Category Archives: Ancient Stoicism

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.”


Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher

Heraclitus and Democritus

crying Heraclitus and laughing Democritus, from a 1477 Italian fresco, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

The Stoics referred to themselves as “Socratic,” thus publicly acknowledging the direct connection between their philosophy and the one developed by the Athenian sage. For instance, the idea that wisdom if the chief good — because it is the only thing that is always good, and in fact the one that allows us to use other things (such as wealth, education, etc.) well — is defended by Socrates in the Euthydemus.

But the Stoics were also greatly influenced, especially in their metaphysics, by one of the most mysterious pre-Socratic philosophers: Heraclitus of Ephesus. Much of what we know of Heraclitus is from Diogenes Laertius (at the beginning of book IX of the Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers). Diogenes tells us that “Heraclitus, [who was the] son of Bloson or, according to some, of Heracon, was a native of Ephesus. He flourished in the 69th Olympiad,” i.e., around 504-501 BCE. We are told that he lived until the age of 60, probably dying of dropsy.

Apparently, Heraclitus was a bit of a misanthrope, not liking either the Athenians or his own fellow Ephesians. Diogenes says that “he would retire to the temple of Artemis and play at knuckle-bones with the boys; and when the Ephesians stood round him and looked on, ‘Why, you rascals,’ he said, ‘are you astonished? Is it not better to do this than to take part in your civil life?’” This enmity was the result of the fact that the Ephesians banished a friend of Heraclitus, Hermodorus, whom he considered “the worthiest man among them.”

Heraclitus was born into an aristocratic family, and actually abdicated his right to be king in favor of his brother (though he would have been “king” within the limits imposed by the Persian empire, of which Ephesus was part at the time). He educated himself through a sort of self-applied Socratic inquiry, and when he was young claimed — like Socrates later on — not to know anything (though, unlike Socrates, he later believed to have learned a lot).

His major work was apparently entitled On Nature, and it consisted of three parts, devoted to the nature of the universe, politics, and theology. His writings were not very clear, apparently on purpose. Diogenes tells us that “he deliberately made it the more obscure in order that none but adepts should approach it, and lest familiarity should breed contempt.” This is consistent with a saying that Diogenes attributes to Heraclitus: “Much learning does not teach understanding.” This confusion between (rote) learning and actual understanding, or between knowledge and wisdom, is very much alive today, unfortunately, though I don’t prescribe obfuscatory writing as a cure…

It is probably because of the difficulty of his writings that he was variously referred to as “the riddler” (by Timon of Phlius) and “the dark” (or the obscure one) by Cicero. Curiously, Heraclitus was also referred to as the weeping philosopher, and often contrasted in that respect with another pre-Socratic, Democritus, referred to as the laughing philosopher. Interestingly, Seneca — one of several Stoics who mentions Heraclitus — says:

“We ought therefore to bring ourselves into such a state of mind that all the vices of the vulgar may not appear hateful to us, but merely ridiculous, and we should imitate Democritus rather than Heraclitus. The latter of these, whenever he appeared in public, used to weep, the former to laugh.” (On Tranquillity of Mind, XV)

There are several obvious influences of Heraclitus on the Stoics. To begin with, he was among the first known authors to talk about the Logos, and “the idea that all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos.” There may have been also a connection with the famous Stoic notion of living according to nature: “it is necessary to follow what is common. But although the Logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding.” This sounds a lot like the idea that we should live by following our nature and the nature of the cosmos, developed already by the early Stoics, contrasted with the notion that most people don’t realize this — which necessitates Stoic training, of the type for instance offered by Epictetus.

Heraclitus identified the Logos with the fire, the generative principle of the cosmos, and interestingly, the early Christians also adopted the Heraclitean Logos, incorporating it into their theology. In particular, Hippolytus, in the III century, identified it with the Christian Word of God.

In terms of ethics, Heraclitus famously said that “character is fate,” a phrase that has been interpreted in a variety of ways, but generally as meaning that character is the most important aspect of a person, what sets us apart from other animals. Needless to say, the Stoics built their entire philosophy of life on the concept of character and the possibility of its improvement through the practice of the cardinal virtues.

