Category Archives: Stoicism

Summary of Seneca “On Tranquility”

Should we trouble those we love with our worries about the state of the world, environmental degradation, the possibility of nuclear war, etc.? Or does this disturb both ours and their tranquility?

Such questions were posed long ago by Seneca in his letter On The Tranquility Of The Mind where he said we should avoid “… gloomy people who deplore everything and find reason to complain you must take pains to avoid. With all his loyalty and good will, a grumbling and touchy companion militates against tranquility.” But he also says: “The efforts of a good citizen are never useless; by being seen and heard, by his expression, gesture, silent determination, by his very gait he is of service.”

So it seems we should share our thoughts with those who will listen, remembering that our influence on others is limited. Thus we should “avoidance of labor for empty ends.” Thus we are led to a basic idea in Stoicism. As he writes:

;”>to get rid of the causes of personal sorrow gains us nothing, for sometimes hatred of the human race possesses us. When you reflect how rare simplicity is, how unknown innocence … when you recall the long calendar of successful crime  … then the mind is plunged into black night and darkness envelops us, as if the virtues were overthrown and we could no longer possess them or aspire to them. The trend of thought we ought to pursue therefore, is to make the common failings of the crowd not odious but ridiculous …. we ought to take the lighter view of these things and cultivate tolerance; it is more civilized to laugh at life than to lament over it. Further the man who laughs at the human race deserves more gratitude than the man who mourns over it, for he allows it hope of amelioration, whereas the foolish weeper despairs of the possibility of improvement.”

There is a lot to digest here, and I agree with most of it although sharing our troubles and listening to other’s burdens provides comfort to all. But I’m not sure that I agree with Seneca’s connecting laughing with hope and mourning with despair. (I’ve written a lot about hope on this blog.) Those who laugh may be apathetic while the mourners might act.  So I don’t see a necessary connection between laughing and hoping, or lamenting and despairing.

Still further Seneca writes that “We ought to take outdoor walks, to refresh and raise our spirits by deep breathing in the open air. Sometimes energy will be refreshed by a carriage ride, a journey, a change of scene, good company, and a more generous wine.” Surely this is good advice. I suppose that if we cultivate tranquil minds that will probably be better for everyone. Despite the tribulations of the world we do best to retain our equanimity.

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.

Marcus Aurelius On Getting Out Of Bed

(Statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome. The piazza 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!

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(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)

Western Philosophical Meditation

“Philosopher in Meditation” Rembrandt, 1632, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, October 23, 2015.)

We all know how difficult it is to control our minds. Obsessive, unclear, unwanted, and destructive thought continually invades our minds causing fear, anxiety, indecision, anger, and depression. Sometimes we seem powerless to prevent this invasion.

In response, the practice of meditation has become increasingly popular in the West as a way of dealing with this problem. These practices, which have their origins in Buddhism, take many forms, but generally refer to the attempt to get beyond the thinking, discursive or logical mind into a more attentive, aware, and relaxed state.1, 2 By sitting quietly we can learn to empty our minds of its confusing, anxiety, anger, and depressive-inducing content, leaving behind a serene state of mind. Many people have found this practice successful, and scientific research supports its causal efficacy. 3

But there is another path to peace of mind that derives from the Western philosophical tradition—what we might call philosophical meditation. The goal of philosophical meditation is also to minimize the troubling effects of unwanted thoughts and to bring inner peace, but the method is not so much an emptying or ridding the mind of its negative content as much as clarifying and understanding the mind.

To do this the School of Life has proposed instructions for philosophical meditation, just as there are instructions for Buddhist Meditation.  The basic idea is to set aside some time each day to write about our troubles, anxieties, regrets, fears, desires, etc. The idea is to then intellectually reflect on these things in order to understand them and thereby remove much of the anxiety that accompanies them. This process of sorting out the mind can be comforting in itself. Furthermore, it keeps us from making mistakes. For example, we might be excited by something that upon reflection we can’t achieve; or we might be anxious about something that really doesn’t matter much. Countless psychic pain results from not analyzing and organizing the contents of our minds. 

This isn’t to say that clarifying the content of our minds is necessarily better than emptying the mind of turbulent thoughts; this isn’t to say the Western approach is better than the Eastern approach. It is to say that sometimes our problem is one of too little thinking rather than too much thinking. Sometimes we have not thought deeply enough about the causes of agitated minds.  These thoughts swirling in our minds are not useless clutter but deserve to be examined in the hope that clarity of mind may bring peace of mind.

( If I had to choose a group of Western philosophers to emulate in this regard it would be the Stoics. I have written about them many times on this blog.)

Notes

  1. “[M]editation refers to a family of self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being and development and/or specific capacities such as calm, clarity, and concentration. Roger Walsh & Shauna L. Shapiro (2006). “The meeting of meditative disciplines and western psychology: A mutually enriching dialogue”. American Psychologist (American Psychological Association) 61 (3): 227–239. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.61.3.227.ISSN 0003-066X. PMID 16594839.
  2. “[M]editation is used to describe practices that self-regulate the body and mind, thereby affecting mental events by engaging a specific attentional set…. regulation of attention is the central commonality across the many divergent methods.” B. Rael Cahn & John Polich (2006). “Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies”. Psychological Bulletin(American Psychological Association) 132 (2): 180–211.doi:10.1037/0033-2909.132.2.180. ISSN 0033-2909.PMID 16536641
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_on_meditation#Systematic_reviews_and_meta-analyses

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.

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