New Video: John Sellars on Stoicism and Emotions (Stoic Week London Day)

John Sellars: Stoicism and Emotions

Here John Sellars explains the relationship between Stoicism and emotions, and why the use of the word ’emotion’ itself is problematic in this discussion. Enjoy this fascinating talk! A text version is included below.

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.

New Video: Chris Gill on Stoic Ethics – How to Relate to Other People (Stoic Week London Day)

Chris Gill on Stoic Ethics – How to Relate to Other People

Hear Chris Gill give us a talk on one of the most important part of living the daily life of a Stoic – namely, how can we engage with other people? Please also find a script of the talk below.

Stoic Ethics: How to relate wisely to others

One of the key messages of Stoic ethics – perhaps the key message – is that all human beings are capable of achieving happiness by their own efforts. This is because happiness (or ‘flourishing’, eudaimonia) depends ultimately not on acquiring external things such as money or status, or even health or the well-being of our families, but on developing virtue or the virtues. The virtues are the set of qualities that are essential to a human life, qualities such as wisdom, courage, self-control and justice. Stoics believe that all human beings are fundamentally capable of developing these virtues. In that sense, we all have the basis for creating our own happiness: it is ‘up to us’ or ‘within our power’. They also believe that virtue alone is ‘good’ in a complete sense, whereas the other things which we value – which it is natural for us to value – such as health are of a lesser value, they are (in Stoic terminology) ‘preferred indifferents’. (See A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge 1987 = LS, sections 58, 60-1, 63.)

But if this is right, the question naturally arises: what value do we place on relationships with other people?  If our happiness depends on ourselves and not, ultimately, on others and on their survival and wellbeing, what room is there for love and commitment to others? Some modern scholars (such as Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum) have questioned whether there is room for love in the full sense within Stoicism, and they talk about Stoic ‘detachment’ from other people. They refer especially to Stoic ideas about accepting the death of those who are close to us, ideas I’ll discuss a bit later. In ancient Greece and Rome, incidentally, nobody, as far as I know, criticised the Stoics for ‘detachment’ of this kind: so this is a purely modern view. (R. Sorabji, Emotion and Peace of Mind, Oxford 2000: 181-4, M. C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge 2001. 359-60).

I think the view that the Stoics are ‘detached’ from other people is mistaken, and that Stoicism places a very positive value on interpersonal and social relationships. However, I recognise that there is a challenge we need to try to meet: to show how the idea that happiness depends ultimately on us is compatible with giving a profound value to other people and our relationships to them.

One way of approaching this question is through Stoic ideas about ethical development. Stoics believe that our whole life as human beings – and not just our youth or middle adult years – can and should consist of an on-going process of ethical development or self-transformation. The target or norm for this process is achieving wisdom, and so enabling wisdom and the other virtues to shape all aspects of our lives. This is a perfect or ideal goal and none of us will achieve it fully, though aiming for this goal is still the best way for us to live our lives.

This process of development is sometimes subdivided in ancient Stoic writings into two strands: one centres on the idea I outlined at the start, that happiness depends on developing the virtues in ourselves. Stoics believe that as human beings, we are instinctively or naturally attracted towards things such as health and property; as we develop as rational moral agents, we learn how to select such things properly. We gradually learn that what matters, ultimately is not acquiring these things for their own sake but doing so wisely or in a way that expresses our growing understanding of the virtues, so that the things other than virtue become secondary (‘preferred indifferents’). (LS 59D = Cicero On Ends 3.17-22.)

The other strand in our development is a social one. Stoics believe that all animals (and not just human beings) are instinctively motivated to care for others of their kind, a motive shown most clearly in parental love for offspring. Human beings, as rational animals, are naturally able – and, the Stoics, think naturally motivated – to express this motive in more complex ways than other animals. One way is sustained involvement in family, friendship and communal or political life. The other is coming to recognise that all human beings, as rational animals who share this capacity for ethical development, are like brothers and sisters to us, or like fellow-citizens in a world-community. (LS 57F = Cicero, On Ends 3.62-8, On Duties 1.12, 50-3.)

