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), and thus that it advocate a passionless, unemotional and apathetic life. Let’s investigate this claim.

The Stoics Don’t Reject Emotions, They Reject Passions

Let us begin by quoting John Sellars, a Research Fellow at King’s College London: “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. Understood in this sense, “the Stoics do not reject emotions, they reject passions, and that is quite a different thing.”

The Stoics believe we should feel affinity, care and concern for our friends and family. They also acknowledge that we are affected by external events, that we have natural reactions like being scared or shocked. So 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 is a 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. This suggests that our fear may 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.” Good or proper passions follow from mental states 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 judgments 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 the older idea of passions is really what 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, we may live poorly. 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 for us, 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 for us, or we might fear something in the future that either won’t happen, or won’t that bad even if it does happen.

So excessive EorP result in mistaken judgments and emotional disquietude. For example, the satisfaction of appetites for food, drink, and sex may give us less pleasure than we thought. So it isn’t rational to risk more important things like health in their pursuit, or to suffer from their absence. 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)

So the goal isn’t to  reject EorP altogether, but to have a balanced emotional life. Think 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, not that we shouldn’t care about anything. Rather, you should act as a result of rational deliberation. Consider an analogy. 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 our passions. EorP should follow from, not lead, rational reflection. This seems like good advice.

2 thoughts on “The Stoics on the Emotions or Passions

  1. I can add a tiny, somewhat distant note to this: having discovered rationalism, the Greeks were the first to draw a clear distinction between reason and EorP.; the Romans picked this up from the Greeks. All through classical writings you see disparaging remarks about people who allowed their EorP to overwhelm their reason. I especially recall seeing such remarks often in Plutarch.

    Perhaps I am wrong; can you recall any instances of pre-Greek cultures differentiating between rational thinking and EorP?

  2. not off the top of my head, but I’m guessing that ancient Indian or Chinese religion probably discussed the matter.

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