Stoicism and Emotion II: The Pathetic Syllogism

Stoicism is not about suppressing emotions. At least, not exactly. Last time we have seen that Margaret Graver, in her Stoicism and Emotion, makes the point that for the Stoics (as in modern cognitive science) there is a fundamental distinction between feelings and emotions. Feelings are raw materials of our subjective awareness, and they can evolve into cognitively informed emotions of different types, depending on the (implicit or explicit) judgment that accompanies them. A rush of adrenaline, for instance, may cause the feeling of fear or dread, but that feeling becomes actual fear (of a specific something) only after I have given it assent: “yes, I really should be afraid, after hearing that noise in my house in the middle of the night, because it is highly likely that someone is after me.” But I can also withhold assent, if I think the feeling is not justified: “no, there is nothing to worry about, it was, once again, the damn cat making noises.”

That is why we need to be careful whenever we talk about a major goal of Stoic training: achieving the state of apatheia, literally the lack of pathē, which are the disruptive or unhealthy emotions, not to be confused with the eupatheiai, the positive or healthy emotions. As Graver puts it:

“If the psychic sensations [i.e., the feelings] we experience in emotion are not simply identical with the pathē, then the norm of apatheia does not have to be cashed out as an injunction against every human feeling. One might be impassive in the Stoic sense and still remain subject to other categories of affective experience.”

But aren’t emotions natural? And don’t the Stoics advise us to “live according to nature”? If so, where does this talk of healthy vs unhealthy come from? It comes from the fact that even though according to the Stoics nature endowed us with feelings for good reasons, it pays to rationally scrutinize what such feelings actually are in any particular circumstance. It is Cicero — quoted by Margaret — that makes the connection clear:

“By nature, all people pursue those things which they think to be good and avoid their opposites. Therefore, as soon as a person receives an impression of some thing which he thinks is good, nature itself urges him to reach out after it.” (Tusculan Disputations, IV.12)

So the inclination to follow our feelings is natural, but how we do that depends on our judgment of whether the feeling refers to a good or a bad situation. Nature yes, but not unaided by reason…

Emotions, for the Stoics, not only come with a (either implicit or explicitly articulated) content, they are associated with a normative aspect. Graver stresses that this is a crucial characteristic of the Stoic approach: the psychological aspect of emotions must be integrated with an ethical judgment as to the appropriateness (or not) of that emotion. The ability to do that, fundamentally, is what distinguishes human beings from other animals. This position is easily traceable back to the early Stoa:

“They [the Stoics] think that the pathē are judgments, as Chrysippus says in his work On Emotions. For [he says that] fondness for money is a supposition that money is a fine thing, and similarly with drunkenness, stubbornness, and so forth.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.3)

Cicero, in book III of the Tusculan Disputations, presents a two-step processes for analyzing emotions, informed by Stoic philosophy (recall that Cicero himself was not a Stoic, though he was clearly sympathetic to the Stoic approach):

“When our belief in the seriousness of our misfortune is combined with the further belief that it is right, and an appropriate and proper thing, to be upset by what has happened, then, and not before, there comes about that deep emotion which is distress.” (III.61)

In other words, distress is what happens when we believe that we should be distressed about whatever it is going on (or we perceive as going on). It is not the event in itself that carries the distress embedded into it, but our cognitive analysis (which, once more, to pre-empt lazy criticism, does not have to be consciously taking place at that specific moment).

Margaret calls this the “pathetic syllogism” (from pathos, nothing to do with the modern word), and she spells out the general form in this fashion:

P1: Objects of type T are evil
P2: Object O belongs to type T
P3: Object O is in prospect
C: An evil is in prospect

Take the famous example of Agamemnon, the commander in chief of the Achaean expedition against Troy, who felt fear at the idea that he was about to be defeated. The fear comes from his belief that defeat is a bad thing, plus the additional belief that one ought to have certain feelings when a bad thing is in prospect. Of course, just like in any syllogism, if one wishes to deny the conclusion (assuming that the reasoning is valid, which in this case it is), then one needs to find a premise that can be rejected. And that is a major objective of Stoic training, of course.

Another way of looking at the issue, also discussed by Graver, is in terms of externals vs. what she calls “integral” things. Both Plato and Aristotle referred to things that are determined by us (i.e., they are not externals) as good (or evils) “of the psyche.” The Stoics made this distinction — commonly referred to as the dichotomy of control — central to their philosophy, often the “integrals” as ways of handling externals, or as dispositions to use externals one way or another. Seneca, for instance, talks about an ambassadorship as an external, where the true good lies in handling it with honor. In the case of Agamemnon, the true good (or evil) lies in how the king would handle defeat, if it really did come. As it turns out, the Achaeans were not defeated, though we also know that Agamemnon was pretty bad in general at handling difficult situations, especially for a commander in chief. Graver summarizes the Stoic ethical stance in this way:

“The chief insight of Stoic axiology could very well be expressed this way: that in a rational being, external objects never merit uncompromising evaluation but integral objects always do. … The claim often appears in the form ‘virtue is the only good, vice the only evil.’”

