'Responding to Providence' by Corey Anton

Responding to Providence

Corey Anton

            Of all the concepts from the ancient Stoic worldview, the idea of “providence” remains one of the most nebulous, ambiguous, and potentially problematic.  The trouble can be chased down to about four main factors.

            First and foremost, ancient Stoa (spanning early, middle, and late periods) extends over a 600+ year span, a time that witnessed significant drifts in underlying religious orientations.  Animism, paganism, and polytheism increasingly, even if ambiguously, gave way to abstract forms of monotheism, pantheism, and deism.  Consequently, varied notions of “the divine” appear throughout stoic writings: sometimes reference is made to “the gods,” or to “God,” sometimes to “Providence,” or “Nature,” sometimes to “Fate,” or “the fates,” or “Destiny,” or “Reason,” or even “the Highest Mind.”  In all of these references, we find something like a divine order (a Universal Logos) which is beyond human control and around which, assuming we are reasonable and wish to minimize unnecessary suffering, we willingly align our lives.

    Second, highly related to the many amorphous transitions toward abstract monotheism/deism, the so-called “problem of evil” became increasingly salient, and theodicy began to bloom.  Seneca’s well known, “On Providence,” for example, offers an early account of how, if indeed there is providence, misfortune could befall good men.  One reason theodicy came to a head at this point in history is, as already mentioned, because monotheism/deism coupled with belief in a fundamentally good Nature subtly undermined previous explanations for hardships and evil (e.g. where some gods were occasionally more cunning, potent, or resourceful than others in some regards).  Another reason for the rise in theodicy is that the stoics only weakly, if at all, differentiated between natural occurrences, socio-historical intuitions, and others’ thoughts and actions.

            Third, in conjunction with the two factors just mentioned, a most critical ambiguity stems from the fact that the doings of other people get lumped together with the events of nature.  Said simply: both are equally outside of one’s control.  But if Nature is pervaded by an orderly Logos and everything thereby unfolds according to Reason (and yet people can fail to be reasonable in ways that Nature itself cannot), should we not differentiate between tolerating the pain and hardship entailed by events of Nature (e.g. the ‘non-evil’ of tornado or earthquake) and acquiescing to pain and hardship because of traditional social practices and others’ impositions (e.g. the evil of slavery or physical abuse)?  Cruelties and/or hardships that a neighbor willfully imposes on one’s self, children or spouse seem categorically different than genetic sicknesses or hardship brought about by blind happenstance, poor luck, or natural disaster.  Granted, both set of occurrences may be equally out of my control and both may, equally, call for courage and justice rather than emotional reaction.

            Fourth and finally, the stoics fundamentally wished students to understand themselves as parts within a larger whole.  They committed themselves to cosmopolitanism and to serving the world broadly or even cosmically construed, and this despite the fact of many different and even conflicting practices, beliefs, philosophies, and religions.

            When we add up all four factors, we can see the troubling ambiguity most clearly.  Which wars, if any, are just?  Which call for united action and which for protest?  Which institutions and practices ought persons attempt to change and/or which ones ought they simply learn to accept?  If someone takes another’s possessions, is justice best served by reminding the person whose items were stolen that possessions were never a good anyway and that the items were not, ultimately, his either?  Are stoic sages to seek out such thieves and punish them?  If so, how?  If one’s children have been taken as hostages and criminals now demand a random, what line of action ought a stoic take in response.

      The ambiguity grows more and more troubling where providence aligns to “predestination.”  Indeed, how could any particular, concrete action be under human jurisdiction if absolutely everything was already sealed according to Destiny?  But how, then, ought we understand the Stoic notion of providence?