Perhaps the most famous of Heraclitus’ utterances is panta rhei, everything flows, or “ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers,” rendered also as “everything changes and nothing remains still … you cannot step twice into the same stream.” In this respect too Heraclitus is opposed to Democritus: the latter espoused an ontology of objects, forerunner of what nowadays in philosophy is referred to as substance metaphysics. Heraclitus’ approach, by contrast, eventually led to the modern, currently cutting edge, process metaphysics. It is possible to see similarities between the concept of panta rhei and the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence, and the image of the flowing river recurs also in the 13th century Japanese tale of Hōjōki — which in fact refers to Buddhist impermanence.

Heraclitus was influential on Plato (who, however, vehemently disagreed with his doctrines), the Christians, and, most germane to us here, the Stoics. Anthony Long points out the fact that the pre-Socratic is often mentioned by Marcus Aurelius, for instance here:

“Remember Heraclitus: ‘When earth dies, it becomes water; water, air; air, fire; and back to the beginning.’ ‘Those who have forgotten where the road leads.’ ‘They are at odds with what is all around them’ — the all-directing Logos. And ‘they find alien what they meet with every day.’ ‘Our words and actions should not be like those of sleepers’ (for we act and speak in dreams as well) ‘or of children copying their parents’ — doing and saying only what we have been told.” (Meditations, IV.46)

But we find him also in Epictetus, who actually connects Heraclitus with the close philosophical kins of the Stoics, the Cynics:

“Remember that you should behave in life as you do at a banquet. Something is being passed around and arrives in front of you: reach out your hand and take your share politely. It passes: don’t try to hold it back. It has yet to reach you: don’t project your desire towards it, but wait until it arrives in front of you. … For it was by acting in such a way that Diogenes [the Cynic], and Heraclitus, and others like them, deservedly became divine and were called so.” (Enchiridion, XV)

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.”

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.

Disciplines, fields, and virtues: the full Stoic system in one neat package

The invention of StoicismI’ve been studying Stoicism as a practical philosophy fairly intensely for several years now, and up until recently I accepted what has become received wisdom in the modern Stoicism community about the relationship among three important components of Stoic philosophy: the practical disciplines as laid out by Epictetus, the four cardinal virtues, and the three fields of study comprising the classical Stoic curriculum. Such received wisdom comes from the work of Pierre Hadot, as articulated in detail in The Inner Citadel (full pdf here). Hadot develops a correspondence between the disciplines and the fields of study within the context of his discussion of the philosophy of Epictetus (ch. 5), and he also constructs a correspondence between the virtues and the disciplines when he discusses Marcus Aurelius (ch. 9). I have summarized his take in this post, which is accompanied by what I was hoping to be a handy diagram to put the whole thing together.

Even though something definitely appealed to me in the idea of drawing correspondences among those three aspects of Stoic theory, something also struck me as not quite right. For one thing, there are four virtues, three disciplines, and three fields, which really clashes with my sense of symmetry. More importantly, I noticed that every time I had to explain the whole system to someone, I would have to pause and try to remember, or reconstruct, Hadot’s explanation for it. That is not a good sign, it means that the system does not come natural to me, that there is something that does not feel quite right about it.

During a recent discussion at the New York City Stoics meetup, facilitated by my friend Greg Lopez, we were talking about this with our special guest, Brian Johnson, author of the excellent The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life (my six-part commentary of that book is here). In it, Brian argues that Hadot’s interpretation is forced, and does not quite reflect Epictetus’ own philosophy. At some point during the conversation, it struck me not only that Brian was likely to be right, but that I had also developed a somewhat clear idea of why. I am going to present that idea below, in the hope that it may be useful to others to better understand Stoicism as whole.

First, though, a quick recap of the three components of Stoicism among which we want to figure out the proper relationship: the disciplines of Epictetus, the cardinal virtues, and the classic fields of study.

