Tag Archives: Stoicism and Emotion

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.”

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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.