Stoicism: I'm Feeling it! by Michel Daw

In this guest post Michel Daw, who blogs at Living the Stoic Life, discusses the (often unfairly stereotyped) view of Stoic emotions, and explores what is really going on.

Stoicism – I’m Feelin’ It!

One of the perennial challenges faced by modern Stoics is the question of the proper place of emotions. The very word ‘Stoic’ has come to mean a Vulcan like denial or suppression of human emotion. What follows is merely the beginning of a discussion in an attempt to correct, or at least modify, this view. 

The tale is told of one Stilpo, a wise man held up by the Stoics as an example of how a person should behave. One translations tells his tale in the following way:

Stilbo, after his country was captured and his children and his wife lost, as he emerged from the general desolation alone and yet happy, spoke as follows to Demetrius, called Sacker of Cities because of the destruction he brought upon them, in answer to the question whether he had lost anything: “I have all my goods with me!” There is a brave and stout-hearted man for you! The enemy conquered, but Stilbo conquered his conqueror. “I have lost nothing!” Aye, he forced Demetrius to wonder whether he himself had conquered after all. “My goods are all with me!” In other words, he deemed nothing that might be taken from him to be a good.

This might lead some to think that this man was some kind of monster, and those who admired him fools at best. The blame lies in the translation.. Stilpo was not ‘happy,’ in our modern emotional sense, at the destruction of his city and family. The Latin word translated as ‘happy’ (beatus) can also mean ‘blessed’, and it is Seneca’s translation of the Greek word ευδαιμωνια (eudaimonia), which also translates (roughly) as flourishing, prosperous, blessed. You see Stilpo wasn’t cheerfully chatting away with his conquerors, he understood that those things that we truly his, his riches, his virtues, were always with him. Though he lose country and family and position, it has not made him a vicious man.

Stoics do not practice ‘detachment’ in the sense of being uncaring, or having a lack of feeling. This is a misconception of Stoicism that we have battling for going on two thousand years. I recommend to all of you Seneca’s entire 9th letter, from which the story of Stilpo is drawn:  ( Seneca speaks of the Sage feeling his troubles but overcoming them, his love for his friends, and the pleasure he takes in their company. It is actually a beautiful letter.

In the same vein, Stoics have been accused embracing indifference to the world, which includes the avoidance of pleasure because it, too, in an indiffernt. By stating that pleasure is an indifferent, Stoics are affirming that pleasure is neither morally good nor bad. It does not mean that we FEEL indifference towards pleasure, merely that we do not see it as either virtuous or vicious. That being said, it might be argued that pleasure is a biological reaction to our environment indicating the likelihood (though not a guarantee) that the object or situation could be considered a ‘preferred indifferent’, with possible physical/social/emotional benefits. Pleasure should not be avoided at all costs, but accepted when it is virtuous to do so. Pleasure is not a goal or aim for the Stoic, but may occasionally be a byproduct of virtuous behaviour. If it is, then well and good. Pleasure can also be derived from vicious acts, so the Stoic does not select actions merely on it say so (i.e. the Stoic rejects the ‘if it feels good do it’ as a deception.) So the practice of proper assent is critical.

The misunderstanding can once again be chalked up once again to the vagueness of translating Greek to English, but only in part.  The word ηδονή (hedone) which is here translated as ‘pleasure’ could also be rendered ‘delight’, that is an grapsing connection to something which we incorrectly identify as a ‘good’, the removal of which would cause us to become more vicious (tending towards vice). Once again, let’s turn to Seneca for an example of what virtuous pleasure would look like.

“And so we should love all of our dear ones, both those whom, by the condition of birth, we hope will survive us, and those whose own most just prayer is to pass on before us, but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever – nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long. Often must the heart be reminded – it must remember that loved objects will surely leave, nay,  are already leaving. Take whatever Fortune gives, remembering that it has no voucher. Snatch the pleasures your children  bring, let your children in turn find delight in you, and drain joy to the dregs without delay; no promise has been given you for this night – nay, I have offered too long a respite! – no promise has been given even for this hour.”

