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15: How the Ancient Exercises Work

PART II: Value of the Emotions Cognitive Therapy and the Role of Philosophy
15: How the Ancient Exercises Work
What Chrysippan psychotherapy can and can't do

Before I get into the methods of Chrysippus’ psychotherapy I should recall what was said in Chapter 10 about what it can and what it can't do. It is directed to situations. Typically it is directed to our evaluation of situations as good bad and calling for reaction. Occasionally it is directed to the non-evaluative facts of the situation as when Seneca advises Lucilius to assume that everything will be all right although Seneca admits that this is not the Stoic way of speaking.1

The word ‘therapy’ though it is the Stoics’ own metaphor will mislead us if it causes us to think of treating an individual psyche that has come to function badly perhaps because of individual childhood relationships or chemical imbalance. The Greeks have little to say on the former; Galen we shall see in Chapter 17 has much to say on the latter; but Chrysippus in this context addresses neither. The Stoics in his tradition focus on situations on the ordinary ups and downs of life on bereavement loss of office promotion the rat race money invasions the sacking of cities exile worries about health. They are not concerned even with moods because moods are not firmly directed to particular situations. In this followers of Chrysippus are quite unlike Plato Posidonius and Galen whose diet music and exercises are designed to rear children to have the right moods. And they are unlike the Christian Evagrius who will be discussed in Chapter 23 and who tackles the moods of depression called akēdia. I further pointed out in Chapter 10 that Plato Posidonius and Galen have far more to say about emotional help for children. Chrysippan techniques tend to be too intellectualistic for them although they can be very useful for adults.
Everyone finds the situations of human life hard to deal with not because of something special about their individual psyche. The Stoics think we all tend to have the wrong evaluations and they believe the remedy lies in a change of attitude. But the focus is on the situations themselves and how to see them. And this is useful because advice on this is probably less immediately accessible nowadays. There are indeed very useful therapies and even management consultancies which address such situations. But the Stoics may be unusual in not addressing them only one by one but offering to prepare you for whatever fortune may bring even good fortune like winning the lottery. It is on how adults can handle these universal shifts of fortune that Chrysippan therapy has so much to say.
No competition with psychoanalysis
This different objective means that Chrysippan psychotherapy is not in competition with modern psychoanalysis. I agree with a good point made by Bernard Williams that it could not deal with the problems that psychoanalysis sets out to tackle.2 But I want to say that equally if the problem is simply that you have missed your plane or failed to gain promotion it is Stoicism not psychoanalysis that is more likely to help.
Ancient exercises prospective and retrospective
Ancient philosophical therapy relied heavily on exercises. Only some of the exercises presupposed the metaphysics ethics or epistemology of particular schools. I shall come to some of these later. But many exercises were free of doctrinal presuppositions and were consequently interchangeable among schools. Only some of the exercises were prospective preparing you in advance to avoid emotion. These could be given only to trainees. Other exercises are retrospective to calm emotions when they have arisen.3 Many of these can be applied to anyone. To understand the situation we need a wide range of examples.4
Plato's anticipation
As often Plato amazes us because he was able to anticipate several of the later therapies in a few short lines principally devoted to something else. He mentions the sceptical attitude that it is unclear what is really good or bad Chrysippus’ point that taking things badly is no help but actually hinders deliberation and Cleanthes’ point that no human concern is worth much trouble:
‘The law says I suppose that it is best to keep as quiet as possible in misfortunes and not to fret since the good and bad in such things is not dear nor does it get the person who takes it hard any further forward nor are any human concerns worth much trouble while grieving impedes what should most quickly come to our aid in these matters.’
‘To what are you referring?’ he said.
