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13: The Case for and against Eradication of Emotion

PART II: Value of the Emotions Cognitive Therapy and the Role of Philosophy
13: The Case for and against Eradication of Emotion
I have postponed discussing the ideal of eradicating emotion just as I postponed discussing the thesis of indifference because I find these belong to the less acceptable side of Stoicism. It may even be wondered if the ideal of eradication can constitute a serious issue. As the work of LeDoux illustrates humans along with other animals have been given an automatic emotional system as a safeguard for their own survival. Admittedly the basic system does not involve conscious judgement so not emotion as the Stoics define it but the addition at least in humans of judgement makes the system an even better safeguard for survival. Moreover I have made it clear where my own sympathies lie. It is hard to overstate the value of the love between parent and child or between sexual partners. My interest Stoic therapy therefore is in its ability to get rid of unwanted or counter-productive emotions not of all. I do think emotions may be counter-productive far more often than is recognized. But what I want to consider in this chapter is Chrysippus’ much more radical thesis that nearly all of them should be eradicated. What reasons could there be? Some of the reasons are very challenging. And on the other side many of the obvious objections to his position miss the mark. So the case against eradication is not so obvious as one might take it to be at first. I shall start with the reasons for eradicating emotion.
Reason for rejecting emotion: indifference

The first reason for eradication is the peculiarly Stoic one discussed in the last chapter which the Stoics do not expect other schools to accept and do not necessarily find useful in therapy. It is that emotions in Chrysippus’ view are not only judgements but false judgements. For they consist partly of the judgement that things are good or bad whereas nothing is in fact good or bad except character. The rest is indifferent. Even in the case of character although people distressed at their own character are not wrong in thinking bad character is genuinely bad they are wrong in their other judgement. For they are mistaken in supposing that the appropriate reaction is inner contractions.1

Reasons for rejecting emotion: tranquillity dignity
Both the believers in moderate emotion and the believers in freedom from emotion were in the post-Aristotelian period trying to offer some kind of tranquillity. That might be conceived in terms of Democritus’ word euthumia ‘cheerfulness’ as it was by the Stoic Seneca who offers tranquillitas as the Latin translation2 and by the Platonist Plutarch. Or it might be conceived in terms of ataraxia freedom from disturbance as it was by the Epicureans and Pyrrhonian sceptics. One objection to emotions is that they are disturbing and so preclude tranquillity. This point is emphasized when Cicero over-translates the Greek word for emotion pathos choosing the Latin term perturbatio which actually means disturbance. Cicero also gives a distinct reason as we saw in Chapter 2 why distress is the wrong reaction even to one's own faults of character: it is a further fault of character not to be dignified (gravis).3
Why not retain just the pleasant emotions?
But why then do the opponents of emotion not admit that the pleasurable emotions should be retained? Part of their rationale is that pleasant and unpleasant emotions go together. You cannot hope for the pleasure of obtaining what you want without being liable to anxiety as to whether you will get it depression if you do not pride if you do fear that you may lose it possibly the experience of actual loss even jealousy anger fear or subservience.4 As John Cleese says in one of his films ‘It's not the despair I mind; it's the hope I can't stand.’5 The Pyrrhonian sceptics put the point well:
When he gets control of what appears to him good he falls into no mean disturbance because of conceit and fear about losing it and caution about not getting back into a situation which he considers bad by nature.6
There is another reason for not trying to retain just the pleasant emotions. For in many of them the painful aspect is inextricably intertwined with the pleasant and the intertwining here is not between different emotions but within the compass of a single emotion. The point is made by Plato for anger distress and envy7 and it has been repeated in modern literature.’8
Reasons for rejecting emotion: ordinary family love turns into hate
Epictetus offers the most forthright challenge. The Stoics had come to celebrate family love especially that of parents for children as the basis on which a sense of justice can grow by a process of oikeiōsis.9 But Epictetus condemns ordinary family love. Because it does not treat indifferent things as indifferent it readily turns into hate a phenomenon that even modern supporters of the emotions acknowledge.10 Contrary to Adolf Bonhöffer I think Epictetus regards ordinary untutored love for offspring as a pathos.11
In a discussion which Brad Inwood has analysed Epictetus argues that untutored affection for children wife or friends is not love (philein) at all12 and this is partly because it fails to treat things as indifferent.13 Another way of putting it is that what we really treat as belonging in the process of oikeiōsis is our own interest (to sumpheron).14 And we too readily locate our interest in things other than the quality of our proairesis or will.15 Epictetus imagines objections:
How so? ‘I am foolish but I still love (philō) my child.’16 ‘But he has cared (therapeuein) for me for so long and did he not love me?’17 ‘But she is my wife and we have lived together for so long.’18
Epictetus imagines one may well have been in agony over one's small child's fever and often said ‘I wish I had the fever instead.’19 But this does not prove love (philein) nor even good will (eunoia).20 For if we throw a piece of land or a woman or a bit of glory between father and son how they will wish for each other's deaths.