Epictetus’ three disciplines: these concern desire (of what is and is not appropriate to want), action (regarding our relations to others), and assent (to give to or withdraw from “impressions,” i.e., our initial, automatic judgments about the importance of things).

Here is how Epictetus puts it in the Discourses:

“There are three areas of study in which someone who wants to be virtuous and good must be trained: that which relates to desires and aversions, so that he may neither fail to get what he desires, nor fall into what he wants to avoid; that which relates to our motives to act or not to act, and, in general, appropriate behaviour, so that he may act in an orderly manner and with good reason, rather than carelessly; and thirdly, that which relates to the avoidance of error and hasty judgement, and, in general, whatever relates to assent. Of these, the most important and most urgent is that which is concerned with the passions [i.e., the first one]. … The second is concerned with appropriate action; for I shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relationships. … The third belongs to those who are already making progress, and is concerned with the achievement of constancy in the matters already covered, so that even when we’re asleep, or drunk, or depressed, no untested impression that presents itself may catch us off guard.” (III.2.1-5)

Notice here that Epictetus basically lays out a sequence for his Stoic curriculum: the most important thing, and the first one to study, is how to properly direct our desires and aversions. Which should train ourselves to desire only whatever is under our control, and to treat everything else as not being up to us. Once we muster that, we are ready to properly act within the world. It is important here that Epictetus reminds his students that we don’t want to be “unfeeling like a statue” — so much for the stereotype of the unemotional Stoic. It is, finally, only the advanced student that can tackle the third discipline, that of assent, which allows us to arrive at good judgments.

The four virtues: as is well known, there are four virtues in Stoic philosophy: practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. There are several definitions of them in the Stoic canon, but perhaps the most compact and informative ones are found in Cicero’s De Inventione (On Invention):

“Virtue is a habit of the mind, consistent with nature, and moderation, and reason. … It has then four divisions — prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Prudence [i.e., practical wisdom] is the knowledge of things which are good, or bad, or neither good nor bad. … Justice is a habit of the mind which attributes its proper dignity to everything, preserving a due regard to the general welfare. … Fortitude [i.e., courage] is a deliberate encountering of danger and enduring of labour. … [And] temperance is the form and well-regulated dominion of reason over lust and other improper affections of the mind.” (II.53-54)

Keep these definitions in mind, we will come back to them.

The three fields of study: finally, a quick look at the three fields, in the summary provided by Diogenes Laertius in The Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers:

“Philosophic doctrine, say the Stoics, falls into three parts: one physical, another ethical, and the third logical. … They liken Philosophy to a fertile field: Logic being the encircling fence, Ethics the crop, Physics the soil or the trees. … No single part, some Stoics declare, is independent of any other part, but all blend together.” (VII.39-40)

Diogenes then goes on explaining in detail the parts of each of the three fields, from which it is clear that: (i) “physics” is the study of how the world works (i.e., our natural science and metaphysics combined); (ii) “logic” is the study of how to reason well (which today would include formal and informal logic as well as psychology, with its understanding of cognitive biases); and (iii) “ethics” is much broader than today’s concern with right and wrong, and it is actually conceived as the study of how to live your life well.

The problem with Hadot’s system: we are now in a position to recap Hadot’s suggested correspondence among the disciplines, the virtues and the fields, after which we will see why Johnson rejects it, and examine my substitute proposal.

Here is my rendition of the Hadotian system in the earlier post linked above:


The general idea is that the discipline of desire is related to physics because one needs to understand how the world works in order to figure out what is and is not proper to desire; these two, in turn, are connected to the virtues of courage (to accept the dictates of the cosmos) and temperance (to regulate one’s actions accordingly). The connection between ethics and the discipline of action is the most obvious one, since action regulates how we interact with others; the corresponding virtue is, naturally enough, justice. Finally, assent is linked to the study of logic because perfecting reasoning improves our judgment, and hence allows us to properly examine our impressions; the relevant virtue is practical wisdom, which steers us through morally complex situations.

