the central issue on which a full acceptance of stoicism stands or falls. And although self-sacrifice is an extreme example, it is crucial for getting to the bottom of whether I can fully accept the stoic position or not.

    If the stoic is saying that self-sacrifice for love is really self-sacrifice for the sake of their own virtue, this is not self-sacrifice for the sake of the one that is loved, and so not love at all. The problem for the stoic seems to be that they reject attachment to external goods, but to love someone is precisely to be attached to an external good. Put like this, there seems to be no way out for the stoic.

    Perhaps we need to be a bit more precise about what we mean by love. Could the stoic define love in a way that emphasises the idea of setting free? That is, if our love of another is essential to our own happiness then this can be oppressive to the one loved. They might not engage in risky and dangerous activities for fear of destroying our lives if they die. Hence, could a stoic say something like ‘real’ love is does not make the other essential to your own happiness because it is about encouraging the one loved to be free to discover and to be themselves. But it is more than merely acting like a mentor to a stranger, because we prefer that things go well for them and prefer if they remain with us and do not endanger themselves.

    I am not sure I am convinced by this because love seems more than a mentoring and a preference. So, I tend to favour a hybrid position, a stoic existentialism. That is, when we love, we experience the loved one as an external good which is essential to our own happiness, but we are stoic about that love in the sense we want them to be free and therefore fight our feelings that want to keep them always safe. In addition, we only love very few things in this way and we are stoic about everything else. Then if we lose the people or activities we love, we have stoic resources to deal with it. (Then, I suppose, we could move to full stoic sage position where we are attached to nothing but still happy, or find love again.)



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  10. Pete,

    to begin with, I’m not sure there is such a thing as *the* Stoic position, as Stoicism, as you know, is a philosophy characterized by a variety of opinions even in antiquity, let alone today. So at best we can speak of positions that are more or less compatible with Stoicism as we understand it.

    When you say: “If the stoic is saying that self-sacrifice for love is really self-sacrifice for the sake of their own virtue, this is not self-sacrifice for the sake of the one that is loved, and so not love at all”

    I would phrase it differently. I don’t think it is right to talk abut the Stoic’s “own virtue.” Virtue is a value, nobody owns it. Imagine if you were saying “I’m doing this for my own love,” instead of “for love.” It would feel equally awkward.

    “The problem for the stoic seems to be that they reject attachment to external goods, but to love someone is precisely to be attached to an external good”

    Not exactly, the way I see it. First off, loved ones are *preferred* indifferents, not just indifferents. Which means one is perfectly coherent in doing whatever it takes to protect and love them *except* for compromising virtue. But that’s not just the Stoic position: even for a non-Stoic I would think it morally reprehensible to, say, protect a loved one if she were a mass murderer just because I love her.

    “could a stoic say something like ‘real’ love is does not make the other essential to your own happiness because it is about encouraging the one loved to be free to discover and to be themselves. But it is more than merely acting like a mentor to a stranger, because we prefer that things go well for them and prefer if they remain with us and do not endanger themselves”

    I see nothing wrong with this interpretation.

    I also think our society puts a bit too much emphasis on the romantic view of love at the expense of other, arguably even more important, things. Like justice, see my example of the mass murderer with whom I’m in love above.

    “when we love, we experience the loved one as an external good which is essential to our own happiness, but we are stoic about that love in the sense we want them to be free and therefore fight our feelings that want to keep them always safe”

    The project of a hybrid Stoic-Existentialism is an interesting one. Personally, however, I would never want to say that another person is *essential* for my happiness, though s/he can be very very much preferred.


  11. My limited understanding at present suggests that negative emotions (e.g., jealousy, wrath, etc.) should be lessened in frequency and amplitude to the extent possible (I believe they may not be completely extinguishable), but that positive emotions (e.g., compassion, love, etc.) can be beneficial. There are, of course, exceptions to be made: falling madly in love to the point where one is actually harmed through a complete sidelining of rational thought would be one. The point here, as I see it, is that the Stoic has a responsibility to live the best life she can (one of Stoic virtue), and can experience positive emotions in doing so, but must always be aware of her behaviour and thoughts in relation to these emotions in order to avoid being led astray and, therefore, reducing the effectiveness of her Stoicism. Again, this is my current understanding, which may be woefully lacking.

    Musonius (my current reading) discusses marriage and love as being beneficial not only to those involved in the relationship, but to family and, by extension, the community (flourishing communities contain flourishing families and individuals). In Lecture 13:2 (Cynthia King’s translation) he says the following about care of married couples for each other:

    “In marriage there must be, above all, companionship and care of husband and wife for each other, both in sickness and in health and on every occasion. Each party entering into a marriage desires this, after all, just as they desire children. When this mutual care is complete and those who live together provide it for each other completely, each competes to surpass the other in giving such care. Such a marriage is admirable and deserves emulation; such a partnership is beautiful.”

    This seems to me to be a very level headed view, reasoning the purpose of marriage and the benefit love or care within marriage can bestow upon those involved. That said, the relationship between couples here is not presented in a love=passion way, which might be aligned with negative emotions should it become all consuming.

