Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: IV. On Other Perturbations of the Mind

IMG_8180We have examined three of the five famous Tusculan Disputations by Cicero: on contempt of death, on bearing pain, and on grief of mind. The third of these letters written to his friend Brutus in 45 BCE, while Cicero was in his villa in Tusculum, outside Rome, conversing with some students, has the rather generic title of “on other perturbations of the mind,” i.e., those perturbations that do not arise from thoughts of death, experience of pain, or grief. It turns out to be a very interesting essay nonetheless.

As usual, Cicero begins with a preamble that has relatively little to do with the main topic, and yet which provides fascinating glimpses in the practice of philosophy in Ancient Rome. For instance: “The study of philosophy is certainly of long standing with us; but yet I do not find that I can give you the names of any philosopher before the age of Lælius and Scipio, in whose younger days we find that Diogenes the Stoic, and Carneades the Academic, were sent as ambassadors by the Athenians to our senate.” (III)

He is referring to what can justly be considered a pivotal event in the history of Western philosophy, when the heads of various schools from Athens (including the fellows he mentions directly) were sent to Rome on an embassy to negotiate better terms for the punishment Athens was incurring for having attacked one of Rome’s allies. The occasion turned into the first tour of philosophers in Rome, ever, and their lectures both excited the public and disgusted conservative Roman patricians. The result, however, was nothing short of the permanent introduction of philosophy in Rome itself. That was in 155 BCE, just a bit over a century before Cicero wrote the Disputations.

Eventually, Cicero gets around to the topic at hand:

“(M.) Let any one say, who pleases, what he would wish to have discussed.
(A.) I do not think a wise man can possibly be free from every perturbation of mind.” (IV)

Cicero’s first response is somewhat sarcastic: “He seemed by yesterday’s discourse to be free from grief; unless you agreed with us only to avoid taking up time.” The student immediately reassures him that he was perfectly convinced by the arguments about grief, but, you know, there are other perturbations of the mind…

Cicero then launches into a classification of the possible perturbations: “I shall use the partitions and definitions of the Stoics in describing these perturbations; who seem to me to have shown very great acuteness on this question. … Zeno’s definition, then, is this: ‘A perturbation is a commotion of the mind repugnant to reason, and against nature.'” (VI)

He goes on to clarify a bit: Zeno distinguished between volition, which is a reasonable desire characteristic of the Sage, and “whatever is incited too violently in opposition to reason, that is a lust, or an unbridled desire, which is discoverable in all fools.” (VII)

We are then treated to a specific discussion of particular types of disturbances of the mind, for instance:

“We naturally seek to avoid what is evil; and this avoidance of which, if conducted in accordance with reason, is called caution; and this the wise man alone is supposed to have: but that caution which is not under the guidance of reason, but is attended with a base and low dejection, is called fear. Fear is, therefore, caution destitute of reason.” (VI)

And: “Grief, then, is a recent opinion of some present evil, in which it seems to be right that the mind should shrink and be dejected. Joy is a recent opinion of a present good, in which it seems to be right that the mind should be elated. Fear is an opinion of an impending evil which we apprehend will be intolerable. Lust is an opinion of a good to come, which would be of advantage were it already come, and present with us.” (VII)

Moreover: “Enviousness (invidentia), they say, is a grief arising from the prosperous circumstances of another, which are in no degree injurious to the person who envies.” (VIII)

Pleasures too fall under the same general treatment: “The different species into which they divide pleasure come under this description; so that malevolence is a pleasure in the misfortunes of another, without any advantage to yourself; delight, a pleasure that soothes the mind by agreeable impressions on the ear.” (IX)

The point, of course, is that all these “opinions” (Epictetus will later call them “impressions,” and for us they are cognitive judgments) are incorrect and should not be given assent.

What should the prokopton do about this? Practice the virtue of temperance: “temperance appeases these desires, making them obey right reason, and maintains the well-weighed judgments of the mind, so intemperance, which is in opposition to this, inflames, confounds, and puts every state of the mind into a violent motion. Thus, grief and fear, and every other perturbation of the mind, have their rise from intemperance.” (IX)

This is fascinating, because Cicero here is arguing, apparently following the early and middle Stoics (he had been a student and friend of Posidonius) that temperance is key to reducing a large number of impressions to “right reason.” This is congruent with the standard interpretation of Epictetus’ three disciplines, where temperance (along with courage) is connected to the discipline of desire (and the topos of physics), though assent per se is connected to the virtue of practical wisdom (and the topos of logic).