It’s a neat system (except for the asymmetry, noted above, between the number of virtues and the rest), but it finds little evidential support in Epictetus. Johnson points out that Epictetus usually does not mention the fields, except, interestingly, logic. Regarding the latter, he holds an interesting position: on the one hand, he makes fun of those among his students who are into logic chopping:

“If I admire the interpretation [of a philosophical treatise], I have turned into a literary critic instead of a philosopher, the only difference being that, instead of Homer, I’m interpreting Chrysippus.” (Enchiridion 49)

On the other hand, he also clearly thinks that without logic there simply is not philosophizing at all:

“When one of his audience said, ‘Convince me that logic is useful,’ he said, Would you have me demonstrate it? ‘Yes.’ Well, then, must I not use a demonstrative argument? And, when the other agreed, he said, How then shall you know if I impose upon you? And when the man had no answer, he said, You see how you yourself admit that logic is necessary, if without it you are not even able to learn this much — whether it is necessary or not.” (Discourses II, 25)

I’m going to make a note of this quote for the next time someone asks me what logic (and, by extension, philosophy) has ever done for them…

Johnson has additional worries about Hadot’s system, for instance that the connection between physics and the discipline of desire especially seems to be forced. Interested readers are referred to pp. 79-80 of his book. Indeed, if one reads chapter 5 of The Inner Citadel, it is pretty clear even to the casual observer that he struggles mightily to connect physics and desire. Another worry correctly expressed by Johnson is the fact that Epictetus does not use the virtues in his teachings, deploying instead his rather novel approach of role ethics; on this, see mostly chapter 1 of The Role Ethics of Epictetus, especially the last part of it. As for Marcus, Hadot himself traces the concepts in the Meditations to an amalgam of traditional Stoicism, influences from Epictetus, and even Platonism. Marcus was not a philosopher, and it is hard to construct a system of any sort from what is, after all, his personal diary.

For these reasons, and as a result of my own reading of all the above authors, both modern and ancients, I find myself in agreement with Johnson that Hadot’s quasi-neat system of correspondence among disciplines, fields, and virtues is a bit artificial and strained. What then?

A new way to conceive of the full Stoic system: it occurred to me that there is plenty of evidence that the Stoics thought of each of the three subject matters we have been discussing in a rather unitary, holistic, fashion: they argued, most famously, for the unity of virtues, which I propose to represent as a tetrahedron with four faces (practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance), all aspects of a fundamental object, which we can simply call virtue. Here is the visual:

The four virtues as a tetrahedron

The reasons the virtues are deeply interconnected is because it makes little sense to try to use them separately. Consider: courage is not just physical bravery, but rather the moral courage to stand up for what is right. But how does one know what is right? That falls under the domain of the virtue of justice. Then again, as Cicero clearly says above, practical wisdom (prudence) is the virtue that tells you what is good, what is bad, and what is neither, surely pertinent knowledge to exercise justice. And it takes all three to practice temperance about one’s own passions, because one has to know the difference between good and bad, have the courage to act on it, and do so with the general welfare in mind. You simply can’t have one without the others.

The three fields of study, while formally distinct, were also deeply interrelated. The Stoics very clearly did not study physics and logic for their own sake (see my discussion of curiositas vs studiositas). Here, for instance, is Seneca to his friend Lucilius on the subject:

“How many superfluous and useless things are to be found in the philosophers. Even they have descended to the level of drawing distinctions between the uses of different syllables and discussing the properties of prepositions and conjunctions … with the result that they are more diligent in speaking than in living. Listen and let me show you the evils too much subtlety can create, and what an enemy it is to truth. Protagoras says that in all things it is possible to argue both sides of any question with equal force, even the question whether or not one can really argue either side of a question! Nausiphanes says that of the things that seem to us to exist, none exists anymore than it does not exist. Parmenides says that, of all the phenomena, none exists except the whole. Zeno of Elea has dismissed all such confusions by introducing another confusion: He declares that nothing exists … All these theories you should throw on that heap of superfluous liberal studies.” (LXXXIX.42-45)

The above description, unfortunately, can still be applied, almost two millennia later, to much of what goes on in modern academic philosophy departments, but that’s another story…

Their holistic thinking is why the Stoics came up with a number of metaphors to make clear the interconnectedness of the three fields, the best of which is, in my opinion, that of the garden as presented by Diogenes Laertius. Logic is necessary to keep out the weeds of bad reasoning; physics nurtures our understanding of reality; and ethics applies both reasoning and understanding to the crucial task of living well.

