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

Was I being too hard on the Stoics?

I have strongly criticized the Stoics, concluding that their assumptions about the fundamental difference between the mind and the body, coupled with the insistence that you really must choose to ignore anything most people would say is ‘bad’ lead to impossible recommendations for how to act among people. You might think I’ve been too harsh, but I saved the best for last.

At §20 Epictetus makes the utterly stoic claim that “foul word or blows” are only an outrage because you judge them to be. §29 makes sure you get the point is serious, warning the would-be stoic that there are real costs to choosing the stoic life: grueling hours, you will have to “abandon your own people” and suffer the social humiliation of being looked down on by slaves and “ridiculed by those who meet you”. In fact, according to Epictetus, a true stoic gets the worst of every type of social good such as honors and offices, and even justice. And the reward for losing out on everything social is “peace of mind, freedom and tranquility”. So they shouldn’t care in any way about social norms or insults etc and they shouldn’t ditch their ‘stained’ friends.

So you see the Stoic position is simply a lost cause when it comes to the emotions and socialization. The two go hand in hand. And as we’ll see below the ad hoc revisions later Stoics make are nice only in the context of their assumptions and are intellectually spurious when viewed from outside the theory.

Theoretical & methodological problems

So I’ve made a lot of hay by attacking the core Stoic idea that emotions are judgments, and by pointing out how difficult it is to hold on to other key Stoic principles while still trying to account for proper socialization. But in fact, it seems even the early Stoics were aware of the problem. They just didn’t do very much convincing theoretical work to address it.

Chrysippus, who I mentioned before, and the Roman Stoic Seneca, whom Dante, among others, thought very highly of, did try to patch up the Stoic issues with emotions. Sort of.

Chrysippus tried to change the view to the idea that each emotion involves two separate value judgments. The first that there is a good or bad at hand, and the second is that it is appropriate to react to it. What type of emotion you experience will be determined by whether the thing is thought to be good or bad. So, when you decide that someone smearing gunk on your shirt deserves punishment, you experience the emotion anger, even if you can’t or won’t actually act on it. Chrysippus thought that this showed that it’s the second judgment – that its appropriate to react – that is the very bad judgment. He does this, of course, because you tend to lose trust and interest when you argue that awful things such as your wife dying in childbirth, or genocide, aren’t “actually” bad. But this was the original Stoic position.

So since the Stoics started with the goal of convincing you emotions are bad – which they had to – they need something to be wrong about you being upset about the truly bad things that are happening to you. They separated the mind from the body in an irrevocable way by saying you can only control your mind and that you must control your mind. The orthodox Stoic view held that your emotions are functions of your reasoning power, your ability to figure out what to do in a given situation. To the extent the emotions look like bad thinking, they must be fixed. (And if the emotions had a physiological (body) component and were able to overcome your mind, well that’s just awful).

In philosophy we call changing your core theory for the sole purpose of saving it from a killer objection ad hoc reasoning. It’s considered very poor arguing and thinking to do so. If the new additions to the theory are true, or make the new theory true, that’s fine. But you shouldn’t go around trying to argue that your original theory was correct. And its very often the case that these theoretical refinements are simply made-up and have no supporting evidence, don’t fix the problem or are undone by other problems.

I think their ad hoc move fails and I’ll take a moment to explain why. First, let’s keep in mind that the Stoics lean heavily on the idea that human emotions are voluntary. Their best piece of evidence for that is that emotions are eradicable; they felt that because we can get rid of an emotion, this proves that emotions are by their nature voluntary.

Of course, this absolutely does not follow logically. Here’s an analogy: Imagine that for no reason that you had anything to do with you got selected as the winner of a prize. But you can get rid of the prize by refusing it or giving it away. Does that mean you chose to win it? It’s silly, but the Stoics need it to be true. So they insist it is.


Plato, Seneca and Aristotle. I can understand why the artist made them look like twins.

Seneca, famous for his work on anger, gave a better argument for how Stoics should understand the emotions. He explained that the initial appearance (“first movements”) of anger or shocks of anger don’t have to lead to full anger because full emotion requires acts of assent and will. His idea is that since you can question appearances and not accept them, you don’t have to become angry. If it looks like someone is stealing your laptop you don’t automatically get angry, you can stop the process and see whether or not the person really is stealing it and then get angry for real or not. But if you let the initial ‘anger shock’ guide you to act out, it’s your own damn fault.

I kind of like this idea, but it’s far away from orthodox Stoicism. It seems to leave the possibility that some emotional action is justified. But it has the flaw of not realizing that in some cases this “initial” part of anger could be the difference between life and death. And it’s changing the concept of anger by somewhat arbitrarily cutting it up between the ‘initial’ shock and the rest of it; why isn’t the heat I feel in my chest when I’m bumped harshly on the subway steps ‘actually’ anger?

What I like best about Seneca’s kinda Stoic view is that it really comes close to agreement with P-A-L; that line of thinking says that time to reflect often enables us to halt our emotions too. But at the end of the day the Stoics want and need to say that emotions are voluntary judgments through and through if they really want to convince people that they can and should get rid of their emotions. But this “two-part judgment process” that equals one emotion isn’t very convincing – or practical.

Final thoughts on Stoicism

In the end, advocating that people lose all their sentiments, leave their family and give up any chance at a meaningful social life simply is absurd. It’s ridiculous to suppose that human beings ought to follow this plan in order to be happy. Humans, our minds and bodies, are social creatures. At the bottom, Stoics believe this, even if they overtly try to deny it. That’s why they are so inconsistent about whether social concepts such are reputation are truly good or bad. It’s as simple as realizing that if you really believe that when someone makes you angry it’s simply always “just you” who has angered yourself, you’ve created a hopeless situation. The extent to which stoic psychology denies that emotions exist at both hot and cold levels and that some emotions can and must be experienced and acted on, is the extent to which Stoicism is useless as an ethical theory.

At the end of the day, because of its misunderstanding of emotions, Stoicism offers some great thoughts on strength of character but is severely flawed when it comes to how to deal with other people. And lets be honest, that’s the major part of ethics.

In the next post I’ll discuss the rise of materialism and introduce you to the father of Modern Philosophy, René Descartes.

Materialist and Mechanistic philosophy created the modern world


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