Stoicism and Emotion, II: the “pathetic” syllogism

8B41A1FD-32E8-4ABC-A2FB-A3AE55F64197Stoicism is not about suppressing emotions. At least, not exactly. Last time we have seen that Margaret Graver, in her Stoicism and Emotion, makes the point that for the Stoics (as in modern cognitive science) there is a fundamental distinction between feelings and emotions. Feelings are raw materials of our subjective awareness, and they can evolve into cognitively informed emotions of different types, depending on the (implicit or explicit) judgment that accompanies them. A rush of adrenaline, for instance, may cause the feeling of fear or dread, but that feeling becomes actual fear (of a specific something) only after I have given it assent: “yes, I really should be afraid, after hearing that noise in my house in the middle of the night, because it is highly likely that someone is after me.” But I can also withhold assent, if I think the feeling is not justified: “no, there is nothing to worry about, it was, once again, the damn cat making noises.”

That is why we need to be careful whenever we talk about a major goal of Stoic training: achieving the state of apatheia, literally the lack of pathē, which are the disruptive or unhealthy emotions, not to be confused with the eupatheiai, the positive or healthy emotions. As Graver puts it:

“If the psychic sensations [i.e., the feelings] we experience in emotion are not simply identical with the pathē, then the norm of apatheia does not have to be cashed out as an injunction against every human feeling. One might be impassive in the Stoic sense and still remain subject to other categories of affective experience.”

But aren’t emotions natural? And don’t the Stoics advise us to “live according to nature”? If so, where does this talk of healthy vs unhealthy come from? It comes from the fact that even though according to the Stoics nature endowed us with feelings for good reasons, it pays to rationally scrutinize what such feelings actually are in any particular circumstance. It is Cicero — quoted by Margaret — that makes the connection clear:

“By nature, all people pursue those things which they think to be good and avoid their opposites. Therefore, as soon as a person receives an impression of some thing which he thinks is good, nature itself urges him to reach out after it.” (Tusculan Disputations, IV.12)

So the inclination to follow our feelings is natural, but how we do that depends on our judgment of whether the feeling refers to a good or a bad situation. Nature yes, but not unaided by reason…

Emotions, for the Stoics, not only come with a (either implicit or explicitly articulated) content, they are associated with a normative aspect. Graver stresses that this is a crucial characteristic of the Stoic approach: the psychological aspect of emotions must be integrated with an ethical judgment as to the appropriateness (or not) of that emotion. The ability to do that, fundamentally, is what distinguishes human beings from other animals. This position is easily traceable back to the early Stoa:

“They [the Stoics] think that the pathē are judgments, as Chrysippus says in his work On Emotions. For [he says that] fondness for money is a supposition that money is a fine thing, and similarly with drunkenness, stubbornness, and so forth.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.3)

Cicero, in book III of the Tusculan Disputations, presents a two-step processes for analyzing emotions, informed by Stoic philosophy (recall that Cicero himself was not a Stoic, though he was clearly sympathetic to the Stoic approach):

“When our belief in the seriousness of our misfortune is combined with the further belief that it is right, and an appropriate and proper thing, to be upset by what has happened, then, and not before, there comes about that deep emotion which is distress.” (III.61)

In other words, distress is what happens when we believe that we should be distressed about whatever it is going on (or we perceive as going on). It is not the event in itself that carries the distress embedded into it, but our cognitive analysis (which, once more, to pre-empt lazy criticism, does not have to be consciously taking place at that specific moment).

Margaret calls this the “pathetic syllogism” (from pathos, nothing to do with the modern word), and she spells out the general form in this fashion:

P1: Objects of type T are evil
P2: Object O belongs to type T
P3: Object O is in prospect
C: An evil is in prospect

Take the famous example of Agamemnon, the commander in chief of the Achaean expedition against Troy, who felt fear at the idea that he was about to be defeated. The fear comes from his belief that defeat is a bad thing, plus the additional belief that one ought to have certain feelings when a bad thing is in prospect. Of course, just like in any syllogism, if one wishes to deny the conclusion (assuming that the reasoning is valid, which in this case it is), then one needs to find a premise that can be rejected. And that is a major objective of Stoic training, of course.