The Stoic garden

What about the three disciplines, then? They too are conceptually distinct and yet obviously tightly interconnected, as it is clear from Epictetus’ treatment of them and the explicit sequence he lays out in the Discourses, mentioned above. This is a diagram to grasp the basic idea:

Epictetus three disciplines

If my analysis (built on Johnson’s critique of Hadot) is correct, then a better way to look at the relationship among the disciplines, the virtues, and the fields of study is an integrated one, reflecting the recurrent Stoic way of treating things as conceptually distinct and yet practically deeply connected. Here, then, is my attempt at how we should see the full shebang:

The full Stoic system

Briefly, on the left we have Stoic theory, comprising of course the fields of study of logic and physics (which inform each other), but also ethics (which is informed by the other two). On the right side is Stoic practice, which can be conceptualized either in terms of the virtues (lower part of the diagram), as in classical Stoicism, or in terms of the disciplines (upper part of the diagram), as emphasized by Epictetus. The virtues reinforce themselves, but could also be understood as reference points that make it possible to actually practice the disciplines (though, alternatively, one could follow Epictetus’ original alternative based on his theory of roles). Conversely, the disciplines are what makes the virtues useful in real life, giving them substance, so to speak. Finally, notice that the three areas of study inform both the articulation of the disciplines and the nature of the virtues.

There are two main reasons so many people have been attracted to the system of Stoic philosophy over the past 23 centuries: it is eminently practical, and it has a beautiful internal coherence. The diagram above should make clear why.


Important note on terminology: throughout this essay I have avoided the word “topoi” (sing., topos) because it has been used confusingly in the public literature, including, unfortunately, by myself. Sometimes people use it to refer to the disciplines (desire, action, and assent) and sometimes to the fields of study (logic, physics, and ethics). Johnson, for instance, uses “topoi” in reference to the disciplines, while Robertson, in his Stoicism and the art of Happiness, applies the word to the fields of study. I checked Hadot’s treatment of the matter in The Inner Citadel, and it turns out there is a good reason for the confusion: it originated with Epictetus himself! Hadot writes: “In order to designate these exercises [the three disciplines], Epictetus uses the word topos, a term traditionally used by the Stoics — at least since the time of Apollodoros of Seleucia — who flourished at the end of the second century BCE — to designate the parts of philosophy [the three fields].” So it appears that part of the basis for Hadot’s suggestion of a correspondence between disciplines and fields is the fact that Epictetus used for the former the word traditionally employed for the latter. At any rate, to avoid any further confusion, I adhered to the English words “disciplines” and “fields (of study).”

On the nature of the Sage, IV: Stoics vs Epicureans

Epicurus (left) vs Zeno (right)

Last installment of my discussion of René Brouwer’s The Stoic Sage: The Early Stoics on Wisdom, Sagehood and Socrates (Cambridge Press). I will focus here on the final section of the fourth chapter of the book, which features a very revealing and harsh controversy between the Stoics and their cousins, the Epicureans. It will illuminate the figures of Socrates and Epicurus, the nature of wisdom, and the difference between the two schools of thought.

Simply put: while for the Stoics Socrates was a role model, and arguably the closest thing to an actual Sage, the Epicureans despised the fellow, accusing him of lying and positively getting in the way of people’s ability to achieve eduaimonia. What the hell?

To begin with, even the very existence of this controversy, as Brouwer reminds his readers, is further confirmation of the centrality of Socrates’ figure for all Hellenistic philosophies. Love him (the Stoics) or despise him (the Epicureans), he was the point of reference against which one had to measure one’s philosophy.

