Seneca to Lucilius: on self-control, and what the Stoics really thought about emotions

Achilles and Penthesileia

Occasionally I get back to Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius (I have commented on 11 so far), because they are one of the most complete and organic sources we have about ancient Stoicism. The project is to eventually publish posts on most (though not all) of the letters. Stay tuned, it will take some time…

The last letter I wrote about is XVIII, on festivals and fasting, but I wish to jump ahead all the way to CXVI, on self-control, because it touches on one of the perennial issues faced by prokopontes (and reliably brought up by critics of Stoicism): how to deal with emotions.

Seneca begins by contrasting the Stoic position with the Peripatetic (Aristotelian) one:

“The question has often been raised whether it is better to have moderate emotions, or none at all. Philosophers of our school reject the emotions; the Peripatetics keep them in check. I, however, do not understand how any half-way disease can be either wholesome or helpful.” (CXVI.1)

But hold on! “Philosophers of our school reject the emotions”? Are our critics right after all?? It seems hard to find a more clear statement of the idea that Stoics really should try to behave like Mr. Spock from Star Trek!

Ah, but of course, appearances are sometimes deceiving, and occasionally one needs to dig deeper, in this case going to the original Latin:

“Utrum satius sit modicos habere adfectus an nullos saepe quaesitum est. Nostri illos expellunt, Peripatetici temperant. Ego non video quomodo salubris esse aut utilis possit ulla mediocritas morbi.”

The key word here is “affectus,” which Seneca spelled in the archaic fashion, “adfectus.” My Latin-English dictionary says this about it:

1. A state of body, and especially of mind produced in one by some influence.
2. Love, desire, fondness, good-will, compassion, sympathy.
3. In Lucan and later prose, metonymy for the beloved objects.
4. In Seneca and Pliny, low ignoble passion or desire.
5. In the Latin of the Pandects, ability of willing, will, volition.

This list clearly captures both why Seneca did not mean to cover all of the emotions when he wrote “philosophers of our school reject the emotions,” and why the confusion persists to this day, given the co-existence of positive and negative uses of the word adfectus, as well as of its modern English translations.

John Fitzgerald, in his Passions and Moral Progress in Greco-Roman Thought, writes about adfectus:

“Many if not most post-Ciceronian authors preferred to render pathos [the Stoic term for negative emotions] by affectus or adfectus. For example, Quintilian, who presents pathos and ethos as two emotional modes that can be used by the orator, says that ‘the Greeks call the one [mode] pathos, which we correctly and properly translate as adfectus.’ He goes on to link pathos with tragedy and says that it is almost entirely concerned with anger, hatred, fear, envy, and pity.” (p. 4)

So the Romans used adfectus to refer not to emotions in general, but to the “passions,” i.e., the explicitly negative emotions, such as the above mentioned anger, hatred, fear, envy, and pity.

It is therefore not by chance that Seneca uses the word again in On Anger. Indulge me for transcribing the Latin version first, with my English translation next (see also my three-part series on Seneca’s essay):

“Et ut scias quemadmodum incipiant adfectus aut crescant aut efferantur, est primus motus non voluntarius, quasi praeparatio adfectus et quaedam comminatio; alter cum voluntate non contumaci, tamquam oporteat me vindicari cum laesus sim, aut oporteat hunc poenas dare cum scelus fecerit; tertius motus est iam inpotens, qui non si oportet ulcisci vult sed utique, qui rationem evicit. Primum illum animi ictum effugere ratione non possumus, sicut ne illa quidem quae diximus accidere corporibus, ne nos oscitatio aliena sollicitet, ne oculi ad intentationem subitam digitorum comprimantur: ista non potest ratio vincere, consuetudo fortasse et adsidua observatio extenuat. Alter ille motus, qui iudicio nascitur, iudicio tollitur.” (De Ira, On Anger, II.4.1-2)

“I wish to instruct you in how passions get started, develop, and reach the point of exasperation. The first movement is involuntary, and it is like a preparation, or a threat, by the passion; the second movement is voluntary and controllable, and it consists in thinking that vengeance is necessary, because I have been offended, or that someone has to be punished, because he has offended; the third movement is arrogant, it does not want vengeance because it is necessary, but because it wants it, it has already annihilated reason. We cannot avoid the first impulse by reason, in the same way as we cannot avoid those physical reactions I mentioned earlier, yawning when others yawn, or closing our eyes when someone suddenly points a finger at them: these things cannot be overcome by reason; perhaps they may be attenuated by habit, or a constant attention. But the second movement, the one that springs from deliberation, is also countered by deliberation.”

This is an incredibly clear rendition of the Stoic distinction among propatheiai (involuntary emotional reactions), pathē (unhealthy emotions, or passions; pathos in the singular), and eupatheiai (healthy passions or emotions). Seneca is telling us that propatheiai are natural and involuntary, there is nothing we can do about them. But once we turn our attention to them, we have a choice: we can either give them assent, thus turning them into pathē; or withdraw our assent from them, thus turning them into eupatheiai. It is obvious what a Stoic should do.

That bit from On Anger also explains why the apparently reasonable Aristotelian position is, in fact, foolish: if we let the “first movement” turn into the “second movement,” the battle is already lost. At that point, the “passion” proceeds of its own accord, even against our own volition, to the “third movement,” which is a case of temporary madness, as Seneca himself describes it in the same essay. Whatever we do in that state is going to be destructive, even if there was, in fact, a good reason to act in response to the initial stimulus (say, an injustice, instead of a mere insult).

It is now easy, then, to appreciate the remainder of Seneca’s letter to his friend (remember, the topic at hand is self-control, not anger):

“Who does not admit that all the emotions flow as it were from a certain natural source? We are endowed by Nature with an interest in our own well-being; but this very interest, when overindulged, becomes a vice. Nature has intermingled pleasure with necessary things — not in order that we should seek pleasure, but in order that the addition of pleasure may make the indispensable means of existence attractive to our eyes. Should it claim rights of its own, it is luxury. Let us therefore resist these faults when they are demanding entrance, because, as I have said, it is easier to deny them admittance than to make them depart.” (CXVI.3)

And he concludes:

“Do you know why we have not the power to attain this Stoic ideal? … It is because we are in love with our vices; we uphold them and prefer to make excuses for them rather than shake them off. … The reason is unwillingness, the excuse, inability.” (CXVI.8)

8 thoughts on “Seneca to Lucilius: on self-control, and what the Stoics really thought about emotions

  1. Pingback: On self-control, and what the Stoics really thought about emotions – Denney Home Place

  2. James E Lassiter

    Thank you for this, Massimo. I have followed your posts since you began your in-depth study and application of Stoicism to you personal life a few years back. I have learned much from your sharing of your expertise and experience in terms of improving my own personal understanding, internalization, and more consistent behavioral expression of the four Stoic virtues. I recall an early sharing of yours where you tore up the pea patch at a small dinner party, an occasion where you lost your temper over a guest’s expression of political views you oppose. I loved that you recognized it as a lapse of self-control and were willing to share it. Seems this may have been a turning point for you.

    Of Courage, Justice, Temperance, and Wisdom, it is Temperance that is by far proving to be the most difficult for me, and on which I am now focusing. Specifically, I am most challenged by my emotions of anger and resentment, and an excessive (emotional) desire for attention and praise.

    As you have suggested, I have created a personal collection of excerpts from the Stoic canon that I read and reflect on once or more often each day. For many of the various Stoic topics I have made little quarto-like booklets, humbly bound with staples, that are easy to keep at hand. This week I began a collection of teachings on Temperance by Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. To these I will add the quotes you offer from Seneca, my brotherly/avuncular favorite Stoic of all (second only to the fatherly Epictetus, of course).

    Your new book, How To Be a Stoic, is a gem! I’ve given copies to family and friends. Keep leading the way. It is very helpful and needed, especially now, here in the West; but also elsewhere, including Africa, my beloved second home.

    Thanks again.


  3. jbonnicerenoreg

    I think Aristotle and Seneca are talking about two separate topics. Seneca is giving a phenomenology of anger while Aristotle is describing what a “good tempered” man is like. One who can control the arising of anger!


  4. Massimo Post author


    I disagree, I think Aristotle and Seneca were writing about the same thing, but had different opinions about it. Seneca points out that controlling anger is oxymoronic, since being in the thrall of a negative emotion means that your reasoning faculty has lost control. Obviously, I agree with Seneca: a controlled disease, even if possible, is still a disease.


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