Another way of looking at the issue, also discussed by Graver, is in terms of externals vs. what she calls “integral” things. Both Plato and Aristotle referred to things that are determined by us (i.e., they are not externals) as good (or evils) “of the psyche.” The Stoics made this distinction — commonly referred to as the dichotomy of control — central to their philosophy, often the “integrals” as ways of handling externals, or as dispositions to use externals one way or another. Seneca, for instance, talks about an ambassadorship as an external, where the true good lies in handling it with honor. In the case of Agamemnon, the true good (or evil) lies in how the king would handle defeat, if it really did come. As it turns out, the Achaeans were not defeated, though we also know that Agamemnon was pretty bad in general at handling difficult situations, especially for a commander in chief. Graver summarizes the Stoic ethical stance in this way:

“The chief insight of Stoic axiology could very well be expressed this way: that in a rational being, external objects never merit uncompromising evaluation but integral objects always do. … The claim often appears in the form ‘virtue is the only good, vice the only evil.’”

Because the above mentioned dispositions to use externals are, of course, the virtues. The oft-neglected other side of this famous Stoic coin is that indifferents are not so in the sense that they don’t matter. Indeed, as Margaret says, they may be pursued strenuously, at times, but only on the basis of a restricted evaluation, applicable to local circumstances. The only thing that is always good, under all circumstances, is virtue, and that is why it is often referred to as the chief good, or the only (intrinsic, unqualified) good. Virtue is the good by means of which one is able to properly handle every external, including ambassadorships and defeats in war.

According to Stoic philosophy, it is possible — though very rare — for a person to align all her beliefs with each other, yielding a full and consistent evaluation of herself and her surrounding. That person would be in harmony with herself and with the cosmos at large, and of course it is referred to in Stoic lore as a Sage. Sagehood, as Seneca says in Letter XLII.1 is as rare as the mythical Ethiopian phoenix, a bird who comes back to life from its ashes (every 500 years, according to legend). Why bother with such a concept then? Graver puts it aptly:

“Alongside the dissatisfaction with our actual moral condition [for the Stoic] goes an extraordinary optimism about what we might achieve. … Becoming like the Sage would be becoming more human, not less; it would be recognizable as human maturation.”

What about the famous eupatheiai, the positive, of healthy emotions? Following Graver’s analysis, we should think of them as normative affect, i.e., as the ethically proper responses of individuals who have been practicing their virtue, and have therefore developed the right dispositions toward externals:

“A wise person who meets with an opportunity to perform some generous or courageous action might feel a kind of yearning toward that action; conversely, she may be expected to experience a horrified aversion from anything shameful or wrong.”

It is commonly assumed that the eupatheiai are somehow less intense than the pathē, leading to the stereotype of Stoics as (nearly) emotionless, or at least characterized by flat emotions. But this is nowhere to be found in the actual literature, and there is no reason, based on Stoic philosophy, to believe that to be the case. Margaret stresses that eupatheiai are “corrected” (by way of ethical training), not diminished, versions of human emotions. She makes the analogy to the seamless movements of a trained athlete: forceful but without strain.

“Preeminent among eupathic responses is the one called chara or joy. Joy is ‘well-reasoned elevation,’ corresponding on a feeling level to the happy excitement the ordinary person experiences on winning a raffle or leaving on vacation. But joy differs from those feelings in being directed at genuine goods: a generous action, for instance, would be an occasion for joy, and the proper object of the feeling would be the generosity itself, as exercised on that occasion.”

I trust you can see just how grating Stoicism can be for some modern sensibilities. I’m thinking of the sort of people who say things like “who are you to tell me I should / should not feel this way?” The answer is clear, from a Stoic perspective: emotions, as characterized above, come in bad and good varieties, and we should, indeed, work toward feeling in certain ways and avoid to feel in certain other ways. While we cannot avoid raw feelings, we are not at the mercy of our fully formed emotions, pace David Hume. (See also my recent commentary on Letter XXIII, where Seneca tells Lucilius that joy is a serious matter.)

Graver ends the chapter with a nice discussion of the Stoic classification of positive and negative emotions, first at what she calls the “genus” (i.e., broad categories) level, then at the “species” (i.e., on the basis of more detailed examples) level. The generic classification is nice and neat, while there is no consensus among the available sources about the specific classification. Graver suggests that this isn’t a reflection of disagreement among the Stoics, but rather stems from the fact that the specific examples were meant as illustrative of the generic categories, not as an exhaustive list. Figures 2, 3, 4, and 5 in this chapter are very useful summaries of both levels of classification. I am reproducing the first two tables here:

Stoic emotions

Notice the lack of a “present evil” category among the eupatheiai. The explanation is along these lines:

“We can see why one would want to claim that the person of perfect understanding has no genus of affective response for present evils. Having perfect understanding entails that one regards as evil only those things that really are evil; that is, integral evils such as personal failings, errors, and other events or situations whose causes lie within oneself. In order to believe that this sort of evil is present in the relevant sense, one would have to believe that a proposition concerning one’s own shortcomings has just become true, something like ‘I act unjustly’ or ‘I am ungenerous.’ But the person of perfect understanding is exempt by definition from everything of that kind. The situation simply never arises.”

