The thorny issue of Stoic emotions

emotional SpockStoics have a bad reputation when it comes to emotions. But is it deserved? What, exactly, is the connection between Stoic theory and what modern cognitive science tells us about the relationship between emotion and cognition?

These and a number of related questions are taken up by an in-depth treatment of the problem of Stoic emotion in a paper by Larry Becker, published in Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations, edited by Steven K. Strange and Jack Zupko for Cambridge University Press. The paper is well worth a careful read for any serious student of modern Stoicism, but I will attempt to give the gist of it by presenting some of its highlights.

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Philosophy vs rationality vs therapy

stop and thinkStoicism is a philosophy, which means a general framework for navigating one’s life. It has a body of theory (e.g., the three disciplines) and a set of practices. Stoicism is just one particular philosophy of life, others include some of its Hellenistic competitors, such as Epicureanism, as well as bodies of ideas coming from outside the Western tradition, especially Buddhism. As Bill Irvine argues in his A Guide to the Stoic Life, the advantages of adopting or developing a more or less coherent philosophy of life is that one has always available a handy reminder of how to interpret things, what to prioritize, and how to behave. Not bad, if you ask me.

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Why is ancient philosophy still relevant?

Lucius Flavius Arrianus, student of Epictetus
Lucius Flavius Arrianus, student of Epictetus

Why on earth am I devoting years of my life to studying (and practicing) Stoicism? Good question, I’m glad you asked. Seriously, it would seem that the whole idea of going back two millennia to seek advice on how to live one’s life is simply preposterous.

Have I not heard of modern science? Wouldn’t psychology be a better source of guidance, for instance? And even philosophy itself, surely it has moved beyond the ancient Greco-Romans by now, yes?

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Stoic spiritual exercises: II, from the Meditations

from Action Philosophers, at actionphilosophers.com
from Action Philosophers, at actionphilosophers.com

We have recently looked at a number of Stoic exercises straight from the mouth of one of the great ones: Epictetus. He was, of course, a teacher, and his Enchiridion, on which I focused, was explicitly put together (by his student Arrian) as a quick guide to Stoic practice.

Here I present a second set of “spiritual” exercises, this time culled (with the help of my friend Greg Lopez, co-host of last year’s Stoic Camp) from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. There will inevitably be some overlap between the two sets, of course, but the contrast between Epictetus and Marcus will be instructive, as the latter was influenced by the former, and yet wrote the Meditations as a personal diary, not for publication. We are, therefore, glimpsing at what the emperor told himself he should and should not do, as a good Stoic.

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Stoic spiritual exercises: I, from the Enchiridion

Action Philosophers-impressions
from Action Philosophers, at actionphilosophers.com

Stoicism is a practical philosophy of life, and while I enjoy writing about its history and theory, it is the practice that has so far had a significant impact in my life. I assume it is the same for most of my readers too. (Indeed, it’s more than just an assumption: consistently, the posts that get the highest number of hits here are those that have to do with practical aspects of Stoicism.)

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Epictetus was right: modern cognitive science supports the Stoics’ conception of emotions

AnxiousThere is a new book out on the neuroscience of emotions, Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety, by Joseph LeDoux, to which modern Stoics should probably pay attention. The following commentary is based on a review of the book by Simon Wolfe Taylor in The Nation.

LeDoux is a leading neuroscientist, who did his doctoral work under the supervision of the pioneering Michael Gazzaniga at Stony Brook University (where I was a faculty in the Ecology & Evolution Department for five years), and he has been interested in nonconscious processing of information by the brain for a long time (he wrote a highly successful book on the so-called fear center, the amygdala, entitled The Emotional Brain).

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