Because the above mentioned dispositions to use externals are, of course, the virtues. The oft-neglected other side of this famous Stoic coin is that indifferents are not so in the sense that they don’t matter. Indeed, as Margaret says, they may be pursued strenuously, at times, but only on the basis of a restricted evaluation, applicable to local circumstances. The only thing that is always good, under all circumstances, is virtue, and that is why it is often referred to as the chief good, or the only (intrinsic, unqualified) good. Virtue is the good by means of which one is able to properly handle every external, including ambassadorships and defeats in war.

According to Stoic philosophy, it is possible — though very rare — for a person to align all her beliefs with each other, yielding a full and consistent evaluation of herself and her surrounding. That person would be in harmony with herself and with the cosmos at large, and of course it is referred to in Stoic lore as a Sage. Sagehood, as Seneca says in Letter XLII.1 is as rare as the mythical Ethiopian phoenix, a bird who comes back to life from its ashes (every 500 years, according to legend). Why bother with such a concept then? Graver puts it aptly:

“Alongside the dissatisfaction with our actual moral condition [for the Stoic] goes an extraordinary optimism about what we might achieve. … Becoming like the Sage would be becoming more human, not less; it would be recognizable as human maturation.”

What about the famous eupatheiai, the positive, of healthy emotions? Following Graver’s analysis, we should think of them as normative affect, i.e., as the ethically proper responses of individuals who have been practicing their virtue, and have therefore developed the right dispositions toward externals:

“A wise person who meets with an opportunity to perform some generous or courageous action might feel a kind of yearning toward that action; conversely, she may be expected to experience a horrified aversion from anything shameful or wrong.”

It is commonly assumed that the eupatheiai are somehow less intense than the pathē, leading to the stereotype of Stoics as (nearly) emotionless, or at least characterized by flat emotions. But this is nowhere to be found in the actual literature, and there is no reason, based on Stoic philosophy, to believe that to be the case. Margaret stresses that eupatheiai are “corrected” (by way of ethical training), not diminished, versions of human emotions. She makes the analogy to the seamless movements of a trained athlete: forceful but without strain.

“Preeminent among eupathic responses is the one called chara or joy. Joy is ‘well-reasoned elevation,’ corresponding on a feeling level to the happy excitement the ordinary person experiences on winning a raffle or leaving on vacation. But joy differs from those feelings in being directed at genuine goods: a generous action, for instance, would be an occasion for joy, and the proper object of the feeling would be the generosity itself, as exercised on that occasion.”

I trust you can see just how grating Stoicism can be for some modern sensibilities. I’m thinking of the sort of people who say things like “who are you to tell me I should / should not feel this way?” The answer is clear, from a Stoic perspective: emotions, as characterized above, come in bad and good varieties, and we should, indeed, work toward feeling in certain ways and avoid to feel in certain other ways. While we cannot avoid raw feelings, we are not at the mercy of our fully formed emotions, pace David Hume.

Graver ends the chapter with a nice discussion of the Stoic classification of positive and negative emotions, first at what she calls the “genus” (i.e., broad categories) level, then at the “species” (i.e., on the basis of more detailed examples) level. The generic classification is nice and neat, while there is no consensus among the available sources about the specific classification. Graver suggests that this isn’t a reflection of disagreement among the Stoics, but rather stems from the fact that the specific examples were meant as illustrative of the generic categories, not as an exhaustive list. Figures 2, 3, 4, and 5 in this chapter are very useful summaries of both levels of classification. I am reproducing the first two tables here:

Notice the lack of a “present evil” category among the eupatheiai. The explanation is along these lines:

“We can see why one would want to claim that the person of perfect understanding has no genus of affective response for present evils. Having perfect understanding entails that one regards as evil only those things that really are evil; that is, integral evils such as personal failings, errors, and other events or situations whose causes lie within oneself. In order to believe that this sort of evil is present in the relevant sense, one would have to believe that a proposition concerning one’s own shortcomings has just become true, something like ‘I act unjustly’ or ‘I am ungenerous.’ But the person of perfect understanding is exempt by definition from everything of that kind. The situation simply never arises.”

From the third table (not shown here), consider as an illustrative example some of the “species” listed under the “genus” Desire, a pathos: anger (desire to punish someone who is thought to have armed us unjustly); hatred (anger stored up to age); rancor (anger biting its time for revenge); exasperation (anger that breaks out suddenly). And from the fourth table (not shown), here are some examples of the species listed under the genus Joy, a eupatheia: enjoyment (joy befitting the surrounding advantages); cheerfulness (joy in the sensible person’s deeds); and good spirits (joy about the self-sufficiency of the universe).

Let me conclude with one important note. Stoicism is often accused of being a self-centered philosophy, focused only on self-improvement. But as Margaret writes:

“The genus concerned with prospective goods includes some affective responses that are directly concerned with the goods of other people. … The rich affective life of the wise is being said to include some concern for other human beings that goes beyond disinterested service to the level of genuine affective involvement.”

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