Sometimes we celebrate our emotions; sometimes we are upset by the emotive situations of life and our emotions may then be unwanted or counter-productive. In either case can Stoicism really help? It certainly does not celebrate emotions. Moreover as a word in the English language ‘Stoicism’ suggests gritting your teeth in adversity and suppressing emotions in this manner is surely not an effective way of avoiding upset.
This is a book about emotion in ancient philosophy not about particular emotions but about what emotion is in general and about how to cope with one's own emotions and establish peace of mind. The Stoics were I believe the driving force in the whole ancient discussion so the book will focus on them. But the Stoics had a place in a wider discussion in which all the philosophical schools took part. They reacted to their predecessors and influenced their rivals so these too will be introduced albeit more briefly. One issue which is still a subject of the latest research is whether emotions are and should be treated as mental judgements and attitudes as the main Stoic tradition held or whether they involve irrational forces including physical ones. The Stoics left a particular legacy to the Christian discussion of temptation which will be the subject of the last part of the book. They also left a legacy to us in that I think we can learn from the debate they inspired on emotion and peace of mind.
I believe on the contrary that Stoicism can be very helpful in dealing with counter-productive emotion. But it is not a matter of gritting: your teeth. It is about seeing things differently so that you do not need to grit your teeth. This may require you to say things to yourself. It involves a rather intellectual approach to coping with emotions and it contrasts for example with such non-intellectual techniques as diet gymnastics and music not to mention breathing posture the reciting of mantras or the taking of drugs.
Emotional therapy had started in the fifth century BC with the Presocratic philosophers. What the Stoic approach was good at was coping with situations with the ups and downs of life. It could be good for example on the rat race disappointment in office job insecurity anxiety about health road rage the pressures of work and travel or for that matter on sudden success or fame. On the other hand it could not deal with what we call mental illness. Nor would it be good on moods which are not directed to a particular situation but which like depression fasten themselves on whatever situation comes to hand. The Stoic techniques rather focus on a particular situation and help you to see it differently. Their approach has much less to say about children because it is so rationalistic. Some of the other ancient philosophers we shall see had much more to say about moods and about children. Stoicism also has less to say than e.g. Plato and Aristotle about the emotional effect of one person on another. What is needed is a pluralism in therapy; none has the monopoly of wisdom. But Stoic therapy is very helpful in its own area of competence. There is probably much more literature now available on mental illnesses which afflict some than on the turns of fortune which affect us all.
Modern cognitive therapy has many things in common with Stoic therapy. Stoicism was of course an entire philosophy and its therapy for emotions was only a small part. But the Stoic Chrysippus offered to detach the therapy from the ethics and theology and use it for people who did not believe the latter. All you would need in order to apply the therapy to yourself is an understanding of the Stoic psychological theory about what emotions are.
It was the Stoic Chrysippus (c. 280–c. 206 BC) who developed the standard Stoic view on what emotion is. His predecessor Zeno I shall argue had a very different account. In Chrysippus’ view all emotion consists of two judgements. There is the judgement that there is good or bad (benefit or harm) at hand and the judgement that it is appropriate to react in ways which he specifies precisely.
It is important that emotion is not a felt inner contraction or expansion as Zeno had supposed. Nor is it any kind of physical reaction. Such contractions and bodily changes may follow emotion. Later Seneca pointed out they may also precede it and they are then called ‘first movements’. But the emotion itself consists of judgements.
It is further important that judgements are not like appearances involuntary. If it appears to you that you are in a bad situation you cannot help the appearance. But you can help giving the assent of your reason to the appearance. Most people assent automatically to whatever appears but Stoicism teaches you how you can withhold assent while you question appearances. And it gives you a lot of exercises with which to question them. The appearance does not turn into a judgement until you give assent and it is for Chrysippus judgement which constitutes emotion. If he is right there is a prospect of shedding emotions and of doing so by rational means precisely because they are not involuntary.
