Stoicisms, Emotions and Community: Rethinking and Reimagining with A Little Help from Stoic Friends by Pauline Shanks Kaurin

While popular views of Stoicism portray it as solipsistic, ruggedly individualistic and embracing a specific version of masculinity, I argue emotion, community, and caring practice all have precedents in historical Stoicism. Accordingly, I will examine different versions of Stoic thought and influences on discussions of emotion and ethics, including the views of René Descartes, David Hume, and Ethics of Care. Exploring these intersections is an alternative to misperceptions of contemporary Stoicism and provides a better understanding of the role that emotions, relationality and community play in moral philosophy and ethics.  Rather than aiming for an exhaustive treatment, my intent is exploratory, bringing together work from authors in more explicit conversation with one another.

The argument here is as follows

  • first, there is a line of Stoic influence related to emotion critical to contemporary ethics debates, which have largely focused on reason, marginalizing emotion
  • second, Stoic thought can assist us in thinking about how “proper” or moral emotions ought to function
  • and third, it can highlight the role of the communal to expand from self-regarding to also other-regarding in moral communities.

This argument is part of a larger project to take seriously emotions, passions and sentiments in moral character and ethical development which has important implications for ethical leadership in different communities of practice. (For more on communities of practice, see my discussion in On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for the Military, Citizenry and Communities, p. 75-76.) While there is some discussion of these ideas in Ethics of Care, the influences of the Stoics on Descartes’ and Hume’s moral work can be made more explicit.

What is Emotion?

To begin, how did various Stoics understand emotion? In Stoic Wisdom, Nancy Sherman notes three layers to emotion, which the Stoics see as voluntary action: 1) the basic emotion – desire and fear relative to things past, present, or future – and irrational in the sense of based on false judgments; 2) the proper or moral emotion with judgment oriented to achieving virtue and avoiding vice; and 3) pre-emotional experience or arousal, largely involuntary and physical (p. 77-82).

Seneca also divides emotions into three categories: 1) involuntary preparation for the passion; 2) passion combined with a wish (related to appropriateness); and 3) passion which overrides reason and is therefore beyond control. He thinks emotion brought into existence by a deliberate mental act is unable to be overcome by reason (On Anger 2.4). Seneca’s first category tracks Sherman’s pre-emotional arousal, the second tracks Sherman’s basic emotion including assent to some belief, but the third category is emotion out of control; while Sherman includes a category of proper emotion, Seneca does not.

In Stoicism and Emotion, Margaret Graver notes the distinction between pathos (grief, anger, desire) and eupathai (joy, reverence, certain kinds of love and friendship, some longing and wishing) where the first is emotion with false judgement and the second includes the proper or appropriate judgement (p. 3-4, 7). She agrees with both Sherman and Seneca that there is a difference between feelings and affective responses; feelings are really the psychophysical description, while affective states require assent or judgment. All three agree on a proto-emotional response that is physical and that emotion requires assent or judgment, but Graver and Sherman think there is moral, proper emotion related to judgments of virtue. Seneca is more inclined to think of the progression not towards virtue, but towards vice.

Zeno too sees emotions as excessive impulses that lead us to act in certain ways; the general Stoic view is that the ordinary person yields easily to the impressions of the mind (including emotion) and the wise can resist these impressions when called for (ibid, p. 26-7). Seneca in On Anger seems much more skeptical noting

It is easier to banish dangerous passions than to rule them …Reason is only strong when she remains apart from the passions…. if she mixes, she will follow the passions. Further, the Passions are unable to check itself, and carry off the man and hurls him towards the vices… (1.7)

The next step is to see how assent/judgment influences emotion. Graver observes the wise person’s “prudent walking” is evaluated differently from the ordinary person’s walking, in that it represents a different sort of judgment. So too with emotion. Another interpreter of Stoicism, Arius Didymus, argues that desire, fear, distress, delight are all responses “disobedient to reason” where the causes of each of these is a certain belief (judgment) relative to the object – about whether it is appropriate to be moved in that way (Graver, p 27, 42).