From the third table (not shown here), consider as an illustrative example some of the “species” listed under the “genus” Desire, a pathos: anger (desire to punish someone who is thought to have armed us unjustly); hatred (anger stored up to age); rancor (anger biting its time for revenge); exasperation (anger that breaks out suddenly). And from the fourth table (not shown), here are some examples of the species listed under the genus Joy, a eupatheia: enjoyment (joy befitting the surrounding advantages); cheerfulness (joy in the sensible person’s deeds); and good spirits (joy about the self-sufficiency of the universe).

Let me conclude with one important note. Stoicism is often accused of being a self-centered philosophy, focused only on self-improvement. But as Margaret writes:

“The genus concerned with prospective goods includes some affective responses that are directly concerned with the goods of other people. … The rich affective life of the wise is being said to include some concern for other human beings that goes beyond disinterested service to the level of genuine affective involvement.”


22 thoughts on “Stoicism and Emotion, II: the “pathetic” syllogism

  1. Paul Braterman

    I am dissatisfied with the empty space in the second table. From time to time, I feel distress at my own failings, the damage that because of them I have done to others, and the awareness that I am likely in future to show similar lack of wisdom. It is no comfort to me whatsoever that a sage would never be in that situation. I would go further, and suggest that my distress, provided I do not allow it to curdle into remorse, may constitute a healthy motivation for self-examination and improvement.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jimmy Daltrey

    As the present is the locus of all action, and evil can be only our own intention, I am also surprised to see a gap.

    Caution would be best applied to the present and a preparedness or vigilance for the future.


  3. E. O. Scott

    I share the confusion over the absence of a eupatheia for “present evil.” Sure, okay, the Sage lacks it—but what should I aim at normatively, as a prokopton?

    One possible answer is that “shame,” like anger, at most useful as a proto-passion: it can draw our attention to things that we need to try and change, but it is unhealthy if allowed to become a fully-fledged passion. The truth is that our mistakes are in the past and beyond our control, and the proper response to them is to have a forward-looking sense of Wishing and Caution. In this view, we could read the Stoics’ rejection of an emotion fo “present evil” as part of their larger “self-forgiving” approach to handling failure: we transmute self-berating shame/guilt into forward-looking aspiration.

    An alternative is to say that full-fledged “shame” is a necessary eupatheia for prokoptontes: emotional training wheels we will disgard if and when we achieve Sagehood.

    Personally, I prefer the first explanation.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. derekmiddletonblog

    I would argue that it is perfectly reasonable to expect that a prokopton can experience the eupatheiai Joy, Wish and Caution (at least in some cases) and so it would not be unreasonable, in the Stoic spirit of making concessions to us lesser mortals, to at least make a stab at the fourth. Disappointment, perhaps?


  5. walreis

    Hi, Massimo,

    A very good essay.

    One observation:

    “So the inclination to follow our feelings is natural, but how we do that depends on our judgment of whether the feeling refers to a good or a bad situation. Nature yes, but not unaided by reason…”

    … because reason seems also to be ‘something’ embedded in us by ‘nature’ (I still have some pending problems with this term). So it would be the same as to say ‘nature aided – or corrected – by nature’. Wrong?

    And one problem:

    “… the additional belief that one ought to have certain feelings when a bad thing is in prospect.”

    Notwithstanding it be a likely belief to be entertained by anyone, I’m not sure that it would have a meaninful role in most situations in which I’m convinced that “a bad thing is in prospect”: I just notice the presence of those feelings in response to the circumstance (of bad things in prospect). I perceive them arising automatically, not brought in by a belief. The only thing that seems to be in my power in moments like these – given I have enought time to think about – is to decide whether or not such feelings are advantageous to me. They are as innate (or natural) as reason itself.