To give you a taste of the sharpness of the exchanges, consider that the Epicurean Colotes argued in his not ironically titled “On the Point that it is Impossible Even to Live According to the Doctrines of the Other Philosophers” that the Socratic injunction to “know thyself,” that is, the quest for self-knowledge, leads to “the collapse of life … it is these enormities in the Phaedrus [Plato’s dialogue] that bring our affairs into disorder.”

Plutarch, who was a Platonist, not a Stoic, in turn wrote an entire book entitled “Against Colotes,” where he stated that it is simply hard to see how asking questions like “what am I?” May possibly lead to something so catastrophic as the collapse of life. On then contrary:

“[Socrates] cleared life from madness and confusion, and from burdensome and excessive illusions about oneself and arrogance.” (Against Colotes, 1118F)

What, exactly, was Colotes’, and the Epicureans in general, problem with Socrates? They argued that he said one thing and practiced another, because he claimed to know nothing, and yet he clearly did know certain things. They deduced from this that Socrates did not wish to share his wisdom with people whom he should have treated as friends. This sort of behavior, in turns, makes the (Epicurean!) ideal life of shared friendship impossible.

Interestingly, by the way, Plutarch does not mention the Stoics in his rebuttal to the Epicureans, and Brouwer suggests that this was a shrewd move on his part: he could therefore project the impression that it was the Platonists, not the Stoics, who were the true inheritors of Socrates’ legacy.

Epicurus went further than some of his disciples in setting up a contrast between himself and Socrates. He broke the “taboo” against not declaring oneself a Sage and did just that, implying therefore that he — again, unlike Socrates — was imparting wisdom to his students. We have confirmation of this both in passages from Plutarch, where he quotes Metrodorus, one of Epicurus’ students, and from Cicero, who states the same in both On Ends (II.7):

“[Epicurus] is the only one, as far as I know, who has dared to present himself as a Sage.”

And in On Old Age (43):

“[Gaius Fabricius Luscinus] used to marvel at the story … that there was a man at Athens who professed himself a Sage, and said that everything we do should be judged by the standard of pleasure.”

Epicurus’ barbs were apparently directed specifically at the Stoics: he positioned himself as a Sage and anti-Socratic, in sharp contrast to the Stoic view that we should search for wisdom precisely by patterning our efforts after the example of Socrates.

The Stoics in turn made their own, and elaborated upon, Socrates’ definition of wisdom: knowledge of human and divine matters. As we have seen at the beginning of our discussion of Brouwer’s book, this means knowledge of how to live (human matters) and of how the world works (divine matters). That’s why there is no contradiction, pace the Epicureans, between Socrates’ profession of ignorance (in the specific sense of lack of wisdom, the relevant word is amathia) and his acknowledgement that some people do have “knowledge,” in the limited, and less important, sense of techne, as in the case of the craftsmen he mentions in the Apology (22c-e). To know how to make a musical instrument is surely a type of knowledge, but it falls into an altogether different category than knowledge of how to live one’s life, which was the main Socratic, and Stoic, concern.

Here is how Cicero beautifully summarizes the point, in his On the Nature of the Gods (II.153, remember, of course, that for the Stoics gods = nature = the cosmic web of cause and effect):

“Such matters [i.e., observation of the heavens] allow the mind to attain knowledge of the gods, and this gives rise to piety, with which justice and the other virtues are closely linked. These virtues are the basis of the good life, which is similar and equivalent to that enjoyed by the gods; it yields to them only in their immortality, which has no relevance to living well.”

On the different conceptions of the good life

What is the good life? The ancient Greeks referred to it as eudaimonia, which very unfortunately often gets translated into modern English as “happiness,” a vague concept that usually refers to a momentary feeling of pleasure. A closer rendition is “flourishing,” but I think an even better one is: the life that is truly worth living, i.e., the sort of life one may look back to on one’s death bed and think, yup, that was worth whatever pain accompanied it.