‘Deliberation’ said I.5
Plutarch's character exercises
The Middle Platonist Plutarch in the first century AD left us a series of character exercises. To suppress curiosity you should practise not looking through people's doors as you walk not reading the graffiti on the walls and not biting letters open with your teeth as some people do in their haste to read them.6 To guard against the fear of giving offence (dusōpia) you should practise not staying to hear out a bore. You should not stick to your usual medical practitioner when you need a skilled physician nor to the innkeeper you know when you need someone better. Nor should you invite to a wedding anyone who runs up to you.7
Pythagorean exercises adopted by Stoics
The Pythagoreans had an exercise of arriving for a feast and then renouncing it and leaving it for the servants.8 Other Pythagorean exercises were adopted by Stoics. Seneca for example took over the practice later followed by Christians of reviewing the day at bedtime leaving his wife to go to sleep and asking himself whether his reactions had been right or wrong.9 To this the Pythagoreans and the Stoics Seneca and Epictetus added morning questions about what might be encountered or achieved.10 It was from his Pythagorean teacher again that Seneca learnt to look at his distorted face in a mirror as a cure for anger11 and to be vegetarian use a hard bed and avoid hot baths.12 He had an obsessive fascination with luxurious baths with silver spigots and induced waves.13
Stoic disciplines
Some but not all Stoic training was sterner than this. Seneca meditates on suicide because he sees the possibility of suicide as a guarantee of freedom.14 No tyrant can make you do anything while you are free to commit suicide. And it is important to know how to commit suicide even in captivity and to be ready for it. Seneca says a gladiator did so by sticking his head in a cartwheel while being taken to the arena and another gladiator did so by swallowing a toilet sponge.15 This is in the tradition of Zeno the founder of Stoicism who is supposed to have committed suicide by suffocating himself.16 Suicide would probably also have been the right Stoic response for the father whose advice to the tyrant Cambyses on alcohol was repaid by Cambyses shooting the son dead as a proof of his steady aim.17 Seneca condemns the father for praising Cambyses’ accuracy but he does not think anger the right reaction. To prepare himself for suicide Seneca meditates on it repeatedly in his Letters and this is another form of exercise.
For the slightly younger Stoic Epictetus it is a very important exercise to decide what is in our power or up to us (eph’ hēmin). We should treat only that as mattering.18 This rule is not always harsh in its effects. Later in this chapter we shall notice a modern case (that of Stockdale) in which it had the effect of liberating from shame. Epictetus intended it to be liberating.
Epictetus draws very narrow boundaries around the concept of what is in our power. Our will (proairesis) is in our power and in general our judgements and desires but strikingly our body is not.19 I shall argue in Chapter 21 that it is an innovation in Epictetus to exclude the body from what is in our power. His experience as a slave made him no doubt vividly conscious of how our bodies may be incapacitated.
Epictetus gives a very good sense of how a student would be trained to question appearances until he or she could view almost everything not in our power as indifferent. Epictetus tells his students to practise asking whether what they see is proairetikon a distinctive Epictetan usage. I shall render proairetikon as ‘subject to the will’20 at the cost of a little distortion since proairesis has more to do with reason and less with will-power than do modern concepts of will.
The rule (kanōn) that students are to ask whether what they see is proairetikon must be kept to hand (prokheiron). If something is not subject to their will it is to be dismissed as indifferent. Several of Epictetus’ words for exercises and the word for ‘to hand’ are already to be found in the fragments of his teacher Musonius Rufus.21
It is especially for this kind of thing that you must perform exercises (gumnasteon). Go out at first light examine whomever you see or hear and answer as if you had been asked a question. What did you see? A beautiful man or woman? Apply the rule (kanōn). Is this subject to your will (proairetikon) or not (aproaireton)? No: remove it. What did you see? A man grieving at the death of his child? Apply the rule. Death is not subject to your will. Move it out of the way. Did a consul meet you? Apply the rule. What sort of thing is consulship subject to your will or not? No: remove that too; it is not approved (dokimon). Throw it away; it means nothing to you. If we did this and took exercise for this every day from dawn till dusk I swear we'd get results. But as it is we are caught right away gaping by every appearance and only wake up a little if at all in the classroom. If we then go out and see someone grieving we say ‘He is ruined’ if a consul ‘He is happy’ if an exile ‘He is wretched’ if a pauper ‘The poor fellow has no source of food’. These then are the bad opinions that we must knock out and pull ourselves together on the subject. For what is wailing and lamenting? A belief. What is misfortune? A belief. What are quarrelling dissension reproach accusation impiety foolery? They are all beliefs nothing else and beliefs that things not subject to our will are good or bad. Let someone transfer these beliefs to things that are subject to his will and I guarantee that he will be steady whatever his surrounding circumstances.22
Another exercise of Epictetus is notorious. To fortify yourself against future loss you should start with a favourite pot and work up to your wife and children reminding yourself even as you kiss them that one day they will be no more. Then you will be able to withstand the loss.23 I have said in Chapter 13 that this can only be understood against the background of Epictetus’ view that love which is not thus detached turns into hatred and only detached love is true. Plutarch makes a different use of the technique of imagining absence. If we imagine the absence of things we take for granted we shall appreciate small things more.24 This is related to the point that when we know someone we love is going to die we love that person more not less.25
Some of Epictetus’ exercises are easier. He appreciates the value of reinforcement: to cure irascibility offer a sacrifice when you manage to avoid anger thirty days in a row.26 When the food is passed round do not project your desire towards it before it has arrived; just wait.27 Similarly Galen in the next century warns us not to lift our cup to our lips more greedily than is becoming nor to take the drink in one gulp.28 Some readers may be familiar with this tradition if like me they were instructed by a grandmother never to take the glass straight to their lips after stretching it out for water as if in a hurry but always to let the glass rest on the table first.
Distraction memorization letters criticism and confession among the Epicureans
A lot is known about Epicurean practices. In Chapter 16 I shall discuss their view that an emotion can be averted by distracting one's attention from the situation. But they also thought it essential to prepare the mind in advance and to influence its beliefs. One of the most important exercises for them was memorizing the views of Epicurus. The surviving works of Epicurus before the fragments of his main work On Nature were excavated from the volcanic ash at Herculaneum consisted largely of three letters from him epitomizing his views. Epicurus is sometimes thought to have inspired a tradition of letter-writing in certain other schools.29 The first letter opens by saying it is composed for the purposes of memorization while the last closes by urging on the reader that what has been said must be rehearsed (meletan) both to oneself and to others like oneself night and day.30
More is revealed about exercises within the school by a treatise of Philodemus On Frank Criticism (Peri parrhēsias). This represents a lecture course by one of Philodemus’ teachers the Epicurean Zeno of Sidon (c. 155–c. 75 BC). Frank criticism (parrhēsia) is said to be the opposite of the fear of giving offence (dusōpia)31 discussed by Plutarch. As other schools would agree it is an appropriate task for a friend to criticize a friend although here it may be done in front of others.32 Different intensities of criticism are recommended for different recipients33 but one should not forget to say ‘my dear’.34 Self-directed criticism or confession is also recommended both on the part of the teachers though with caution35 and on the part of the students36 and the Christian parallels for this have been discussed. Teachers though called ‘wise’ may criticize each other37 and are criticized by the treatise because the Epicurean wise person unlike the Stoic is not infallible.
Philodemus wrote a large number of treatises now only fragmentary on emotional dispositions. On Frank Criticism is combined with On Anger in an Epitome on Conduct and Character. On Vices and the Opposing Virtues includes On Pride and probably On Flattery and On Avarice. There are also treatises On Envy On Gratitude and On Death.38 It is striking how often the advice in these treatises is introduced as something the pupil is to ‘remember’. The therapy is cognitive but in the treatise On Conversation it is repeatedly pointed out that silence may be the best way to make other people think.39
Homesickness confession and related practices in other schools
Other schools accepted many of these ideas. It was the Cynics who were associated with particularly harsh criticism. The early Cynics already set an example and their biographies in Diogenes Laertius provide a catalogue of pithy and deflating remarks.40 Epictetus the Stoic approved of such criticism provided it was exercised at the right moment to benefit the recipient.41 Epictetus makes much less allowance than the Epicurean text for the home background of students. Teaching in exile in Nicopolis he deals harshly with a complaining homesick student while requiring a confession of weaknesses.42 Another Stoic Seneca represents Serenus as confessing weaknesses to him.43
Among the Platonists Plutarch advocates confession44 and connects this with the Cynic advice of Diogenes and Antisthenes to have someone who will criticize you and to learn to welcome this.45 The advice is repeated by a later Platonist the doctor Galen.46 Epictetus compares self-admonition about your loved ones being mortal with the practice of generals having someone stand behind them in triumphal processions whose task was to remind them of their mortality.47
Wanting with reservation in Stoics and Church Fathers
One of the practices which Stoics were expected to learn was wanting and expecting with reservation (hupexairesis exceptio).48 Your desires and expectations should be qualified with an ‘if Zeus wills’ or ‘if nothing prevents’. I suggested in Chapter 2 that wanting with reservation can be represented as follows:
I desire (judge appropriate): I shall avoid illness and Zeus’ will
shall be done
or failing that (Greek ei de mē ‘but if not’): Zeus’ will shall be done.
