Stoicism and Emotion, III: vigor and responsibility

Chrysippus from Trajan Markets

Chrysippus, Trajan Markets in Rome, photo by the Author

There is a sense in which emotions are something that happens to us regardless, or indeed in spite of, our will. As Margaret Graver reminds us in the third chapter of her Stoicism and Emotion, this idea of passivity is embedded in the very word the Ancient Greeks used to refer to emotions: pathos, the noun form of the verb paschein, which means to suffer, or to undergo.

Of course, as we have seen so far in the course of our discussion of Graver’s book, the Stoics made quite a big deal of reminding us that full fledged emotions actually include a cognitive component, which means that they are, in a sense, “up to us.” That said, we know that even Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa, was well aware of the fact that people usually have a hard time controlling their feelings:

“Often, through the same blindness, we bite keys, and beat at doors when they do not open quickly, and if we stumble over a stone we take revenge on it by breaking it or throwing it somewhere, and we say very odd things on all such occasions.” (Chrysippus, cited in Galen, PHP 46.43-45)

Remember that two millennia-old quote the next time you shout at your computer, some things never change… According to Graver, despite the standard Stoic account of emotions which began with Zeno of Citium, Chrysippus was pretty pessimistic about the possibility of controlling them, thinking that once they begin they are for all effective purposes unstoppable. This is an important point to make, because it clearly shows that the Stoics were serious and sophisticated thinkers, and did not espouse the “stiff upper lip” caricature of philosophy that is often nowadays associated with their name.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a serious problem in the contrast between the Zenonian idea that emotions are up to us because they result, in part, from a cognitive judgment, and Chrysippus’ realistic appreciation that it ain’t quite that easy to overcome unhealthy passions. The resolution of this tension lies in the words “in part”: recall that for the Stoics fully formed emotions are the result of an impression, which is not under our control, and a cognitive judgment, which is under our control. These are co-causes of the emotions. The problem is that on the spur of the moment the impression easily overruns the cognitive judgment, as Seneca repeatedly points out in his On Anger:

“For once the mind is stirred into motion, it is a slave to that which is driving it. With some things, the beginnings are in our power, but after that they carry us on by their own force, not allowing a return. Bodies allowed to fall from a height have no control of themselves: they cannot resist or delay their downward course, for the irrevocable fall has cut off all deliberation, all repentance; they cannot help but arrive where they are going, though they could have avoided going there at all.” (On Anger, I.7)

Which means, argues Chrysippus, that the answer lies in a sort of cognitive preemptive action: we need to work on our character, our overall collection of judgments, before a specific impression hits us. As in medicine so in practical philosophy: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure after the fact.

“Stoic thought does not consider the impulsory impression to be the principal cause of an action. It is indeed a cause, but the real cause or reason for the assent is to be found in the agent’s own mental character, where by ‘mental character’ is meant simply the structure and content of one’s own belief set. … Whether assent is given on any particular occasion will thus depend on the nature of the existing mental contents and the sort of standard one uses for recognizing logical fit.”

Margaret at this point discusses Chrysippus’ famous analogy with the combination of internal and external causes that allow a cylinder to roll. I refer the reader to my own summary of that famous Stoic discussion of volition. The bottom line is that two people may be subject to the same impression (say, lust for an attractive potential sexual partner) and arrive at a different fully formed emotion because their characters differ enough that one is inclined to assent to and the other to withhold assent from the initial impression.

Graver then “tests” Stoic, and especially Chrysippean, ideas against several well known examples from Greek mythology. This may seem odd to modern readers, but is, in fact, not very different from the way in which contemporary moral philosophers confront their intuitions about ethical dilemmas by way of constructing thought experiments, sometimes inspired by fictional characters drawn from modern literature. Here, for instance, is how Chrysippus analyzes the famous instance of Menelaus’ reaction to seeing again his wife, Helen, during the final sack of Troy:

“An example is Menelaus as depicted by Euripides. Drawing his sword, he moves toward Helen to slay her, but then, struck by the sight of her beauty, he casts away his sword and is no longer able to control even that. Hence this reproach is spoken to him: ‘You, when you saw her breast, cast down your blade / and took her kiss, fondling the traitor dog.’” (Cited in Galen, PHP 4.6.7-9)

Margaret comments that Menelaus’ passivity is the result of a weakness of reason, not an instance of yielding to a passion that is independent of cognitive assent. Menelaus behaves that way because he suffers from a structural weakness in his belief system, i.e., in his character.

