The Dispassionate Life by Margaret Graver

This post is the transcript of Professor Gravers’ plenary address at the STOICON 2017 conference

Remembering the conference theme, let’s start with the word “professional.” What associations do we have with this word? What expectations does it place on us? Are those reasonable and fair expectations, and if so how do we equip ourselves to meet them? These are questions I invite you to reflect on during the talk.

Meanwhile here is another set of words to think about. Unmoved, apathetic, calm, impassive, serene, unflappable, tranquil, unfeeling, placid, unsentimental, unemotional, unruffled.

Where are we on these words? If you are like me and like my students, you can easily identify several of these words as negative words that you would not want to hear applied to yourself. Others are more complimentary; some might even be neutral. But the point of interest here is that if you make the effort to strip away the positive or negative valence of these words, all of them mean pretty much the same thing: they describe a person who doesn’t respond emotionally in situations where many people would. So this is the first challenge for this group. Let’s see if we can make the effort to get past some of those preconceived notions of what people ought to be like, and think clearly about what concepts underlie our words.

My topic for this afternoon is the dispassionate life, defined for the moment as a life that is not susceptible to usual emotions (anger fear grief) in the kinds of situations that most often trigger those responses. My objectives are two.

First, I want to probe this very notion of a dispassionate life. What actually does it mean? I maintain that although this idea of a dispassionate life sounds like just one idea, in fact it is more than one. I want to go back to the origins of this idea in Greek philosophy, show you a little of the history of it, and begin to sort through the different things “dispassionate” can mean. I think this operation is extraordinarily important for the group that’s assembled here. Some people may be here precisely because they are interested in getting closer to a life free of emotional disturbance. Others may be sceptical about Stoicism precisely because they think such a life would be wrong. Either way, we need some clarity on what the ancient Stoics had in mind when they put forward their claim that the best human life would be dispassionate.

Second, I mean to share some information about techniques that were on offer in ancient texts for bringing oneself closer to the dispassionate life. These hold considerable theoretical interest, whether or not we think that any of them would actually be helpful for a modern person.

It’s worth pointing out that while virtually all the Greek philosophers were strongly interested in mental health, they weren’t the equivalent of our mental health professionals. They were theorizing about human beings generally, not about people who were in crisis or were having highly unusual emotional problems. So what I say here should be thought of as relating to ordinary mental health.

With that said, let me take you back to ancient Greece. In the next thirty minutes or so, I want to walk you through three different groups or schools of philosophers, each of which advocated for its own version of the dispassionate life. First will be the Cynics, kynikoi or dog-philosophers, associated with Diogenes of Sinope; second the Epicureans and their predecessor Democritus; and third the Stoics.

Ancient Terms For Emotion

We’re going to need some terminology. Our word “emotion” is a class term, it names the category whose members are anger, grief, fear, delight, eagerness, and whatever else we think is of that kind. If we look for equivalent words in Greek as spoken in the fourth century B.C.E., we find two possibilities.

One is pathos, etymologically ‘a way of being affected’; corresponding to the Latin word affectus. The other is tarache, etymologically ‘a disturbance’, for which the Latin equivalent is perturbatio.

In what follows I will not attempt to distinguish these two terms. Some authors favor one or the other, but as far as I can tell the meaning is the same or at least near enough to allow for the comparisons we’ll be making here.

The same goes for two terms that are derived from the emotion words: apatheia, from pathos, which I’ll usually translate “impassivity” and similarly ataraxia, from tarachē, which I’ll usually translate “non-disturbedness”. For our purposes today, both these terms mean essentially “absence of emotion.” These two terms alternate in the record for the three philosophies we’ll be looking at.

An Objection

Now, before I go any further, let’s check in with the opposition. Not everybody in the ancient world favored the idea of a dispassionate life. The philosophers who called themselves Peripatetics had objections to it, and so did many of those who called themselves Platonists—though Stoics were also heirs of Plato in their own way. A leader of the post-Platonic Academy, a philosopher by the name of Crantor, put the case against apatheia in terms we can all recognize.