As to how this helps the Stoic to escape feeling frustrated I suggested that all along he desires the second conjunct that God's will be done. Moreover he also desires the conjunction that he should escape illness and God's will be done. But he is already disposed to abandon the conjunction and will abandon it at latest when he finds he cannot secure both conjuncts. He would then come actually to desire the illness as Epictetus quoting Chrysippus says he does—or in other cases even death or torture.49
The logic is on this interpretation50 closely comparable to that sometimes applied to Christ's saying in Matthew 26:39 ‘My Father if it be possible let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will but as thou wilt.’ In the twelfth century this was sometimes called willing with a condition (voluntas conditionalis cum condicione) and it is sometimes identified with velleity (velleitas). Velleity is connected with what I would wish (vellem) rather than with what I do will (volo). But there was a dispute whether conditional willing involved actual willing or not.51 As in the Stoic examples the conjunction is actually willed but is the conjunct of the cup's passing? As I interpret the Stoics each conjunct is initially willed but one may be abandoned later. According to defenders of velleity by contrast the cup's passing is not willed in isolation unless the other condition is fulfilled.
The same saying of Christ had been discussed in the third century by Origen who suggests that Christ wanted God's will to be done more (magis volo) than he wanted his own.52 Augustine suggests at one point that Christ did not stay in the will he expressed by saying ‘let this cup pass from me’.53 Christ would presumably have changed his will on this view when he came to realize that it did not coincide with his Father's. Neither author uses the technical Stoic terminology for Christ's act of will.
Recurrence of these themes in the desert Fathers
Some of these themes recur in the desert Fathers. Christian confession has been both compared and contrasted with pagan.54 But one interesting innovation is the idea ascribed to the desert Father Saint Antony who will be further discussed in Chapter 22 which turns confession into a thought experiment. According to the Life of Antony ascribed to Athanasius he encouraged us to recall our actions and the ‘movements’ of our soul and write them down as though we were going to give an account to one another. But then sheer shame at the thought of doing so will eliminate the sinful thoughts.55 The closest pagan parallel for this is perhaps the advice of Epicurus and others to imagine a respected figure and what he would advise.56
The theme of homesickness also recurs. The desert monks were discouraged from seeing their families again and there are heartrending stories of their refusing to meet relatives who had made the arduous journey across the desert to visit.57 In Chapter 23 I shall describe Evagrius’ graphic account of the temptation of thinking about home the distress anger or lust it gives rise to and the exercises for avoiding the temptation.58
The best-known of Aristotle's therapies is not an exercise but the dramatic catharsis to be discussed further in Chapter 19. We might have expected that Aristotle's insistence on the importance of good habits in moral development59 would also have been developed. But what strikes Olympiodorus we shall see is neither of these but Aristotle's advice to orators in the Rhetoric on treating opposites by opposites knocking out anger by pleasure and vice versa. Olympiodorus ascribes this method originally to Hippocrates and contrasts it both with the method of catharsis which purges people by giving them a small dose of what is harmful and with that of Plato's Socrates the method of ‘similars’ which leads people forward by offering them a higher interpretation of something they already believe in. Olympiodorus’ general classification of therapies translated in Chapter 19 expands the range of techniques considered in the present chapter.60
As for Aristotle's successors Theophrastus simply characterizes a variety of emotional dispositions in his influential Characters without suggesting therapies. He may have gone further in some of the titles ascribed to him—On Emotions On Grief On Ambition On Gratitude On Love On Education On Bringing up Children.61 But there is perhaps more evidence in the work of a minor successor Aristo of Ceos.62 Aristo's On Freeing from Pride goes beyond Theophrastus’ sketch of pride (huperēphania) in the Characters by suggesting therapies including the therapy of attacking emotions by opposites criticizing the proud and encouraging the humbled. The therapy is all cognitive. People should measure themselves against superiors or inferiors according to their state of mind. The proud should consider the mutability of fortune should guard against envy remembering how they once felt about proud people should realize that the proud fall because they do not get co-operation should repeatedly ask themselves ‘What makes me proud?’ should think that—as with Xerxes who tried to subdue the sea—their pride may turn into madness or sickness. Despite the evident interest in emotional exercises shown here and the influence on Philodemus who preserves this treatise the Aristotelians may on the whole have been borrowers rather than lenders in the matter of exercises.