          With hindsight we now can see how these various stoic notions set the stage for Leibnitz’s idea of ‘the best of all possible worlds.’  Providence, viewed by these lights, does not refer to a “Divine Playwright” who, movement by moment, takes pleasure in all the factual details of one’s life, as if the particulars and minutiae of each person’s life need to fit within an overall Divine plan.  The unfolding of the events, on the contrary, is not entirely fixed in a predetermined sequence, as if our only possible relation to the future is the temporal opposite to remembering, passive resignation.  It seems that the countless particular facts of one’s quotidian life are not already pre-set, but rather, that certain parameters, certain checks and balances, have been prefigured by the cosmic order.  For example, death and loss are not to be escaped, nor are the hardships and evil that come from human ignorance (one’s own or another’s).

            Providence, therefore, might best summarized by suggesting that not everything that happens is necessarily good (e.g. ignorance), but rather that it is always good to begin by accepting whatever already has happened.  The goodness of Nature is in its design or its orderliness, its overall logic, not necessarily in its particular outcomes for particular individuals.  Humanity, emerging out from nature and resonating with it, is a place and moment of possible rational deliberation and moral self-consciousness.  The only way Nature could be as it is was to include the possibility of humanly imposed stupidity and suffering, including injudicious reactions to both happenstances and natural events.  But, just as equally, it had to be as it is so that certain kinds of dignified responses and reasonable self-legislation could come to fruition.

More about CoreyCorey Anton (Ph.D., Purdue University, 1998) is Professor of Communication Studies at Grand Valley State University.  With wide research interests in communication theory, phenomenology, semiotics, media ecology, communicology, and stoicism, Anton is author of Selfhood and Authenticity (SUNY Press, 2001);Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism (Duquesne University Press, 2010); Communication Uncovered: General Semantics and Media Ecology (IGS Press, 2011); and editor of Valuation and Media Ecology: Ethics, Morals, and Laws (Hampton Press, 2010), and co-editor, along with Lance Strate, of Korzybski And… (IGS Press, 2012).  A Fellow of the International Communicology Institute, he currently serves as the Vice-President of the Institute of General Semantics and as the President of the Media Ecology Association.

Corey has a great series of Youtube videos exploring Stoic philosophy too. You can see them here.

‘Responding to Providence’ is adapted from “Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism” (2010) by Corey Anton, copyright (©) Duquesne University Press. 

New Video: John Sellars on Value Judgements (Stoic Week London Day)

Value Judgements and How to Avoid Them

Today John Sellars, from the basis of Epictetus, looks at how to avoid value judgements in this great talk.

John Sellars is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His principal area of research is Ancient philosophy, but he is equally interested in its later influence and have wide interests in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern philosophy. He has written two books on Stoic philosophy:Stoicism and The Art of Living.  Read more about John’s work on his website.

New Video: Patrick Ussher and Gabriele Galluzzo on Cultivating a Wise Relationship with Technology (Stoic Week London Day)

Cultivating a Wise Relationship with Technology

In this enlightening talk, Patrick Ussher and Gabriele Galluzzo explain how a Stoic would use technology, rather than shunning it. If you’re reading this, you’re using the internet already – are you using it as a Stoic would?

Gabriele Galluzzo is a Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter. His main areas of research are Aristotle’s metaphysics and its medieval reception, but he is equally interested in how ancient philosophy has come to shape contemporary thought and ideas. His books include: The Medieval Reception of Arisototle’s MetaphysicsBook Zeta and Universals in Ancient Philosophy. Read more about Gabriele’s work here.

Patrick Ussher is a PhD student at the University of Exeter, working on Stoic ideas of ethical development. His MA dissertation compared Stoicism and ‘Western’ Buddhism. He manages theStoicism Today blog. His first book is an edited collection of writings of applying Stoicism to the modern world, Stoicism Today: Selected Writings. You can read more about Patrick’s research on his Exeter Profile here.  

New Video: Christopher Gill on Stoicism and the Environment (Stoic Week London Day)

Stoicism and the Environment

What does Stoicism have to do with the environment? In this fascinating talk, Christopher Gill applies Stoicism to one of the most important issues of the 21st century.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

New Video: Donald Robertson on Stoicism and Love (Stoic Week London Day)

Stoicism and Love

Love – ’tis a many splendored-thing. This video explores how a Stoic can love – how does this particular feeling fit into the Stoic conception of emotions?

Please find Donald’s notes below:

To recap from earlier: Christopher Gill mentioned that some modern commentators, such as Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum, question whether there’s much room for love in Stoicism, which they describe as involving “detachment” from other people.  He notes that this was not a criticism that was commonly levelled against Stoics in the ancient world, though.  The Stoics saw themselves, and I think were generally seen by others, as a philosophical school advocating a kind of affection for the rest of mankind, bound up with what is often called aphilanthropic and cosmopolitan attitude.  Chris notes that the Stoics do challenge us nevertheless to love others in a way that is brutally honest and realistic about theirmortality and our own, the transience of our relationships, and our lack of control over others.

So, on the one hand, many people, and possibly even a few academics, assume that Stoicism and love are somehow incompatible or at least in conflict.  On the other hand, Marcus Aurelius, in the very first chapter of The Meditations, describes the Stoic ideal as being “free from passions and yet full of love” – meaning irrational and unhealthy passions.  I think he later uses a similar expression to describe his own goal in life as a Stoic.  Marcus actually says he should love other people, not just superficially, but from the very bottom of his heart (Meditations, 10.1).  He seems pretty serious about the whole idea of loving mankind as if they were his brothers.  Likewise, Cicero explicitly says of the Stoic concept of love:

The Stoics actually both say that the wise man will experience love, and they define love itself as the effort to make a friendship from the semblance of beauty. (Tusculan Disputations, 4.72)

I’m pretty sure that by “the semblance of beauty” he means here inner beauty or virtue, as Socrates and the Stoics understood it.  So the Stoic Sage definitely experiences love, and presumably loves the virtuous in particular, although the “seeds” of wisdom and virtue are within everyone.  So he potentially loves all mankind in that respect.

Indeed, to start with, I’d just like to point out that philosophy, of course means “love of wisdom”, and that it seems to me the Stoics were very aware of that meaning and took it fairly literally.  Wisdom is more or less synonymous with virtue in Stoicism and love of wisdom is therefore synonymous with love of virtue, which is something the Stoics certainly appear to advocate.  Indeed, the supreme “healthy passion” they describe, rational “Joy” (chara), is basically a kind of rejoicing in the presence of virtue.  So ancient Stoicism entailed rejoicing in virtue and, literally, loving wisdom – and I think those themes are pretty clear in some of the texts, especially Marcus Aurelius.

In the translations of Marcus Aurelius I checked, incidentally, the word “love” is used about 40 times, far more than “virtue” for instance.  He talks about love all the time.  The Stoic literature is actually full of positive references to love, friendship, affection, and similar concepts.  Some of them very emphatic about the central role of “love for humanity” in Stoicism.  For example, Seneca wrote:

No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good.  (Seneca, On Clemency, 3.3)

Big Questions from Thursday’s Stoic-Week Discussion

  1. What does Marcus mean by being full of love, or natural affection, and yet free from (irrational or unhealthy) passions?
  2. To what extent does love or natural affection seem to play a role in Stoic philosophy?

Although some people perhaps read the Stoics in different ways on this point, Pierre Hadot thought Stoic philanthropy and cosmopolitanism were very similar to the Christiannotion of brotherly-love:

It cannot, then, be said that “loving one’s neighbour as oneself” is a specifically Christian invention.  Rather, it could be maintained that the motivation of Stoic love is the same as that of Christian love. […] Even the love of one’s enemies is not lacking in Stoicism. (Hadot, 1998, p. 231)

There are many Stoic passages that support this, e.g., Marcus wrote:

It is a man’s especial privilege to love even those who stumble.  And this love follows as soon as you reflect that they are akin to you and that they do wrong involuntarily and through ignorance, and that within a little while both they and you will be dead; and this above all, that the man has done you no harm; for he has not made your “ruling faculty” worse than it was before. (Meditations, 7.22)

So the Stoic loves others because they are his kin, as citizens of the cosmos, and rational beings.  What if they don’t love us back, though?  The Earl of Shaftesbury wrote that Stoic love was “disinterested” and not dependent on reciprocation from the people loved:

Come on, let us see now if thou canst lovedisinterestedly.  “Thanks my good kinsman (brother, sister, friend), for giving me so generous a part, that I can love though not beloved.” (Shaftesbury, 2005, p. 108)

There’s a nice passage in Seneca (Letters, 9) where he says that the Stoic wise man naturally prefers to have friends but that he doesn’t need or crave them, and he is perfectly contented within himself if fate denies him the company of other people.

