How to Be a Stoic

The thorny issue of Stoic emotions


Stoics 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.”