Category Archives: Stoicism

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 more 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, 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.

Therefore 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.

Marcus Aurelius On Getting Out Of Bed

(Statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome. The piazze was designed by Renaissance artist and architect Michelangelo Buonarroti in 1536–1546.)

My brief summary of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was one of my most popular posts last year with over 30,000 views. While re-reading the actual text, I was struck by the relevance to modern life of the first paragraph of Book V. Here is my modern translation:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I am rising to do the work of a human being. What do I have to complain about, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?” — But it’s nicer here …

So were you born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands? — But we have to sleep sometime… Agreed. But nature set a limit on that — as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There’s still more of that to do.

You don’t love yourself enough. For if you did, you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts. Is not then your labor in the world just as worthy of respect and worth your effort? (Book 5, Paragraph 1)

Brief Analysis – If we love life we will do what’s necessary to preserve our lives, and that includes working. This isn’t meant exclusively in the modern sense of doing a job—although that’s part of it. Rather it implies that living demands physical activity. If you slept all the time you wouldn’t be living, and if you resist activity you act contrary to your nature, which is to say you don’t love yourself.

An immediate objection to Aurelius’ line of thinking is that some work is too demeaning, boring, or harmful to align with our natures or, to put it another way, it isn’t work that we were born for. Now our jobs may not be particularly satisfying, but I think Aurelius would consider almost any labor that enables our survival as aligning with our nature. Of course some work is so harmful to oneself or society that he wouldn’t recommend it, but I think he would say that most labor qualifies as good enough. (I’ve written previously about the idea of doing what you love.) The key for him is that we work with others, as he writes later: “When you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, remember that your defining characteristic — what defines a human being — is to work with others.” (Book VIII, Paragraph XII)

Another objection is that Aurelius’ advice doesn’t help, for example, the clinically depressed. I think this is a valid objection. If he is just saying “get up and get going,” that is bad advice for those suffering from diseases of the brain and body. On the other hand, a friend of mine who is a psychiatrist once told me that people often do better when they cease ruminating and work, volunteer, engage in a hobby, etc., Anything that focuses their mind is therapeutic. For some this may be impossible, but focusing on something other than introspection is a good strategy for fighting depression. I’m not saying it’s the best or the only strategy, but sometimes you might just be better off going to work.

And a final thought. Remember to get enough sleep too!


(Translations by George Long, available online from the Internet Classics Archive of MIT. These would be closer to the original Greek.)

In he morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?- But this is more pleasant.- Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?- But it is necessary to take rest also.- It is necessary: however nature has fixed bounds to this too: she has fixed bounds both to eating and drinking, and yet thou goest beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient; yet in thy acts it is not so, but thou stoppest short of what thou canst do. So thou lovest not thyself, for if thou didst, thou wouldst love thy nature and her will. But those who love their several arts exhaust themselves in working at them unwashed and without food; but thou valuest thy own own nature less than the turner values the turning art, or the dancer the dancing art, or the lover of money values his money, or the vainglorious man his little glory. And such men, when they have a violent affection to a thing, choose neither to eat nor to sleep rather than to perfect the things which they care for. But are the acts which concern society more vile in thy eyes and less worthy of thy labour? (Book 5, Paragraph 1)

When thou risest from sleep with reluctance, remember that it is according to thy constitution and according to human nature to perform social acts, but sleeping is common also to irrational animals. But that which is according to each individual’s nature is also more peculiarly its own, and more suitable to its nature, and indeed also more agreeable. (from Book VIII, Paragraph XII)

Critique of Epictetus and Stockdale

A line drawing of Epictetus writing at a table with a crutch draped across his lap and shoulder

I recently wrote about the story of James B. Stockdale, who survived as a prisoner of war with the help of the philosophy of Epictetus. Since writing that piece I came across a more negative view of Stoicism, particularly as it is embraced by the American military, in a New York Times piece, “A Crack in the Stoic’s Armor.” It was penned by Nancy  Sherman, University Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown and the first Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Sherman notes that “In the military, even those who have never laid eyes on a page of Epictetus, still live as if they have.” In other words, many military personnel embrace the Stoic doctrine of being undisturbed by external events. In short, they tough it out as best they can to deal with various stressors. But Sherman found, after interviewing soldiers, that many wished “to let go of the Stoic armor.” They were tired of sucking it up, and wanted to deal with “feelings blocked off by idealized notions of Stoic purity and strength that leave little room for moral conflict and its painful residue.”