Then you will say ‘What a child I have brought up. He has long been carrying me out to the grave.’21
The point is that people not only put the wrong value on their child's life and health but also on many other things extraneous to their own character and will. They value land or women or glory and that is why their love was never real. Eriphyle and Amphiaraus had lived together long enough and had many children yet a necklace came between them.22
Only in the light of this view can one understand Epictetus’ notorious advice that you should remind yourself when kissing your wife and children that you are kissing a mortal.23 Epictetus believes this attitude shows in the end a truer concern. I shall return to the idea in Chapter 15.
Epictetus is reverting to an early Stoic view of humanity. Whereas Cicero and Seneca had associated Stoicism with the idea that oikeiōsis unites all humans into a single household just because they are human24 the founder of Stoicism Zeno had taken a sterner view. Only virtuous humans belong in his ideal community as fellow citizens; the others are enemies to each other.25 Epictetus provides a rationale. He says that we should not consider people as friends nor even as human unless they locate their personal interest in the character of their will. For otherwise they will be ready to do anything to each other.26 This contrasts with the more benign picture of humans in Cicero and Seneca as always willing to show the way to strangers or to share knowledge27 the very antithesis of Hobbes's view. Zeno and Epictetus without going all the way to Hobbes insist that only the rare standards of virtue can make people friends. Let us now consider the case against eradication.
Objections to eradication: is it suppression?
One objection to eradication may be drawn from modern psychiatry which emphasizes that emotions may be wrongly suppressed. People may be mistakenly convinced that they have not suffered anything bad when they have. Other emotional difficulties may arise if we suppress one emotion without having understood its deeper causes. But this objection would misunderstand the Stoic approach which is not to suppress emotion (that would be enkrateia karteria) but to dispel it through understanding the real situation.
Objections: Romanticism—should emotions be celebrated?
Another objection would be that emotions are to be celebrated. But most people would wish to be rid of some outbursts of emotion. Few of us will want to go along with the particular Romantic view which celebrates the emotions of the psychopath. Some emotions are to be celebrated but the question then becomes: which?
Objections: would eradication remove all motivation?
Lactantius objects that the eradication of emotion would remove all motivation.28 This might seem to be confirmed by recent neurophysiological findings according to which damage which flattens emotions thereby prevents decision-making.29 But I suspect that the damage in these cases will have flattened other desires and not just the emotions. The Stoics are right that not all desires are emotional. Their answer was explained in Chapter 2. Selection (eklogē) is the pursuit of indifferents seen as indifferents and this is in principle open to everyone. In addition the sage is motivated by seeing the good as good and the bad as bad and thereby experiencing eupatheiai. Neither of these attitudes commits the mistake that is involved in emotion of seeing indifferents as if they were good or bad and so both kinds of motivation are freely available.
It might be objected that desires in these circumstances will not be intense or energetically pursued. The opposite is the case. As we saw in Chapter 12 a later Stoic Antipater defines the goal (telos) of life as doing everything in your power to obtain the natural objectives. You should be nothing less than extremely energetic in your pursuit. The talk of indifference and reservation is not an advocacy of being I slack but of eschewing disappointment if you fail.
The intensity of Stoic motivation is illustrated in statues of the early Stoics. Paul Zanker in a brilliant book has contrasted them with the statues of the early Epicureans.30 The latter look so relaxed and tranquil as to appear almost vacant in expression. Their Stoic contemporaries by contrast are portrayed as totally intent. Their intensity is directed to their ratiocinations and to their teaching. Ratiocination and the teaching of it are things that matter. But it would be equally true of actions directed to indifferents that intensity is entirely compatible with freedom from emotion just so long as the indifferent things so energetically pursued are seen for what they are. The statues are a visual embodiment of this idea.
Objections: are emotions eradicable?
The obvious objection that emotions are an ineradicable part of our nature was extensively considered by the Stoics. Of course the automatic responses identified by LeDoux are ineradicable. But the question would be whether the judgemental responses are eradicable. As seen in Chapter 6 Posidonius despite advocating some kind of apatheia thought that an emotional part was built into our soul but this Chrysippus denied. For him the only relevant part of the soul was our reason. Seneca it was explained in Chapter 2 analysed emotion to bring out more clearly how it involved voluntary assent and there were debates we saw with other schools about whether emotions were thus voluntary or rather natural and necessary.
Objections: can we see what it would be like to be free of emotions? (a) Epictetus
The objection has been made that we cannot even see what it would be like to be free of emotions.31 There was a fictional character Dr Spock in the television series Star Trek who was supposed to be without emotion but it is complained the drama merely told you that he was without showing how this could be so.
A better modern model however for imagining what Stoic freedom from emotion would be like is provided as is briefly acknowledged by Buddhism.32 First we must recall that to be free of emotion is not to be free of strong determined and intense motivation. It is merely clear-headed motivation that understands according to the Stoics the true value of things. Secondly we should look at the exercises by which Epictetus leads his pupils towards freedom from emotion. In Chapter 15 I shall translate a passage33 in which he describes sending his pupils out at dawn equipped with a rule about what matters and what does not. They are to ask themselves as they see each agitating event whether it falls under the rule or not. For those pupils who survived the course—and Epictetus was very ready to dismiss non-survivors—one can see how training of this sort would in time lead towards the intended effect: freedom from emotion.
Seeing what apatheia is like: (b) the gods and the next life
There is another context in which ancient thinkers described a life in which ordinary emotions would be irrelevant. This is the context in which they consider the virtues or the happiness of the gods or of the blessed in the next life. Already Plato warns that his account of the soul as having spirited and appetitive parts or forms (eidē) and of justice as involving each of these parts or forms doing their own job applies only to the forms the soul takes in human life. Once it was freed from the body its love of wisdom (philosophia) would be the thing to look to. It might prove to have only one form and we might get a clearer view of justice.34
Aristotle thinks the activity of the traditional gods can only consist in intellectual contemplation and human happiness must emulate this:
We have supposed that the gods are especially blessed and happy but what sort of actions should one assign them? Just acts? Or will they appear ridiculous if they make contracts and pay deposits and so on? Brave acts enduring dangers and taking risks because it is noble to do so? Or liberal acts? But to whom will they give? And it is strange if they will actually have money or something like it. And what would their temperate acts be? Or is such praise vulgar since they do not have bad appetites? If you go through all the cases the context of actions will seem minor and unworthy of the gods. But yet all have supposed that they are alive and hence that they are active not that they are asleep like Endymion. If then acting is removed from a living being and still more making things what is left but contemplation? So the activity of God unique in blessedness must be contemplative and hence among human activities the one closest to this will be the happiest.35
Aristotle had earlier made much the same point about those humans who after death are said to go to the Isles of the Blessed:
You could see that what we are saying is supremely true if someone conveyed us in thought as it were to the Isles of the Blessed. For there there is no need of anything nor any advantage in anything else but only reasoning and contemplating are left which we say constitute the free life even now.36
Cicero in his lost Hortensius denies that in the Isles of the Blessed there would be any place for the four traditional virtues:
If we were allowed as the legends say to spend an immortal life in the Isles of the Blessed after passing from this life what need would there be of eloquence since there would be no trial or even of the virtues themselves? We should not need courage since no labour or danger would be set before us. Not justice since there would be nothing for strangers’ appetites to seek. Not temperance to rule lusts that would not exist. We should not even need prudence since no choice would be set before us between good and evil. So we should be happy in the knowledge and science of nature alone which is what alone makes the life of the gods also estimable. From this it can be understood that the rest is a matter of necessity only this a matter of will.37
Among the Christians Clement of Alexandria argues that the ordinary virtues would not be needed even in this life by someone who had been perfected.38 But Augustine comments that in his view-justice would always be needed39 and we shall see he says the same about some emotions. He none the less imagines that the life of the saints and of the heaven of heavens may consist in rapt contemplation of God with no awareness of past or future.40 The ideal of timeless contemplation is one he had encountered in Plotinus whom he echoes.41 Another Christian model of contemplation sets it in time as something that makes perpetual progress.42 The consensus here is that the life of the blessed would consist in contemplation.