Seneca agrees about the link between the feeling and judgement, arguing anger requires the mind, and cannot proceed without the approval of the mind in the sense that a judgment of injury is necessary to produce anger as we saw earlier (On Anger 2.1). The judgement for any emotion also involves consistency with one’s other beliefs, and relative to one’s character; in the wise, one finds consonance, in the ordinary person there may be cognitive dissonance (Graver, p. 63-4).

Further, Stoics view emotional responses as not in themselves excessive, but excessive relative to what is appropriate for a wise person in accordance with or obedient to reason (ibid, p. 67). The figures of Menelaus and Medea are often cited as excessive in this way, but are these examples of the weakness of reasoning overwhelmed by emotions or are they examples of mental conflict of different judgements, beliefs and even values? Further they may be prioritizing certain impulses based upon agreement with their belief structures and the judgment of value in each, given the importance of coherence to the Stoics. This recalls Plato and his negotiation amongst the three parts of the soul, the motivations associated with each and the appropriate relationship of reason in command (ibid p. 72, 74).

Lack of Stoic freedom means to be at variance with oneself, that is inauthenticity or inconsistency within one’s epistemological eco-system (ibid, p. 83).The descriptions of the wise seem to bear this out; the wise person will still have the feeling, but not the emotion itself since the feeling is natural. The issue is the judgment laden emotion, and the disturbance or distress is generated.  Anger, fear, grief are problematic because of their roots in the value of externals and are considered unnatural and improper, not compatible with virtue or wisdom, while eupathic responses are consistent with virtue and wisdom (ibid, p. 93, 102).

Engagement with Proper Emotion (That Is Proper To The Good Life, To Virtue)

What is the relationship between emotion, especially proper emotion, and virtue and morality? Here I highlight the role of emotion, without reducing it all to emotion; there are important interactions and what I will call “engagement” with the emotions essential to a full account of morality and virtue. In particular, I highlight: 1) appropriateness understood through the role of custom and habit; 2) coherence; and 3) broadening the circle of moral concern and judgment beyond what might “feel” natural using empathy and corrected, proper emotion.

The first issue is the place of emotion, both for the Stoics and those they influenced. One of the most significant connections is the idea of “appropriateness”; appropriateness seems to have a social context and meaning, as well as one more rooted in specifically moral terms. One might wonder whether these are ethical judgments or merely issues of convention, how members of a community of practice typically are seen to behave?

According to Graver, the Stoic eupathic responses are emotional responses generated with respect to proper or right reasons, with appropriateness being what is called for in the circumstances rather than a duty or obligation (p. 38, 44-45).  Further, goodness in Stoic ethics is about rightness and fit, therefore good is participation in some logically coherent system (natural law); we make judgements based on fit within the system. Externals have contingent value to ethics; integrals have necessary value to ethics and judgments should be in accordance with that fact. Finally, the harmonious order is what is good for a human being (virtue, goodness) (ibid, p. 48-50). While the Stoics are concerned with proper emotion, it is not entirely clear what they mean by this; various accounts discuss this as self-mastery or control.  The basic process is to acknowledge the emotional response, to categorize correctly, and to assess the extent to which the underlying judgment is accurate, before responding accordingly. This not as a denial of emotion, nor as control or domination of self or others. For me, the category of control as domination (even of self) is problematic since it sets habituation for domination as normative and ethically desirable.

For some Stoics, the ethical person (the Sage) does not just control and channel emotions but ceases to experience emotions. Here the distinction between feelings and emotions is critical to apatheia as an ethical stance; they may still experience feelings, but not true emotions because of the role of judgment (ibid, p. 35). For the wise, the strength of the emotional response does not interfere with the will, and they want to avoid loss of control (ibid, p. 63).

What is control? Is it: 1) domination; 2) management; or 3) engagement? On my view, engagement is iterative and interactive and as one becomes wiser the relationship with emotions should iterate requiring, less of 2 and more of 3. However, given the Stoic view about domination and management of things external to you and your natural state, engagement may be stretching their account.

Custom and Habit

Another aspect of appropriateness is a judgment of what is appropriate in a particular social context. Therefore, custom and habit are social elements and not just moral. Stoics are interested in this in relation to the particular role that one is inhabiting (parent, child, ruler, citizen, friend) which are not necessarily all moral in nature but have social elements variable according to culture and context.

In his piece “Stoicisms Ancient and Modern”, in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings Volume III,  A.A. Long notes that vice, acting against human nature, can be seen as ugliness, as beauty comes to be connected to virtue. Both are visible to others and involve social judgements, including sometimes social utility (p. 29). Cicero argues that prudence (judgment) develops out of an innate preference for understanding and justice from an innate tendency toward sociability and courage and temperance from familiar tendencies towards order. While these judgments are connected to virtue, they are also connected to the social context where custom and aesthetic judgment in a community are relevant. For example, the Stoics viewed reputation as different from honor; honor is a genuine or intrinsic good, while reputation is an indifferent as it is under the control of others and subject to social context, role and custom (Graver, p. 158).

Stoics also emphasize the role of habituation and practice in forming desire, and therefore in influencing the judgement necessary for proper emotions and virtue. Seneca argues for habituation at the front of end of this process to cut off the development of anger by preventing the judgement that one has been injured and punishment is appropriate. Epictetus suggests that by practicing distancing, detachment thoughts and examining our emotional responses and the judgments attached to them, we can reform our emotions and judgments by habituating the appropriate emotions and judgements.

Finally, it is important to note that the Stoics focus on coherence as a part of epistemology (ibid, p. 135). Accordingly, the extent to which our individual ideas or beliefs cohere and are consistent within a larger epistemological system is the extent to which we have truth or knowledge. Since judgments about social custom and norms (as well as virtue and morality) are part of this system, they play a role in ideas of appropriateness governing what emotions and judgments are viewed as valid, good, wise and which need to be reassessed or negotiated.

Descartes’ Joyful Sage

How do these Stoic ideas show up in the moral accounts of Descartes and Hume?  Descartes notes wisdom is to teach us mastery over the passions since they are the source of good (joy) and it is only their excesses (produced by bad judgments/lack of true knowledge) that are problematic.  Accordingly, evils can be joyfully borne (Passions of the Soul, 211-12). Descartes’ joyful sage is an achievable and desired end point; accordingly, the exercise of virtue is the supreme remedy for the passions (148). Compare this to some Stoics who see the sage as a largely aspirational idea, and the best most can do is avoid or endure evils with calm and patience. However, Descartes does think If living the life of virtue, one cannot be disturbed by the passions, in line with the Stoic influence.

This is achieved by pairing of certain passions with concepts of good/bad in the sense of virtue. “This is why we should make use of experience and reason to distinguish the good from the evil and discern their true worth, in orders not to take one for the other and not to tend towards anything immoderately” (138). These passions can incline us to any actions only through the desire they excite, that Desire in particular is what we should be concerned to regulate; the principal utility of Moral Philosophy is to recognize that desire is always good when it follows true knowledge and cannot fail to be bad when it is founded on some error. Following the Stoics like Epictetus, he cites the main error as failing to distinguish between what depends on us from what does not depend on us (144). Descartes thinks we can only desire what we consider possible, so the error in judgment here is an error about what is possible. There are Stoic influences here, especially Wisdom as the point of Moral Philosophy to harness and engage the passions, rather than rejecting them as irrelevant or destructive to the virtuous life.

Hume and Empathy

David Hume also takes seriously the role that passions and emotions (sentiment) play in the moral life. The “sympathy” principle, the propensity to sympathize with other and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different from and contrary to their own is central for his view (A Treatise on Human Nature, p. 316). Imagination is key to the operation of sympathy. These movements appear first in our minds, then are related to others by the relations of resemblance, contiguity and connection with the passions arising out of this (p. 319-320). Sympathy renders the passions of another immediately present to us and our reasoning which we then take to be an argument in favor of their position; sympathy works on both our passions and reason; this is critical to Hume’s ethics – especially the development of the moral or General Point of View.