Even Cicero, after losing his daughter in childbirth, said: “It is not within our power to forget or gloss over circumstances which we believe to be evil…They tear at us, buffet us, goad us, scorch us, stifle us — and you tell us to forget about them?” Many soldiers told Sherman the same thing about the experience of war. And I think many of us would benefit from removing our armor. Many tough it out until they break, trying to be good Stoics, but the strongest minds can be broken. At some point physiological change ensues, at which point more than willpower is necessary for psychological health.

It is one thing for Epictetus to say “he was never freer than when on the rack,” but that is a high standard for most of us to achieve.1 We shouldn’t consider ourselves failures if we don’t live up to such standards.


1. Aristotle quotes this proverb, which is attributed to various authors, in the Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 7, 13. Aristotle rejects the proverb.

Epictetus and Admiral James Stockdale


Admiral James Stockdale                                                                               Epictetus

In the last few days I have written about each of the three major Stoic philosophers: Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus. The Stoics claim that their philosophy has practical applications, and the story of James Stockdale attests to that power. While a student at Stanford, Stockdale had studied Epictetus’ Enchiridion assiduously. He would soon find out the value of those studies.

James Bond Stockdale (1923 – 2005) was a United States Navy vice admiral and one of the most-highly decorated officers in the history of the U.S. Navy. His plane was shot down over Vietnam in 1965, and he was held as a prisoner of war for seven and a half years. During his captivity he spent more than four years in solitary confinement and was repeatedly tortured—his shoulders torn from their sockets, his back broken, his legs crushed. He walked with a limp and endured much pain for the rest of his life. Stockdale wrote multiple books about detailing how the philosophy of Epictetus was the key to his survival in captivity. Those works include:

Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior

A Vietnam Experience: Ten Years of Reflection

Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot

In Love and War: The Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam Years

What Stockdale learned from Epictetus was that happiness demands that we differentiate between what is, and is not within our control. Yes, we should try to influence fate, but we can’t control it. So when fate strikes, the measure of a person is their reaction to fate. (This is reminiscent of Victor Frankl‘s claim that we find meaning through our response to life—for more see Man’s Search for Meaning.) In short, we can either accept what we can’t change or be miserable. Epictetus, like Stockdale, tells us to do the former.

He also learned the importance of seeing bad things as providing a chance to act virtuously, instead of thinking of freedom and happiness as getting and doing whatever we want. As Epictetus says, “Do not ask things to happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go smoothly.”

In 1993, in a speech delivered at the Great Hall, King’s College, London, Monday, Stockdale described his thoughts immediately after his plane was hit:

After ejection … I whispered to myself: I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus … as I ejected from that airplane was the understanding that a Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are “up to him” and (B) those things that are “not up to him.” Another way of saying it is (A) those things that are “within his power” and (B) those things that are “beyond his power.” Still another way of saying it is (A) those things that are within the grasp of “his Will, his Free Will” and (B) those things that are beyond it. All in category B are “external,” beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I covet them. All in category A are up to me, within my power, within my will, and properly subjects for my total concern and involvement. They include my opinions, my aims, my aversions, my own grief, my own joy, my judgments, my attitude about what is going on, my own good, and my own evil.

Stockdale explained good and evil by quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent years in Soviet gulags:

It was only when I lay there on the rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not between states nor between classes nor between political parties, but right through every human heart, through all human hearts.

Stockdale made the same point this way: “… good and evil are not just abstractions you kick around and give lectures about and attribute to this person and that. The only good and evil that means anything is right in your own heart, within your will, within your power, where it’s up to you.” Or as Epictetus puts it in Chapter 32 of the Enchiridion, “Things that are not within our own power, not without our Will, can by no means be either good or evil.”

Stockdale concluded his moving speech with a story about a note from a fellow prisoner that he received during his long ordeal.

 Back in my cell, after the guard locked the door, I sat on my toilet bucket–-–where I could stealthily jettison the note if the peephole cover moved–-–and unfolded Hatcher’s sheet of low-grade paper toweling on which, with a rat dropping, he had printed, without comment or signature, the last verse of Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Marcus Aurelius: A Brief Summary of The Meditations

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 19, 2016.)