It makes a huge difference that Chrysippus identifies the two judgements of which every emotion in his view consists. This enables you to target therapeutic exercises on them if you want to question them. The exercises help you assess whether there is really benefit or harm or whether the specified reaction is really appropriate.
I believe contrary to some views that the distinction of first movements is also important for Stoic therapy. The Stoics tell us to discount them. There are two kinds of first movement. If you shudder grow pale or shed tears this may be an example of physical first movements. Mental first movements have proved harder to identify but a text of Galen's reveals I believe that they are those sinkings or expansions that we feel in the chest when we are distressed or pleased and other similar felt movements. First movements result from the mere appearance that there is benefit or harm but they do not yet presuppose judgement and hence not genuine emotion. It is very useful to be able to distinguish these reactions from emotion and discount them because otherwise it is easy to get into an emotional state simply from observing our own reactions. As William James said we do not cry because we are sad but are sad because we cry.
Unlike the philosophical analysis of emotions many of the therapeutic exercises are common to different philosophical schools. They can be targeted on the judgement that it is appropriate to react (‘Your mourning makes you neglect the living’) or on the judgement that there is benefit or harm (‘You are not the only one to suffer’ ‘Is it bad in itself or merely unexpected?’). Exercises can be practised in advance or in retrospect. The poet Ovid parodies the philosophical exercise of relabelling things. You can describe the beloved as curvaceous and honey-coloured for purposes of seduction or as fat and sallow for purposes of falling out of love. Some exercises involve further philosophical analysis of the nature of time or the self.
The Stoic approach of first getting clear about what emotions are reveals something about the relevance of philosophy to life. Seneca discussed whether precepts on their own without philosophical theory are useful. The answer is that the little things you say to yourself in the therapeutic exercises are of some use on their own. But if you want to be able to administer Stoic therapy to yourself however much circumstances change you will need to know what emotions are. The idea that you can extract the exercises without knowing the theory has its parallel in Western treatments of Yoga. But at least as regards Stoicism it would be wrong to think that the exercises or the philosophical analysis stand on their own. Stoicism involves a marriage of the two. The analysis claims that emotions can be treated since they are not involuntary reactions but judgements which can be suspended. It identifies the judgements to be targeted and it distinguishes and discounts first movements. The further analyses of time and the self can be deployed as part of the exercises.
An example of Stoic therapy at work was provided in the Vietnam war by Admiral Stockdale who used the Stoic Epictetus (AD 55–135) in order to survive four years of solitary confinement and nineteen occasions of physical torture. The account by himself and his wife shows how Stoic therapy can be relevant not only to the heroic situation but also to ordinary life.
Other Greek philosophers advocated quite different approaches to coping with emotion. Even within the Stoic school Posidonius (135–51 BC) initiated a debate about whether this intellectualist approach ignored the psychodynamics or tug (holkē) of the irrational forces within us. He rejected Chrysippus’ picture of a unitary soul consisting largely of reason. He appealed to Plato who distinguished two irrational forces in the soul which he compared with horses and said that in order to temper them emotional training must start in the womb with the mother's behaviour. And once the child is born the right diet music gymnastics and aesthetic environment must be provided. The debate between those who emphasized judgements and those who emphasized other aspects of emotion extended far wider than the Stoic school. Galen focused on the physiology of emotion and stressed especially strongly the role of diet. Other ancient philosophers made use of behaviour therapy (reports of Socrates) or practised redirecting their attention (Epicurus) as opposed to changing their judgements. And the Christian Evagrius we shall see perfected new techniques of playing emotional thoughts off against each other before they could turn into full-scale judgements. Posidonius attacked Chrysippus’ view that emotions consist of judgements with a series of telling counter-examples. Some examples it will emerge suggest that Chrysippus’ two judgements are not necessary for emotion some that they are not sufficient. Modern philosophy has also debated whether emotions are judgements but seldom with as much rigour. This is because Chrysippus was so exact about what judgements he had in mind that Posidonius was able to launch precisely targeted counter-examples.