Big Questions from Thursday’s Stoic-Week Discussion

  1. How does love for others in Stoicism compare to the idea of love for others in Christianity, compassion in Buddhism, or brotherly-love in other philosophical or religious traditions?
  2. Also: How does Stoic love compare to the way romantic love tends to be portrayed in Hollywood films or in romantic novels?

The Stoics emphasise the concept of “natural affection”, the kind of love a parent has for their children, as the basis of their ethics.  Shaftesbury calls this attitude, extended to everyone as fellow citizens of the cosmos, Stoic “philanthropy” or love of mankind:

What is it to have Natural Affection?  Not that which is only towards relations, but towards all mankind; to be truly philanthrôpos [philanthropic, a lover of mankind], neither to scoff, nor hate, nor be impatient with them, nor abominate them, nor overlook them; and to pity in a manner and love those that are the greatest miscreants, those that are most furious against thyself in particular, and at the time when they are most furious? (Shaftesbury, 2005, p. 1)

Shaftesbury compares this Stoic attitude of natural affection for mankind to the loving attitude of a mother or nurse toward a sickly child.  The Stoics often sought to emulate Zeus, as their ideal, and the paternal affection Zeus was supposed to have for mankind, his children.  Musonius Rufus therefore describes the Stoic Zeus as the patron god of friendship and familial affection.  For the Stoics, to be philanthropic, to love mankind as one’s brothers and fellow world-citizens, is to be godlike, in a sense.

Musonius famously argued that women as well as men should study Stoic philosophy.  He claimed that Stoicism would actually make women more able to properly love their children, rather than somehow repressing their affection for them.  “Who, more than she [a female Stoic] would love her children more than life?” (Lectures, 3).  Indeed there are several places where Stoics suggest it would be fundamentally unnatural to suppress feelings such as parental love, and therefore irrational to do so.  Epictetus actually says that “when a child is born it is no longer in our power not to love it or care for it”; it’s natural for parents to care, for instance, if their child is hurt (Discourses, 1.11; 1.23).  We actually have a whole Discourse (1.11) from Epictetus dedicated to the topic of “Natural Affection” or philostorgia.

This natural affection, though, is clearly to be somehow transformed in Stoicism.  Epictetus asked his students: “How, then, shall I become loving and affectionate?” (Discourses, 3.24).  His answer was that Stoics should become affectionate in a manner consistent with the fundamental rules and doctrines of their philosophy.  In particular, we’re to love while bearing in mind the distinction between what’s up to us and what is not.  He also suggests that if what we’re calling “love” or “affection” makes us enslaved to our passions and miserable, then it’s not “good” for us, and that’s a sign something is wrong.   Put another way, this presumably means that Stoics should love in accord with the “reserve clause”.  So we should wish that others flourish and become wise and virtuous, but we should do so lightly, completely accepting that our wish may not be realised – accepting them as they are, in other words, warts and all.

Exercise: Love as Acceptance versus Well-Wishing

The Stoics wanted others to flourish, become wise and virtuous,

  1. Repeat the word “love” to yourself.
  2. Contemplate first, the attitude of love as acceptance, accepting yourself despite your imperfections, seeing your current situation as the only one possible given your nature and your past environment and experiences.
  3. Next contemplate the attitude of love as one of wishing yourself well, wanting yourself to flourish and attain goodness, virtue, and wisdom, now and in the future, fate permitting.
  4. Now try to do the same for another person, begin by contemplating love asacceptance of their flaws, even their follies or vices, etc.
  5. Now try to contemplate love as wishing for them to flourish and attain goodness, virtue, and wisdom, fate permitting.