I want to emphasize just how important this is for practical purposes, as far as modern followers of Stoicism are concerned. Too often nowadays Stoicism is brandished as a magic wand, as if one decides to “be” a Stoic and this, ipso facto, guarantees immunity from unhealthy emotions. It doesn’t, and Chrysippus, Seneca, and Epictetus would be astounded that anyone would think so. Stoic training is like training for the Olympics (a metaphor often used by Epictetus): you don’t just decide to be an athlete, start running, and win the race. You have to train, patiently, for years, improving gradually, and suffering setbacks. We are talking real life here, not wishful thinking.

Medea, of course, is another example of a weak structural belief system, often used by the Stoics, who however tended to see that tragic character with compassion, as in Epictetus. Yet another example, again discussed by Chrysippus, is more positive: it refers to an episode of the Odyssey where Odysseus (a standard Stoic role model) has returned home to Ithaca, but has adopted a disguise to study the situation. He is angered by the brazen behavior of the Suitors and the treachery of his own maidservants. But he strikes his own breast and addresses his heart, reminding it to tolerate the offense for now, so not to spoil any realistic chance at justice later on.

Graver devotes a section of chapter 3 of her book to an interesting discussion of how Galen (a known critic of the Stoics, despite being the personal physician of none other than Marcus Aurelius) unfairly characterizes Chrysippus’ ideas, even accusing the third head of the Stoa of misunderstanding Plato’s treatment of the relationship between emotions and reason. She concludes:

“The charge is implausible. What seems more likely is that Galen and his contemporaries did not stop to reflect that their own interpretation of Plato might not be the only viable able reading … [and that] Chrysippus’ approach to mental conflict avoids these difficulties [faced by Plato’s account] while preserving Plato’s central insights about the importance of moral reflection and inner harmony.”

Chapter 3 continues with a fascinating section on the so-called Posidonian objections. Posidonius was a major figure in the middle Stoa, but he is quoted approvingly by Galen against Chrysippus. It’s easy to see why. Posidonius considers a number of objections to the standard Stoic account of emotions. For instance, tears caused by an emotional response to music, where there clearly is no role played by any belief structure, since no words are involved at all. He also takes up the issue of feelings experienced by animals and young children, again situations in which belief systems seem to play no role (animals) or a very limited one (depending on how young a child is). Or consider grief, which decreases over time, even though, presumably, the belief that co-causes it in the first place, remains intact (it is still a bad thing that my grandfather died, even though it happened decades ago).

Margaret argues that it is implausible that Posidonius meant these objections as insurmountable for the Stoics — as Galen believes — or else he would simply not have been regarded as a major exponent of the Stoic school. Rather, Posidonius considered the objections in questions out of intellectual honesty, as they ought to be confronted by any system that puts cognition and volition at the center of its account of emotions:

“It will help to clarify the import of Chrysippus’ position, then, if we pause to consider how a philosopher of his commitments might reply to the objections raised by Posidonius. This is more than a thought exercise, for on several points there is evidence suggesting that the older philosopher had already advanced at least the beginnings of a position, and on others we know how later admirers of Chrysippus handled similar problems.”

The first line of defense, then, is the realization that Stoic philosophy does not need to deny the existence of feelings in the absence of judgment. In fact, the Stoics recognized that both animals and young children do have affective responses, arguing however that these resemble, but are not the same, as a human adult’s affective response (which is always mediated by cognitive judgment). Indeed, it would actually be problematic to propose too sharp a distinction between young and adult human beings, or between humans and other animals, because then one would not have any account of how character develops over time.

