by Donald Robertson.
The misconception that Stoics are unemotional like robots, or like the Vulcan “Mister Spock” in Star Trek, is so widespread that I’ve decided to put together some brief notes to summarise the opposing view, taken with modifications from my book Teach yourself Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013).
The founder of Greek Skepticism, Pyrrho of Elis, was jokingly said to be so apathetic, or indifferent to the world, that his followers had to chase around after him to prevent him walking off cliffs or into the path of speeding horse-drawn wagons. That joke was never made about the Stoics because, by contrast, they were well-known for their active engagement in family life and politics. Likewise, the Epicureans made the attainment of tranquillity, or the avoidance of pain, the goal of life, and saw no intrinsic value in fellowship with other human beings. This often led them to withdraw from politics or family life, and even to live in relative seclusion. By contrast, the Stoics, for whom tranquillity is only good when it accompanies the virtues of wisdom and justice, believed that fellowship with the rest of mankind is natural and fundamental to the goal of life, which entails “living in agreement” with reason, the Nature of the universe, and the rest of mankind. In fact, the founding text of Stoicism, Zeno’s Republic, centred on his “dream” of an ideal Stoic society, consisting of enlightened and benevolent friends, living in harmony together, under the patronage of Eros, the god of love.
Epictetus therefore said that it’s the Stoic concept of “appropriate action”, in our family and civil relationships, and of the “discipline of action” through which Stoics train themselves to act justly and philanthropically, which lay to rest the misconception that they are aloof and unemotional like certain other ancient philosophers (Discourses, 3.2). The Stoics believed that we are essentially rational and social animals who experience a feeling of “natural affection” for those closest to us, which it is natural and rational to extend to the rest of mankind, forming the basis of an attitude sometimes called Stoic “philanthropy”. However, arguably, by placing value on others, even in a somewhat detached manner, Stoics also open themselves up to a variety of naturally-occurring emotional reactions, including distress when valued things appear to be threatened. According to the ancient Stoics, even the perfect Sage feels natural affection, or love for other human beings, and is not completely insensitive to other feelings that naturally follow from maintaining these affectionate social relationships. For example, Marcus Aurelius surely loved his notoriously wayward son Commodus (shown above dressed as Hercules), while accepting that it was ultimately beyond his control completely to remedy his heir’s folly and vicious character. Indeed, Marcus described the ideal Stoic character, as exemplified by his own teacher, Sextus of Chaerona, as being “full of love and yet free from passion”. The Greek word for love that he uses can also be translated as “natural affection” or “family affection” – it’s the kind of love parents have for their children, but Stoics sought to emulate Zeus, the father of mankind, by extending their natural affection to the whole of mankind. This dilutes the emotion and prevents it from becoming an infatuation with any individual, or an irrational “passion” of the kind they sought to free themselves from. Hence the word he joins this expression with, apatheia, means absence of irrational, unhealthy, or excessive “passions”. As we’ll see, the Stoics repeatedly emphasised that by this they did not mean “apathy” or complete lack of feeling for other people.
As this is a common misconception about ancient Stoicism, it’s worth briefly reviewing some of their own comments. For example, after describing the Stoic theory of irrational passions, Diogenes Laertius wrote of the founders of Stoicism, probably meaning either Zeno or Chrysippus:
They say the wise man is also without passions [apathê, whence our word “apathy”], because he is not vulnerable to them. But the bad man is called “without passions” in a different sense, which means the same as “hard-hearted” and “insensitive”. (Lives, 7.117)
Epictetus says something quite similar, that Stoics ought not to be free from passions (apathê) in the sense of being unfeeling “like a statue”, and that this has to do with “appropriate action” and maintaining one’s natural and acquired relationships, as a family member and a citizen (Discourses, 3.2).
Cicero portrays the Stoic Laelius as saying that it would be the greatest possible mistake to try to eliminate feelings of friendship, because even animals experience natural affection for their offspring, which Stoics viewed as the foundation of human love and friendship (Laelius, 13). We would not only be dehumanising ourselves by eliminating natural affection between friends, he says, but reducing ourselves below animal nature to something more like a mere tree-trunk or a stone and we should turn a deaf ear to anyone who foolishly suggests that the good life entails having “the hardness of iron” in terms of our emotions. Seneca, likewise, says:
There are misfortunes which strike the sage – without incapacitating him, of course – such as physical pain, infirmity, the loss of friends or children, or the catastrophes of his country when it is devastated by war. I grant that he is sensitive to these things, for we do not impute to him the hardness of a rock or of iron. There is no virtue in putting up with that which one does not feel. (On the Constancy of the Sage, 10.4)
There’s a problem, as Seneca points out, with the notion that the Stoic Sage is completely devoid of emotion. It recalls a story about Diogenes the Cynic, who was asked by a Spartan if he was feeling cold, when training himself by stripping naked and embracing a bronze statue in winter. Diogenes said he was not, and the Spartan replied: “What’s so impressive about what you’re doing then?” (Plutarch, Spartan Sayings, 233a).
As Seneca implies, the virtues of courage and self-discipline appear to require that the Stoic Sage must actually experience something akin to fear and desire – otherwise he has no feelings to overcome. A brave man isn’t someone who doesn’t experience any trace of fear whatsoever but someone who acts courageously despite feeling anxiety. A man who has great self-discipline or restraint isn’t someone who feels no inkling of desire but someone who overcomes his cravings, by abstaining from acting upon them. The Sage conquers his passions by becoming stronger than them not by eliminating all emotion from his life. The Stoic ideal is therefore not to be “passionless” (apathê) in the sense of being “apathetic”, “hard-hearted”, “insensitive” or “like a statue” of stone or iron. Rather, it is to experience natural affection for ourselves, our loved-ones, and other human beings, and to value our lives in accord with nature, which arguably opens us up to experiencing emotional reactions to loss or frustration. Seneca elsewhere explains that whereas the Epicureans mean “a mind immune to feeling” when they speak of apatheia, this “unfeelingness” is actually the opposite of what the Stoics mean (Letters, 9). “This is the difference between us Stoics and the Epicureans; our wise man overcomes every discomfort but feels it, theirs does not even feel it.” The virtue of the Sage consists in his ability to endure painful feelings and rise above them, with magnanimity, while continuing to maintain his relationships and interaction with the world.
Originally appearing at Stoicism and the Art of Happiness.