During the Hellenistic period — roughly from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE to the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, which marked Octavian Augustus’ ascent to power in Rome and the beginning of Empire — there was an explosion of philosophical schools, each with its own conception of eudaimonia. Let me remind you of the major ones and how they were related to the obvious pre-Hellenistic point of reference: Socrates.

During the Hellenistic period the Platonic Academy was dominated by Skeptics (Carneades, for instance, though Cicero professed to be one as well), who didn’t really have much to say about the good life, for simple reason that they did not believe we have knowledge, and that consequently we should suspend judgment on all matters, including, coherently, what constitutes eudaimonia. The best Sextus Empiricus (a Pyrrhonian Skeptic) came up with was to recommend a life of detachment based on epistemic — not moral — reasons, talking little about virtue, and saying nothing about eudaimonia.

The Peripatetics, followers of Aristotle, by contrast, had a lot to say on the subject. They thought that the life worth living is the result of a combination of two factors: virtue and certain externals, such as health, wealth, education, and good looks — at least in some measure. This is rather commonsensical, but it also makes the approach somewhat elitist: if you don’t have a given level of externals you are screwed, no eudaimonia for you, buster!

Moving to the hedonistic branch, the Cyrenaics believed that the good life is achieved when one seeks physical pleasures in the moment. This still needs to be done virtuously, so that you own the pleasure, not the other way around. The Epicureans, however, valued mental pleasures (e.g., the company of friends) higher than physical ones, and at any rate for them eudaimonia consisted mostly in the absence of pain, both physical and especially mental. Hence their famous (or infamous) advice of withdrawing from social and political life, which is notoriously painful.

Finally, we move to the Cynic and Stoic branch. And here is the funny thing: there was no distinction between these two schools in terms of their view on eudaimonia. They both taught that virtue is necessary and sufficient to justify a life worth living. This means that anyone at all can be eudaimon: it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, healthy or sick, educated or ignorant, handsome or ugly. How refreshing.

The big difference between the Cynics and the Stoics, of course, lies in their respective treatment of preferred and dispreferred indifferents, that is of externals. For the Cynics, they are to be avoided because they positively get in the way of virtue. Famously, Cynic philosophers did not own a house, had few other possessions, did not merry, and did not have children. The glaring exception was Crates, married to Hipparchia, and here is how Epictetus explains the anomaly:

“‘Yes, but Crates married.’ You’re referring to a special case in which the marriage was prompted by love, and you’re reckoning on a wife who was herself another Crates.” (Discourses III.22.76)

The Stoics, by contrast, acknowledged that people have needs and interests outside of virtue, and thought that this can be part of a eudaimonic life so long as externals are treated as indifferent, i.e., it’s fine if one has them, but it is not good to get attached to them. A fortiori, it is certainly not acceptable to obtain externals by compromising one’s virtue.

In a sense, then, the relationship between Cynics and Stoics can be understood as being similar to that between Buddhist monks and lay Buddhists, or between Catholic priests and nuns and lay Christians: the stricter version of the philosophy (Cynicism) is only for a few who are answering a call, while the accessible version (Stoicism) is for everyone else.

Indeed, Epictetus writes a whole chapter — Discourses III.22 — on Cynicism where he puts it essentially that way:

“So you too should consider this matter with proper care: it isn’t what you think it is. ‘I wear a rough cloak even now, and I’ll be wearing one then. I sleep on a hard bed now, and I’ll sleep on one then. I’ll take up a knapsack and staff, furthermore, and set off on my rounds, begging from those whom I meet, and abusing them. And if I see anyone pulling out his body hair, I’ll give him a scolding, and likewise if his hair is dressed too fussily, or he struts around in purple robes.’ If you picture the Cynic calling as being something like that, keep well away from it, don’t come near, because it is not for you.” (Discourses III.22.9-11)

Cynicism is hard work, and only suitable for the few that are capable of rising to the challenge. For the rest of us, a eudaimonic life that is focused on the improvement of our moral character but that allows — and yet, crucially, does not require or depend from — externals, is indeed the kind of life we will be able to look back to near the end and think: yup, that was worth it.