Based in Kingston, Canada, Michael Tremblay is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Queen’s University. His research focuses on ancient philosophy, specifically moral education in the Stoics.

Stoicism and Emotions

Stoicism and Emotions

Photo by Pixabay on  Pexels.com

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

How the Stoics conceived of emotions:

A major innovation of Stoic psychology was their detailed theory of emotions. What was unique about it was that they believed emotions to be exclusively the result of rational judgments. For the Stoics, emotions are not animalistic tendencies to be suppressed, nor are they habituated responses that must be trained. Rather, emotions are movements of the soul caused by how we perceive the world.

The picture goes as follows: human psychology functions in such a way that when I believe something to be good or bad (that is, harmful or beneficial) my body responds in accordance to this perception. A belief that something is harmful causes my soul to shrink, and produces negative emotions like anxiety, fear and sadness. A belief that something is beneficial causes my soul to expand, which produces positive emotions like happiness, excitement, and joy.

Our emotions are complex, just as our beliefs are, with specific emotions corresponding to specific kinds of beliefs. The two most important aspects of a belief, in terms of which emotion it will produce, are: A) the benefit or harm of a given event/action/circumstance, and B) whether the event is already occurring or if it will occur in occur in the future. These two aspects divide emotions into four general categories.

Present Oriented: Future Oriented:
Harmful: Distress Fear
Beneficial: Pleasure Appetite (Desire)


Things can get more complex than this though. For example, anger would be the belief that harm has occurred and someone or something is to blame (whereas sadness would be the recognition of harm, without a specific object of blame). But for our purposes it is sufficient to see why the Stoics plausibly took beliefs to be the source of emotions. And there is a definite intuitive appeal to this theory. It seems to mimic, at least in part, how we experience and engage with emotions today. If I think I see a snake in the grass, I will tense up with fear. But upon discovering it to be a branch, my fear immediately subsides. What was producing the emotion was not the actual danger, which remained constant, but my perception of a danger. And even those who do not study Stoicism appreciate this correlation and use it to their advantage. It seems like a reasonable strategy for one who is afraid of flying to remind themselves that it is actually a relatively safe method of transportation. We recognize that this kind of strategy will actually help to affect our emotions.

How the Stoic theory of emotions can benefit us:

So the question then becomes, how do we benefit by adopting this perspective? How can a Stoic understanding of emotions help us to navigate our own emotional lives? The first benefit of this perspective is that emotions are not things that happen to us. Rather they are the direct result of our choices about how we choose to perceive and value the world around us.

This gives us a degree of power when navigating the world to regulate and alter our own emotions. Especially those we do not wish to have. We can remove a negative emotion, or even induce a positive one in its place, by examining and altering the beliefs that are causing the negative emotion. This can be done by asking two questions about a given belief:

  • Is the belief true?

  • Does the belief involve something of genuine value?

Imagine for example, that you suffer from anxiety at work. According to the Stoics, if you want to feel better, then this emotion should not be repressed, or shamed as irrational. Rather the belief producing this emotion should be identified, examined, and developed further. Let’s suppose the anxiety is caused by a belief that your coworkers do not like you, and make fun of you behind your back.

You then have two ways to deal with the emotion. First, you can question the truth of the belief. Are you misinterpreting your coworkers’ shyness for disdain? Do you have good reason to believe they do not actually like you? It was said that the Stoic sage, the ethical ideal for the Stoics, would not form any belief without being certain first of its truth. The Stoics believed that the normal person jumps to conclusions too quickly, and does not set for themselves a high enough standard of proof before believing something. If we are cautious about what we choose to believe, especially when the event really matters to us, then we will save ourselves from unnecessary negative emotions.

But if it turns out to be true, then you can still move to the second step, and question the value of the event itself. Does it really matter if you are unpopular with these people? Is this really such a bad thing? What genuine consequences, besides the negative emotions, are caused by this? The Stoics held that the normal person tends to non-reflectively adopt the value system of their society. In this way, they are predisposed to care about things that do not really matter, even by their own standards of what is important. So if we want to limit negative emotions, we should be careful about what we choose to assign value to.

A Life without Emotions:

As it turns out, for the Stoics very few beliefs are going to make it past these, and thus almost no emotions are going to count as proper to have. This is because the Stoics think that nothing external to our own virtue has genuine value. In other words, the events we typically think of as being bad, such as damaging your car, being insulted, getting fired, or even having a loved one pass away, are not actually bad things and do not concern objects of genuine value. The reason we suffer from negative emotions then, is that we mistakenly attribute objects external to us as having value or disvalue. Thus when we naturally encounter things we disdain, or lose things we value, we experience sadness or anger. Even if we are lucky and have all the things we want, we then exist in a state of anxiety at the fact that this luck might change.

This aspect of their theory is of central importance to the Stoics, but it also the part that can be the hardest to accept. But unless you want to be a Stoic sage, that’s fine. There is no reason why one cannot both adopt their conception of emotions, and retain the belief that our friends and family matter, and that our interests have an objective value. It is perfectly coherent to recognize you are sad when a loved one has passed because you value that person, and to choose to keep that belief about their value. The Stoic theory of emotion does not necessarily entail Stoic ethics.

But what even the non-stoic can take from this radical Stoic position is the idea that we should not be passive in how we choose to value the world around us. If we are going to suffer about something, or suffer for something, it should be something that we have actively decided matters to us. We should not suffer just because we have been told to care about something. Because our emotions are not things that happen to us, but rather the result of the beliefs we choose to form and retain, we are able to become the authors of our own emotional lives. And indeed, the Stoics thought this self-authorship was our responsibility.

Conclusion:

The Stoics are often portrayed unfairly as being hyper-rational, cold, and detached from their emotions. But hopefully we can see from the discussion that this is not the case. While it is true that the Stoic sage would have no extreme emotions, the Stoics have no bias against emotions as emotions. Rather, the Stoics sought to eliminate themselves of passionate emotions because they took them to be indicative of false beliefs about the world. And false belief, or ignorance of the truth, was considered to be the same thing as vice, which was the only thing considered by the Stoics to be truly harmful to the individual.

Thus Stoicism does not call for us to suppress our emotions, so much as to be aware of them. It demands for us to be intentional about what we choose to give value to. It warns us not to frivolously form a belief about an ambiguous event, because this can wreak havoc on our emotional well-being. Finally,  it demands from us that we investigate the reasons we feel the way we do, and that we ultimately give up those feelings if the reasons are poor.

Further Reading:

Upheavals of Thought by Martha Nussbaum:

If you are interested in the theory of emotions as being produced by beliefs, Nussbaum does an excellent job of developing a contemporary stance on the topic. A benefit of Nussbaum’s position is that, while it is inspired by Stoicism, it does not depend upon Stoicism, and thus separates itself from most of Stoicism’s more extreme claims.

Stoicism and Emotion by Margaret Graver:

This book by Graver provides one of the most exhaustive and detailed scholarly accounts of Stoicism and their theory of emotions. This would be an ideal book to gain a better understanding of Stoicism’s position on emotions and human psychology in general.

Part 1 of an Introduction to Stoicism:  The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent

Part 1 of an Introduction to Stoicism: The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent