Stoicism and Emotion, V: brutishness and insanity

Orestes pursued by the Furies

Orestes pursued by the Furies

The Stoic way of understanding emotional experience emphasizes that what we properly call anger, fear, love, or any other emotion actually depends on a judgment by the mind, that this or that has happened or is about to happen, and that it makes sense to react in some feeling-laden way. So what about animals? And what about people who aren’t capable of reasoning, either because they are very young children or because their mental faculties are impaired in some way? Should the strong feelings they undoubtedly have be considered emotions? Are they morally responsible for things they do in moments of strong feeling? And what about the fact that none of us is perfectly rational, unless we happen to be a Stoic sage? Is there really a difference between the actions of a typical imperfect adult in a fit of anger and what might be done by someone who is mentally ill? Interestingly, the ancient Stoics had answers to these questions.

Famously, for the Stoics everyone who is not a Sage is a fool, and in a sense “insane,” because he lacks knowledge of what is important, and consequently too readily assents to impressions from which he should recoil. This includes people who get angry, which is why Seneca calls anger a “temporary madness.” This class of individuals can certainly be held morally responsible for their actions, since they are perfectly capable of reason, they just don’t use it well. This is the set up for the fifth chapter of Margaret Graver’s book on Stoicism and Emotion, which I have been commenting upon with her help (she has kindly agreed to check my posts before publication).

In order to keep confusion at bay, I will follow Margaret’s qualification of the two types of “insanity”: paradoxical insanity (where “paradoxical” in ancient Greek just meant contra to common opinion) is the way in which we are all fools because we are not Sages (we are, literally, unsound, as one translates the Latin word insanus). The other type is “melancholic” insanity, from the Greek term literally referring to “black bile disease,” but which broadly speaking indicates a condition close to our modern conception of mental illness. Again: moral responsibility requires functional agency, so the paradoxically insane is ethically responsible for the use of his impressions, while the melancholically insane is not.

A classic example of melancholic insanity is that of Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who at one point hallucinates that his sister is a Fury, pursuing him for his (just, arguably) matricide. According to the ancients, this condition may be the result of what we would today call extreme psychological stress, or may even be caused by drugs, including alcohol. Graver points out, for instance, the existence of a fragment in which Stobaeus refers to drunkeness as a “little insanity.” Interestingly, one of the disagreements between Cleanthes (the second head of the Stoa) and Chrysippus (the third head) is that the former thought that once acquired virtue cannot be lost, while Chrysippus points out that even the Sage may suffer the effects of melancholia or drunkenness (though she shouldn’t get drunk of her own volition in the first place!), and thus at least temporarily lose virtue. The difference between the two philosophers is not actually very big, according to Margaret, but it is indicative of the fact that the Stoics modified their positions in response to external criticism, in this case from Academic Skeptics.

Again, though — and contra popular mischaracterization — there is a clear distinction between actual insanity and the Stoic “paradoxical” insanity, as Graver forcefully reminds us:

“No bona fide Stoic text ever asserts that the mental state of every human is just the same as that of an Orestes or Alcmaeon, and none ever refers to melancholia or any other medicalized notion of insanity when speaking of the madness of humans in general. … ‘All fools are mad’ is a paradox, one of the counterintuitive teachings for which the school was renowned. Like others of its kind — ‘only the wise person is rich,’ ‘all fools are slaves’ — it runs contrary to popular opinion (para doxan) but becomes plausible when restated in other terms. It is a conversation opener, a deliberately provocative formulation meant to arouse the curiosity of the audience, later to be cashed out in a way that renders it acceptable.” (p. 129)

This isn’t quite as strange as one might at first think. Chrysippus points out that even lay language refers to people in the throng of strong emotions (anger, love, etc.) as “besides themselves,” i.e., mad, if temporarily. When those people wish to do whatever is on their mind to do “no matter what,” this is a clear indication that they are not in full possession of their rational faculties. The Stoics just pushed the point a little further: for them, anyone who sets their heart on external things — as almost all of us do — is primed for emotional turmoil at any moment. We might be fine now, but any chance event can throw us into a tailspin. Cicero too uses a similar approach, when in the third Tusculan Disputation he uses the Latin word “insania,” meaning without health, i.e., a mental condition that falls short of full health, or sanity.

Graver brings up the intriguing question of whether it is compatible with Stoic psychology to consider the possibility of a strictly emotional cause of derangement, given the Stoic emphasis on rational assent. She reminds us that the Stoics were strict materialists, for whom anything happening in our mind is the result of one sort or another of physical change in the pneuma, the substance that pervades everything. So yes, it is perfectly conceivable, within Stoicism, that either physical substances (drugs, alcohol) or repeated, strong emotional experiences will cause some permanent alteration of our psychic condition, mediated by physical changes. Nowadays, we don’t believe in pneuma, but we think — like the Stoics — that there is no separation between the mental and the physical, so the general idea still applies.