Hardly an unfeeling brute, unable to experience joy in life. One of my mentors used to remind me that we hold all of our blessings with an open hand, responsible to love and care for them while it is our lot to do so, and releasing them when the time has come for them to leave us.

Finally, while it is important for us to understand what the Ancient Stoics taught, we are not bound by it. Advances in all of the sciences, psychology and philosophy will change how we apply Stoicism today. While academics dislike a moving target, the practice of Stoicism is a somewhat fluid philosophy.

Again Seneca:

“Whatever the quality of my works may be, read them as if I were still seeking, and were not aware of, the truth, and were seeking it obstinately, too. For I have sold myself to no man; I bear the name of no master. I give much credit to the judgment of great men; but I claim something also for my own. For these men, too, have left to us, not positive discoveries, but problems whose solution is still to be sought. J They might perhaps have discovered the essentials, had they not sought the superfluous also. They lost much time in quibbling about words and in sophistical argumentation; all that sort of thing exercises the wit to no purpose. We tie knots and bind up words in double meanings, and then try to untie them. Have we leisure enough for this? Do we already know how to live, or die? We should rather proceed with our whole souls towards the point where it is our dutv to take heed lest things, as well as words, decieve us.”

Stoicism is not a religion, with a revealed set of scriptures which we are called to follow. We are encouraged to question, to update, to discard, all the time bearing in mind the central Stoic teaching to ‘live in accordance with nature.’ When we truly understand what this means, our Stoicism will not be an ancient old philosophy written on little books and disitegrating scrolls, but a living philosophy tested and tried in the lives of those who choose to sit on the Porch and try to figure out together what this ‘life’ thing is all about.

This article first appeared on Michel’s blog in October 2011, and is reproduced here with his kind permission. 
More about Michel: 
Michel Daw blogs at Living the Stoic Life and Words of the Ancient Wise. With his wife, Pamela Daw, he runs a Stoic community, which meets regularly, in Canada. 

5 thoughts on Stoicism: I'm Feeling it! by Michel Daw

  1. Angela Gilmour says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Seneca’s 9th letter. I seem to be rulled by my emotions and I am trying to learn to control them.

  2. While I agree with the sentiments expressed here, I still can’t help finding it a bit odd when anyone in the 21st century calls him- or herself a “Stoic.” It smacks too much of toga-clad sages slashing their veins to cheat the emperor’s executioner. We live in a completely different world today. Maybe a different term is needed, such a “neo-Stoic.” The most I could claim for myself is that I try to take a “stoical” approach to life. I know I will never achieve this goal in a complete sense, but, so far the attempt has made my existence on this planet much better.

    • Michel Daw says:

      Thanks for your comment, Kevin. While I do actually own a toga (don’t ask) it is the fact that Stoicism was originally designed as a mutable philosophy, tied not to a teacher or set of dogmas, but to answering a single question: How do we live the best life? Stoicism evolved in the 500 years of its early public face, and its resurgence is no less a continuation of that tradition of inquiry, discussion and most of all, practice. That is how I am comfortable calling myself a Stoic, not because of the toga (I am also neither of Greek nor Italian descent) but because I participate in the discussion and the practice.

  3. Robb says:

    Great post! I congratulate you in explaining very beautifully how being a Stoic does not mean being unemotional or repressed in an unnatural way. Emotion is an essential part of the human being, so it cannot be reasonably be suppressed or discarded from long. However, like any other part of our nature, can be trained to cause us less harm and more joy.

    • Michel Daw says:

      Emotion IS essential to the human experience, as you say. The idea that Stoicism is about indifference and apathy are mostly problems of translation, but unfortunately the idea has stuck for thousands of years. Seneca was fighting it, calling people who divorced themselves from compassion ‘monstrous’! Thanks for your comment.

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