Let us continue our three-part examination of Seneca’s essay On Anger with what he writes in book II (my commentary on book I is here). Seneca addresses again his friend Novatus, who apparently has what we today would call anger management issues, by saying: “There is no doubt that anger is roused by the appearance of an injury being done: but the question before us is, whether anger straightway follows the appearance, and springs up without assistance from the mind, or whether it is roused with the sympathy of the mind … anger can venture upon nothing by itself, without the approval of mind.” (II.1) This is Seneca’s version of Epictetus’ famous warning concerning “impressions,” and his discipline of assent: we should always examine our first impression of a given situation, gain what modern psychologists call cognitive distance, and then decide whether our initial assessment was correct or not — most of the time, according to the Stoics, the answer will be in the negative.
Anger is a major concern for Stoics, and their attitude about it is often misunderstood, just like more broadly their take on emotions in general is. The contrast here is with the Aristotelians, who claimed that virtue lies in navigating the middle course between extremes. Concerning anger, they thought that the virtuous compromise is good temper, which lies between the unvirtuous poles of irascibility (too much anger) and lack of spirit (too little anger). As we shall see, for the Stoics there is no such thing as a good degree of anger, but it doesn’t mean that one has to be passive in the face of injustice. I will present three posts on this topic, corresponding to books I, II and III by Seneca.
Regret is a negative conscious and emotional reaction to personal past acts and behaviors. It is accompanied by feelings of sadness, shame, embarrassment, depression, annoyance, or guilt. Recently, Gordon Marino (a philosopher who specializes on Kierkegaard) has written an op-ed in the New York Times in praise of regret. This is going to be my Stoic response to it, where I argue that regret is never a useful reaction to past events.
I am a student of Stoicism, and therefore one of the four virtues I do try to practice is temperance, an aspect of which is self-control (others include knowing when things should be done, propriety of behavior, and a sense of honor; see Matthew Sharpe’s paper on Stoic virtue ethics, table 2.1). I am also a scientist, so I like to keep up with what modern science discovers about the world and see how it applies to Stoicism. Indeed, the Stoics themselves urged to study both “physics” (which included the natural sciences) and “logic” (which included every aspect of good reasoning), because they both inform our ethics (i.e., the way we live our lives).
Justice is one of the fundamental Stoic virtues, together with practical wisdom (or prudence), courage, and temperance. And yet there is rarely talk, in Stoic circles of social justice, in the contemporary sense of the term. This, I will endeavor to argue, should be neither surprising nor problematic, but at the same time I do think that we need to clarify what is a reasonable Stoic take on social justice, which I will also attempt to do here.
You might have heard of positive psychology. It has been all the rage in the media for a while now, especially thanks to the high profile work of its founder, Martin Seligman. Positive psychology (PP, henceforth) focuses on the achievement of a satisfactory life, rather than on illness, on personal growth rather than pathology. But what is the relationship, if any, between Stoicism (ancient and modern) and positive psychology?
As a Stoic, am I committed to some kind of fundamental mind-body dualism? And if so, how on earth can I reconcile that with my understanding, as a scientist, that dualism has become untenable at the least since the second part of the early 20th century, particularly with the publication of Jacques Loeb “The Mechanistic Conception of Life”? (Not to mention earlier sharp criticism by Thomas Henry Huxley, the famous “Darwin’s bulldog.”)