I shall point out that the Stoic Seneca (AD 4–65) without mentioning Posidonius seems to answer him by classifying all three of his alleged examples of emotion without judgement as not being cases of emotion at all. Your response to wordless music when you do not judge anything good or bad to be the case is not an emotion but at most a first movement. Similarly when you shed tears in the theatre another context in which you do not judge that anything bad has really happened this too is only a first movement. Finally when you are tempted to say that animals who on the Stoic view make no judgements none the less experience emotions this too is an illusion.
Seneca's discussion of first movements has implications not only for music but also for the arts in general. It is one of the mysteries of ancient philosophy why there was so little discussion of Aristotle's brilliant defence in the fourth century BC of tragedy and comedy by reference to catharsis. His teacher Plato he said was wrong to banish the poets from the ideal city for stirring up emotions. For stirring up the emotions of the audience (this is what I take him to mean) performs a most useful function in society of providing catharsis of the emotions. The apparent silence of the Stoics on this theory has seemed all the more surprising in that they are particularly interested in the role of theatre in society. The answer as regards the later Stoics is I believe that Seneca makes it unnecessary to discuss catharsis further. For in his view the arts do not stir up emotions but only first movements. In that case whatever catharsis may be it cannot be the role of the theatre to produce it since catharsis depends on the stirring up of emotions. The question whether the arts arouse genuine emotion is still a matter of current debate and Seneca's side has been very skilfully argued although I do not think it covers all the cases.
A flood of light can be shed on this debate between Posidonius and Seneca through some very recent findings about the brain. Joseph LeDoux has made a very remarkable discovery about fear in rats which he extrapolates to humans.1 A sound associated with danger signals its message to the brain by two routes which diverge at a fork one route being fast one slow. The fast route travels to the amygdala a brain centre which immediately sets off physical alarms throughout the whole body even before the person or animal has the faintest idea what the danger is. Even the notion of danger itself will not yet have entered into consciousness. But the person is reacting physically as if to danger surprisingly before they know what is dangerous. Eventually by the slower route that knowledge may reach the cortex and in favourable cases the human may be able to confirm or disconfirm the alarm signals and alter them accordingly. But things can go wrong. You may not recognize the sound as what triggered the alarm nor the danger with which it is associated. Or the shell-shocked person while recognizing that the sound was only the slamming of a door may none the less be unable to quieten the amygdala.
LeDoux's findings vindicate Posidonius in a way. Of course as Posidonius allows judgements are usually very important in emotion but there is also the movement of the irrational horses. The physical reactions of the amygdala are the modern equivalent of the horses’ movements. No wonder Posidonius seemed to find so many counter-examples to the idea that emotion is nothing but judgement. Disowning the judgement that a height is dangerous does not automatically calm the amygdala. Lower animals may react only through the amygdala not through the cortex. Music may sometimes move us through a similar physical mechanism rather than through judgement. Conversely our judgements when we foresee a danger by intellectual means may fail to arouse the amygdala. It is hard to deny that the person with shell shock or vertigo or the person moved by music may be feeling emotion or to insist that merely intellectual foresight constitutes fear.
Fortunately in favourable cases our judgements can send messages from the cortex which do quieten the amygdala. This is why in so many cases the Stoic therapy through judgements is worth trying and why it can work although we can now also see some of the reasons why it may not work.
We can also now understand better Seneca's first movements. Tears trembling and sinking feelings in the chest may well be produced by a fast track but even earlier than Seneca said. It can happen before anyone has had time to entertain the idea of danger in consciousness or identify the dangerous thing. People are merely reacting as if to danger with these first movements.
Seneca performed yet one more service to Stoicism I shall argue. Chrysippus had favourably expounded the account of his predecessor Zeno according to which emotion involves not so much mistaken judgement as going against one's own true and better judgement. Posidonius and Galen assume that Chrysippus endorses this account and point out rightly in my view that it is incompatible with the ‘mistaken judgement’ account. Seneca I believe offers a kind of reconciliation namely that Zeno's account represents a later stage of emotion a third movement or escalation in which one goes against one's initial bad judgement and indulges in an even worse one. His distinction of third movements is quite true to life and is recognized in modern psychologists’ accounts of ‘flooding’.