Even though he criticizes Chrysippus for relying too much on the analogy with bodily sickness, Cicero nonetheless explains to his students: “Just as distempers and sickness are bred in the body from the corruption of the blood, and the too great abundance of phlegm and bile, so the mind is deprived of its health, and disordered with sickness, from a confusion of depraved opinions that are in opposition to one another.” (X)

And he elaborates with a specific example: “should money be the object of our desire, and should we not instantly apply to reason, as if it were a kind of Socratic medicine to heal this desire, the evil glides into our veins, and cleaves to our bowels, and from thence proceeds a distemper or sickness, which, when it is of any continuance, is incurable, and the name of this disease is covetousness.” (XI)

I absolutely love this passage. The idea of “applying to reason” as an immediate antidote to the development of covetousness is beautiful, and the observation that once the “disease” takes hold it will likely be incurable is a pearl of wisdom.

The analogy with the body doesn’t hold only for sickness, but also for health: “As there is some analogy between the nature of the body and mind in evil, so is there in good; for the distinctions of the body are beauty, strength, health, firmness, quickness of motion: the same may be said of the mind. … When its judgments and opinions are not at variance with one another. And this union is the virtue of the mind, which, according to some people, is temperance itself.” (XIII) So much for Chrysippus relying too much on the analogy.

At XIV we find a statement of human exceptionality, which, even though the concept is not very popular nowadays, I still think pretty much hits the mark: “all the disorders and perturbations of the mind proceed from a neglect of reason; these disorders, therefore, are confined to men: the beasts are not subject to such perturbations, though they act sometimes as if they had reason.”

Cicero tells his students what virtue consists of and why it is important: “virtue consists in a settled and uniform affection of mind, making those persons praiseworthy who are possessed of her, she herself also, independent of anything else, without regard to any advantage, must be praiseworthy; for from her proceed good inclinations, opinions, actions, and the whole of right reason; though virtue may be defined in a few words to be right reason itself.” (XV)

We also get an attack on the Aristotelians: “the thoughts and declarations of the Peripatetics are soft and effeminate, for they say that the mind must necessarily be agitated, but at the same time they lay down certain bounds beyond which that agitation is not to proceed. And do you set bounds to vice? Or is it no vice to disobey reason?” (XVII) If we ignore the sexist remark (universal, for the time), the idea encapsulates a major difference between the Stoics and the Peripatetics: while for the latter some measure of fear, anger, and so forth is a good thing, for the Stoics no degree of “passion” (i.e., negative emotion) is ever good, only the positive emotions (eupatheiai) are to be cultivated.

Cicero explains why this is: “whoever prescribes bounds to vice admits a part of it, which, as it is odious of itself, becomes the more so as it stands on slippery ground, and, being once set forward, glides on headlong, and cannot by any means be stopped.” (XVII)

As we know, the Stoics were particularly preoccupied with anger, which Seneca called a temporary madness. So Cicero elaborates on this point while continuing his criticism of the Aristotelians: “Why, then, do you call in the assistance of anger? Would courage, unless it began to get furious, lose its energy? What! Do you imagine that Hercules, whom the very courage which you would try to represent as anger raised to heaven, was angry when he engaged the Erymanthian boar, or the Nemæan lion? Or was Theseus in a passion when he seized on the horns of the Marathonian bull? Take care how you make courage to depend in the least on rage. For anger is altogether irrational, and that is not courage which is void of reason.” (XXII)

He even provides a psychological account and psychosomatic description of the problem: “Doth anything come nearer madness than anger? And indeed Ennius has well defined it as the beginning of madness. The changing color, the alteration of our voice, the look of our eyes, our manner of fetching our breath, the little command we have over our words and actions, how little do all these things indicate a sound mind! … We may as well say that drunkenness or madness is of service to courage, because those who are mad or drunk often do a great many things with unusual vehemence.” (XXIII)

Needless to say, as I did with Seneca’s extended treatment, I find Cicero’s arguments, rooted in the Stoic treatment of the passions in general, and of anger in particular, very convincing. Anger is not a good thing, under any circumstances.

Interestingly, though, at XXV he tells us that pretended anger can have its uses: “Anger is in no wise becoming in an orator, though it is not amiss to affect it. Do you imagine that I am angry when in pleading I use any extraordinary vehemence and sharpness? What! When I write out my speeches after all is over and past, am I then angry while writing?”

But Cicero, as orator, knows very well that simply making logical arguments, i.e., philosophizing in the theoretical mode, isn’t going to be enough to teach people to control their passions and yield to reason. An effective way to do that, he suggests, is to use examples: “in order to persuade those to whom any misfortune has happened that they can and ought to bear it, it is very useful to set before them an enumeration of other persons who have borne similar calamities.” (XXIX)

At XXXI he returns to a standard Stoic notion: “one thing alone seems to embrace the question of all that relates to the perturbations of the mind — the fact, namely, that all perturbations are in our own power; that they are taken up upon opinion, and are voluntary.” At first, this doesn’t sound right to modern ears, until we actually take into account recent research in cognitive science, which confirms Cicero’s (and the Stoic) take, as well as their distinction between involuntary and uncontrollable instinctive reactions and considered “assent” to full fledged passions.