Two final techniques deserve a mention: relabelling and appeal to the lot of others. Stoics Epicureans and others used the technique of relabelling. Epictetus comes close to this when he advises you to think of your family as mortal. But a clear case is his suggesting that if you are stuck in a crowd you should think of it as a festival.63
In one case it took a poet Ovid to convert into an exercise what Plato and Lucretius had presented as a case of self-delusion.64 To adapt the examples the lover calls the sallow ‘honey-dark’ the thin ‘slender’ and the fat ‘curvaceous’. Lucretius’ aim is to deter us from the ridiculous emotion of love. But Ovid wrote two relevant poems. One the Art of Love parodies philosophical handbooks and has been seen as reflecting a three-stage Platonist Art of Love.65 Platonists followed by Stoics and others approved certain educative homosexual relations as will be seen in Chapter 18. But Ovid's concern is far from homosexual. He gives advice in verse first to men and then to women on seduction and recommends switching the epithets in the direction indicated. His other poem The Remedies of Love tells men how to fall out of love and recommends switching the epithets in the opposite direction.66 Ovid was exiled by Augustus for his pains. His second poem does however solve another problem in Lucretius’ passage on self-delusion. Lucretius complains that the beloved woman smells and much ink has flowed on what she smells of.67 Ovid writing in the same context reveals that the smells come from the cosmetics and he recommends the exercise of catching your beloved at her toilet to put yourself off.68
Relabelling sometimes involves falsehood. But the Stoics allow the telling of falsehoods in certain restricted circumstances.69 Other examples in Seneca are his advice to assume that everything will be all right although he admits this is not a Stoic approach or to think of a dead son as merely absent.70 Seneca also favours avoiding knowledge of insults to yourself. It may be better to be deceived (decipi) or deceive ourselves (nosmet fallere) and Caesar is praised for refusing to look at letters sent to his enemy Pompey.71 Epictetus says that if the Stoic belief in the indifference of everything except character were false it would still be worth supposing it true.72 The Stoic may conceal from his patient the unpleasant procedure he is planning to use lest the patient avoid it and may lie to the enemy to save his country.73 In some of these cases the falsehood is only to be imagined in others to be believed.
The lot of others
Appeal to the lot of others is a frequent recipe in consolation. It is well illustrated by the story told in Chapter 1 of Democritus comforting the king of Persia on his bereavement.74 By inviting him to find three subjects who had suffered nothing similar he conveyed the message ‘You are not the only one’. This effect is mentioned by Cicero75 and is also the burden of a fragment of Euripides’ Cresphontes quoted by Plutarch.76
Appeal to the lot of others can help in other ways too. A reason not so much stressed by the ancient schools is that it is more comfortable to dwell on their plight than on one's own and if one takes action accordingly this is simultaneously useful and distracting.
Reference to the lot of others could take different forms. Others may not only have suffered but triumphantly endured difficulties. Cicero says it may be necessary to stress this rather than the severity of what they endured and Seneca follows suit.77 Indeed there are whole compilations of examples of virtuous endurance like the banal collection of Valerius Maximus or that of chaste women in Jerome.78 The idea that the lot of others is worse than your own is also exploited for example by Democritus and Seneca79 but most memorably by Lucretius who describes the pleasure of recognizing your own safety as you watch from shore while others are caught in a storm.80 Lucretius however is thinking not of the person who needs comfort but of the person who has already been saved by the doctrines of Epicurus.
The suffering of others is displayed in tragedy and the role of this display according to the comic poet Timocles a contemporary of Aristotle is to produce forgetfulness of one's own sufferings to enable one to bear them more easily and to lighten (kouphizein) the burden.81 It is not entirely clear by which of the mechanisms just surveyed the suffering of others is supposed to achieve this effect. But the reference to forgetfulness (lēthē) suggests that distraction plays a role. I think it is a mistake to call this a reference to katharsis if by that is meant Aristotelian katharsis.82 Admittedly Aristotle also connects katharsis with lightening (kouphizein) a burden.83 But his analogies with laxatives or purification and his reference to orgiastic music do not suggest he has in mind such simple mechanisms as distraction or the others mentioned above.