The ancient philosophers debated not only the nature but also the value of emotions. A few emotions were highly valued in some schools—certain forms of love for example. The main debate was between Aristotle's position that most emotions are useful in moderation (metriopatheia) but the art is to moderate them and the Stoic position that most emotions are pernicious and should be eradicated (apatheia). Aristotle's doctrine of the mean or moderation is not the banal thing it is sometimes thought to be. It is a controversial statement in a debate that had already started before Stoicism between believers in freedom from emotion and believers in moderation.
I have spoken throughout of the Stoic theory of emotions rather than of passions because the word ‘passions’ might nowadays suggest extreme emotions. But there would have been no disagreement if the Stoics had thought merely that extreme emotions should be avoided. Stoicism as formulated by Chrysippus was opposed to nearly all emotion. We do not have to agree with this unacceptable side of Stoicism in order to learn from the Stoics how to be free of those emotions that are unwanted or counter-productive. And surely many are: anger I believe is counter-productive far more often than is recognized.
Chrysippus had a peculiar reason of his own for rejecting nearly all emotion. He thought the value judgements involved were nearly always false for rationality and character are the only things which are genuinely good. It may be natural and right to ‘prefer’ or ‘disprefer’ the other things which engage our emotions but our evaluations are mistaken because the other things are in the end indifferent to use the Stoic term. Epictetus adds that ordinary untutored family love easily turns into hate just because we have not learnt to treat the things we quarrel over as preferred or dispreferred indifferents.
The attitude of indifference does not exclude the most energetic pursuit of what is preferred. One Stoic Antipater (head from c. 152 to c. 129 BC) says it is your duty to do everything in your power to secure the naturally preferred objectives such as health and prosperity for yourself your family and all mankind. But if you fail although you were right to pursue them you should not grieve since they are indifferent. It is just as in cricket or in American football—his own example is archery—you should do everything in your power to succeed. But what matters is not the success but the right pursuit: the game's the thing.
It is not only preferred indifferents which it is right to pursue but also the genuine good of rationality. Judging this to be good involves no mistake and will lead to no perturbation. Paul Zanker has pointed out how an early statue of Chrysippus shows him pursuing his thought and teaching with an intensity that contrasts with the bland statues of the early Epicureans.2 This intense pursuit was evidently thought compatible with the rejection of almost all emotion.
Fortunately the theory of indifference was not used by Chrysippus as an essential part of his therapy. For one thing if you had really accepted the idea of indifference you would be a sage already and would need no therapy. For another Chrysippus offered to help people who totally rejected the Stoic value system.
The Stoic theory of how to avoid agitation was converted by early Christians into a theory of how to avoid temptation. The idea of first movements which we can now see was not an invention of the twelfth century as has been supposed was central to this development. Origen at least in the fourth-century Latin translation of his third-century text turns the Stoic first movements into bad thoughts. This utterly transforms the idea of first movements because Seneca's whole idea had been that they are distinct from emotions because they do not involve thought. The distinction between first movements and emotions is now blurred but blurred in a way that thoroughly suits the very different Christian agenda. Instead of the very sharp distinction between first movements which are not your fault at all and emotions for which you are totally responsible the Christian talk of bad thoughts allows for many intermediate degrees of sin. These degrees of sin go with all sorts of new questions which it is possible to ask about thoughts. Did you put yourself in the way of the thought? Did you let it linger? Did you enjoy it? Did you enjoy the mere thinking about sin or were you enjoying the sin itself about which you were thinking?
In many cases biblical ideas are redescribed so as to represent biblical ideals as Stoic but Stoic in a revised way. If Jesus wept or Abraham mourned or felt fear these are to be reinterpreted as first movements only. But first movements are often now vaguely conceived as the beginnings of emotion in such a way that it is not clear whether the Bible is endorsing a little bit of emotion or not.
