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

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Last time we finished up with the example that if you get ‘angry’ about your mom complaining about your driving, the Stoic view would be that you are misunderstanding the situation. You are choosing to believe you were slighted or violated by your mom’s comments, even though in reality, given that moms are supposed to care deeply about their children’s safety, you should expect such comments. It’s part of the parent-child relationship. And if you understand that, then it should eliminate the idea that you’re somehow being hurt by the comments. So you can and should choose to stop being angry. And when you do so, you will cease to be angry.

Epictetus goes even further than that in §42 of Enchiridion when he recommends that when a person “treats you ill or speaks ill of you” we should be ‘mild in temper” and say to ourselves “it seemed so to him”. The idea being that their opinion of you can’t hurt you unless you decide it is really a hurt and that in cases where they really are wrong about you they are the ones who get hurt because they are deceived and it’s bad to believe false things.

This can probably be summed up by the later Christian idea of “turning the other cheek”. You won’t find recommendations like that from the line of thought extending through Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius (which I’ve been calling P-A-L).

In fact, in the very first chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle hits on a key problem with the idea of the weight of relationships in ethics. He advises that you can’t judge whether a person’s life was virtuous or happy until they have passed away because there is so much unpredictable stuff that can happen that could ruin the life or the person. Like a parent losing a child: A vivid example of this is in the classic movie Ordinary People.

The underlying idea here is that specifically because of the intimate, fundamentally important relationship you have with your family, your emotional well being is not totally in your hands. To form those types of bonds and gain all that they can give you requires being vulnerable to the possibility of ruin. And the kicker is, as the heading above indicates about me, we can all be described by quite a few different relationships, we all wear many hats. And each of them works to change our frame of reference.

The Stoics refuse to accept this, and to me this is unrealistic for all but the most terribly isolated people. It’s hard to imagine a world where you aren’t ever supposed to take it seriously when e.g., your lover, employer, a rival, etc, expresses a highly negative opinion of you or your behavior, or when a close friend dies.

Patience and control

§10 reinforces the point made in §1 that we must be clear on the difference between what is truly controllable and what is not. It explains that you must look to yourself and see what abilities you have that can deal with things that happen to you. So if you have to deal with someone being really vulgar, though you can’t control them, you do have the power to be patient. So you must train yourself to know that you always have a faculty to deal with that which is not directly in your power to control. Religious folk might note this sounds like the saying that “god never closes a door without opening a window”. This is good advice, but according to P-A-L they are neglecting the fact that emotions are just as effective a tool, and in many situations they are much better. As I’ve said, the Stoic starting point that what is in our control (our minds) matters greatly and what is out of our control (our bodies, others) does not matter is dangerous. And it’s hard to take. But Epictetus himself is inconsistent on it.

The only thing that matters is your mind, so do what’s right no matter what…sort of.

In §35 Epictetus asks rhetorically, “If you’re action is wrong, avoid doing it all together, but if it is right, why do you fear those who will rebuke you wrongly?” That’s honorable, and it’s consistent with the other major claims we’ve looked at. But it turns out that it’s really complicated to see what that means when you’re dealing with others. For example, at §33 Epictetus says we should “refuse the entertainment of strangers and the vulgar” because if you don’t you will “share the stain of any comrade” – even if you are both actually ‘clean’. On one hand this makes sense, people do judge you by the company you keep. But why should a Stoic care? Say that you are a Stoic spending time with someone with a bad reputation, or who is otherwise considered undesirable, but you are yourself faultless. Earlier the recommendation was to ignore people who say bad things about you. So why does it matter now that there is a social cost – getting a stain – for hanging out with people, even friends, who some people don’t like? Shouldn’t he say that it’s completely irrelevant whether you suffer socially for befriending ‘stained’ people? In the same section.

Then in §36 Epictetus says that “if you want to maintain social decencies, it is worthless to do things like taking the larger portion at a banquet, even though it is worthwhile for your body. You should remember to maintain your self-respect before your host”. I guess you could argue he’s not saying you should maintain social decencies. But the fact that it’s not a very long book and he still thought to include this advice says something. But where’s the virtue in starving rather than maybe seeming immodest to your host? After all in §30 he says that “every living creature has a natural tendency to avoid and shun what seems harmful and all that causes it, and to pursue and admire what is helpful and all that causes it”.

Supposedly, for a Stoic neither being punished nor being poorly thought of is ever a reason to do a bad action or to avoid a good action. So the only reason a Stoic could have for following the advice in §33 would be if there was reason to avoid a right action because of the impressions you might cause in other people. But that doesn’t make sense. Are Stoics expected to live their lives trying not to give strangers bad impressions by consciously avoiding friends who are stained – even wrongly stained?

He’s already insisted that anything that is not in our power does not matter at all. And I’m sorry but you can’t say with a straight face that we can control how a third party feels about our friends – or even ourselves. We can control how we present ourselves to people, but what goes on in other people’s heads, and by what measures and prejudices they judge us, are largely a mystery. Seriously trying to be inoffensive to strangers would lead to paralysis or obsequiousness (which many find offensive).

The principle of charity suggests that there’s a way to mesh A) “things that you don’t control don’t matter” with B) “always do what’s right no matter what”, C) “let it slide when people insult you”, D) “don’t bore people”, E) “don’t seem greedy to people” and F) “avoid social stain”. I just don’t see it. To me, you can’t get the social rules like C-F without dropping or editing A or B.

Emotions cause problems for Stoicism that they don’t for P-A-L

So now we have a good understanding of the Stoic idea that emotions are judgments. And we see that they make it pretty clear that emotions are bad judgments that need to be eliminated. Now here’s the thing. The P-A-L account does not want to do away with emotions; it says that correct emotions are a big key to human happiness. And a fundamental support for that is this idea that humans are social animals, for whom interpersonal relationships matter deeply. Put simply, the P-A-L account says that emotions are a major faculty for social animals to coexist successfully, for individuals to properly relate to their groups. One explanation for the Stoic dismissal of emotions might be that Stoicism really is an ethical theory for ‘radical’ individuals. But that’s not it. Eight of the fifty-two sections of the Enchiridion discuss the social aspects of being a Stoic and analyzing these sections shows the real issue. Stoicism has a huge problem with properly explaining morality in social situations because their theory of emotions kills them.

We’ll have one more post on the Stoics and then it’s on to the modern world.

The Modern World: Brought to you in part by René Descartes


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