So where does that leave us?  A good summary is in the article “Epictetus on How the Stoic Sage Loves”, by William O. Stephens, in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 14, 193-210, 1996.

The Stoic loves other people in a very free, giving way.  His love is not at all conditional upon its being reciprocated by the person loved.  The Stoic does not compromise his own moral integrity or mental serenity in his love for others, nor is his love impaired by his knowledge of the mortality of his loved ones.  Rather, the Stoic’s love and natural affection are tempered by reason.  His love and affection serve only to enrich his humanity, never to subject him to [psychological] torment.

Some of the key concepts here:

  1. The Stoic ideal of wisdom and virtue definitely included loving other people – theSage loves others and seeks friendship.
  2. The Stoic Sage’s love is unconditional; it doesn’t require reciprocation, which would be an “indifferent” for Stoics because it’s not up to us.
  3. The sort of love the Stoic Sage experiences is neither unhealthy nor excessive buthealthy and consistent with virtue.
  4. This sort of love is inherently realistic about the transience of external things and themortality of those loved.
  5. The love of the Stoic is fundamentally rational, meaning it’s consistent with reason and doesn’t lead to irrational behaviour.

Exercise: Hierocles and Metta Bhavana

The Stoic philosopher Hierocles, a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, described psychological practices for expanding oikeiôsis, our sense of “affinity” for others.  He says our relationships can be represented as a series of concentric circles, radiating out from ourselves and our closest kin.  Stoics should attempt to “draw the circles somehow toward the centre”, he said, voluntarily reducing psychological distance in their relationships.  He even suggests verbal techniques, not unlike calling acquaintances “friend” or calling close friends “brother”.  Hierocles elsewhere recommends treating our brothers as if they were parts of our own body, like our hands and feet.  Zeno’s saying that a friend is “another self”, perhaps likewise encourages us to take others deeper into the circle of our affinity and natural affection.  Hierocles’ comments about oikeiôsis might be turned into a contemplative exercise.

There’s a popular Buddhist meditation exercise called metta bhavana, which means “expanding loving-kindness”.  We might use this as a basis for developing Hierocles’ advice into a modern contemplative practice.

  1. It helps to prepare by choosing your examples in advance to visualise in a moment: yourself, a loved one, an acquaintance, an enemy,
  2. Close your eyes; take a few moments to relax and focus your attention inward.
  3. Picture a circle of light surrounding your own body and imagine that it symbolises a growing sense of rational self-love or affection toward yourself as a being capable of wisdom and virtue.  If you like, repeat a phrase such as “May I flourish and be happy” to yourself, to help focus on this attitude.
  4. Now imagine that circle is expanding to encompass a member of your family, aloved one or close friend, whom you now project natural affection toward, as if they were somehow part of your own body.  Focus on the seeds of virtue within them, and wish them well, perhaps repeating a phrase like “May you flourish and be happy”, while accepting that this is beyond your direct control.
  5. Next, imagine that circle expanding to encompass an acquaintance you encounter in daily life, toward whom you normally feel more neutral, perhaps colleagues you work alongside, and project feelings of natural affection toward them, as if they were members of your own family.
  6. Again, let the circle expand further to include even someone you dislike, perhaps someone who sees you as an “enemy”, and focusing as much as possible on theirpositive qualities or virtues, wish them well, picturing the sphere of your affection spreading to include them.
  7. Now let the circle encompass all of you together, allowing your feelings of affection to spread over the whole group.
  8. Imagine the circle now progressively growing to envelop your surrounding area and finally the entire world and the whole human race as one, allowing your feelings of rational affection to spread out to every other member of the human race, developing a sense of kinship with them insofar as they possess reason and therefore the capacity for progressing toward wisdom.