The last two sections of the chapter are devoted to Seneca’s treatment of anger, and especially of a particularly dangerous form of insanity that Seneca calls “brutishness.” They make for fascinating and insightful reading. Brutishness in the Senecan sense is no longer anger, but it has its roots in the latter condition, and it should serve as a warning for the dire, ultimate consequences of indulging in anger. The difference between anger and brutishness is that the first is motivated by a (mistaken, in Stoic philosophy) belief that one has been hurt. The sort of behavior Seneca calls brutishness, by contrast, is cruel and results in inflicting pain for fun, without even a plausible reason for it. Indeed, Margaret points out that although the term brutishness refers to animal-like behavior, this is misleading, since animals don’t attack out of cruelty, but in response to natural urges like hunger, self-defense, or defense of their offspring. Animals are not morally responsible for their actions, human beings in possess of their rational faculty are.

Seneca explains the difference between anger and cruelty also in his On Clemency, where he says that the cruel tyrant has a tendency to punish beyond what is actually required by the situation, indulging his own lust for blood and the infliction of pain. And in his Letter CXXXIII to Lucilius he describes the excesses of Mark Anthony, an example of the cruelty developed by the far gone alcoholic. We call this anti-social personality disorder, or psychopathy. This loss of rationality affects us profoundly, of course, because for the Stoics rationality is the best and most characteristic of human attributes.

The last bit of this chapter is an in-depth discussion of Seneca’s so-called three movements in On Anger, and again is well worth a detailed look. Consider first the following extended quote from Seneca:

“Let me tell you how the emotions begin, or grow, or get carried away. The first movement is nonvolitional, a kind of preparation for emotion, a warning, as it were. The second is volitional but not contumacious, like this, ‘It is appropriate for me to take revenge, since I have been injured,’ or ‘It is appropriate for this person to be punished, since he has committed a crime.’ The third movement is already beyond control. It wants to take revenge not if it is appropriate, but no matter what; it has overthrown reason. That first impact on the mind is one we cannot escape by reason, just as we cannot escape those things which I said happen to the body, such as being stimulated by another person’s yawn, or blinking when fingers are thrust suddenly toward one’s eyes. That second movement, the one that comes about through judgment, is also eliminated by judgment. And we must still inquire concerning those people who rage about at random and delight in human blood, whether they are angry when they kill people from whom they have not received any injury and do not believe that they have — people like Apollodorus or Phalaris. This is not anger but brutishness. For it does not do harm because it has received an injury; rather, it is willing even to receive an injury so long as it may do harm. It goes after whippings and lacerations not for punishment but for pleasure. What then? The origin of this evil is from anger, which, once it has been exercised and satiated so often that it has forgotten about clemency and has cast out every human contract from the mind, passes in the end into cruelty.” (On Anger II.4-5)

The standard scholarly interpretation of this is that Seneca brakes with the bit that begins “and we must still inquire,” where he starts talking about brutishness. According to some interpreters, anger is not present until the third movement, and brutishness is a separate topic entirely. If this is true, then – observes Graver – Seneca is committed to say that there is a half-way point at which one assents to the full content of anger as a judgment but still doesn’t get carried away. So the sequence of three movements would be: pre-emotion > anger not at odds with reason > full-fledged anger. But this is contrary not only to the entire corpus of Stoic doctrine (sounding suspiciously Aristotelian), but also to everything Seneca himself has been saying in On Anger up to that point.

Margaret’s interpretation, by contrast, seems to me (admittedly, as a simple Stoic practitioner, not a scholar of ancient philosophy) to make much more sense. She takes Seneca’s sequence to present anger in the middle, flanked by a pre-emotion that precedes it, and by a runaway brutishness that follows it (if one indulges one’s anger). Neither the first nor the third movement are rational. The first one because it takes place without assent, the third one because it happens to an individual who is no longer rationally competent. Only the second movement is actual anger, because it is caused by a mistaken assent given by reason to the impression of injury. Remember that in Stoicism assent to an impulsory impression does not take place before the impulse; rather, it is the impulse, analyzed at the intentional level. That analysis, of course, may be on target (the agent withholds assent and anger winds down) or off (the agent mistakenly gives assent and full anger results).

I find this analysis — and Seneca’s presentation of the issue — beautiful and clarifying. In Stoic psychology, anger is a cognitive emotion, which is why it is under our control. But neither the pre-emotion nor the descent into brutishness is under our control. The first because it is naturally inevitable, since it comes before reason kicks in. The latter because we have lost control of things and are overpowered, thus losing competence to arrive at rational judgment. This is a terrifying prospect, which has enormous practical consequences, and that’s precisely why Seneca makes a big deal of it, using appropriately horrific language to describe it. As Graver concludes at the end of the chapter:

“One thus has a powerful motive to learn ways of eliminating or at least decreasing the frequency of anger by the methods Seneca goes on to suggest, like examining one’s conscience, correcting one’s values, asking friends for help. For these are the means of preserving one’s humanity.” (p. 145)


Categories: Ancient Stoicism, Psychology


3 replies

  1. Most excellent, Massimo. Stay human ~ Michael Franti

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It really is a pleasure to read such quality pieces by such a renowned philosopher. Thanks for all your efforts Massimo.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Just a thought from my Stoico-Buddhist preoccupation: Stoic insanity = Buddhist dukkha.


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