Even though in Christian thought we shall have resurrected bodies these bodies may be so different as not to permit other sorts of activity. Augustine is repelled at the thought he rejects that anything like hunger or thirst might be necessary.43 Some sixth-century sources ascribed to Origen the view that our resurrected bodies would be spherical44 and although this was not in fact true of Origen it probably was of some sixth-century Origenists. Spherical bodies would restrict our activities still further and similar beliefs were widespread. Chrysippus thinks our souls are material and will after death be spherical45 just as God is spherical a point which Seneca turns into a joke against the Emperor Claudius.46 Among the Neoplatonists Iamblichus thinks our souls are housed in spherical vehicles of luminous matter like the stars which Plato sometimes treats as vehicles for souls.47 And Plotinus considers the implications for personality if souls after death have only spherical vehicles. He envisages that our souls may have got rid of emotions but he thinks of those that have not risen to the intelligible world as retaining memory and character (ēthē) and supposes that despite the spherical vehicles the individuality of their behaviour (idiotēs tōn tropōn) might persist and they might recognize each other through that all the more easily if they could talk.48 However those souls which were contemplating in the intelligible world would neither remember their past nor display character.49
These efforts at imagining a more blessed life are valuable in helping us to see that it is the circumstances of human life which make emotion seem so inevitable. There has been a long tradition that we should hope to pass to a better life. And when this supposedly better life is imagined it becomes less obvious how there would be a place for ordinary emotions.
Objections: would we be human?
A justly celebrated paper by Peter Strawson argued that without emotions we would scarcely be human and this has been reaffirmed in more recent literature.50 I am inclined to agree and I further declare my own wish to live a recognizably human life and not to be transformed into something different even if I could survive that change. But this further question of what life is preferable needs discussion for present purposes and was explicitly considered in antiquity. Aristotle in another part of the same passage from which I started addresses the question: is it wrong since we are human to aspire to the more divine life of intellectual contemplation? He replies (although I do not think this is his last word) that on the contrary our intellect is our truer self.51 And Plotinus takes the same view. It is our intellect with which we should so far as we can identify52 and then our stature is increased not diminished.53 Perhaps indeed we shall then hardly be human but the advantages or disadvantages of this were at least consciously discussed. This supplies the context for the sarcastic comment on some philosophers that one must become human before one can become divine.54 It also supplies the context for a view which will be encountered in Chapter 25. Some Church Fathers (not all) held that apatheia freedom from emotion was a suitable ideal but for the next life not the present one. Augustine we shall see was not of this persuasion but found room for emotion in the next life too.
Objections: would we be humane?
A related question is whether without anger and distress we would be humane. This subject is very well discussed by Martha Nussbaum.55 Do Nazi atrocities not call for anger or distress at least when directly encountered on pain of inhumanity? I think in any ordinary person they do. But we might not require this in a sage who was known for combining compassion with his or her serenity. The compassion would have to be an unusual one in that personal pain would never be a part of its motivation.
Objections: are not emotions useful?