Try to continue this attitude throughout your daily activity.  Seneca argued that expanding natural affection into a philanthropic attitude that encompasses the rest of mankind teaches us to love more philosophically, without over-attachment to any specific individual.  He goes so far as to say: “he who has not been able to love more than one, did not even love that one much” (Letters, 63).  The Sage is not infatuated with anyone.  He loves everyone as much as he is able, while accepting that they are changeable and that one day they will die.

Donald Robertson is a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, trainer, and author who specialises in the treatment of anxiety and the use of CBT and clinical hypnotherapy. He is the author of many articles on philosophy and psychotherapy in professional journals. Two of his more recent books include Teach Yourself Stoicism and the art of Happiness (2013) & Build your Resilience (2012). Read more about Donald’s work on his blog, The Philosophy of CBT.

Write for the Blog: Current Themes

Please get in touch if you would like to write about your own experience of Stoicism. In additional to general posts on living the Stoic life and Stoic advice,  I’m particularly interested in hearing from people who would like to write on:

Stoicism & Mental Health: Personal or theoretical reflections on the value of Stoicism in Mental Health

Stoicism & Christianity: Living a Stoic and Christian Life

Misconceptions about Stoicism: Articles which challenge the ‘stereotypical’ view of Stoicism

The Limitations of Stoicism: What are the philosophy’s weaknesses?

Stoicism Online: How does a Stoic navigate the online world and social media? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the internet from a Stoic point of view?

Stoicism in society: how can Stoic ethics inform different jobs, professions, business or societal issues at large?

Get in touch, here.


New Video: Nikki Cameron, Mark Hardie and Gill Garratt on Stoicism in Work, Prisons, the Military and Online (Stoic Week London Day)

Stoicism in Work, Prisons, the Military and Online

Here, Jules Evans, Nikki Cameron, Mark Hardie and Gill Garratt discuss how Stoicism can apply and work with work, prisons, the military and online. Bringing Stoicism firmly into the 21st Century, these speakers are fantastic.

Jules Evans is passionate about how people use ancient Greek and Roman philosophies today, as well as the links between Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Stoic philosophy. You can read more in his book Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations. He is policy director for the Centre of the History of Emotions at Queen Mary, London. He has developed a course of practical philosophy for Low Moss Prison and Saracens rugby club. For more of Jules’ work, see his blog, Philosophy for Life

Nikki Cameron runs the philosophy club at Low Moss prison.

Mark Hardie is a former Marine and resilience coach.

Gill Garratt is a Senior Accredited R.E.B.T. Practitioner, holds an MA in Psychology from The University of London and an MA in Professional Writing from Falmouth University. Gill has 20 years experience as a psychotherapist and practises in Cornwall. She has written Introducing CBT for Work. For more about Gill’s work, see her website.

John Sellars on Stoicism and Emotions

Stoicism and Emotion

One of the most common popular ideas about Stoicism is that the Stoics deny the value of emotions. This might be formulated in a number of different ways – the Stoics repress their emotions, or reject them, or overcome them – but the shared idea behind these different ways of putting it is that the Stoics think the emotions are not important for a good life. Indeed, not only are they not important, they are in fact an impediment to living a good life.

That’s a common view. Equally common is the objection that this Stoic attitude towards the emotions is deeply unattractive. This objection might also take a number of forms: a healthy human life must involve a healthy emotional life; the emotions are an essential part of what it means to be a human being; denying or repressing emotions will only generate longer-term negative consequences; the emotions (anger in the face of injustice, for instance) are valuable insofar as they spur us on to act in positive ways; and so on.

What I want to do in what follows is to challenge, or at least to qualify, this way of describing the Stoic view, with the aim of undermining the sorts of objections I have just noted that are based on that view.  My main point will be that Stoics ought not to talk about emotions at all. That isn’t supposed to be a bad joke about repressing emotions; instead my main point is that we do a disservice to the Stoics when we talk about their attitude to the emotions, for the Stoics never spoke about the emotions in the way we do.