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  12. Since Seneca and Marcus were both married (and Epictetus may have been), I don’t imagine they had much of a problem with love, seeing it as part of the natural order of things. Equally, love of children is seen by Epictetus (and, I presume, the others) as natural, with him chiding the man who left his sick daughter’s bedside as acting against nature. Where I think they do have a problem, is with the all-consuming passion which makes one act against reason and nature, becoming a slave in the process as is shown in Epictetus’ numerous disapproving examples of people going out late at night (when the Roman streets were presumably dangerous) at the insistence of their beloved, even though their slaves were too frightened to join them.
    I think there’s an analogy to be made with Montaigne who in one of his essays (I don’t have the reference to hand) says that one should build a room (figuratively I imagine) which only you can enter so that if you should lose your wife or family, you will still have something which is uniquely you which will survive and lessen your pain. Obviously the idea of losing one’s family is a good praedictio malorum, but I think the Stoics would approve of the “private room”, as the seat of one’s virtue, for which one is solely responsible (Marcus “Inner Citadel”?). By all means fall in love, but retain enough of yourself to know that it is ultimately your own virtue which is most important to you and in accordance with which you should act. It strikes me that this is a mature view of love and may not satisfy those who are looking for a “grand passion”, but examples of the latter are rare in the Ancient World and seldom ended well – Jason and Medea, Catullus and Lesbia etc.
    As for the question of dying for one’s beloved, with the Stoic’s focus on acting in accordance with Nature, and the individual being a small part of the whole, presumably this would be entirely acceptable if one thought that it for the best for the community or, like the athlete facing the amputation of his genitals in Epictetus, if one felt that not doing so would mean that one could not live in line with one’s own nature.

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  13. Per a philosophical muse of mine, Larry, are you using “passion” in any way close to the sense of Hume? And, a much more literalistic translation of “oikeiosis” might be something like “making at home,” eh, as in making something (formerly external) at home within one’s own psyche?


  14. The much more literalistic translation of oikeiosis that you mention is very appealing. It certainly gets the etymology into the action. But I just decided to stick with the one that Long and Sedley chose – at least for the most part. What I’m after in the use of the term is sometimes better indicated by “internalization” or “attachment”. But it’s a very difficult word to translate. I suppose the problem with the more literal one that you suggest is that we will are not always “at home” with the people and things we internalize. As for Hume, I didn’t intentionally try to use the term in any way close to his use – and I have a dim memory that his use is pretty complex. Thanks for the question though. I’ll give it some thought.

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  15. Subject: “I don’t want to be a bran muffin.”

    The popular view of love is something that must be passionate and not sensible or rational. This is why people will have difficulty with stoicism. Here is a dialogue from a popular comedy show that illustrates the prevalent popular idea that love is not only passionate, but if it is genuine, it should in fact be, or at least risk being, bad for you. Look out particularly for Leonard’s line: “Well, it matters a lot. I don’t want to be a bran muffin. I, I want to be a Cinnabon, you know? A strawberry Pop-Tart. Something you’re excited about even though it could give you diabetes.”

    I’m not saying this idea is right, but it is certainly an obstacle for convincing others of stoicism these days.

    Scene: Penny’s apartment.

    Penny: Oh, my God. What a day.

    Leonard: Can I get you anything?

    Penny: No. I need to start making some smart decisions.

    Leonard: With your career?

    Penny: With my life.

    Leonard: Like what?

    Penny: I don’t know. We could get married.

    Leonard: Come on, be serious.

    Penny: I am.

    Leonard: Why? Because I’m a, a smart decision?

    Penny: Well, yeah.

    Leonard: So I’m like a bran muffin.

    Penny: What? No, that’s not what I’m saying.

    Leonard: No, it’s exactly what you’re saying. I’m the boring thing you’re choosing because I’m good for you.

    Penny: What does it matter? The point is, I’m choosing you.

    Leonard: Well, it matters a lot. I don’t want to be a bran muffin. I, I want to be a Cinnabon, you know? A strawberry Pop-Tart. Something you’re excited about even though it could give you diabetes.

    Penny: Sweetie, you can be any pastry you want.

    Leonard: No, no. No, it’s too late. I’m your bran muffin. Probably fat-free and good for your colon.

    Penny: You know what? Forget it. I never should’ve brought it up.

    Leonard: You know I want to marry you, but you’re only doing this because you got fired and you’re feeling sorry for yourself.

    Penny: Okay, it may look that way, but getting fired from that movie was the best thing that could have happened to me, okay? I finally realize I don’t need to be famous or have some big career to be happy.

    Leonard: Then what do you need?

    Penny: You, you stupid Pop-Tart.

    Leonard: Oh. Then I guess I’m in.

    Penny: Really? You guess you’re in?

    Leonard: Not like, I guess I’m in. Like I guess, I’m in!

    Penny: Okay. Leonard: Cool.


  16. Pete,

    I’m a big fan of the show too, and you of course have a point. But as Larry has argued, the Stoics did have passions, they were just not willing to led them guide them into self-destruction, or into behaviors that would undermine their virtue.

    One can easily come up with plenty of real stories from the news about people who destroy themselves, or do really bad things, in the name of love. I think that’s the sort of danger that a Stoic attitude can counter.

    Then again, Stoicism may simply not be for everyone, which is okay too.


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