Another way to respond to the Posidonian objections is that phenomena like the tears caused by a particularly moving piece of music are propatheiai, not fully formed emotions (“pre-emotions,” as Graver calls them), precisely because they lack a cognitive component. In this case, they lack it because it simply cannot be developed, given that the impression is caused by a stimulus that has no cognitive content.

What about the observation that grief diminishes over time? Recall that grief, like any fully formed passion, is the result of two co-causes: the impression and our assent to it. Margaret points out that we change our assessment of the import of certain events over time, to which one could add that the strength of the impression will also naturally change with time. Since both co-causes of grief are liable to change, then it is no surprise that grief itself does too.

Moreover, the “pathetic syllogism,” which we have discussed last time, should not be taken in the spirit of a modern scientific account of emotions, but rather as describing the ethical aspects of emotional responses, which is what Stoic philosophy is concerned with in the first place. The Stoics are interested in exploring the nature of character and the boundaries of ethical responsibility, in a way similar to a notion proposed by Robert Solomon in his “On the Passivity of the Passions,” quoted by Graver:

“The truth is, we are adults. We must take responsibility for what we do and what we feel. … Arguing as I have amounts to nothing less than insisting that we think of ourselves as adults instead of children, who are indeed the passive victims of their passions.”

Margaret further comments to the effect that Stoic psychological ethics is even more realistic and nuanced than Solomon’s:

“On the same [i.e., Stoic] school’s realistic understanding of ordinary mental capacities, however, it would be truer to say we are in the process of becoming adults: our intellectual and moral characteristics are always to be compared with that normative conception of human nature which is the endpoint of personal growth and development.”

We are all prokoptontes and prokoptousai, i.e., we are — hopefully — making progress, but we are not quite there yet.

Which leads me to the final section of chapter 3, on the Stoic meaning of “freedom.” For the Stoics freedom means to be able to do what we want to do, and not to have to do what we don’t want to do — thus distancing their treatment from esoteric, and ultimately sterile, discussions about the metaphysics of “free will,” grounding their approach instead in what Wilfrid Sellars, two millennia later called the “manifest image” of the world. It follows, then, that someone is not free if his affective responses get in the way of what he wants to do, as was the case for Medea and Menelaus, but not Odysseus.

Graver reminds us that even the Stoic Sage is likely to experience strong feelings. The difference between a Sage and the rest of us is that she always experiences the right feelings:

“An awareness of having done the right thing should evoke not just a mild satisfaction but real, deep joy. The thought of abusing a child should be met with more than unwillingness: aversion should go off like an air-raid siren that arrests one’s very being.”

In a sense, then, only the Sage is truly free, but, as Margaret puts it at the very end of the chapter, “we are unfree only because we are at variance with ourselves.”

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6 thoughts on “Stoicism and Emotion, III: vigor and responsibility

  1. Christof Jans

    Here, for instance, is how Chrysippus analyzes the famous instance of Agamemnon’s reaction to seeing again his wife, Helen, during the final sack of Troy:

    I think you meant Menelaus, not Agamemnon.

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  2. Stewart Slater

    Helen was married to Menelaus. Agamemnon was her brother in law. I don’t understand the point about that story. Is the idea that Menelaus shouldn’t have forgiven her, or that his reason for doing so (lust) was wrong? I would have thought that forgiving her was the Stoic thing to do, her behaviour being indifferent and a result of her ignorance.

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  3. Woolsey Biggins

    Thanks for another enjoyable post. Having been a prokopton for 2 years now, it is striking how continued reason can impact ‘reflexive’ bad emotions. But as you mention, it requires continued ‘practice’. I heard this quote today , ‘It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.’ Where as that latter principle aligns with Stoicism – it seems that there is a component of the first. Thoughts?

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  4. Massimo Post author

    Woolsey,

    You need both right? Yes, it’s easier to act your way into new thinking, though I’d say rather into new emotional responses. The Stoic agreed. But you also first need to think about which way you want to act…

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