Crantor was writing around 300 B.C., in a consolatory essay—that is, a kind of open letter addressed to someone recently bereaved, offering them the comforts of philosophy. Crantor’s consolation must have said, as most of these pieces do, “it’s OK to cry for a while, anyone would”—but then he turns philosopher and adds,

I cannot by any means agree with those who extol some kind of impassivity (apatheia). Such a thing is neither possible nor beneficial. I do not wish to be ill, but if I am, and if some part of my body is to be cut open or even amputated, let me feel it. This absence of pain comes at a high price: it means being numb in body, and in mind scarcely human.

For Crantor, then, the experience of emotion is both a necessary and a desirable part of being human: eliminating it is “neither possible nor beneficial.” We need to have sensations of grief when calamities befall us, just as we need to feel pain when our bodies are injured. Otherwise we would have lost the responsiveness to stimuli that is essential to human nature: we would be “numb in body, and in mind scarcely human.” This is a powerful objection. It’s one that has occurred to me and I’m sure equally to you and to everyone who has an interest in ancient Stoicism. As we go forward, I want you to keep that objection in mind.

The Cynics: the Thickened Skin

Let’s get started then with our dog-philosophers. Kynes are ‘dogs’; hence kynikoi or Cynics. The English word “cynical” is related but not at all helpful in trying to understand these people.

What you need to know is that there was a succession of public personalities showing up in various Greek cities under this label: Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, is often named as an important influence, but Diogenes of Sinope was the iconic figure, and others followed in his footsteps including Crates of Thebes and his life-partner Hipparchia, Bion, Menippus, and various others on into the Roman empire.

These are mostly solitary figures, not a school as such, and not a fully developed system of philosophy either. What held them together was a handful of slogans and practices that point to a distinctive ideology. The Cynics imitated Diogenes in living what they considered to be a life according to nature. That is, a completely no-frills life, with possessions at an absolute minimum: no house, clothing only as required by the cold, the simplest possible food, such as can be acquired by begging in the street. Sleeping on the ground. No shoes, ever. No career, no religion, no use of money, no marriage: all of those things are products of convention, not of nature. It is the life of a dog, completely unembarrassed, all the body functions performed in public, unconstrained by any cultural expectations.

What’s to be gained by this sort of life? Positive ideals for the Cynics are expressed in terms like karteria, toughness; ischus, strength; sophrosyne, self-control; autarkeia, self-sufficiency; parrhesia, speaking one’s mind – but above all, karteria. Going without shoes wasn’t just a matter of avoiding all the cultural baggage that shoes represent. If you walk barefoot long enough, eventually the skin of your feet will become hard and tough, and you won’t feel the stony ground.

And along with those, over and over, apatheia, the very hallmark of Cynicism. Antisthenes imitates Socrates’ impassivity and thus becomes “the first founder of Cynicism”; Diogenes of Sinope is characterized by impassivity more than any other trait; Bion of Borysthenes takes up the accoutrements of the Cynic and thus is converted to impassivity.

What sort of impassivity is this? We can take our cue from the exercises Cynics used in training. There were physical exercises – for instance embracing marble statues in the dead of winter, to train one’s body to endure the cold. Analogous to these were the mental exercises. My favorite: requiring a pupil to carry a stinky piece of cheese through a crowded city street, until he learns not to be embarrassed by it. In a word, manageable discomforts, regularly repeated, as a means of toughening oneself up, to a point at which even much greater calamities are no longer felt.

The approach reminds me quite strongly of a practice that’s known to have been around in Athens at the same time as Diogenes, though not specifically linked to him or any of the Cynics. This is the pre-rehearsal of future ills, an idea known already to the playwright Euripides, as you see in this fragment preserved from one of his lost plays. No doubt it was old even for him – “I learned this from a wise man,” says the character, as if it had already been around for a long time. In this technique, one is supposed to ponder daily every calamity that can happen — the premature death of a family member, the loss of one’s home, and so on – the idea being that if some such event comes to pass, one will be ready for it and not emotionally destroyed by it.