Epistemological and ethical doctrines
I shall reserve until Chapter 16 various metaphysical ideas about the nature of time and the self that were used for therapeutic purposes. Here I shall only recall that we have already encountered epistemological and ethical doctrines being applied to the handling of emotions.84 In Chapter 14 I interpreted the Pyrrhonian sceptics as claiming to avoid emotion by withholding assent from the appearance that anything is by nature good or bad. And we have also noticed the ethical positions taken on the questions of indifference of whether moderate emotion or freedom from emotion was the ideal and of the approval of eupatheiai which were not counted as emotions.
Stoicism in Vietnam and ordinary life
So much for some of the most prominent ancient techniques. I shall finish the chapter by referring to a modern adaptation. Admiral Stockdale of the US Navy survived four years of solitary confinement in Vietnam eight years of captivity and nineteen occasions of physical torture and helped his men to endure the same entirely through having studied the sayings of Epictetus.85 As he fluttered to earth from his crashing plane with his parachute being fired at he thought ‘I am leaving the world I know for the world of Epictetus.’ Like Epictetus he had his leg broken through the impact of his fall and under fettering and physical torture Epictetus’ remark ‘You can fetter my leg but not me’86 became very relevant.
What above all Stockdale took from Epictetus was the importance of distinguishing what is in your power (up to you) from what is not. Under torture the US captives all blurted out more information than the name and number to which military regulations confined them. They were then too ashamed to face their fellow captives and the captors could exploit the shame to obtain the thing they really wanted: denunciations on television of US policy towards Vietnam. Stockdale exploiting an Epictetan therapy persuaded his men that it was not in their power under physical torture to confine themselves to name and number thus curing their shame. But something else was in their power: deliberately courting physical torture again by disobedience. This they did and under renewed torture they again blurted out too much. But the information revealed was insignificant. What mattered was that they had regained their pride and then the captors could not obtain the one thing they wanted: the denunciations. What mattered of course was not merely that silence was not in their power87 but that through distinguishing what was and what was not in people's power they saw they could live up to the standards of those they cared about. No doubt it also helped that Stockdale showed the men there was something they could do since helplessness is an important factor in creating post-traumatic stress.88 The Stoics always show you something you can think or do even if it is only committing suicide.
Stockdale did not like Seneca see suicide as a route to freedom. He attempted it only once and that without realizing it in one of the five contexts that the Stoics are said to approve: to help save his countrymen.89 You can under torture select what information to reveal so long as the captors do not know that you know. On an occasion when they knew that Stockdale knew the names of those involved in a particular act of defiance he made a thorough attempt at suicide and was rescued only by chance.
One might expect that Stoicism which was so useful to Admiral Stockdale would have been useless to Mrs Stockdale who waited in the United States most of the time not knowing whether her husband would return or whether he was still alive. The doctrine of indifference that it did not matter whether he was alive or dead would hardly have helped her campaign to get the United States government to acknowledge that there were United States prisoners. This had not been acknowledged because war had not been officially declared. Yet something different emerges from their joint book In Love and War90 in which they wrote alternate chapters explaining their different predicaments throughout the eight years. Although Mrs Stockdale reported finding Stoicism as she knew it useless91 the book brings home its pervasive relevance. It is not a philosophy only for the prison camp. It was relevant to Mrs Stockdale's ability to enter the White House and talk to the President of the United States that she should be clear about what is in your power and what is not. At one stage she was offered advice which given her devotion might seem appalling that she should assume her husband would never come home. But this too expecting the worst is precisely a Stoic technique. Meanwhile Stoicism remained relevant to Admiral Stockdale in peacetime. Showered with honours a national hero soon persuaded to be a candidate for the vice-presidency of the United States he found that the easy life of the civilian world did not offer him the tranquillity which he had so courageously cultivated in prison camp. Stoicism would have had advice to offer for finding tranquillity as much in favourable circumstances as in adverse. But if he drew on this he does not in the book record it.