What do I mean by this? The ancient Stoics never spoke of emotions in the way we do because they didn’t speak English, and the English word ‘emotion’ is perhaps not the best word to use to translate the Greek and Latin terms that the Stoics did use. The Stoics never spoke of an emotion but rather a pathos or, in Latin, a passio and the English word ‘emotion’ isn’t quite the same. Emotion in English is a much a much broader notion and covers a much wider range of things (the Oxford English Dictionary defines it simply as a ‘mental feeling’ and contrasts it with reason). The statement that we ought to overcome our emotions is quite different, I suggest, from the statement that we ought to overcome our pathê. The Stoics did make the second statement, but not the first. Traditionally, in the early modern period, the terms the Stoics used were translated not as ‘emotion’ but as ‘passion’, and I think this is closer to the mark, although it has fallen out of favour in some quarters because it sounds a bit archaic. But that is no bad thing and it helps to underline that we are dealing with a technical notion here and not a very general and loose notion like ‘emotion’. So, my first point: the Stoics do not reject emotions, they reject passions, and that is quite a different thing.

So, what is the difference between emotions and passions? I want to give a definition of a Stoic passion so we have a clearer idea of precisely what it is that they think we ought to avoid, and I also want to mention a number of other things that the Stoics do not reject but that might well fall under the much broader English notion of emotion. In particular I want to distinguish between four different types of what we might call emotional response that the Stoics address.

  1. Emotions of Affinity. The Stoics say that each of us is born with an inherent, natural instinct for our own self-preservation (Diogenes Laertius [DL] 7.85). They also say that this instinct extends beyond our self. We are naturally predisposed to care for our close family relations and, if we develop into well-rounded adults, we shall extend that circle of care to include our neighbours and, ideally, to include all humankind. When we take an interest and concern in the well being of others we are acting according to a perfectly natural instinct. When a mother puts her own wellbeing at risk for the sake of her child she is doing the same. The Stoics of course suggest that we ought to live a life in harmony with nature and so these sorts of natural instincts will be part of the ideal Stoic life. Indeed the Stoic ideal is not to close ourselves off from caring for others; on the contrary it is to expand our circle of concern so that we care for not just those who happen to be nearest to us but for everyone, everywhere. The claim that Stoics are indifferent to the wellbeing others is false.
  2. Emotions of Shock. Part of the popular caricature of a Stoic is that they are unmoved by external events, a block of stone in the face adversity, and that this is inhuman, or superhuman to point of being an impossible ideal. This caricature was evidently already current in antiquity because there is a story in which someone on a boat is surprised to see a Stoic philosopher reacting in apparent fear to a storm at sea (Aulus Gellius 19.1). The Stoics do not claim that the ideal person will be completely unmoved by events, like a block of stone. Instead they fully acknowledge that we jump when there are sudden loud noises, we flinch when we think we might get hurt, we blush in embarrassing situations, we get pumped up on adrenalin in exciting or stressful situations, and so on. All of these sorts of reactions the Stoics call ‘first movements’ (or ‘pre-passions’), and they are natural, unthinking, physiological responses to external events that are out of our control. They will be part of an ideal Stoic life because, of course, they are automatic natural responses and so part of any human life.
  3. Passions. This leads us on to passions proper, the things that the Stoics do think we ought to overcome. For the Stoics a passion is an emotional response to an external state of affairs based upon a value judgement. In this sense it is something quite complex, even though for most people they are generated almost unconsciously. Let me give an example: if I hear a loud explosion and I jump and hide behind the nearest wall, that is not an instance of the Stoic passion of fear; instead we might say that it is a ‘first movement’, perhaps combined with a response reflecting my natural instinct of self-concern (a combination of types 1 and 2 above). It is not a passion proper because it is too quick and instinctive. Let me give another example: if I hear that I might lose my job and I start to dwell on the all the negative consequences that such an event might lead to, and then I start to get very anxious about the future, even though I have not lost my job and nothing bad has actually happened at all, that would be a Stoic passion: a negative feeling about the future based upon a value judgement that something terrible is about to happen.

The Stoics of course think we can overcome these kinds of negative responses by examining and challenging the values on the basis of which we make our value judgements. And they think that they can offer us arguments about what we should and should not value, and this is where what the Stoics offer becomes distinctively philosophical therapy. Although the Stoics will recommend that we overcome negative responses such as fear because they can be unpleasant and sometimes debilitating features in our lives, it is worth stressing that the real reason why the Stoics want to avoid these passions is because they are the product of mistaken value judgements. It is not a question of whether anger is a good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant feature of a human life; the Stoics will want to argue that it is false, mistaken, wrong, the product of a judgement made according to a false set of values. The Stoic attitude towards the passions is not one of personal temperament or preference; it is instead the consequence of a series of philosophical arguments. The person who reacts to an event with an extreme passion has made a mistake.

Let me try to give an example: if I am anxious about losing my job (to borrow the example from earlier) then I am fearful because I have judged that something terrible might happen. I have judged that the loss of income will adversely impact my ability to live a happy life. I will have made that judgement holding the view that a certain level of material prosperity is necessary in order to be happy. That’s the belief or value judgement that ultimately grounds the passion of fear in this case. The Stoics will respond with a philosophical argument. They will ask the question whether material prosperity is necessary for a happy life. They will point to counter examples: people with little who are perfectly content, and people with much who are thoroughly miserable. They will acknowledge that although it might be nice, preferable, much better to be wealthy rather than poor, these counter examples show that it is not necessary or sufficient for a happy life (DL 7.104). Knowing that, we shall realize that our fear is unfounded – it is indeed perfectly possible to be happy even after losing one’s job – and when we correctly judge that this is not a terrible thing we shall not generate the negative passion of fear. While avoiding the negative passions is a welcome consequence, the most important thing here is not making mistaken value judgements.

  1. Good Passions. So far I have talked about bad passions, unpleasant emotional experiences based on mistaken value judgements. The Stoics also acknowledge what they call good passions, positive emotional responses based on correct value judgements (DL 7.116). In the last example we saw the Stoics deny that wealth is a good because it is possible to be miserable with it and happy without it, and part of their definition of a good is that it is something that always and necessarily benefits (DL 7.103). The same sort of analysis applies to all external things, which although they benefit us sometimes, do not always and necessarily benefit us. The only thing that they suggest does always and necessarily benefit us is virtue, which we might gloss as an excellent and healthy state of mind. This is the only genuine good, the only thing that guarantees happiness, the only thing the absence of which guarantees misery.

With this in mind, a good passion is an emotional state produced by a positive value judgement that is not mistaken. If, for the sake of argument, I possess an excellent, virtuous, healthy state of mind, and I judge this to be a good thing, then I shall be judging correctly, for this virtuous state is indeed good. When I make such a judgement I shall generate a positive emotion – a good passion – of joy. So the ideal Stoic life is not one devoid of emotions or passions, far from it. Indeed the life of the ideal Stoic will necessarily involve these good passions, insofar as the ideal Stoic will have an excellent, virtuous state of mind. And just to underline a point that should be clear already, the reason why these good passions are welcome and the other passions are not, is that these good passions are the product of correct value judgements rather than mistaken ones.

I have considered four different types of reaction that the ancient Stoics considered and that might fall under our usual thinking about emotions. As we have seen, the Stoics suggest we overcome just one of these four types. The other three they acknowledge as part of an ideal human life: care and concern for others, natural human responses to sudden events, and positive passions based on correct judgements about what is most important for human life. The ideal Stoic life is thus far from unemotional in the English sense of the word. Indeed, what the Stoics propose we reject are not emotions in the English sense of the word at all, if emotions are defined as feelings that contrast with reasoning. Instead what the Stoics propose we reject is faulty reasoning based on confused value judgements and the unpleasant consequences that this generates.

John Sellars is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His principal area of research is Ancient philosophy, but he is equally interested in its later influence and have wide interests in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern philosophy. He has written two books on Stoic philosophy: Stoicism and The Art of Living.  Read more about John’s work on his website.