The most innovative Christian figure in this context is the fourth-century desert hermit Evagrius. The eight bad thoughts with which he wrestles in the desert can be shown to be first movements in a Christian disguise. They were later to turn into the seven cardinal sins. Evagrius’ innovation is to provide a complete theory not of the emotions taken one by one—that had been done by the Stoics—but of their causal interrelations. He shows how the desert monk can play one bad thought off against another. Thoughts of lust and thoughts of vanity can be conjured up to defeat each other. But vanity is particularly difficult to defeat. If you have defeated the other seven thoughts you are likely to have thoughts of vanity. And if you defeat vanity that can itself be an occasion for thoughts of vanity. The simplest remedy is to conjure up thoughts of lust which are so humiliating as to defeat those of vanity. But eventually with the aid of prayer you should hope to achieve the Stoic ideal of freedom from emotion without the support of these exercises.
Evagrius gives the most telling descriptions of inner thoughts. The monk afflicted by the form of depression called akēdia will not get on with his reading but will count the pages to see how many are left. Who can plead ‘not guilty’ to counting the remaining pages in a mood of boredom or despondency? There is a special demon for would-be fund-raisers who start with noble thoughts about how to alleviate the lot of the poor. This would require fund-raising. And this leads on to thoughts of avarice and vanity if not of lust in a sequence that could have been written by Trollope.
We can see that bad thoughts afflict us every day although they do not become sins unless we let them linger or take pleasure in them. But this we often do and so we can see why Augustine (AD 354–430) who would have had access to Latin translations of Evagrius is so incensed with people who think that they have achieved freedom from sin and do not need to ask forgiveness in the Lord's Prayer every day. In fact they are indulging in the sin of pride. Augustine also turned against the Stoic ideal of freedom from emotion as being neither practical nor desirable.
Just like the defenders of freedom from emotion the supporters of moderate emotion admitted exceptions and Augustine makes exceptions of pride and lust which he considers undesirable. Both in his support for moderate emotion and in his attack on lust as an exception the Stoics’ first movements become relevant but he misunderstands them. In defending moderate emotion he cites the Stoics’ acceptance of first movements as if it proved that they really accepted emotion itself.
There were many reasons why Augustine should have misunderstood Stoic first movements. First Origen had blurred the distinction from emotion by turning first movements into thoughts. Secondly Augustine did not believe it was possible to avoid emotion. Thirdly he is steeped in a Platonic view of the soul which in contrast with the Stoic view holds that emotion is the product of irrational forces in the soul and does not have to await the assent of reason as the Stoics suppose.
But there is another reason why Augustine is able to misunderstand the Stoic view. His main source on first movements is not Seneca but the philosophical journalist Aulus Gellius. Gellius tells a graphic story of a Stoic philosopher who grows pale in a storm at sea and explains with a precious quotation from Epictetus (otherwise lost) that growing pale is only a movement not an emotion. So it is permitted to Stoics. Augustine wrongly takes it that the Stoic is allowed to feel a little emotion and that he does not really treat his life as indifferent. I shall argue that Augustine is partly misled by Gellius’ change of the letters ‘ll’ to ‘v’. The Stoic is allowed to grow pale (pallescere) but Gellius adds that he is allowed to have the jitters (pavescere) a nice literary word which hovers ambiguously between merely trembling and having real fear. Gellius’ choice of word enables Augustine to disambiguate it in the wrong direction and to suppose that real fear is what the Stoics are allowing.
The misunderstanding of first movements breaks out again when Augustine makes an exception of lust. He contrasts lust with anger on the grounds that in the male the bodily movements it involves disobey the will. In anger by contrast if you hit someone the movement of your fist is under the control of the will. Augustine has not noticed Seneca's point that involuntary first movements are common to all the emotions. In fact Seneca gives examples for all three of the cases which Augustine discusses. The pallor of the Stoic sailor the movement of the male organs and the flashing eyes and quickening breath of the provoked person are all equally examples of involuntary first movements. One wonders: if Augustine had read Seneca instead of Aulus Gellius would he have seen that he did not here have a sufficient reason to downgrade lust in comparison with anger?