Those familiar with modern cognitive behavioral therapy will recognize the idea of desensitizing oneself to a stimulus by repeated exposure to it under controlled circumstances.  So this is one version of the dispassionate life. We can refer to it as “the thickened skin”. Apatheia in this conception is a matter of hardening the boundaries of the person, to make us less responsive to stimuli. It is the psychological equivalent of the toughened feet of the Cynic, and it is an important part of what Diogenes was after.

This brings me back to the objection of Crantor, to the view that apatheia is neither harsh nor beneficial, that it’s better to be able to feel things. What do the Cynics have to say to this? Do they concede that their approach “means being numb in body and in mind scarcely human”?

Quite the contrary! Their response is to turn the tables. Why should anyone say that the feet of human beings are naturally tender, as if we were all born wearing shoes? Why not say rather that toughness is our natural state? For them, the asceticism that restores that toughness is “a short-cut to happiness”: if people find that road too difficult, it may not be the Cynic apatheia that is to blame, but the softening influence of our cultural institutions. Such is the Cynic conception of impassivity.

The Atomists

The goal of Democritus’s ethics was a good state of mind, euthumia, defined as “a calm and stable existence, not disturbed by any fear or superstition or any other emotion.” Notice the terminology: a state free of both emotion, pathos and disturbance, tarache; also, the emphasis on fear and superstition as the main sources of disturbance. But there’s another word here that interests me: calm. That word is actually a metaphor in Greek: calm, galene, is the condition of a lake or the sea when it is without waves, not stirred by any gale or storm. That metaphor is used also by Epicurus, and I maintain that it is the key to the atomists’ approach. For this reason my nickname for Dispassionate Life #2 will be STILL WATERS.

Let’s reflect for a minute on this image of the tranquil lake. Why are the waters still? Is it because there is a hard shell on the lake that protects it from anything that might stir it up? No, the water is open to the sky. It could be moved, if some gust of wind sprang up – but in fact there is no wind, not today.

And that is the Epicurean contention. The vast majority of Epicurus’s arguments were aimed at convincing the hearer of four things: first, that there is no reason for superstitious fear of divine powers – gods do exist, but not the sort of gods that could ever hurt us or even interact with us. Second, that death cannot harm us: we merely cease to exist, and what’s the harm in that? Third, that everything we really need for life is obtainable without strenuous effort, and fourth, that poverty, physical discomfort, and even pain are not such a big deal that we need to be anxious about them.

The scientific side of Epicureanism, their theories about atoms and void, are all directed toward these ends. For instance, using atomic physics to supply explanations for lightning and thunder, so that we don’t need to believe that God is out to get us; or explaining what happens at death in terms of the physical dissolution of the human psyche, so that we see how little we have to worry about.

That’s just a quick sketch of Epicurean thought, but it’s enough to give us a sense of how Epicurus might respond to the objection put by Crantor. Crantor’s complaint had been that the dispassionate life is a bad idea because it makes us insensitive, “numb in body and in mind scarcely human.”

Epicurus can respond that on his understanding of ‘dispassionate,’ the natural sensitivity of the human being is still fully operational. It’s just that the Epicurean has a correct understanding of the world and realizes that there is no reason be disturbed by it. The Epicurean mind is a quiet pool not because it can’t feel the wind, but because it realizes that no wind is blowing.

In fact Epicurus needs that water to be able to move with the breezes, for two reasons: first, because we rely on sense-perception to give us information about the world, and second because we rely on our capacity for pleasure and pain to guide our actions.

And this leaves us with a question. Given that the Epicurean’s mind is capable of being distressed, what if something happens that even Epicurus recognizes as a real source of mental pain. Because such things can happen in his world. At the very least, the death of friends or family members is a real loss to the Epicurean. Can Epicurus say, then, that the dispassionate life remains available in all circumstances?

Well, it seems there was a back-up plan. We have it in a passage of Cicero, talking about the Epicurean approach to grief management. The term is “redirection”.

As for the means of easing distress, Epicurus holds that there are two: distracting the mind from the thought of suffering, and redirecting it to the contemplation of pleasures. For he claims that the mind is capable of listening to reason and following where reason leads. Reason forbids us to direct our attention toward what is troubling, draws us away from painful thoughts, and dulls the vision with which we contemplate our sufferings. From all of this it sounds the retreat, and urges us rather to concentrate on pleasures of every sort.

In a word, Epicurus relies on a kind of visualization technique, drawing on our capacity to manipulate our inner attention. It is in a way the inverse of the old pre-rehearsal of future ills strategy. Rather than confronting painful thoughts in an attempt to desensitize oneself, Epicurus favors turning the mind away from them and focusing on the pleasurable elements of our experience.

Impassivity and the Stoics

I now want to set both Dispassionate Life #1 and Dispassionate Life #2 in relation to the Stoic conception of apatheia or impassivity. Of course that very phrase brings to mind the notion that’s out there in the culture of what it is to be a Stoic. We’ve all heard it, how Stoics are or want to be impervious to pain, something like the rock of Gibraltar, or my personal favorite, J.C. Taylor’s “Stoic pig.”

That reading of Stoicism and emotion was around even in the Roman world. The portrait of Cato in Lucan’s Pharsalia is a kind of parody of that sort of stoical Stoic – not very different from the “Stoic pig”. But the real Stoics didn’t see it that way. Here’s Seneca in one of his essays:

There are things that strike the wise person even if they do not overthrow him, such as physical pain, loss of a limb, loss of friends and children, and during wartime the calamity of his fatherland in flames. I do not deny that the wise person feels these, for we do not endow him with the hardness of stone or of iron. To endure without feeling what you endure is not virtue at all.

Seneca is very clear that the rock-of-Gibraltar notion of impassivity is the Cynic notion and not the Stoic conception at all. For Seneca, the Cynic position does indeed “go beyond human nature.”  In the Letters on Ethics, he draws an explicit comparison between Stoic and Cynic understandings of apatheia:  

Our position is different from theirs, in that our wise person conquers all adversities, but still feels them; theirs does not even feel them.

And in fact Seneca frequently goes out of his way to remark that the wise person “feels” not just adversity but all kinds of things. His is a sage who blushes, trembles, laughs and cries, gets irritated and can turn white as a sheet. Often what Seneca is talking about is involuntary feelings that occur in the absence of assent, sometimes called ‘pre-emotions’, ‘protopassions, or ‘first movements.’

I should explain that the early Stoics worked with a careful analysis of mental events in terms of the beliefs one is committed to with each type of response. Even the simplest action reflects a judgment that one’s situation calls for a certain kind of response. And affective responses, which include the emotions, likewise reflect a judgment that ones situation calls for such a response because there is value in it — because something good or bad for oneself has just occurred or is about to occur. But some reactions occur without any judgment having been made at all.

Fans of Epictetus will find the same idea in Fragment 9, where he says that “even the wise person’s mind necessarily responds and is contracted and grows pale for a little while” but  “not because he opines that something evil is at hand.”

So this gives a kind of answer to Crantor’s complaint.  But so far it is only a partial answer. A response that doesn’t commit you to anything is unobjectionable but necessarily also brief, trivial and ineffectual. That’s not all of what Crantor is after when he says “let me feel it.”   It also doesn’t touch the depth of Stoic concern about the ordinary emotions.

To get the real answer, we have to talk about the value term that is implied in affective response. And now at last we are ready to talk about dispassionate life #3, and to give it its name …

The Well-Placed Heart

A well-placed heart is a heart that is set upon those objects that are of genuine value for a human life. What are those objects of value?  The Stoic position, and a constant theme in Seneca and Epictetus, is that there are two different classes of object that matter to a human being, but that they matter in very different ways.

One thinks first of what are called external objects, which is to say, objects  external to one’s own sphere of control, also called indifferents. Examples include the money and resources a person controls, what other people say about them, and in general how people around them might behave.