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. ~ Marcus Aurelius

Statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback.

Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD) was Roman Emperor from 161 to 180, and is considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers. What today we call the Meditations take the form of a personal notebook, which wasn’t intended for publication. Aurelius called them “Writings To Myself.” They were written in Greek, although his native tongue was Latin, and were probably composed while he was on military campaigns in central Europe, c. AD 171-175. He died, most likely from the plague or cancer, on a military campaign in present day Austria. The work is divided into 12 short books.

In Book I Aurelius thanks those to whom he is indebted. He thanks his grandfather for teaching him to be candid, modest, and even-tempered; his father for teaching him to be humble, calm, and frugal; his mother for teaching him to be generous and non-materialistic; and his teachers who taught him the value of hard work, self-discipline, equanimity, rationality, humor, and tolerance. From his teachers he also learned to love practical philosophy, instead of metaphysics, logic and the vanity of the Sophists. He also thanks his wife for being affectionate.

In Book II Aurelius reminds us that each day we will meet some terrible people. But we have faults too, so we shouldn’t be angry with them. For we are all just bits of blood, bones and breath; our life is fleeting; our bodies will decay. As for death, it is nothing to fear; it can’t hurt us. But the most important part of us is our minds. We shouldn’t let them be slaves to selfish passions, quarrel with fate, or be anxious of the present or afraid of the future. We can’t guarantee fame or fortune, but we can keep our minds calm and free from injury, a state superior to both pleasure and pain. Freedom is the control of our minds.

In Book IIAurelius tells us to be mindful of little things like cracks in a loaf of bread, the texture of figs and olives, and the expressions of wild animals—even mundane things have charm he says. But we shouldn’t gossip or speculate about what others say or do. Instead, think and talk only of things you would not be ashamed of if they were found out. Think and talk with sincerity and cheerfulness, and there will be a kind of divinity within you. There is nothing more valuable than a mind pursuing truth, justice, temperance, fortitude, rationality and the like. So be resolute in pursuit of the good.

In Book IV Aurelius tells us that we can always find solitude in our own minds. If our minds are serene, we will find peace and happiness. As for how others view us, we have little control. But virtue is still virtue even if it isn’t acknowledged. Remember, our lives are ephemeral, one day we live, the next we are dead. So act virtuous, use your time well, and be cheerful. Then, when you drop from life’s tree, you will drop like a ripe fruit.

In Book V Aurelius says we should get up each morning and do good work. We should act naturally and contribute to society, unconcerned about the reproach of others. And don’t ask or expect payment or gratitude for doing good deeds. Instead, be satisfied with being like a vine that bears good fruit. Virtue is its own reward.

In Book V Aurelius disavows revenge—better not to imitate injury. We should do our duty, act righteously and not be disturbed by the rest, for in the vastness of space and time we are insignificant. Think of good things and control your mind.

In Book VII Aurelius advocates patience and tolerance. Nature works like wax, continually transforming—so be patient. People will speak ill of you no matter what you do, but be tolerant. Evil people try our patience and tolerance, but we can remain happy by controlling our response to them.

In Book VIII Aurelius argues that being disconnected from humanity is like cutting off one of your own limbs. Instead, live connected to nature and other people. No matter what you encounter maintain a moderate and controlled mind. If you are cursed by others, don’t let it affect you anymore than your cursing the spring affects the springtime.

In Books IX, X and XI Aurelius argues that we should be moderate, sincere, honest, and calm. If someone reports that you are not virtuous, dispel such notions with your probity, and use humor to disarm the worst people.

In Books XII Aurelius asks why we love ourselves best, but so often value the opinion of others over our own. This is a mistake. Remember too that the destiny of the greatest and worst of human beings is the same—they all turn to ashes. Do not then be proud, but be humble. Die in serenity. As Aurelius wrote from his tent, far from home and never to return: “Life is warfare and a stranger’s sojourn, and after fame, oblivion.”

Reflections – I have more to learn about Stoicism, Buddhism and other practical philosophies. But I think there is a hunger today for practical philosophies of life, especially in a modern world where religious stories no longer provide comfort to so many. Tomorrow I’ll continue this investigation by talking about the point of philosophy. Shortly thereafter I’d like to discuss Admiral James Stockdale on how Epictetus helped him endure more than seven years as a prisoner of war.