    And perhaps reason, too, be but a feeling, or a behavior sustained by an ever extant feeling that in principle has to do with my well being (as if evaluating it) and matures with time to the point of ‘learning’ that the well being of other persons may also be – or in fact is – of interest to mine. (I haven’t the book nearby to quote from it, yet I’m sure I’m putting into my – not so adequate – words the argument in which Epictetus shows that altruism has its roots in egoism.)

    I hope I made myself clear.


  6. Massimo Post author


    “because reason seems also to be ‘something’ embedded in us by ‘nature’”

    Indeed. According to the Stoics human nature is that of a social animal capable of reason.

    “I just notice the presence of those feelings in response to the circumstance (of bad things in prospect). I perceive them arising automatically, not brought in by a belief”

    Right, the raw feeling, what the Stoics called propatheiai, is not under your control.

    “The only thing that seems to be in my power in moments like these – given I have enought time to think about – is to decide whether or not such feelings are advantageous to me”

    Correct again, but notice that now you are changing the propatheiai into full fledged, cognitively informed, emotions. If you go in then wrong direction (e.g., assenting to a given feeling while you sholdn’t) then you turn them into pathē, if you go in the right direction (e.g., withholding assent if it is not warranted) then you turn them into eupatheiai.

    “reason, too, be but a feeling, or a behavior sustained by an ever extant feeling that in principle has to do with my well being”

    I wouldn’t describe reason either of those ways, and certainly not as a feeling. It is, rather, an ability. Yes, given to us by Nature (we would say natural selection).

    “matures with time to the point of ‘learning’ that the well being of other persons may also be – or in fact is – of interest to mine”

    Correct, that’s the so-called cradle argument: we are born with certain natural pro-social feelings, and we extend them beyond their instinctive reach by use of reason. Hierocles’ circles/


  7. Paul Braterman

    I think it too simple to regard reason as natural. Untutored reasoning leads to errors, such as seeking confirmation rather than refutation of hypotheses, inappropriate teleological explanations, and linking beliefs to one’s sense of identity.


  8. Massimo Post author


    It isn’t right reason that is natural, the Stoics certainly reazlied that. It is the ability to reason correctly that is natural.


  9. Paul Braterman

    Massimo, I keep coming back to this same problem with the recommendation to live “according to nature”. The ability to reason correctly is certainly natural, but so, to the same extent, is the tendency to reason incorrectly along the lines I mentioned. I suspect that willingness to accept the dogmas of one’s tribe is natural, and an evolved adaptation that increases group cohesiveness, but it is clearly an obstacle in discovering what is true, and often in deciding how best to live


  10. Massimo Post author


    Yes, that is why the Stoics are not making a straightforward appeal to nature, otherwise tribalism, not cosmopolitanism, would be the way to go.

    They built in a prescriptive component to “live according to nature,” as in do the best that your naturally endowed reason tells you to do. That best isn’t written in our genes, so to speak, it is the result of philosophical reflection.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Paul Braterman

    Thanks, Massimo. An interesting division of labour between what is granted by nature, and what is deliberately cultivated. And of course successful cultivation will work with, rather than against, nature.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. walreis

    Thanks, Massimo, for your reply.

    “I wouldn’t describe reason either of those ways, and certainly not as a feeling. It is, rather, an ability.”

    I’d say that roughly speaking we agree on this point too. Perhaps we are describing reason from two different points of view, one, potential (ability), the other, actual (behavior): wouldn’t it be possible to say that abilities are potential behaviors, as well as the reverse, that behaviors are actualizations of abilities?

    I’m a strong supporter of Epictetus’ system in general. I also support strongly the nietzschean interpretation of Thales’ main fragment, that sees in it the statement ‘everything is – or is reducible to – one’, or the foundation of the philosophical tradition (in Greek terms, at least). This reductionist procedure seems to be Epictetus’ chief guiding principle, especially in his assumption about innate knowledge, which he considers to be the knowledge of the good. Well, we can assume that the idea of an innate knowledge seems to entail that this knowledges is foundational, the one upon which the remaining knowledge is built.

    So – back to the point I wanted to make – the phenomenon we call ‘reason’ might also come from this first knowledge, like a fabric made from a single thread. But what is indeed this ‘thread’? A judgement? I believe not – because, among other reasons, we would hardly admit that babies make jugdements. A feeling leading toward pleasant sensations and to the avoidance of unpleasant ones? Most probably, I believe, together with Epictetus. Thus would reason be describable as the construct made from a guiding feeling that’s itself driven by good and bad sensations? But reason becomes noticeable only when it is active, I mean, by means of an act that reveals it. And what are feelings if not triggers for actions?

