Stoicism and Emotion VI: Traits of Character

The scene is Mount Olympus. Zeus and the other gods are contemplating the ongoing Trojan war, and the father of the gods remarks to Hera, his wife, and Athena, his daughter: “Perhaps it’s time to give up: make peace for real, and let Troy stand.” This does not go down well with either wife or daughter, who have been supporting the Achaeans against Troy, with Aphrodite on the other side. (This disputes among the goddesses, as is well known, stems from Paris being asked to make the impossible judgment of which of the three was the most beautiful one.)

Margaret Graver, in the sixth chapter of her Stoicism and Emotion, uses the story as a way to introduce her discussion of character.  Hera and Athena react very differently to Zeus’ comment. Athena — allegedly the goddess of wisdom, let us not forget — just murmurs to herself and glares at her father. Hera, by contrast, goes into one of her usual, and often barely provoked, rages. A major explanation (though, admittedly, not the only one possible, given their different relationship to Zeus) for the contrasting reactions to the same provocation is character. Athena is able to control her anger, while Hera very clearly is not. Hera is in fact best described as irascible, i.e., prone to anger. Which, needless to say, is a major character flow as far as the Stoics are concerned.

As Graver points out, character is central to Stoicism because it bears the full import of moral responsibility, as explained for instance by Chrysippus in his famous metaphor of the rolling cylinder. Now, at the coarsest level the Stoics only recognized two types of character: the just one and the unjust one. The Sage is just, everyone else isn’t. But at a finer grained level they were interested in individual differences in character, and that’s the major focus of this chapter of the book:

“Just as one may observe variations in the sea floor without disregarding the fact that all of it is equally underwater, so it is possible in this system to differentiate one personality from another even where all concerned have the same overall moral standing.” (p. 134)

In other words, the fact that all of us ordinary people are equally non-wise doesn’t mean we don’t have individual personality traits. In order to show that the Stoics’ philosophically rigorous analysis of character can allow for that sort of variety, Graver goes into the distinction between two kinds of conditions. Some conditions can vary in degree, others can’t: you can be more tall or less tall, for instance, but you can’t be more or less pregnant. Conditions that can scale up or down are called scalar conditions; those that can’t are non-scalar.

For the Stoics, wisdom is a non-scalar condition, since wisdom consists in coherence among all a person’s beliefs and judgments — a set of beliefs is either coherent or it’s not, just as a math problem is either correct or incorrect. And virtue is wisdom, since it consists in knowledge of how to live. So either you have wisdom, or you don’t. But it doesn’t follow that everyone who is not wise is completely alike. There are other kinds of personality traits that are scalar conditions: we can have them or not have them, and we can have them in greater or lesser degree.

Graver explains that in the ancient texts, the word for non-scalar traits is diatheseis, and the word for scalar traits is hexeis. One rather technical, but highly informative paragraph from Stobaeus’ summary of Stoic ethics gives examples of both good and bad mental characteristics that count as either diatheseis or hexeis.

“Some of the goods having to do with the mind are diatheseis, some are hexeis, and some are neither. All the virtues are diatheseis, but the habitudes, like prophecy and so forth, are hexeis, while activities in accordance with virtue, like a prudent action, an exercise of self-control, and so on, are neither. Likewise, some of the bad things having to do with the mind are diatheseis, some are hexeis, and some are neither. All the vices are diatheseis, but proclivities, like enviousness, tendency to grief, and so on, are hexeis, as also are the sicknesses and infirmities. Activities in accordance with fault, like an imprudent action, an unjust action, and so on, are neither.” (Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.7.5f; 70-71W; cf. D.L. 7.98)

Notice that tendencies toward certain emotions (envy, grief) figure among the bad hexeis. These kinds of traits are especially important for Stoic living, because they quantify levels of negativity of which we need to be aware. Left unchecked they can easily generate powerful emotions capable of ruining our chances at eudaimonia.

Margaret takes a close look at the items in Stobaeus’ list and organizes them in a couple of useful diagrams (a classification of good and bad traits of character, if you will). Consider, for instance, what Stobaeus says about the bad traits called “sicknesses”:

“A ‘sickness,’ they say, is a desirous opinion which has hardened into a condition and become entrenched, according to which people suppose that things which are not choiceworthy are extremely choiceworthy; for instance, fondness for women, fondness for wine, fondness for money. And there are conditions opposite to these which come about through aversion; for instance, hatred of women, hatred of wine, hatred of humanity.” (Stobaeus, Ecl. 2.7.10e (93W); similarly Seneca, Moral Epistles 75.10-12)

Graver points out that in Stoic philosophy to say that an indifferent is not choiceworthy does not mean that it should not be pursued, as even Sages have preferences (and dis-preferences). For instance, most of us would probably agree that it is preferred to have some money as opposed to being poor. But that preference slides into a sickness when one becomes fond of money for its own sake, and even worse if one attempts to get more money by unjust means. And the word “sickness” here is particularly appropriate, given that the Stoics thought of philosophers as doctors of the mind, often drawing direct analogies with the medicine of the body.

Next is an analysis of “proclivities,” which Chrysippus explains are tendencies toward specific emotions, or towards action contrary to nature (in the specific Stoic sense of the term). What, precisely, is the difference between sickness and proclivity? Margaret explains:

“A person with a ‘sickness’ is especially concerned about some one object type and experiences a range of emotions concerned with that object. Someone with a proclivity, by contrast, experiences one emotion more than all others and must therefore experience it in connection with a wide range of objects.” (p. 142)

In one case, someone is fixated on a certain object, money for instance, and becomes upset when they can’t get it, thrilled when they do get it, fearful of losing it, and so on. In the second case, someone has a tendency toward a certain reaction, anger for instance, and becomes angry about all sorts of things. This account gives the Stoics a neat cognitivist theory of the non-wise conditions.

The last bit of the chapter is about the personality traits of virtuous people. Still working with the summary in Stobaeus, Graver shows that while all wise people are alike in being wise, they can also have individual characteristics. These are called “habitudes” (epitēdeumata) and are classified as scalar hexeis.

“Fondness for music (philomousia), fondness for literature (philogrammatia), fondness for horses (philippia), fondness for hunting with dogs (philokunēgia), and, in general, the things that are said to be encyclical skills are called by Stoics ‘habitudes’ but are not said to be forms of knowledge; rather, they are classed among the worthwhile conditions.” (Stobaeus Ecl. 2.7.5b11; 67W)

A habitude doesn’t engage the emotions in the same way that the sicknesses and proclivities do. It seems to be just a behavior pattern, a tendency to spend time in one way rather than another. Two people can both be wise without knowing exactly the same things; after all, they might live in different surroundings. At one point, a habitude is called “a road that leads toward what is in accordance with virtue.” Interestingly, the same Greek word, hodos, means both road and method. Also interestingly, the Stoics did not claim that all wise persons would cultivate the same habitudes: the road to virtue is made of many paths.

“One wise person may be fond of music but not of dogs, while another, equally wise, devotes herself to horses, or to a variety of pursuits. Such preferences are not what it is to be wise; rather, they are personality traits of the wise, products of their varied experience.” (p. 147)

One final word to clear up possible misunderstanding: the wise person understands that music, or dogs, or whatever, are not good in and of themselves (only virtue is). Which means that she can be fond of music, dogs, etc., without for that reason coming to think that not being able to pursue those interests is an evil. By avoiding mistakes about the value of externals, the wise have freed themselves of the emotional disturbances that such mistakes inevitably produce.

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