The Stoics on the Emotions or Passions

A common criticism of Stoicism is that is doesn’t leave proper room for the emotions or passions (EorP), that it advocate a passionless, unemotional and apathetic life. I don’t think this a proper characterization of Stoicism, but let’s investigate further.

The Stoics Don’t Reject Emotions, They Reject Passions

Let us say first, following John SellarsResearch Fellow at King’s College London, is that “the Stoics never spoke about the emotions in the way we do.” Today the word emotion refers to almost any mental feeling that we contrast with reason. But “the Stoics do not reject emotions, they reject passions, and that is quite a different thing.”

The Stoics do believe we should feel affinity for our friends and family, that we should have care and concern for them. They also acknowledge that we are affected by external events, that we can be scared or shocked as part of our natural reactions. Jumping behind a wall after hearing an explosion isn’t a passion. But hearing that you might lose your job and then becoming anxious and fearful would be a Stoic passion. In this case the Stoics counsel that we defeat these negative responses by thinking about whether they’re called for. Perhaps we won’t lose our job, or perhaps it won’t be so bad if we do. Thus our fear is a result of poor thinking.

As for good passions, the Stoics say the only thing that is always good for us is virtue, basically a healthy state of mind. “This is the only genuine good, the only thing that guarantees happiness, the only thing the absence of which guarantees misery.” So a good passion follows from a mental state produced by good reasoning. As Sellars puts it:

The ideal Stoic life is thus far from unemotional in the English sense of the word. Indeed, what the Stoics propose we reject are not emotions in the English sense of the word at all, if emotions are defined as feelings that contrast with reasoning. Instead what the Stoics propose we reject is faulty reasoning based on confused value judgements and the unpleasant consequences that this generates.

What Do The Stoics Mean By Passions or Emotions?

For those who feel more comfortable using the contemporary word emotion, we’ll continue our analysis using the phrase “emotions or passions,” (EorP) as long as we remember that it is the older idea of passions that the Stoics have in mind.

Now the four most common accounts or definitions of EorP provided by the Stoics include:

  1. An excessive impulse.
  2. An impulse that ignores reason.
  3. A false judgment or opinion.
  4. A fluttering of the soul.

The first two definitions tell us that EorP are a kind of impulse or force. They are things that happen to us, as contrasted with actions or things that we do. EorP can be compared to running downhill but being unable to stop; they propel you forward. EorP also have a temporal dimension. Typically they are strongest in the present, and weaken over time.

The second and third definitions emphasize that EorP disrupt and contradict reason. EorP misrepresent a thing’s value, and then misdirect our impulses toward achieving it. For example, if we exaggerate the importance of wealth, and then pursue it excessively. Or if we want revenge and act on that angry impulse, we may end up in jail. In such cases EorP are either based on or produce bad reasoning.

The fourth definition of EorP as “a fluttering in the soul” derives from the Stoics sense that EorP have a physical basis and physical consequences—just think of the effect of EorP on heart rate and blood pressure.

The main passions the Stoics identify are appetite and fear. If we think something is good, we have an appetite for it; if we think something is bad, we fear it. These passions are related to two others: pleasure and distress. If we satisfy our appetites, we may experience pleasure, whereas if we fail to satisfy them, we may experience distress. Similarly, if we fear something we experience distress, whereas if our fears don’t materialize we may experience pleasure.

Why Excessive Emotions or Passions Are Bad For Us 

When we (too strongly) experience EorP we make errors in judgment concerning the good and bad, and the present and the future. The idea is that something may be pleasurable in the present that is actually bad, or we may have an appetite for something in the future, which is also bad for us. Likewise, we might think some action is bad in the present and experience distress, even though the thing is really good, or we might fear something in the future that either won’t happen or won’t that bad as we thought.

So excessive EorP result in mistaken judgments and emotional disquietude. For example, things we have appetites for—food, drink, sex—may give us less pleasure than we thought. Thus it isn’t rational to risk more important things like health in their pursuit. Likewise things we fear–humiliation, betrayal, pain, anxiety—may not be as bad as we thought. So it isn’t rational to undermine our lives paralyzed by fear.

The Proper Role of Emotions or Passions 

But this doesn’t mean one lives as an emotionless robot. The goal is not to reject EorP altogether, but to have a balanced emotional life. Think of joy rather than pleasure, caution rather than fear, or reasonable hope rather than appetite. As for distress, we should reject it completely.