This kind of object will often be quite appropriate for a Stoic to try to get or to avoid, following what accords with our nature or is contrary to it. But it is a central postulate of Stoic ethics that external objects are neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad for us. They do not in themselves make the difference in what sort of life a person has. For this reason they are also referred to as indifferents.

In contrast to these are things within our sphere of control, what I like to call integral objects of concern. Integral objects are features of one’s own character and conduct: whether one is kind, whether one is fair, whether one behaves well in whatever situation presents itself. It is this sort of object that Stoics regard as the true goods and bads of human life.

Now, a basic descriptive claim of Stoic psychology is that it is the external objects that are the typical objects of the emotions we experience. The experience of fear necessarily involves thinking that something outside your sphere of control is a threat to your well-being. Grief necessarily registers a loss that you can’t do anything about.

The ancient Stoics reasoned that because these kinds of objects are not the true goods of human life, the ordinary emotions are simply wrong and stand in need of correction.

On the other hand, if the response is toward integral objects, it can be fully justified. The objection isn’t to the feeling itself—the ability to feel things is part of our design. The problem is the misjudgment of value that underlies typical emotional reactions. It’s like the old saying: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

The Stoic sage, what I refer to as the Person of Perfect Wisdom, has this right, doesn’t react emotionally to things that aren’t integrally important, but does experience deep and urgent feelings when the object is own activity and that of friends. These are the feelings designated “good emotions” or eupatheiai. It seems that the Stoic sage had not only the trivial pre-emotions but also quite a range of vigorous, full-scale affective responses toward integral objects of concern, objects both within herself and within her perfected relationships. The ancient reports list numerous examples: various forms of joy in response to the many good aspects of the wise person’s life; powerful motivations to do good or to form good relationships; aversions from any action that doesn’t belong in a good life.

But is that category of feeling accessible also to us? Can a person who isn’t the sage, who hasn’t perfected her rational nature, train her sights on those proper objects of concern and respond to those in the way that the Stoic sage would?

In the first instance, the answer has to be no. After all we aren’t people of perfect wisdom, and our friends aren’t either. Even our best ideas and efforts are still susceptible to error; they have to be different from what a perfect mind would experience. But this is a place where I think the modern Stoic might push back against the ancient position.

In the last chapter of Stoicism and Emotion, I take the view that even if the original Stoics didn’t fully articulate this part of their philosophy, the position they take on the emotions does have room for ordinary people to have some powerful and important feelings about the integral objects of concern.

Because the fact is, the emotions of familiar experience are not solely concerned with objects external to our sphere of control. Very often they are directed also, or even primarily, at integral objects, through a phenomenon that I’ll call “compounding.”

This is something I can access from my own inner experience as I imagine you do in yours. My grief for the loss of my mother is very much compounded with sorrow over the ways I might not have come through for her. My frustration at meeting resistance from a colleague is very much compounded by  distress that I haven’t been able to establish good communication with that person. And I wonder whether that integral component might not be the real driver in many if not all of our most serious anxieties and griefs, even angers, just as it is in some of our greatest satisfactions.

But we’re a mess: our motives are always very mixed, and often unknown to us. What we have on our hands, then, is not a project in eliminating or shielding ourselves from circumstances that tend to trigger emotions. It’s rather about purifying our response to them. And that’s not going to come about just through desensitization or visualization exercises.

Affective response implies a judgment of value: If I read the system correctly, the only viable approach within Stoicism is to work on the way we make judgments – that is, to take up the challenge of improving our reasoning abilities.

We’ve heard the word “reason” a lot today – and as far as I’m concerned we can hardly hear it too much. It’s a much needed corrective to what’s coming at us from the surrounding culture, where appeals to reason are scarcely to be heard anymore. For Stoics, ancient and modern, reason is the most essential of all our capacities, it’s the central fact about human nature and the only thing that can make us happy.

And while we are none of us perfectly rational, it is quite possible to improve our rational activity, through study, through self-examination, through  values clarification of the kind Chris Gill was talking about earlier.

The nightly self-examination that Seneca describes in writing about the management of anger is just one element of a process that requires a great deal of work in every moment of our lives.

As we begin to think more clearly about what really matters for a human being, the emotions begin – at least begin— to fall into line.

So there is a certain kinship with the Epicurean approach. We’ve seen how Epicurus taught his followers to think of their mind as a calm lake, realizing that the usual objects of fear are not really anything to worry about. Similarly, it is very important for the developing Stoic to come to the realization, through philosophical reasoning, that many of the things we might have thought were major concerns really aren’t that important.

And, remarkably, the Cynics are here as well. You remember that positive values for the Cynics included especially karteria or toughness and its correlate, ischus or strength.  You remember also the Cynic claim that it is the strong and tough condition that is the natural one for human beings. These claims have their counterpart within Stoic thought, in the way that Stoics think about how reason operates.

A central concept of Stoic physics is that of tonos or “tension”: the tight connections among those rational principles that hold the very universe together. But there is also tonos within the human mind. That psychic “tension” is understood as a grasp of central truths and values and as the ability to establish relations between those truths and values and our action-guiding beliefs.

As a characteristic of persons, Chrysippus speaks of eutonia or “good tension,” or more colorfully, of “having good tendons.” He writes,

In the case of the body we speak of tensions which are either ‘lacking in tension’ or ‘good tensions,’ referring to the way our tendons are when we are or are not able to perform tasks. In the same way, perhaps, the tension of the mind is called a ‘good tension’ or a ‘lack of tension.’ For…. by analogy, there is some such way for the tendons to be in the case of the mind. It is in this connection that we say, metaphorically, that some people are ‘without tendon’ and others ‘have tendons.’ One person retreats in the presence of what is frightening, another slackens and gives way when rewards or penalties are offered, and there are many similar cases ….

“Tension” here is a metaphor. We’re not talking about strength of body, nor even about strength of will as that phrase is usually understood. The essential Stoic idea is not about suppressing feelings that you have, but about learning to care more about the things that are worth caring about. Strength of reason gets the priorities right, and therefore gets the emotions right. That is a quite distinct understanding of what it is to live a dispassionate life.

In closing I’ll take us back to our word “professional.” I hope that in the talk today I’ve given voice to some of the thoughts that occur to you when you read this word professional: thoughts maybe about being calm and focused on what you’re trying to achieve; thoughts about your own abilities and the things you can control; thoughts about what really matters.

I wish you all well as you consider the ways you might take something back from this conference to your own place of work, and I thank you for your attention.

Margaret Graver is Aaron Lawrence Professor in Classics at Dartmouth College.  She is the author of Stoicism and Emotion and Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4, and the translator of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics .  She gave the keynote address at Stoicon 2017.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today, president of ReasonIO, adjunct professor at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design | Sadler's Lectures podcast - | YouTube channel with 1700+ philosophy videos -

4 thoughts on “The Dispassionate Life by Margaret Graver”

  1. Interesting to a point. The reliance on reasoning as a way out of the difficulties of understanding human condition is untrustworthy.
    Reason takes us only far enough to get us into a realization that we need more reason to keep understanding things that reason cannot itself explain. There is no pure reason. There are awarenesses, realms of awareness, that reason is unaware of.,thus it can’t be a know-all solution.

    Reason is a process that will lead to false conclusions, to a greater or lesser degree , but false none the less. in part because of the reasoners desire to know, to direct, to control, the outcome of the EFFORT of his mind.
    it limits the potential to understanding , to awareness.
    We don’t need to know. We don’t need answers. When there is awareness, there is no longer the problem because the awareness lends perspective and hikes the value system for “needing to know” to acknowledgement that need is, itself, unneeded.
    With a calm mind the problems vanish…trust me.

  2. Great post. Question: which of Seneca’s essays does this come from? “I do not deny that the wise person feels these, for we do not endow him with the hardness of stone or of iron. To endure without feeling what you endure is not virtue at all.”

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