Actions are perishing, so it is character as the root of actions that is enduring and object of responsibility; this connects to the Stoic’s concern with virtue and moral character development (p. 411). Further, passions can never be called unreasonable except when grounded on false supposition or choosing insufficient means; when this is recognized Hume thinks the passion gives way immediately to reason. Even then, following Descartes, the passion is not itself unreasonable, rather the judgment on which it is based is. This is a key since the problem is the judgment, since the passion is either natural and/or operating in the way that it has been habituated (p. 416-7)

Another key point is the distinction between calm and violent passions. Calm passions may seem to produce little emotion (be mistaken for reason, producing no/little disorder in the soul), while violent passions are those which seem to produce strong emotions and reactions that can be observed (p. 417-21).  Violent and calm passions both pursue good and avoid evil but are also able to impact and turn into the other. Therefore, both are relevant and connected to morality, though Hume views the calm passions as more consistent with good character and action and the violent passions as interfering with or disturbing. The opposition of passions causes more disturbance than two passions; the same effect is produced by uncertainty, where one passion can convert into another – especially the calm into the violent.

Custom and habituation are central to engaging the passions and directing them to moral ends. Since they are natural and pursue good and evil, the question is how best to achieve this and minimize disturbance. Hume wants to avoid turning calm into violent passions reflecting the Stoics’ the cultivation of “calm” or proper emotion as key to virtue, where the relevant judgement and accompanying emotion are appropriate both socially and morally. Custom and habit function as bridges to sympathy (empathy) helping us broaden our scope of moral concern; justice and natural law are a part of nature directly (Stoics) or indirectly via social utility (Hume) within the communal context requiring proper emotions, calm passions as the basis for morality and virtue.

Habit and custom are further important to Stoic appropriateness as incorporated by Descartes, Hume and eventually Ethics of Care because of how they influence judgment to engage with emotion. I resist the usual Stoic language of self-mastery, control, and even domination, favoring more of an engagement and nuanced negotiation, dialogue, or conversation where boundaries are explored, reworked provisionally.  The cumulative effect over time is to change character, judgments, actions, and assessments of those things prior to the next moment and deliberation process. Deliberation becomes engagement and negotiation with the emotions and attached judgements (see Chapter 8 of my On Obedience for the discussion of my concept of negotiation).

Individual in Community

Sympathy (empathy) through custom and habit are critical bridges moving beyond moral agency and character simply in terms of the individual but also embedded in and operating through a variety of social contexts.  To conclude, we explore how the social nature of moral life has roots in Stoicism and manifests in contemporary Ethics of Care. There are many different versions of Ethics of Care, but I focus here on the overlap. For Virginia Held, Ethics of Care

…. sees persons as interdependent rather than independent individuals and holds that morality should address issues of caring and empathy and relationships between people rather than only or primarily the rational calculations of solitary moral agents (Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics, p. 1.)

Context is highly relevant to moral judgement, which is not to say it is completely relative to context.

Feminist moral theorists…. often stress the value of good relationships – whether personal or civil – and of good parenting and emotions conducive to leading admirable lives. And we stress that these are moral values (ibid, p. 3.)

To explore in more depth, we look at the social nature of humans in both Stoicism and Hume.

Hume’s idea of “sympathy” (what we now call “empathy”) is central to Ethics of Care; care requires a judgement about what care is appropriate for that person in that context. This requires some shared sense of what good and bad care are, but not merely as an abstract principle to be applied. Hume’s insight that the moral person is one who can mitigate (via empathy, shared moral language and community) their own self-interest and come to the General (moral) Point of View can be seen in the Ethics of Care focus on circles of concern and broadening these circles of moral concern through empathy and the contexts of others. Moral obligations arise within the context of power and relationality in specific contexts and relationships in which we practice care, not from abstract principles or ideas.

 Social Nature

Central to Stoicism is the understanding human beings are a part of natural and social systems and possess shared rationality that is the foundation for morality, especially for justice. A. A. Long sees Stoicism as committed to virtue and harmony (both internal and with nature) which includes the social and political context; the Stoic virtues are not simply self-regarding but also other regarding (p. 28-9). The idea of the wise man engaging in the public life if the opportunity arises is connected to the idea of playing one’s role properly. Epictetus notes, “We are so constituted that we can attain none of our own goods unless we contribute something to the common interest” (p. 30-31).

Aldo Dinucci cites Epictetus’ view that rationality means an acknowledging that you are part of a greater whole, a local citizen, and a citizen of the Cosmos. To act anti-socially is to act like an animal and to act against human nature, interfering with eudomonia (“Greta Thunberg and Epictetan Communitarian Action.” Stoicism Today: Selected Writings Volume III, p. 246). Seneca also insists that mankind is born for mutual assistance and anger is about mutual ruin, so anger as against our nature.