So the Stoics oppose EorP that psychologically manipulate us, thereby undermining our reason and volition. But this doesn’t imply that you shouldn’t care about anything. Rather, you should act as a result of rational deliberation. Perhaps an analogy might help. We may want to run or lift weights, but don’t run down too steep of an incline or lift too much weight—that would be excessive.

It is hard to know where to draw the line between restrained and excessive EorP, but clearly we will live better when reason prevents us from being slaves to them. EorP should follow from, not lead, rational reflection. I believe this is good advice.

Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person

Alain de Botton.jpg

Alain de Botton ( 1969 – ) penned an astute essay in the New York Times titled: “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” De Botton is a Swiss-born British author who co-founded The School of Life in 2008. His books discuss various contemporary subjects and themes, emphasizing philosophy’s relevance to everyday life and offering sound practical advice. His published works include: On Love: A Novel, which has sold more than two million copies, and his newest book, The Course of Love. His other books include:

How Proust Can Change Your Life
The Consolations of Philosophy
The Architecture of Happiness
Status Anxiety
The Art of Travel
Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion
Art as Therapy
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
How to Think More About Sex
The News: A User’s Manual
Essays In Love
A Week at the Airport

Now, why will you marry the wrong person? One reason is that we are all flawed. Were we more self-aware, the first question perspectives mates would ask each other is: “And how are you crazy?” We don’t recognize we’re all crazy because we often abandoned relationships before they get complicated or, if we live alone, we assume we’re easy to get along with. And our friends and family hesitate to tell us the truth about ourselves. Everyone is psychologically unhealthy to varying degrees. And typically people don’t spent enough time together before commiting to another person to know this.

Now for most of recorded history, people married for reasons of finance, religion, politics, convenience, or their marriages were otherwise arranged. Such marriages were often disastrous and today have been replaced in most of the world with the marriage of feeling or emotion. “What matters in the marriage of feeling is that two people are drawn to each other by an overwhelming instinct and know in their hearts that it is right.” And while we think we seek happiness in marriage, we often seek something we associated with childhood—like helping a parent or being deprived of their love. And we reject potential partners because they might be “too balanced, mature, understanding and reliable—given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign.”

Loneliness is another cause of choosing bad partners. If remaining single is unbearable, it isn’t surprising we choose poorly. We might choose anyone just to avoid the fate of remaining single. Another reason we choose poorly is that we want to make the feeling of falling in love seem permanent, but there is “no solid connection between these feelings and the institution of marriage.” For marriage isn’t about passionate love; it is about work and strife, money and children.

Yet the good news is that “it doesn’t matter if we find we have married the wrong person.” We don’t need to abandon our spouse, just the stupid idea of Romantic love—that some perfect person exists who will satisfy all our needs. Instead mature people recognize:

… that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us—and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.

This “philosophy of pessimism … relieves the excessive imaginative pressure that our romantic culture places upon marriage.” That another person can’t save us from ourselves is not surprising, but should be expected. Still some people are better for us than others. Who are they?

The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently—the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition. (My emphasis.)

Loving is about learning to be more forgiving of our own and others faults. Love isn’t something we fall into, but something we learn to do, as Erich Fromm wrote years ago.

Brief Analysis of “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. After studying at the Amherst Academy in her youth, she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, before returning to her family home in Amherst. Dickinson never married, and most of her friendships depended entirely upon correspondence. She lived primarily as a recluse.

While Dickinson was a prolific poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. Although her acquaintances were probably aware of her writing, it was not until after her death that her younger sister discovered Dickinson’s cache of poems. Today most experts consider Dickinson to be one of the greatest of all American poets. Here is one of my favorites.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

Analysis – Dickinson likens the concept of hope to a singing bird. Hope’s sound is sweetest during in the gale of despair, which itself feels sore by its battle with hope. Hope withstands cold and the unfamiliar, providing solace without asking for recompense. (My own views on hope are summarized here.)

Introduction to Will Durant’s, The Story of Philosophy

Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, originally published in 1926, has sold millions of copies and it launched publishing giant Simon & Schuster. It has probably introduced more Americans to philosophy than any other book. It is one of the first philosophy books I ever read and, thanks to a gift from my son-in-law, I own a signed copy. The book’s introduction beautifully discusses the value of philosophy. I reprint it here.