I have already referred to the utility of emotions as part of a natural survival mechanism. Aristotle saw emotions not merely as useful but as essential to the best life to which humans can in practice attain. Though torn he recognizes that a life of nothing but contemplation is not possible for us. Even philosophers must eat and live in society and the happiest life will involve also exercising the virtues in society.56 The virtues in their turn involve hitting the mean point in emotion as well as in action. Among the virtues one of particular interest is friendship which involves emotion in a particularly direct way.
Here emotion enters into the very constitution of the best human life. But it was also asked whether emotions are not also instrumentally useful in many ways. It was objected against the Stoics that we need them for many activities. Do we not need them for battle for fighting in the arena for training animals for self-defence for ambition independence of spirit dutifulness law-abidingness prudence administering punishment or offering succour?57 On the other hand the Peripatetics themselves acknowledge that excessive emotion is not useful.58 And some of them agree that anger is not useful for punishment.59 As regards anger I have indicated that I think Seneca right. Anger is especially often counter-productive. What Seneca advocates in its place is firmness of purpose and anger does not correlate closely with that at all. I am not saying that we always can avoid anger nor am I denying that anger in the face of atrocities may be the more humane reaction. The question is whether it serves a useful or necessary purpose.
Punishment is a special case for the Stoics because their aim in punishing is correction as with a doctor60 and for getting the right correction anger is not useful. Seneca unnecessarily creates a problem for himself by giving two descriptions of the angry person's judgement at the stage of the second movement.61 If he judges ‘It is appropriate for me to be avenged because I am injured’ the concern with vengeance is clearly distinct from the Stoic sage's concern with correction. But Seneca's alternative formulation ‘It is appropriate for him to be punished because he has committed a crime’ blurs the difference between the angry person and the Stoic sage. The angry person will then be distinguished only when he passes to the third movement and judges ‘I must be avenged come what may (utique).’ Another way in which Seneca distinguishes the attitude of correct punishment is that the punisher is not avid for the punishment itself (ipsius poenae avidus).62
It may be objected: anger is sometimes useful because other people may need to be given a message. It is sometimes the best way to curb the bully or rowdy or simply to alert someone that the feelings of others need to be considered. I believe that regrettably this objection is very true and I may need to do more justice to it elsewhere. But the Epicureans have a rejoinder. These benefits can be gained by simulating anger. Epicurus we are told would simulate and Philodemus recommends the practice while Seneca repeats the point.63 So nothing need be conceded on this account to the idea that anger itself is useful.
Another example favoured by Seneca involves a contrast between pity which he rejects as being an emotion and mercy which he approves as compatible with clear thinking.64 Certainly when pity involves anxiety it can get in the way of helping. But with certain other emotions on the Stoics’ list it would be harder to deny their utility. In Chapters 25–6 we shall encounter the unpersuasive attempt of Clement of Alexandria to say that pleasure is never necessary65 and Augustine's reluctance in admitting that in the Garden of Eden procreation would have involved pleasure.
A recent discussion has argued that you need to have emotions in order to see things. Love can focus the attention and help in understanding.66 The discussion candidly admits that emotion can also blind.67 What one's emotion reveals when it does is often the state of other people's emotions so the utility presupposes the emotional life that we in fact lead: since others have emotions so should we. I believe the Stoics could accommodate this point. A Stoic sage if anyone achieves this ideal will have reached it by passing through emotions and reflecting very carefully on them. His freedom from emotion will have been gained through much experience of it and he will not be blind to others.
I think we can now see that the ancient assessment of the value of emotions was more radical in certain ways than modern assessments. First it considered the value of emotions not merely as a necessary response to other emotions but also against the imagined alternative of a complete absence of emotions as in the next life. Secondly it assessed the values of emotions not only in ordinary life but also at the extremes of human possibility for monks in the solitude of the desert or for Stoic sages trained from youth to reject whatever did not matter.
I have only touched on the issues sufficiently to show they are numerous but I hope two things will have become clear. One is that the case against eradication is not as straightforward as it might have seemed at first. The other is that the considerations for and against eradication help to bring out some of the sense of the rival ideals. With the sense now to that extent clearer I shall turn to the historical question which philosophers supported which ideals. The Christian philosophers will be treated later in Chapter 25.