Hume continues this theme noting humans have a strong desire for society and are fitted for its advantages – this is complete and natural, not contingent, “…the minds of men are mirrors to one another – they reflect each other’s emotions but also the rays of passions, sentiments and opinions may be reverberated.” Beyond the double relation of sympathy, the third effect of sympathy is the effect on us of the esteem and judgment of others (p. 363, 365. While there is an individual aspect to judgment, Hume also emphasizes the social aspect at work. In addition, custom, habit, and relations like resemblance produce sympathy, allowing us to enter into the sentiments of others with their experience coming to us as our own via imagination. Nothing that concerns them is indifferent to us (ibid, p. 389). Passions are not and cannot be solely the domain of the individual experiencing them, but impact and are impacted by others.

Community As Source Of Obligations To Others (Not Simply Individual To Individual)

A Stoic approach to moral obligations begins with the recognition that each human is part of a cosmic community, so it is natural sometimes for humans to act on behalf of the community and on behalf of others. Hierocles argues that our social sentiment can be expanded with conscious effort where one comes to see the members of the wider circles as truly belonging to oneself, a view that Hume reflects (Graver, p. 176-78, 181)  However, until one acquires wisdom this is difficult. Epictetus argues that only in the calmy rational view can one fulfill obligations as citizens and friends to others, but this detachment is not the position of the wise since they are equal in wisdom and virtue. It is also important to note that one can be in relationship with those (and have moral obligations to) those one has not personally met as part of the commonality the Stoics see as having goods in common.

Seneca’s letters also note a natural inclination to form attachments.  Seneca makes an argument that society cannot function if we do not guard and love all its members, as all the limbs are necessary to the body. From this arises the obligation to soothe and help teach others to deal with their anger. There is moral obligation to attend to, engage and properly negotiate with one’s own emotions, but also to help others to do the same. The virtuous life, then, requires communal engagement and connection. This Stoic thought is clear in Hume’s discussion of sympathy (empathy), custom and habit and the mechanisms underlying their functioning, as well as the idea of cultivating the calm passions and guarding against the violent ones. However, Descartes and Hume resist the Stoic idea that the passions are somehow too difficult to control, which makes way for the important role of emotion in Ethics of Care.


To summarize then, proper engagement with emotion, requiring practiced judgment and corrected/proper emotions is essential to virtue, morality, and ethics. Habit and custom assist us to understand, develop and practice appropriateness, not merely as individuals but within the social context of common rationality, common good, empathy and other regarding dispositions. Lack of proper judgements and emotions is not just individually problematic but collectively destructive and harmful; this is unnatural for humans as it interferes with their role in moral and cosmic systems.

There are several implications of this line of argument. First, it expands our understanding of the influence of Stoicism to come to a richer sense of emotions, morality, and ethics. Second, we can take more seriously possibilities for empathy as one form of proper emotion and practicing judgment as one of the Stoic therapeutic practices. Finally, there are also implications for future scholarship. My treatment of Ethics of Care here is brief, but there are different approaches empathy, judgment and how one discerns, and practices care in both pragmatic and ethical senses that merit exploration. There is more work to be done on how the various relationships and circles of concern can intersect with some of the Stoic ideas discussed here – acknowledging the differences in social contexts, views of gender, rationality, and emotion.

Pauline Shanks Kaurin is the Stockdale Chair and Professor of Professional Military Ethics at the US Naval War College in the College of Leadership and Ethics, specializing in military ethics, just war theory, and applied ethics. Her recent publications include: “When Less is not More: Expanding the Combatant/Non-Combatant Distinction”; “With Fear and Trembling: A Qualified Defense of Non-Lethal Weapons” and Achilles Goes Asymmetrical: The Warrior, Military Ethics and Contemporary Warfare and On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for Military, Citizenry and Community. She was featured contributor for The Strategy Bridge and has published in Clear DefenseThe Wavell RoomNewsweek, War on the Rocks, Grounded Curiosity, US Naval Institute Proceedings, Just Security, as well as a variety of academic journals. 

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.