There is a pleasure in philosophy, and a lure even in the mirages of metaphysics, which every student feels until the coarse necessities of physical existence drag him from the heights of thought into the mart of economic strife and gain.

Most of us have known some golden days in the June of life when philosophy was in fact what Plato calls it, “that dear delight;” when the love of a modestly elusive truth seemed more glorious – incomparably — than the lust for the ways of the flesh and the dross of the world. And there is always some wistful remnant in us of that early wooing of wisdom. “Life has meaning,” we feel with Browning. “To find its meaning is my meat and drink.”

So much of our lives is meaningless, a self-canceling vacillation and futility. We strive with the chaos about and within, but we should believe all the while that there is something vital and significant in us, could we but decipher our own souls. We want to understand. “Life means for us constantly to transform into light and flame all that we are or meet with!” We are like Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov –– “one of those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions.” We want to seize the value and perspective of passing things and so to pull ourselves up out of the maelstrom of daily circumstance.

We want to know that the little things are little, and the things big, before it is too late. We want to see things now as they will seem forever — “in the light of eternity.” We want to learn to laugh in the face of the inevitable, to smile even at the looming of death. We want to be whole, to coordinate our energies by harmonizing our desires, for coordinated energy is the last word in ethics and politics — and perhaps in logic and metaphysics, too.

“To be a philosopher,” said Thoreau, “is not merely to have subtle thoughts, or even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live, according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.” We may be sure that if we can but find wisdom, all things else will be added unto us. “Seek ye first the good things of the mind,” Bacon admonishes us, “and the rest will either be supplied, or its loss will not be felt.” Truth will not make us rich, but it will make us free.

… .

We should study not merely philosophies—but also philosophers. We should spend our time with the saints and martyrs of thought, letting their radiant spirits play about us until perhaps we too, in some measure, shall partake of what da Vinci called “the noblest pleasure, the joy of understanding.”

Each of the philosophers has some lesson for us—if we approach [them] properly. “Do you know,” asks Emerson, “the secret of the true scholar? In every [one of them] there is something… I may learn of [them], and in that I am [their] pupil.” Well, surely we may take this attitude to the masterminds of history without hurt to our pride! And we may flatter ourselves with that other thought of Emerson’s, that when genius speaks to us we feel a ghostly reminiscence of having ourselves, in our distant youth, had vaguely this selfsame thought which genius now speaks, but which we had not art or courage to clothe with form and utterance.

And indeed, great [people] speak to us only so far as we have ears and souls to hear them—only so far as we have in us the roots, at least, of that which flowers out in them. We, too, have had the experiences they had, but we did not suck those experiences dry of their secret and subtle meanings: We were not sensitive to the overtones of the reality that hummed about us. Genius hears the overtones — and the music of the spheres. Genius knows what Pythagoras meant when he said that “philosophy is the highest music.”

So let us listen to these [philosophers], ready to forgive them their passing errors, eager to learn the lessons which they are so eager to teach. “Do you then be reasonable” said old Socrates to Crito, “and do not mind whether the teachers of philosophy are good or bad, but think only of Philosophy herself. Try to examine her well and truly, and if she be evil, seek to turn away all [people] from her — but if she be what I believe she is, then follow her and serve her and be of good cheer.”

I too felt the pull of this “dear delight” almost 50  years ago. Since then it has been a constant companion, even in the most troubling times. I’m fortunate to have encountered philosophy, and I thank all those who introduced me to the world of mind.

Summary of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Speech

William Faulkner’s speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1950 * (My brief summary followed by the transcript of the speech.)

Faulkner’s Main Ideas– Good writers want to create something new, but this is difficult. And existential threats (especially the possibility of nuclear war) make the writer’s job—to uncover the secrets of the human heart—even harder. Yet writers must put aside their fear, and remember good things like love and compassion and sacrifice. If they forget the good, they write of despair and of the impending doom of our species. But Faulkner believes that we will survive and prosper. So the role of the writer is to inspire humanity by reminding them of what we are capable of. In this way the writer helps us to “endure and prevail.”

Ladies and gentlemen,

I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work—a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will someday stand here where I am standing.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

___________________________________________________________________

From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969

* The speech was apparently revised by the author for publication in The Faulkner Reader.These minor changes, all of which improve the address stylistically have been incorporated here.