This view of human development raises two important questions. In social development, how should we interpret the relationship between local and universal involvement? More broadly, how should we interpret the relationship between the two strands in development, between development in moral understanding and development in social involvement? These are quite challenging questions and ones not addressed directly in surviving Stoic theoretical writings; but there is much Stoic material relevant to them, especially in Stoic writers on practical ethics such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

I take first the question of the relationship between the two aspects of social development. Should we suppose that, as we develop ethically, we are meant to stop caring about our family and friends and care only about humanity in general, or at least to draw no ethical distinction between the two groups of people? I am pretty sure this is not what the Stoics have in mind. Stoic writings sometimes talk about extending outwards the circles of our concern from family to humankind (LS 57 G) – but this makes no sense unless we still have a special concern for our family and friends. Stoic teachers also suggest that we should use the idea of the brotherhood of humankind as a way of guiding and regulating our more local relationships. If we are inclined to become angry and irritated at others’ wrongdoing or to cheat or short-change other people in our financial and business life, we should check this inclination by reminding ourselves that they are our brothers and sisters in humankind (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.1, Cicero, On Duties 3.21, 3.50-7, esp. 52, 53.) So the Stoic view is that we should try to develop both kinds of relationships, with family, friends and community, and with humanity in general (including specific people falling outside our local circle) and do so in a sustained and deeply thought-out way. Also, we should use both kinds of relationship to inform and enrich each other. This seems to me very valuable advice in the modern world where we are often trying to juggle and make sense of the interplay between local and global relationships.

What about the question of the relationship between the two strands in ethical development – the social strand and the development of moral understanding? I think the same general principle holds good. These two strands are not meant to be quite distinct and separate, as though you could carry through one kind of development but not the other. Rather, the idea is that they are interconnected and contribute significantly to each other. Take first development in moral understanding. Although this is something that each of us must undertake for ourselves (and so it falls ‘within our power’), it is hard, or even impossible, to imagine how we could do this without social involvement, and without also developing in our social relations. This applies especially to virtues that are clearly social in character, such as courage and justice, but in different ways to all the virtues. We develop our understanding of the virtues by observing, and interacting with, other people who seem to embody the virtues in their lives – Marcus writes powerfully about this in Book 1 of his Meditations. Also, family and communal life are contexts in which we begin to learn, by our own actions and feelings, what it means to try at least to embody the virtues ourselves. On the other side, our social involvement will only form a proper part of our ethical development if we bring to bear in this context our growing understanding of what is truly valuable in human life.

This is all a bit abstract so let’s try to make it more specific (these examples allude to, or adapt, some striking passages in Epictetus’ Discourses, 1.11 and 3.3.5-10). Let’s imagine an aspiring Stoic father (or mother) with a very sick child. Will he or she stay by the bedside and do all he can to make the child better – or will he think that health is only of secondary value (compared with virtue) and so it doesn’t much matter whether he stays by the bedside or not? Of course, he or she will stay by the bedside and do all they can for the child. He will do that because health is something we are all naturally inclined to promote, in the Stoic theory of value; and he will do it because it is the appropriate thing to do as a way of trying to express virtue. This is a rather straightforward case, so let’s imagine something slightly more complex, a father or mother with a rather older or adult son or daughter. Suppose it becomes clear that the son values the relationship between them only in terms of the external goods he gets from the relationship – money or status, for instance. What does the aspiring Stoic father do now? He needs to change the way he acts towards the son, and to try to get his son to change the way he thinks about what is valuable. This may lead to conflict; but the conflict is unavoidable if the father is to act according to his own developing moral understanding and if he is to try to develop his son’s understanding also. And, on a Stoic view, the greatest benefit that any person can confer on another is to encourage their development of virtue and so their movement towards happiness.

What then of the criticism of Stoic ethics I mentioned earlier – that the Stoics advocate ‘detachment’ from other people? I hope it is becoming clear that this criticism is misplaced; but let’s take a moment to consider a point which has led especially to this criticism – Stoic acceptance of the prospect of death, including the death of those close to us. Consider this passage from Epictetus:

… whenever you take delight in anything, call to mind the opposite impression; what harm is there in your saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, ‘Tomorrow you’ll die’? Or similarly to your friend, ‘Tomorrow, you’ll go abroad, or I will, and we’ll never see one another again.’ (Epictetus, Discourses 3.24.88; see also Handbook 3.)

Epictetus knows his advice is shocking – he calls it ‘ill-omened’ (Discourses 3.24.89); but what underlies this advice if it is not, as the critics of Stoicism think, advocacy of detachment from other people? Partly, this is an example of ‘preparation for adversity’, a theme prominent in Stoic advice for facing death (Cicero, Tusculans 3.28-31, 52).  Epictetus reminds his listeners of something that is indeed a fact – though one we mostly prefer to ignore – that death is just as much a part of our life-cycle as birth (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.4, also 4.23, 12.31-6). It follows that, in any close relationship, such as a family or friendship, one partner will inevitably die before the other. Also, Epictetus assumes the Stoic framework of value, according to which our death – or that of someone close to us – is not the worst thing that can happen to us. The worst thing (in Stoic theory, the only really ‘bad’ thing) would be that we – or the other person – should become utterly corrupt morally, say, a mass murderer or a master criminal (On the Stoic theory of value, see LS 58, 60). Epictetus is assuming the general point I made earlier: that we should bring to bear on our social relationships our developing moral understanding, our grasp of what is and is not most valuable in life, given our human existence as integral parts of the natural universe, which includes death as well as birth. Of course, it is hard for us in such situations to apply this principle consistently, as the Stoics are well aware. But this does not mean the principle itself is not well-grounded. And what is involved is not a policy of detachment but an attempt to develop towards wisdom while being profoundly involved in human relationships.

Further Reading:

On Stoic thinking on social relationships and on the relationship between development in ethical understanding and developing the way we conduct social relationships, see the introductions to the Oxford World Classic translations of Epictetus, Discourses, xiv-xvi, Marcus Aurelius, Meditations,  xvi-iii, xix-xx, and the introduction to C. Gill, Marcus Aurelius: Meditations Books 1-6, translated with introduction and commentary (Oxford, 2013), xxxiv-xlix. See also, especially on Roman Stoicism, G. Reydams-Schils, The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility and Affection, Chicago, 2005, esp. chs. 2, 4-5.

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 Videos: London Opening & Closing Sessions, for 'Stoicism in Everyday Life' Event

Stoicism for Everyday Life: Opening Session

In this video, Chris Gill talks about the background to the Stoicism Today project and about key Stoic ideas, Patrick Ussher about Stoic Week around the world and in the media, Donald Robertson about the relationship between Stoicism and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), and Tim LeBon about developing an evidence base for Stoicism. The session is introduced by John Sellars.

Stoicism for Everyday Life: Closing Session

In this video, participants from the audience share their really interesting ideas about how Stoicism can be helpful today, their own life experiences with Stoic philosophy, key questions which need to be explored in Stoicism, workshop ideas and ideas for Stoic Week, and suggestions about what the Stoicism Today team could do next. There is also an overview of all seven workshops from the day.

Video: Roundtable Discussion from Stoicism for Everyday Life Event

The full round-table discussion (one hour long) from the Stoicism for Everyday Life event at Birkbeck, University of London, on November 30th. Participants included Prof. Chris Gill chairing Julian Baggini, Jules Evans, Antonia Macaro, Richard Sorabji, and Mark Vernon.

Questions covered in the fascinating discussion and debate include: Can Stoicism be revived as a guide to life today? Should Stoicism be revived today? How much of Stoicism do we have to embrace if we try to revive it? Can we establish via evidence its effectiveness?

Adapting Stoicism today raises many interesting questions – join in with your view on the debate below!

More videos and resources from the London event will be published shortly.


New Video: Insights from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations

A 20 minute talk by Christopher Gill, professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, on the philosophical project and aims of Marcus Aurelius.

Questions covered include: what is at the core of Marcus philosophical project in writing his meditations? And how ‘Stoic’ was Marcus Aurelius? philosophical method? Includes discussion of key passages for understanding the aims of the Meditations as a whole.