The Dispassionate Life by Margaret Graver

This talk was given at Stoicon in Toronto on October 14, 2017. The topic of the conference was  “Stoicism in the Workplace.” I would like to thank Don Robertson, Amy Valladares, and Greg  Sadler, for their work as organizers. A special tip of the hat goes also to Chris Gill, from whom I  received my first introduction to the Modern Stoicism movement. 

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?  

As an initial exercise, here is another set of words to think about. Where are we on these words? 

  • unmoved apathetic calm 
  • impassive serene unflappable 
  • tranquil unfeeling placid 
  • unsentimental unemotional unruffled 

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. 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.  

In this piece, I want to do two things. First, I want to probe the very notion of a dispassionate  life. What sort of life would that be? 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 trace some of the history of this  idea within Greek philosophy, as a way to bring out some of the different things “dispassionate”  might mean. I think this operation is extraordinarily important for modern Stoics and those who  may be curious about Stoicism. Some people may be reading this precisely because they are  interested in getting closer to a life free of emotional disturbance. Others may be skeptical 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. 

In this vein, 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  mental health in a very broad sense of the word.  

Three Ancient Schools of Dispassionate Living 

In what follows, we will touch base with three different groups or schools of Greek philosophy,  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.  

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 BCE, we  find two possibilities. One is pathos, ‘a way of being affected’; corresponding to the Latin word  affectus. The other is tarachē, ‘a disturbance’, for which the Latin equivalent is perturbatio. I do  not intend to make any distinction between these two terms. Some authors favor one or the other,  but the meaning is the same, or at least near enough to allow for the comparisons I’ll be making  here. 

The same goes for two related words that alternate in the record for the Greek philosophies we’ll  be looking at. From pathos was derived the term apatheia, the a- prefix indicating a lack or  absence. That one I’ll usually translate “impassivity.” And similarly, the word tarachē gets an a prefix and becomes ataraxia, which I’ll usually translate “non-disturbedness”. Either way, we  have a word tied to the idea of a life without emotion, without yet specifying what exactly such a  life might be.  

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. A  leader of the post-Platonic Academy, a philosopher by the name of Crantor, put the case against the dispassionate life 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.  — Crantor, quoted by Cicero, Tusc. Disp. 3.10 

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 or Dog-philosophers  

Now let’s get started with our dog-philosophers or Cynics. The English word “cynical” is not  particularly helpful for understanding the ancient Cynics. The term relates to the Greek word  kynes, meaning ‘dogs’ – a label that seems to have been deliberately chosen by the Cynics  themselves. As we’ll see, the mind of the Cynic was thought to be comparable, in a way, to the  mind of a dog.  

Our sources speak of quite a number of public personalities who took the label “Cynic,” in many  different places and times. Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, is often named as an important  influence, but Diogenes of Sinope, in the 4th century BCE, 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 time of 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 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  ischus, strength; sōphrosynē, self-control; autarkeia, self-sufficiency; parrhēsia, speaking one’s  mind – but above all, karteria, or toughness. So, the Cynic goes without shoes, not just as a way to avoid all the cultural baggage that shoes represent, but more importantly as a way to become  tough. If you walk barefoot long enough, eventually the skin of your feet will develop a callus,  and you won’t feel the stony ground.  

Along with these Cynic values goes the one they called apatheia. Indeed, apatheia was  sometimes named as the very hallmark of Cynicism. According to the biographer Diogenes  Laertius, it was because Antisthenes imitated Socrates’ impassivity that he was called “the first  founder of Cynicism.” 

Antisthenes learned endurance from Socrates and imitated his impassivity (apathes) and  thus became the first founder of Cynicism. 

Diogenes Laertius 6.2 

Similarly, we are told that Diogenes of Sinope was characterized by impassivity more than any  other trait (6.15), and that when Bion of Borysthenes took up the coarse robe and the beggar’s  purse that were the accoutrements of the Cynic, he was thereby converted “to impassivity”  (4.51). 

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. That is, 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 the inoculation technique called the pre-rehearsal of  future ills, in which one was 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 – so as to be prepared,  and not emotionally destroyed, if such an event ever came to pass in reality. That idea is even older than the Cynics: it was known already to the playwright Euripides, and although it is not specifically linked to Diogenes or any of the Cynics, it was undoubtedly known to them.  

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? So, for instance, this bit from one of the so-called Cynic Epistles: 

The many, when they hear that there is a short-cut that leads to happiness, are motivated  to philosophize as we do; but when they come to that road and see its difficulty, they turn  away like weaklings. Then they do not blame their own softness, but our impassivity  (apatheia).  

– Cynic Epistle #12 

For the Cynic, 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 cultural institutions. Such is the Cynic conception of impassivity. 

The Atomists Democritus and Epicurus 

For a different understanding of what it is to be emotionless, I turn now to the atomist tradition,  represented both by the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus and later by the Hellenistic  philosopher Epicurus. Both Democritus and Epicurus are remembered now especially for their  theories about the nature of the universe, how everything we observe can be made up of just  atoms and void. But both were important also for their teachings in ethics, and there are some  points of similarity between them. 

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” (Diogenes  Laertius 9.45). Notice the terminology: a state free of both emotion, pathos and disturbance,  tarachē; 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, galēnē, 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. Think of a 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.  

Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 3.33 

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. 

The Stoics On Cynic Impassivity 

We’ve now seen two versions of the dispassionate life: the thickened-skin impassivity of the  ancient Cynics, and the non-disturbedness of Democritus and Epicurus. Let’s now compare both  of those the Stoic conception of impassivity. 

Of course the very word “impassivity” 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, James C. Taylor’s “Stoic Pig,” from A Porcine History of  Philosophy and Religion (Abingdon Press, 1972). 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. 

On the Constancy of the Wise 10.4 

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” (On the Brevity of Life 14.2). In the Letters on Ethics 9.3, 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. It is a point that he especially emphasizes, building on  claims that he must have found in earlier Stoic texts. In the literature, the kind of involuntary  feeling he describes is sometimes called a “pre-emotion” (propatheia), or, equivalently, a “proto passion” or “first movement.” 

Fans of Epictetus will recognize this idea of an involuntary emotional response. It is the one  articulated in in Fragment 9 of Epictetus, where he says that when some terrifying sound occurs  – for example, the sound of a building beginning to collapse – then “even the wise person’s mind  necessarily responds and is contracted and grows pale for a little while.” Not because the wise  person think that something genuinely bad is at hand, but “by certain rapid and unplanned  movements antecedent to the office of intellect and reason.”  

Clearly, Epictetus is thinking that a reaction you have quickly, before you have a chance to  decide whether the thing that is happening is harmful or helpful to you in some ultimate sense, is  not really very important. You might feel something, but what you feel is a flash in the pan:  brief, trivial and ineffectual. The Stoic can admit to this level of feeling without giving up on any  important principle. 

This gives us a kind of answer to Crantor’s complaint. But so far it is only a partial answer. The  point about involuntary feelings does help to clarify what counts as an emotion; it does not,  however, explain why the Stoics have to say about reactions that go beyond the tears, the  laughter, the trembling or the blush, to the involvement of our reasoning powers. Nor does it  explain why the Stoics objected to the actual emotions of human life. And surely it is those  emotions that Crantor has in mind. 

The Well-Placed Heart 

What then is the Stoics’ own understanding of impassivity? To grasp that, we have to consider  the school’s position on values. As we’ve already seen, their analysis was that a significant  affective response, the kind that isn’t just a momentary flash of excitement or irritation, always  involves a mental commitment to some judgment of value. When your read on a situation is that  something really bad or really good for you has just happened or is about to happen, and you 

have a visceral reaction on that basis, that is what Stoics mean by  emotion. Their doctrine on impassivity follows from there. In a  word, their view is that a wise person won’t have that visceral  response toward things that aren’t in fact good or bad for a  person, but only toward things that are. The wise person will  have what I call a well-placed heart, one that is set upon those  objects that are of genuine value for a human life.  

Let’s see how that works.  

In the Stoic system of value, there are two different classes of object that human beings are concerned with. Both classes matter, but that they matter in very  different ways. The first is that of external objects, which is to say, objects external to one’s own  character and conduct. Examples include the money and resources a person controls, what other  people say about them, their health and the health of their relatives, and other events whose  causes lie outside one’s own sphere of control.  

Obviously, every one of us is much concerned with this class of object, and there’s every reason  we should be: otherwise, it’s hard to see how we could be active in the world at all. But in a  Stoic ethics, none of these objects is genuinely and intrinsically good or bad for us. Whether a  person manages to obtain the more agreeable of them, or to avoid the disagreeable ones, does not  in itself make the difference in their having a good life. For this reason, these objects are also  referred to as indifferents. 

The second class of objects is very different. What counts here are features of one’s own  character and conduct: whether one is kind, whether one is fair, whether one behaves well whatever the situation might be. I like to call them integral objects of concern. It is these objects that Stoics regard as the true goods and bads of human life.  

Now, a key premise of the ancient Stoic position on emotional response was that the emotions  we typically experience are all directed at the first type of object—the indifferents. Fear is what  we feel when we think something is about to happen that we can’t control and that is a real threat  to our well-being. Distress registers our belief that something in our present circumstances is bad  for us, something we can’t easily get rid of. Even pleasure and delight arise from our belief that  the world has handed us something good.  

And for Stoics, that is exactly the problem with the emotions as we know them. Emotions are a  way of registering value, but the values they express are mistaken values. They react to external  objects as if they were the things that really matter in life, when in fact only features of our own  character or conduct are truly good or bad for a person.  

For that reason, the wise human being of Stoic theory does not ever experience emotions in  relation to external objects. He or she is impassive, apathēs, toward them. On the other hand, the  person of perfect wisdom may experience a strong, value-laden and affect-laden response toward  the integral objects of concern. When the object in view is a real good or evil, the ideal person  experiences what the Stoics termed “good emotions” or eupatheiai. 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; a horrified aversion from any wrong or shameful  action. And these eupathic responses extend also to other people, within the context of true  friendship and true love-relationships. 

So it seems that the Stoics were quite serious in pushing back not only against Crantor but also  against the early Cynics. They did advocate for impassivity in relation to the external objects:  their ideal person does not expend emotional energy on such things. But they also had a place for  emotionality in the best human life. Their notion of impassivity could encompass not only the trivial pre-emotions but also full-scale affective responses, in the purified and corrected versions  that belong to the Stoic sage.  

When studying the ancient view, it is tempting to ask a further question. We’ve seen that the  person of perfect wisdom responds quite correctly to integral objects as occasions for joy or  wishing or (for the bad ones) aversion. But could not ordinary non-wise people also recognize  and respond to the integral objects as good or bad for themselves. Could we not recoil from vice  and long for virtue, like the young Alcibiades touched by  Socrates’ teachings? 

In the ancient texts, the answer to this question seems to be no. In the few passages I’ve been able to find where that interesting door is opened a crack, it’s immediately shut again. The Stoics reasoned, perhaps, that morally imperfect people don’t really have access to the attitudes and feelings of wisdom. Even our best ideas and efforts are still susceptible to error. The joys and sorrows of our present state must be quite different from what a perfect mind would experience.

Expanding the Ancient View 

But this is a place where the modern Stoic might reasonably seek to modify the ancient position.  In the last chapter of Stoicism and Emotion, I make the case that a view of the emotions that  develops on Stoic lines should give some thought to ordinary people’s feelings about virtue and  vice. Even if the original Stoics didn’t go in this direction, we today can expand our notion of  dispassionate living to include non-wise versions of the sage’s eupathic responses. 

For the fact is that 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.”  

Compounding is something I can access from my own inner experience, as I imagine you can in  yours. My grief for the loss of my mother is interlaced with sorrow over the ways I might not  have come through for her. My frustration at meeting with a difficult colleague gains much of its  force from the realization that I have failed by to establish good communication with that  person. Joy and pleasure in my experience have a great deal to do with feeling good about things  I am able to achieve, or with good qualities I discover in people I love. At least, that is how it is  enough of the time to make me wonder whether feelings relating to the integral objects might not  be a major component in many, if not all, of our most serious anxieties and griefs, even angers,  as well as in our greatest satisfactions.  

If that’s the case, then perhaps it is possible for a serious person to work through her emotional reactions, to get at the elements of true belief that are contained in them while letting go of the  mistaken values that are probably in there as well. Maybe not in the heat of the moment: the  ancient authors observed, quite rightly, that rethinking an emotion while you are right in the grip  of it is essentially impossible. But after the fact, we can review what our complicated and messy  emotions are telling us about our evaluative beliefs. We can also work on our reasoning  processes themselves. That, I think, is the real task for modern Stoics: not to eliminate the  emotions across the board, not to shield themselves from circumstances that tend to trigger  emotions, not to retrain themselves through desensitization or visualization exercises, but to  purify the emotions by making them rational. If I read the system correctly, the only viable  emotion management technique within Stoicism is to fix the underlying judgments – both their  content and the habits of assent that give rise to them.  

Seneca’s account of his efforts to cure his own tendency toward anger can serve as one example  of the practical approach a Stoic might take. The practice he describes is intensely verbal and  logical, calling upon the ability of the mind to scrutinize its own previous decisions. He writes,  

I use this ability and each day I argue my case within myself. When the lamp has been  taken away from view and my wife falls silent (she knows my habits by now), I review my entire day and reflect upon my words and deeds. I hide nothing from myself. I pass  over nothing. Why should I fear any of my errors, when I am able to say to myself, “See that you don’t do this again.”  

On Anger 3.36

The self-examination that Seneca describes doesn’t concern only those moments in which he  became angry. It seems to be a more general review of his behavior, such as can bring out the  decisions that underlie all his words and actions and can evaluate their internal logic. It is not a  quick fix: its merits are honesty and completeness. And this is just one element of a process of  rational self-scrutiny and self-correction that a Stoic might employ for an extended period of  time. As one begins to think more clearly about what really matters for a human being, the  emotions begin – at least begin— to fall into line.  

The dispassionate life and the life of reason 

We hear a great deal about reason in Stoic studies – and as far as I’m concerned we can hardly  hear 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 individual exercises like  Seneca’s nightly routine, or through discussions with a like-minded friend. 

The Stoic version of the dispassionate mind has a certain kinship with the Epicurean approach.  We’ve seen how Epicurus taught his followers to use their powers of scientific reasoning to  convince themselves that the objects that most frequently give rise to fear, desire, or are not  really anything to worry about. Through disciplined application of rational thought, the  Epicurean mind becomes like a calm lake with nothing out there to disturb it. In Stoicism, the language of “indifferents” – a constant refrain in both Seneca and Epictetus – is quite similar, in  that it appeals to philosophical reasoning to alter the learner’s beliefs about what objects merit  the emotional response.  

In essence, both systems dismiss the majority of emotions as arising from false beliefs that can  be corrected. Both also make some allowance for emotions that arise from true beliefs, though  here there is a difference. Epicurus suggests preserving tranquility by “redirecting” the mind  away from sources of distress. The Stoics speak of a wise person who is completely serene in the  face of externals, but has a lively affective response to aspects of her own character and  behavior, seeing them, correctly, as good and desirable or (potentially) bad and to be avoided. For similar reasons, modern Stoics can find a role for truth-based emotions even among the non wise.  

In a way, the Cynic conception of apatheia also has a counterpart within Stoic thought. We’ve  seen that among the preeminent values for the Cynics are toughness (karteria) and strength (ischus). It’s not always clear, in a Cynic context, whether that means bodily toughness and  strength, or mental – if we could ask Diogenes, no doubt his answer would be “both.” But there’s  no question that for the Cynics, the best and most natural condition for human beings is the one  in which we are able to shrug off all the usual causes of pain, embarrassment, fear, and sorrow.  Becoming strong means developing a kind of immunity to such things. 

Stoic thought offers a similar idea, but cashed out in terms of the way our reasoning powers operate. The human mind can be either “strong” or “weak” in terms of its readiness to assent;  that is, to yield to new impressions. Weak minds are ones that give way easily, taking on board  many unwarranted notions. The strong mind of the sage demands proper justification before  endorsing an impression as true. Since emotional responses occur only when we make certain  kinds of judgments about things we think are good or bad for ourselves, sound habits of assent  would ensure that we never experience emotion on the basis of false estimations of value.  

The ancient Stoics could express this idea in physical terms, by saying that the wise person’s  mind consists of “spirit” or “breath” (pneuma) in its optimal level of “tension” (tonos). In Stoic  physics, the entire universe is pervaded by pneuma, or energized air, which carries with it the rational principles that coordinate all of nature in a single interconnected system; and we, too, at  our best, function in a way that expresses tight logical connections among our beliefs and  judgments. Chrysippus of Soli also speaks of this same “tension” by analogy to our bodily states.  In Book 4 of his treatise On Emotions, he writes that just as the body may be either “lacking in  tendons” or “having good tendons” when it is or is not able to perform various tasks, so the mind  lacks tension when it yields too readily to emotional triggers, but has “good tension” (eutonia) when it resists.  

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. 

Chrysippus in von Arnim, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta 3.473 

It is important that Chrysippus marks this language as the language of metaphor. We’re not  talking here 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  insisting on sound logic in the judgments you form about what is valuable in your life. Strength  of reason gets the priorities right, and therefore gets the emotions right.  

In closing, let’s return once more to the word “professional.” I hope that reading this short essay  has been of use to you in articulating some of the thoughts that come to mind when you read this  word professional: thoughts, perhaps, 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  fairness, courage, intelligence, and strength. Dispassionate living is all of that; and if the ancient  philosophers we’ve looked at here have it right at all, then it’s happiness as well. 

FOR FURTHER READING 

Annas, J. 1992. Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind. Berkeley.

Branham, R. B., and M.-O. Goulet-Cazé, eds. The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and  its Legacy. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Gill, C. 2013. “Philosophical therapy as preventive psychological medicine.” In Mental  Disorders in the Classical World, ed. W.V. Harris, 339-60. Leiden ; Boston : Brill.  

Graver, M. Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4. Chicago, 2002.  

Graver, M. Stoicism and Emotion. Chicago, 2007. (Helpfully summarized by Massimo Pigliucci: https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/tag/stoicism-and-emotion/

Malherbe, A.J. 1977. The Cynic Epistles. Missoula, Mont.: Society of Biblical Literature. 

Rist, J.M. “The Stoic Concept of Detachment,” in J.M. Rist, ed., The Stoics. Berkeley: University  of California Press, 1978.  

Striker, G. 1996. Essays in Hellenistic Epistemology and Ethics. Cambridge. 

Warren, J. 2002. Epicurus and Democritean ethics : an archaeology of ataraxia. Cambridge;  New York: Cambridge University Press.

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 - https://soundcloud.com/gregorybsadler | YouTube channel with 1700+ philosophy videos - https://www.youtube.com/c/GregoryBSadler

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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