Stoic emotions and the Green Lantern universe

Hal Jordan was a fighter jet test-pilot, indeed he was the second in his family to embrace that risky career, after his father. One day an alien named Abin Sur crashed on earth, and was left dying near his spaceship. Sur was wearing a special ring, which detached itself from its owner and sought a worthy being nearby to replace its former owner. It found Hal Jordan, who thus became the Green Lantern, a member of a special police corps insuring justice and peace in the galaxy. Hal became the Green Lantern in charge of patrolling sector 2814, which includes planet Earth.

This, at least, is one version of the multiple stories from DC Comics that have been describing how our hero came to be since its origins back in 1940. Why on earth am I writing about the superhero Green Lantern within the context of Stoicism? Because the Green Lantern universe is a good example of how we can use pop culture to get across some of the most counterintuitive concepts of Stoic philosophy, in this case the issue of how Stoics treat emotions.

As is well known, a common misconception about Stoicism is that it seeks to suppress emotions, and many of its ancient as well as modern critics keep harping on this point.

The fact is, however (as I explain in my Stoicism 101 video) that Stoicism distinguishes three general classes of emotions:

(I) Propatheiai, which are basically our instinctive reactions to events, generating what Epictetus calls “impressions.” So for instance I may look at an attractive woman passing by and have the impression of lust.

(II) Pathē, i.e., unhealthy emotions, generally translated with the word “passion,” which did not have the positive connotation for the Stoics it has today. If I “assent,” as Epictetus says, to my propatheiai about the attractive woman, then I develop a desire to get in bed with her. (Which is not good because I am in a committed relationship.) Notice that while I have no control over the feeling of lust, the further feeling of desire is actually a result of combining the initial lust with a judgment that it is a good thing.

(III) Eupatheiai, the sort of mature emotional response that results from a correct cognitive analysis of the raw material. In this case, I may turn my lust into an experience of aesthetic appreciation, at the same time preventing it from degenerate into an unhealthy desire.

In a sense, then, this is the process as it goes according to Stoic principles:

The Stoics themselves came up with a famous classification of the basic negative and positive emotions, in this manner:

Notice that three of the pathē have their corresponding eupatheiai, but not pain, because the completely virtuous person (i.e., the one that cultivates the eupatheiai) does not experience pain. The emotions listed in the table are the broad categories, and the Stoics did recognize a number of others, as discussed by Tad Brennan in chapter 10 of the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (e.g., jealousy, regret and mourning are all types of pain).

The ultimate goal for the Stoic practitioner, the prokoptôn, is to achieve apatheia, which, despite obviously being the root of the English word apathy, means nothing of the kind. It is rather translated as freedom from disturbing desires and emotions, the so-called passions, a freedom that results from the development of a sense of equanimity toward whatever the universe throws at us.

As modern Stoics, of course, we are not bound to the specific classification and list of emotions provided by the ancients. As Seneca says: “the truth will never be discovered if we rest contented with discoveries already made. Besides, he who follows another not only discovers nothing but is not even investigating. What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.” (Letter XXXIII, On the Futility of Learning Maxims, 10-11)

It is in that spirit so eloquently articulated by Seneca, then, that as a modern Stoic I re-interpret the ancient philosophy by applying its basic precepts to a modern understanding of things. And here is where Green Lantern comes handy.

Later on in the saga of our hero we learn that there are a number of galactic corps besides the green one, each associated with a particular color, each color representing the dominant emotion that defines the corps and that gives special powers to its members. Green, for instance, is the color of willpower (admittedly, not really an emotion, more on this in a minute), and accordingly that’s the origin of Green Lantern’s superpowers.

Now take a look at one version of the emotional spectrum represented by the totality of the corps in the Green Lantern universe:

The emotions to the left of willpower, i.e., rage, avarice, fear, are negative, they are disruptive, and represent a range from which we should get away. The emotions on the right of the central one, i.e., hope, compassion, and love, are positive, and we should strive toward them.

It doesn’t matter, of course, that technically some of these are not really emotions as understood by modern psychology, nor that they do not match with the original Stoic classification. We are talking superheroes and pop culture, after all!

What does matter is the basic concept: our judgment (green power) is the pivotal element that allows us to shift our emotional spectrum from negative to positive emotions, from pathē to eupatheiai.

Accordingly, here is my (partial) rendition of a modern Stoic’s take on emotions, inspired by the Green Lantern comic book:

So keep training your judgment, Epictetus’ faculty of prohairesis, to move away from (disruptive) desire, fear, and pain, and toward love, compassion, and joy.


Categories: Stoicism & pop culture


4 replies

  1. the completely virtuous person (i.e., the one that cultivates the eupatheiai) does not experience pain

    Massimo, as a biologist, how realistic would you say is that account?

    I seem to recall that even Buddhists allows for “two darts” in their concept of awakening (nibbana/nirvana): (1) the unpleasant sensations entailed by the normal human condition (e.g. in aging, injury, and disease), which are largely out of our control, and (2) the mental suffering that we add to those sensations, which are largely (with continuous and effortful practice) under our control.

    Did the ancient Stoics perhaps have something similar to (2) in mind, as well – say, as a consequence of our opinions and judgments?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Massimo, you are a teacher par excellence. Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great post and really helped clarify emotions for a Stoic. I recently bought your book digitally and read it and have been reading your blog for about a year. One topic I am interested in is the social aspect of Stoicism, in the book you give advice to not talk about “gladiators” and also not to speak too much. My question is how is a aspiring Stoic to act when introduced/introducing themselves to a stranger?

    Thank you for the service to the Stoic community, your blog posts and book really clear up misconceptions I had while reading the Meditaions, Epictetus and Seneca.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jason,

    I don’t think we need to take the Stoic account literally. That phrase is referred to the Sage, which is either an ideal never actually achieved by anyone, or, as Seneca says, arises as often as the Phoenix — every 500n years. I think what matters is the basic concept that a proper shifting of the emotional spectrum leads to a more healthy emotional life.

    But yes, the Stoics did mean something like your option (2), similarly to Buddhism.


    I think the Stoic approach to non-Stoic is not to make people feel uncomfortable. Epictetus explicitly says to join the conversation, and Seneca to join the party. But at the same time you still want to behave like a Stoic, and lead by example, not by chiding others because they are not up to your expectations.

    Thanks for the kind words!

    Liked by 1 person

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