    I’m sorry for the length of this comment.


  13. walreis

    Hi, Paul,

    As I tried to say, I believe that ‘natural’ isn’t a trully viable adjective to explain anything beyond the distinction between what ‘directly’ comes from ‘nature’ and what comes from the things ‘directly’ engendered by ‘nature’: like men versus all we’re able to make from whatever surrounds us. Yet even in this sense ‘natural’ reveals its weakness, because, for instance, trees bear fruits and fruits generally bear seeds that originate trees: some processes are enfolded into themselves, so that it’s impossible to know where their beginnings really are. It seems that ‘reason’, whether or not qualifiable as ‘natural’, is anyway something we believe we’re endowed with from birth, and however seemingly a very useful tool for the keeping of a person’s well being, it’s not proven to be safe enough to prevent mistakes – how many ‘rational’ decisions lead to unwanted outcomes? Thus, the question: is it possible for reason to induce mistakes? I guess that it is contradictory to think this way or, at least, we have here a problem of terminology or definition: we must decide whether reason is liable to err, or whether it is what helps us to prevent errors. Descartes – who was a Stoic in his own, ‘tacit’ way – proposed a solution for this problem that seems still attractive, at least as sign pointing to a way out of it.

    Epictetus, the Stoic I’m most comfortable with, shows straightforwardly and in a rather ’emotional’ manner his lack of expectations to finding what he called ‘the perfect Stoic’ (the ‘Sage’ in Massimo’s above essay). Does that mean that this Stoic path to sageness has no end? Probably. And this is perhaps the most important contribution of this passage: that the ability to to stand in ‘apatheia’ before all that we’re unable to change be extended to the mistakes we’ll surely commit in virtue of our ever evolving comprehension of things.


  14. Massimo Post author


    There is a possibility you are making too much of “living according to nature.” It was just a catchphrase for the ancient Stoics, and one that modern Stoics like Larry Becker are re-interpreting and elaborating on.

    Especially once one qualifies it, as Chrysippus and then the late Stoics did, adding something along the lines of “especially human nature, the nature of a social animal capable of reason” (not a direct quote) then it’s clear what they are talking about.

    No infallibility of nature or reason is required. Even the Sage is assumed not to be infallible. He is simply supposed to be the best (in terms of virtue, and of knowledge) that a human can be.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. walreis


    “There is a possibility you are making too much of “living according to nature.””

    I wouldn’t say so, otherwise I wouldn’t have claimed that reason is as ‘natural’ as our feelings, as I did in my above first comment. I believe it is our times that keep overusing this word during the last 50 or 60 years.

    I also don’t see reason as the perfect tool for reaching sageness, yet it indeed is one among a few we have for this job, like the ‘misleading’ sensations and feelings. Without good data the reason is not effective. And the data are precisely sensations and feelings…

    As I see it, the lesson Epictetus teaches us on this point is ‘tolerance’ toward ourselves, together with the ‘tolerance’ we should exercise in facing the world. His point probably resonates Socrates’ “I know I know nothing”, which is not and must not be taken as an excuse for freeing him from the duty of doing always his best.


  16. Massimo Post author

    This post-closure comment from Margaret herself:

    “I thought I’d respond to the comments by Paul Braterman and E.O. Scott. It’s important for prokoptontes to know about the eupatheiai, but also to realize that as long as we fall short of the moral and epistemic ideal, we can’t experience eupatheiai as conceived by the ancient Stoics. If you stick with my book to the end, you’ll find in chapter 9 that there is yet another category of feeling, the feelings that a prokopton might have toward genuine goods and evils. This is the category that your very sensible comments are reaching for: we are not perfect, but we do care very much about our present and past failings, and about the prospect of doing better. You will find there another three-item chart that in a way balances and helps to explain the one for the eupatheiai. I should add that the ancient Stoics don’t seem to have fully worked through these implications of their system, so there’s a certain amount of extrapolation on my part.

    Some will want more: can we not really rejoice, in the eupathic sense, when we act as the sage would? In ancient Stoicism, no: we can never have full knowledge that our action was the right one, so complete joy is not available to us. One could seek to modify Stoicism, I suppose — it is a modern Stoicism movement. But perhaps instead one should accept the restriction, as a preventive to self-satisfaction and complacency.”

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