What Everyone Ought to Know about Stoic Thought on the Emotions pt II of IV


As I mentioned in the first post on Stoicism, the famous Stoic Epictetus wrote a very influential guide on how to be a Stoic called Enchiridion. The title translates to “the Handbook” or “the Manual”, and Epictetus certainly had the expertise to write it. So that makes it an excellent place to get a good grasp on Stoicism in practice and away from more “academic” debates.

I’m briefly bringing up the idea of the difference between Stoicism in practice and theoretical Stoicism for a couple of reasons. First, I’m trying to be as generous as possible to the philosophy. Many great, intelligent individuals, people who have really had interesting and good lives, counted themselves as Stoics. That says something to me. So there’s a lot about Stoicism in practice that I want to applaud, and I’ll try to be clear about that.

But I’m here to attack, and one of the first things I noted in studying Stoicism with a focus on the emotions was how blatantly Stoic psychology deviates from earlier theory. Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius and many others were all in basic agreement that the emotions were things that happen to us, that they are a major source of human action, and that virtue consists in properly acting on them. They even argued that acting emotionally is often good and proper.

But not the Stoics. They didn’t believe that things that happen to us could directly cause us to act. Instead, they argued that “what disturbs men’s minds is not events, but their judgments on events… so when we are hindered, or disturbed, or distressed we should never lay the blame on anyone but ourselves, on our own judgments”.

That basically means that for the Stoics, emotions are nothing but negative choices, the willful act of subverting or undermining yourself. Before explaining how they got there, let me point out that when Stoicism was first being developed by Zeno and then even further by a man named Chrysippus, many thinkers felt they were being so blatantly anti-Platonic and anti-Aristotelian that they were disagreeing with them and others just for the sake of having their own school of thought. We’ll never know if that’s true, but I admit that something like that seems right to me.

Chrysippus, the "second founder" of Stoicism

Foundation: Section 1 of Enchiridion

Enough about that, though, let’s get on with our study of the Stoicism and the emotions. The Enchiridion begins with a hugely important, incredibly influential pair of closely related claims. Epictetus writes that “everything is our own doing, our thoughts, our impulse to act, and our will to get or avoid things, etc, are completely within our power to control“. I genuinely like how life-affirming that idea is. But its not just a life-affirming aphorism, its part of a major, fundamental claim for the whole of Stoic psychology. And its directly followed by the claim that “our bodies are not under our control”.

This is huge. It’s radical. I take them to be the first psychologists who ever argued for this fundamental disconnect between what the mind and body are and what they do. As I’ve argued, this idea is not present in prior psychological theories. But it is present in a whole lot of philosophies afterward. The most important and influential person to accept this disconnect was Descartes.

Look, if you’re like most people, its likely that you (unlike I) believe there is a fundamental difference between ‘your soul’ and ‘your body’. And you probably do for religious reasons. But religion or metaphysics is not the point here. For all I care, let there be such a thing as an incorporeal soul.

The problem is what happens when you insist that the human brain/mind is wholly distinct from the human body, and that one is everything good and valuable about you and the other is everything bad and worthless about you. This belief  ignored the best empirical science of their time and the Stoics had the benefit of studying the psychological and ethical theories of PlatoAristotle and Lucretius, none of which accept the Stoic disconnect, and in fact, reject such thinking.

In rejecting the P-A-L account of mind and emotions, the Stoics turn to a wholly ungrounded theory absolutely committed to the primacy of the ‘purely rational’ intellect. The main underlying thesis of the Enchiridion, fundamental to Stoicism when it was written, was already totally at odds with basically all thought on the emotions since Homer.

As the Enchiridion makes clear, for Stoicism, in theory and in practice, you are your mind. And having emotions is choosing to cloud yourself, to mislead yourself with incorrect judgments. You, your rational mind – and not your body – are the only thing in the world that can harm you because you are only harmed when you think yourself harmed. Its all in the first section of the book.

And as I’ll explain, this fundamental disconnect between the mind as ‘our own doing” and the body as “not our own doing” leads them inexorably to conclusions that create insolvable problems regarding what to say about the emotions and emotional actions. Ethics is in large part about human relations. And Stoicism in practice is supposed to guide you to a happy, virtuous life. Unfortunately, what the Stoics think about emotions will make it pretty plain that their philosophy contains a fundamental contradiction that cannot be resolved without question-begging or rejiggering the account of emotions (which we call ad hoc revision).

A bit more on emotions as judgments

The Enchiridion leaves no doubt that emotions are identified as judgments. At §16 for example, Epictetus suggests that if we see someone crying in sorrow we ought to remember that what distresses him is not the event (e.g. his child dying), because that does not distress another, but his judgment on the event. The idea is that because a complete stranger would not feel as badly as a child’s parent when the child died, this proves that the real problem here is not the child dying but the parent’s decision that the child dying was a terrible thing. No matter the situation, your judgment is the reason you get distressed and any sorrow you feel is simply from the judgment. Of course this does not follow logically, and experience tells us otherwise, but that’s what they’re selling.

Yet just a few pages later, in §30, Epictetus introduces an idea in great tension with this belief.  There he advises us that you can only discover what to judge people on, you can only discover what you should expect from people, when you understand the relation between that type of person (parent, sibling, employer, etc) and you. His idea is that if you only expect your mother to act the way mothers do, and to see the world through the eyes of a mother, then you will not be disturbed by the way your mother acts towards you.

So, for example, if you think your mom is always on your case about how fast you drive and you get offended and get angry, all that’s happened is that you have failed to understand the situation, you made a bad judgment. When you see that your mom’s comments are made out of care, you will cease to be insulted and realize you’re not hurt. Now, wouldn’t the parent who lost her child have a reasonable expectation about their child’s life-long relation to them? Would that relation have a major influence on the person?

Let’s pick up with that thought next week.


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