Again, how to we convince people controlled by passions to get back to a more reasonable approach? “The cure for one who is affected in this manner is to show how light, how contemptible, how very trifling he is in what he desires; how he may turn his affections to another object, or accomplish his desires by some other means; or else to persuade him that he may entirely disregard it: sometimes he is to be led away to objects of another kind, to study, business, or other different engagements and concerns: very often the cure is effected by change of place, as sick people, that have not recovered their strength, are benefited by change of air.” (XXXV)

This reminds me of a famous passage in Epictetus: “Provoked by the sight of a handsome man or a beautiful woman, you will discover within you the contrary power of self-restraint. Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate.” (Enchiridion 10) The tone in Epictetus is more Cynic-like, but the basic idea is the same: we have the resources (and Stoicism gives us a number of mind tricks) to avoid temptations for things that we are likely going to regret.

5 thoughts on “Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: IV. On Other Perturbations of the Mind

  1. Paul Braterman

    Once more, Massimo, I must thank you for your teaching, the more so, perhaps, when I find myself in disagreement.

    The post relates directly to my central reservation about the desirability of Stoicism, over and above personal limitations that make it seem difficult.

    You write elsewhere ‘[I]t is clear from this passage that when they talked about anger, the Stoics didn’t refer to the sudden rush of adrenaline we experience in certain situations, and which we cannot avoid or control. Rather, they focused on the (implicit or explicit) cognitive judgment that follows such rush and that tells us “yes, there is a good reason why I’m angry.” ‘ This is a good description of what happens with me when I read of certain things, such as schoolchildren being taught that the world was made in six days. I scrutinise my anger, decide that it is appropriate, and use it as a source of energy in my campaign to stop it. At the same time, ideally, I remain aware of the danger that the heat of my emotion may distort my judgement, and lead me into such errors as discourtesy in debate. There are other more important issues in the world, but my controlled anger makes me particularly suitable for this specific campaign.

    If I understand correctly, the Stoic would either deny that I really can control my anger as I think I do, or would give it some other name than “anger”. The latter seems to me rather artificial, almost like the way in which theologians resolve difficulties by over-nice wordplay.


  2. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    I’d come to similar conclusions to Cicero after trying to make some Stoic sense of this piece, which seems to be something akin to the Aristotelian view written in the modern vernacular:
    (At one point he allegedly quotes Seneca and then admits it might be Aristotle; based on this post I would expect that quote more from the latter. Perhaps you know for sure.)

    My understanding of the matter is that any given personality, including that of someone with a mental health condition, has certain traits that can be turned in either a virtuous or vicious manner, depending on the judgments involved. Anger, then, would still be a vice, insofar as it’s defined as a desire to hurt or shame someone, but it tends to start with a critical eye for others’ behavior and its injustices that could be used for good (virtue). Instead of wanting to hurt or shame the person acting foolishly, one could, for example, resolve to avoid acting like that person, try to reduce the harm he or she did, or try to help him or her question his or her own behavior if possible. Envy, a vice I struggle with, seems to be the combination of an inherently neutral eye for the distance between my own achievements and those of others in my areas of interest, and the hasty judgments that (a) those other people got where they did because of a gift of fortune that I don’t have (usually a very high IQ or other allegedly inborn talent, or having had the chance to develop a non-inborn talent while still young enough to achieve mastery), and (b) lacking that gift bars me from the happy life. So my proposed solution is to consider that perhaps a virtue that I could develop, based on a neutral trait that I already have, is behind many of these successful cases, and they can thus provoke desire to develop my virtue rather than grief over my supposed inferior lot in life.

    So vice would then not be the excess of something that’s fine in moderation, necessarily, but the turning of some neutral capacity toward a foolish application, much as Cicero describes fear, in terms of caution turned to a foolish end instead of a virtuous one, avoiding dispreferred indifferents instead of proper evils.

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  3. Massimo Post author


    I’m glad you find the exchange useful. And right, the Stoics would say that if you can control it then it isn’t anger, it is something like righteous indignation. You may be right that this is just a question of definitions, but I find the distinction very useful for me personally. I cannot recall a single instance of having acted rightly under the pressure of emotional anger. I do recall several instances where I managed to calm down, reflected on the situation, and took a good course of action.


  4. Paul Braterman

    On reflection, my comment about definitions was ungenerous. If I am unimpressed by the theologian’s distinctions, that is because they are making distinctions between concepts that I do not take seriously in the first place. That is not the case here.

    You would distinguish between appropriate indignation, and unwise anger. Invoking this distinction in real life still leaves all the work to be done, in setting the appropriate boundary, and I am reminded of other demarcation disputes. However, awareness of the distinction does make it clear that there is work that needs doing. There may also be a qualitative difference, encapsulated by your word “pressure”.

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