For Evagrius lust had not been one of the more dangerous temptations. It will not arise in his view if gluttony is under control. The pagan philosophers had taken every conceivable view about lust and its relation to love and to marriage. Every one of these three had been treated independently from every other so that any one could be approved while the others were not. To take but one example the Epicurean Lucretius in the first century BC accepted lust as natural deplored love as a source of disturbance and viewed marriage as normally only a means of obtaining legitimate offspring.
One of the most interesting treatments of erotic thoughts in the pagan philosophers comes in the dispute between the Neoplatonists Porphyry and Iamblichus around AD 300. Porphyry tells the philosopher to avoid every temptation to lust including obscene language. Iamblichus retorts by citing the phallic festivals at which obscenities were shouted and defending them at least for ordinary people. One ground of defence is that a moderate exercise of erotic feelings can help to rid you of them through Aristotelian catharsis. This is one of the very few explicit references to Aristotle's theory of catharsis and it comes 650 years after his death.
Augustine thus had a huge range of attitudes to lust available to him. But it is rather like the question of whether it is all right to kill animals. Augustine plumped for one view and such was his influence that the Western Christian tradition inherited a much smaller range of options than was available to the pagan philosophers.
Augustine's attack on lust focuses on the idea of the will an idea which had been developing from the time of Plato. In many pagan philosophers we find one or more components of a concept of will but always in separation from others. It is Augustine I believe who first brings a full range of components together and also makes the will a pivotal concept of philosophy. I do not think that we have to wait for this until Maximus the Confessor whose preferred concept of will I shall argue seems to be merely a version of the Stoic concept of attachment (oikeiōsis).
Augustine's central objection to lust from which almost all his other objections flow is that at least since the Fall of Man it has been disobedient to our wills. I believe that Augustine did not succeed in identifying the real reasons for his objections to lust. By pinning the case on disobedience to the will he opened himself to refutation by his Pelagian opponent Julian the bishop of Eclanum. Julian usefully distinguishes the consent of the will from the command of the will. Lust may not be under the will's command but it can have the consent of the will every bit as much as the desire to eat and drink the accompanying salivation and subsequent sleep. So what is the moral difference? I do not think that Augustine finds an answer. But if he lost the philosophical battle he won the political one. If Julian had won our attitudes to sexuality and to much else besides might have been very different.
The transmission of Stoic ideas to Christianity illustrates one of the things that can happen in the history of ideas. Ideas may be utterly transformed and inevitably were so in the 900 years between the first Presocratics and Augustine. This happened to the Stoic idea of first movements first when they were converted into bad thoughts and then again in the Middle Ages when Evagrius’ bad thoughts were turned into the seven cardinal sins which are often pieces of behaviour. But ideas can also be revived with surprisingly little change. I think this could well happen to Stoic ideas on combating emotions and to a certain extent it has happened in modern cognitive therapy. Ideas can be revived because although they need a context they can be transplanted into a new context. This means that it is equally difficult to assign a terminus post quem non and a terminus ante quem non to ideas. Not only can they be unexpectedly revived but they can crop up before one would have expected because the earlier appearance may have been in a context where one was not expecting them. I have pointed to examples of this elsewhere.3
None the less the revival of ideas does seem to be related to direct chains of transmission. It is found when Greek is translated into Arabic or when texts in these languages are translated into Latin. It is not found between philosophical traditions like the Indian and the Greek where direct chains of transmission are sparse. There one has the impression of similar minds at work but not quite the same ideas.
It is no accident that the major protagonists in a book about the emotions should be the Stoics and then the Christians Evagrius and Augustine. All of these are people who look inwards and interrogate themselves. The Stoics even have a special word prosokhē for the introspective supervision of one's own thoughts and actions.4 Christopher Gill has argued forcefully in a recent book that the Greeks saw themselves primarily in an outward-looking way as participants in society.5 Certainly all these thinkers were concerned with society but in some of the Stoics I believe we find a concept of the self somewhat detached from society. I shall return to this subject I hope in a later book.6
From the book: