What Everyone Ought to Know about Stoic Thought on the Emotions pt I

A brief background on the Stoics

If you say someone is stoic, you’re almost certainly giving them a compliment, specifically that they stood strong in the face of a very bad situation. And with that sort of good PR, its probably not a surprise that Stoicism is a very popular search term on Google. In fact, ‘Stoicism’ gets 56% more hits than ‘Platonism’ and 469% more hits than ‘Aristotelianism’.  Now, a lot of this is likely due to the facts that people usually search for ‘Plato’ instead of ‘Platonism’ and ‘Aristotle’ instead of ‘Aristotelianism’ and relatively few people know that Zeno of Citium founded Stoicism or even that its most well known exponent was Epictetus.

Still, the fact is that Zeno and Epictetus created and spread a philosophy that is quite famous and well respected even to the present day. That certainly deserves a lot of respect. And I highly recommend anyone interested in how ethical philosophy influenced modern religions study the Stoics. I can’t think of a philosophy closer to Christianity than Stoicism.

Here are four stoic books I can happily recommend:


Enchiridion – Epictetus

The Golden Sayings of Epictetus

The Meditations – (Personal journal of Stoic and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius)

With all that said, let me go a head and put it on the table that I’m going to be highly critical of the stoic view of the emotions. But before that, a little more background.

Zeno the Stoic, a near contemporary of Epicurus (341 B.C.), was born in 334 B.C. 13 years after the death of Plato (347 B.C.) and about 20 years before Aristotle died (322 B.C.). Zeno probably never met Aristotle but almost certainly knew Epicurus very well. In fact, many people think Zeno set up his school specifically as a counter to Epicurus’ school.

Be that as it may, the sad thing is all of Zeno’s writings are lost. As a result, we typically turn to the Roman stoics to study Stoicism. (No doubt that its huge importance in Rome, coupled with the Western World’s subsequent fascination with Ancient Rome, has played a major role in making Stoicism popular to this day).

Epictetus – The spokesman for Stoicism

It is not very controversial to say that the most compelling, most well regarded source of Stoicism we have is the works of Epictetus. Not only was he a very clear writer and consistent thinker, but his life story is also quite compelling. Unlike so many of the great philosophers before him, Epictetus was not a wealthy man. In fact, he was born and raised a slave, and suffered from a permanent physical disability that left him with a pronounced limp. However unfortunate you judge those limitations to be, he had the relative benefit of being the slave of a very important Roman administrator and thus received an excellent education, focused squarely on Stoic philosophy. And he did eventually gain his freedom.

The fundamental Stoic beliefs regarding the emotions

The Stoic philosophy of emotion builds on three fundamental claims. The first, absolute bedrock idea is that

Emotions are identical with judgments

The other two fundamental beliefs are that

Emotions are voluntary

And that

Emotions should be eliminated

Just to be clear, what they believe is that like when you feel happy or sad, it is exactly the same sort of mental process as when you decide someone is boring or that you would prefer cheeseburgers to doughnuts. And that these choices, the decisive opinions, are completely up to you and no one else. No one can make you prefer cheeseburgers and no on can make you angry. Only you can decide. Finally, you should not have any emotions.

You probably noticed that that last bit doesn’t exactly follow logically. I mean, just because of the fact that emotions are choices that you make and that only you can make, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have them. After all, they certainly don’t think you should have no judgments at all! So to understand the Stoics on the emotions we need to understand why emotions are not the kind of judgments you should have.

According to the great Cicero, a very famous Roman statesman, philosopher and legal scholar and in my opinion one of the 2-3 most brilliant Ancient Romans, who was often but not always an advocate of stoic teachings, the Stoics “refuse to concede that a person ought to have any feelings at all”.

A statue of Cicero from the Palace of Justice in Rome

And he’s right, the Stoic position on emotions is quite simply that they are bad and must be completely excluded from life if a person ever wants to be good and happy. As you may have already figured out, I find this conclusion completely misguided, and easily the least satisfactory account of the emotions in the ancient world. I’ll argue that the Stoic philosophy of emotions was guilty of egregious errors that, due to Stoicism’s pervasive influence for subsequent thinkers, have done an extraordinary amount of damage to our understanding of the emotions and so to our ethical thinking.

More specifically, I’m going to show you how Stoicism was the starting point for the fundamental flaws present in what today we’d call “cognitive” theories of emotion and motivated the fundamental flaws present in what today we’d call “physicalist” (I call them visceral) theories of emotion.

Next week I’ll begin laying out Epictetus’ “handbook for Stoicism”, the Enchiridion


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