Stoicism and Emotion, I: a science of the mind

Stoicism and EmotionIf there is one complex, and often misunderstood, topic in Stoicism is the role played by emotions in the philosophy. You know, stiff upper lip and all that nonsense. That is why I decided to begin a multi-part series devoted to an extended commentary of Margaret Graver’s excellent book, Stoicism and Emotion.

Margaret was the keynote speaker at Stoicon 2017 in Toronto (you can read an interview with her here), and she is a serious scholar of ancient Stoicism. Her book is accessible, but not aimed at a general public, which is why I am going to do with it something similar to what I did recently with Larry Becker’s must read, A New Stoicism. As in the latter case, I have asked the author to take an advance look at my posts and, whenever possible and useful, to comment on the published version during the discussion window. Margaret has graciously agreed to it, which I’m sure will enhance the value of this series. Without further do, then, let us get started!

Stoicism and Emotion is organized in nine chapters, and from the look of it, I will have to devote a post to each, since Graver’s treatment is in-depth and requires some time to unpack. The first chapter is entitled “A science of the mind,” and it sets the stage for an understanding of Stoic psychology in general, and their treatment of emotions in particular.

The Stoics, Margaret begins, thought about emotions in what turns out to be a very modern fashion, as at least in part having propositional content. That is, they adopted toward emotions what today’s philosophers call an intentional stance: emotional reactions are certainly physiological in nature, but they also contain a judgment, say that something is threatening, or valuable. There is no contradiction between thinking this way about emotions and taking on board what modern neuroscience tells us about the underlying neurophysiology:

“The recognition of a threat [say], is analyzable on two different levels, a physiological level as investigated by the neuroscientist and an intentional level as investigated by the cognitive psychologist.”

Moreover, the Stoic approach is also very much like our own in the sense that the Stoics were materialists, so they thought of mental events in terms of physical changes effected by material substances. These two aspects are important to keep in mind throughout our discussion, because they account for why — despite getting some important details wrong, as we shall see — Stoic psychology is still very much useful today, especially in terms of its practical ethical implications. Indeed, Graver draws a direct analogy between Stoic thought on emotions and William James’ circa 1884, as well as with the more recent work by modern neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio (see, for instance, his Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain).

The Stoic rejection of dualism is based on the same sort of cogent arguments accepted by most contemporary philosophers (even though, amazingly, dualism hasn’t completely died out even in 21st century philosophy). First off, the objection that famously stumped Descartes: if mental phenomena are not physical, then how on earth can we account for the causally efficacious interaction between non-physical and physical aspects of human mentation?

Moreover, the Stoics were familiar with empirical examples of mind-body interactions that, again, clearly point to a physical-to-physical connection. Consider for instance that a cut to your finger (physical) causes pain (mental), or that when you are angry (mental) your face becomes red (physical). It’s a two way street, and one does not need to invoke magical or metaphysically suspect non-physical properties to account for it.

Margaret carefully explains the Stoic theory that there is a single substance permeating the universe, the pneuma (literally, breath), a mixture of fire and air, two of the classical four primordial elements. That mixture can take different specific forms, which account for the differences between non-living things and living ones, as well as for those among plants, animals, and humans. The pneuma can take various forms because of the tension (tonos) produced by the balance of the two elements, sort of like the different types of vibrations one gets with a string musical instrument:

“It is variations in tension, and not the properties of air and fire alone, that explain differences in the qualities imparted by pneuma to things: hardness to stones, whiteness to silver, and at higher levels the sophisticated properties of plants and animals. Living things differ across the board from the nonliving in that they have much greater complexity in structure and function, and animals also differ from plants in that their more elaborate body structures and life functions require a higher level of tension to support them. The special characteristics that set humans apart have their physical explanation in yet another level. Indeed the pneuma in a human being at his or her optimal level of functioning is characterized by such a high level of tension that it is capable of maintaining its cohesion [for a time] after the body’s death.”

Of course, all of this has been superseded by modern science. But the relevant kernel of truth is nonetheless crucial: everything in the universe is made of the same stuff (we call it quarks, strings, or whatever, depending on the fundamental physical theory du jour), and yet this elemental stuff is arranged in different, and varyingly complex patterns, accounting for the variety of non-living and living matter. The implication is that the differences we observe at the macroscopic level, and that seem to be qualitative to us, are in reality the result of an underlying quantitative continuum.

What about the Stoic reference to the soul? The Greek word is psuché, and it has none of the non-physical characteristics that Christian theology attaches to the word. Psuché, for the Stoics, is material and subject to the same laws of cause and effect as anything else. It can be studied scientifically, just like everything else. And interestingly, Graver points out, does not correspond to the modern concept of mind, but rather to the entire nervous system.

What does correspond to the modern idea of mind is the hêgemonikon, the central directive faculty that combines our sensations with our judgments, and which initiates action. As I have argued in another post, the hêgemonikon is very much akin to the frontal lobes of the human brain.

Chrysippus located the hêgemonikon in the chest, and was chastised for that by Galen (Marcus Aurelius’ personal physician), who correctly thought that it was located in the brain. Once again, an example of the Stoics being wrong in the details and correct about the general picture. Lucky for us, it is the latter that matters. (Incidentally, as Margaret explains, Chrysippus’ choice was not crazy at all, but actually fit very well with Ancient Greek knowledge of human physiology.) Therefore:

“As a theoretical construct … their account of psychic function did not depend on any particular physiology. Given a more detailed knowledge of the workings of the central nervous system, a Stoic theorist should have had no difficulty in transferring to the brain the role that Chrysippus in fact gave to the heart.”

Graver then moves to a detailed explanation of the relations among thought, belief, and action in Stoic psychology, and we need to grasp at least the basics in order to make sense of their treatment of emotions. To begin with, the simplest kind of mental event is an “impression” (phantasia). This is an alteration of the psuché that tells us that something seems to be present or to be the case. Notice that animals too are capable of impressions, but not of a rational kind, since they are unable to conceptualize their phantasia.

Margaret makes the interesting point that the word “rational” (logikos) here does not have a prescriptive meaning, but rather a descriptive one: it just says that human beings are capable of complex thought, not that they get it right from the standpoint of formal logic.

The Stoics thought of impressions, again, as physical events. Zeno, for instance, used the analogy of a wax tablet that is “impressed” with something. Apparently, Cleanthes (the second head of the Stoa) took this quasi literally, so he was corrected by Chrysippus, who said that one should simply think of impressions as some (unspecified) kind of alteration in the psychic material. No need to be committed to a particular theory of human neurophysiology:

“The impression is made, i.e., caused, by some material thing, which, by impinging upon the sense organs, brings about an alteration in the material psyche, and that alteration ‘reveals itself’ together with its object through the psyche’s awareness of its own movements. But impressions may also be of that kind for which the object is more properly described as an actual or hypothetical state of affairs, i.e., a proposition.”

The impression, then, is a linguistically formulable thought. It gets translated into a more complex mental event that the Stoics referred to by a variety of terms, including “assent,” “judgment,” and “forming an opinion.” (See the book for the corresponding Greek terms. I will limit their use here to the essential ones, for ease of exposition.) This is crucial: assent is conceived of in intentional terms: by way of assent one either accepts or rejects the apparent truth of a given impression. It follows that the difference between an ordinary mind and a (Stoically) trained one is that the former has a tendency to accept impressions at face value, while the latter more wisely exercises its faculty of judgment. (As in: “That is a beautiful woman over there, I must sleep with her!” As opposed to: “That is an aesthetically pleasing human being of the female gender. Nothing else follows from such observation.”)

Margaret presents the example of the simple act of walking. If we are walking, then we have assented to the impression that, right now, it is good for us to walk (say, because we need to get to the grocery store to buy some foodstuff for dinner). The assent does not need to be conscious, but for the Stoics the fact that we are walking is either the result of a conscious judgment of the hêgemonikon, or it implies an unstated judgment of that kind, which can be articulated if need be. If someone stops you in the street and asks you why you are walking, presumably you will be able to tell him that you need to get to the grocery store and why.

What about emotions? From the beginning of the school they have been thought of in a particular way. Zeno defined them as “excessive impulses,” by which he meant a powerful kind of tendency to act. Since the cognitive mature emotions are the result of an assent, they then depend on ratifying (again, subconsciously or consciously) certain propositions about ourselves and how we think of our surroundings. Here is how the commentator Stobaeus puts it:

“Distress is a contraction of psyche which is disobedient to reason, and its cause is a fresh believing that some evil is present toward which it is appropriate to be contracted. Delight is an elevation of psyche which is disobedient to reason, and its cause is a fresh believing that some good is present toward which it is appropriate to be elevated.”

The above, it should be noted, refers to the unhealthy emotions, of which the Stoics produced a detailed taxonomy. In fact, Graver points this out immediately, mentioning that they also recognized “well reasoned” occurrences of “elevation,” “withdrawing,” and “reaching.” Moreover:

“[In] both the Zenonian and the Chrysippan definitions, there is a distinction to be made between the emotions or pathe understood as judgments (i.e., strictly for their intentional content, which may be either true or false), and the feeling one gets from a certain emotion. … Feelings which are phenomenologically similar will not necessarily represent the same kind of affective response.”

For instance, I may be sexually aroused by the sight of my partner, or by the sight of a stranger. The raw feeling is similar, but if I act on it (following my judgment that it is desirable for me to do so), the first case has a very different import from the second. There are crucial ethical implications of assenting, or withdrawing assent, from the very same emotions.


Categories: Ancient Stoicism, Psychology


4 replies

  1. Your new series of articles come at a perfect time for me. i’m looking for a new book on stoicism to read/study. and I’m also curious how modern science might influence stoic teaching on the mind, thinking, and choices. I’m glad that you will unpack Graver’s book for us. Thank you.

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  2. Animals have impressions but are not capable of conceptualizing them. However, they are capable of acting on them, so 1) how is that possible and 2) does it mean that conceptualizing is unnecessary?


  3. Nice one, I really enjoy your essays (your books too).

    @jbonnicerenoreg in my humble opinion to answer 1 just imagine a very very impulsive human. That is one that seems to act directly from the primary impulses/proto-passions. In a way that is how animals are. The difference is that even that very impulsive human still makes a judgement/assent just that almost always is something like “this is real, not just a impression”. Animals don;t make it they act directly on it.

    2) from a strictly biological and evolutionary point of view, yeah conceptualizing is not necessary. Look at all the small organisms that are thriving such as bacteria or even more complex one such as insects. It does have its benefits just that is not necessary. Just my opinion; I am neither a philosopher nor a psychologist nor a evolutionary biologist so take my points with a bit of salt.

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  4. Jbonni,

    Certainly conceptualization is not necessary in order to handle impressions. That doesn’t mean it isn’t an improvement on things, though. I recommend following my ongoing series over at Footnotes to Plato, commenting on Kevin Laland’s book, Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, that treats this in depth:

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