Stoics are not unemotional!

Some brief notes concerning the important role of emotions in Stoic philosophy.

Why, they [the Stoics] maintain that one wise man is friendly to another even when he does not know him. There is, in truth, nothing more lovable than virtue, and the man who has attained to that will possess our affection in whatever part of the world he is.

Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods

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.

For how can a vine be moved not [i.e., grow] in the manner of a vine, but in the manner of an olive tree? or on the other hand how can an olive tree be moved not in the manner of an olive tree, but in the manner of a vine? It is impossible: it cannot be conceived. Neither then is it possible for a man completely to lose the movements [i.e., feelings] of a man; and even those [eunuchs] who are deprived of their genital members are not able to deprive themselves of man’s desires. (Epictetus, Discourses, 2.20)

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 Chaeronea, as being “full of love and yet free from passion” (Meditations, 1.6).  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.

The Stoics, indeed, 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.  Later, Marcus wonders when he will ever attain such a state of affection and contentment himself (Meditations, 10.1).  Scholars have noted, however, that various Roman authors of the period, specifically portrayed Marcus as being renowned for his “philanthropic” attitude, or love of mankind.

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 intended (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.

Elsewhere Seneca wrote:

I do not withdraw the wise man from the category of man, nor do I deny to him the sense of pain as though he were a rock that has no feelings at all.  I remember that he is made up of two parts: the one part is irrational, — it is this that may be bitten, burned, or hurt; the other part is rational, — it is this which holds resolutely to opinions, is courageous, and unconquerable. […] You must not think that our human virtue transcends nature; the wise man will tremble, will feel pain, will turn pale, for all these are sensations of the body. (Seneca, Letters 71)


Since I wrote this article, Brad Inwood’s excellent Stoicism: A Very Brief Introduction has been published, in which the author makes essentially the same point:

There is a stereotype of Stoicism familiar to everyone, the claim that Stoicism involves being relentlessly rational, but without a trace of emotion—Mr Spock from Star Trek, only more so. That this isn’t the right view of Stoicism is now generally understood, and specialists will even point out that the passions (pathē) from which the Stoic wise person is said to be free are not what we mean by emotions but a more narrowly defined group of states of mind that are by definition pathological. The wise person may well be perfectly rational, but that doesn’t deprive him or her of all affective or emotional experience.

Brad Inwood is one of the leading academic scholars of Stoicism, and a professor of philosophy and classics at Yale.

And following that, another excellent introduction to Stoicism by a leading academic scholar in this field was published: Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars.

In modern English the word ‘stoic’ has come to mean unfeeling and without emotion, and this is usually seen as a negative trait. […] When the ancient Stoics recommended that people ought to avoid emotions, it was these negative emotions [such as anger] that they primarily had in mind.

He adds,

Contrary to the popular image, the Stoics do not suggest that people can or should become unfeeling blocks of stone. All humans will experience what Seneca calls ‘first movements’. These are when we are moved by some experience, and we might feel nervous, shocked, excited or scared, or we might even cry. All these are quite natural reactions; they are physiological responses of the body, but not emotions in the Stoic sense of the word. Someone who is upset and momentarily contemplates vengeance, but does not act on it, is not angry according to Seneca, because he remains in control.

And he concludes,

The Stoics certainly do not envisage turning people into unfeeling blocks of stone. So, we’ll still have the usual reactions to events – we’ll jump, flinch, get momentarily frightened or embarrassed, cry – and we’ll still have strong caring relationships with those close to us. What we won’t do, however, is develop the negative emotions of anger, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, obsession, perpetual fear or excessive attachment. These are the things that can ruin a life and that the Stoics think are best avoided.

Downtown Halifax, Halifax, NS, Canada

7 replies on “Stoics are not unemotional!”

The section toward the end discussing what’s said in Seneca and the Spartan Sayings seems to go against how I understand Stoicism. Doesn’t Stoicism claim that the passions emotions arise from value judgements? And if a PASSION arises (not an emotion or eupathos, but a passion), doesn’t that imply that a false judgement of value led to it?

If so, then how can a Sage be “someone who acts courageously despite feeling anxiety” and other passions? A Sage, by definition, makes no false value judgements and thus would experience no passions. A prokopton of course practices by “conquer[ing] his passions by becoming stronger than them,” but the Sage would have no passions left to conquer according to my understanding of Stoicism. A sage may have eulabeia (watchfulness) but never phobos (anxiety).

Yes, the passions arise from value-judgements but according to some Stoic accounts, particularly the fragment of Epictetus’ lost discourse, these are sometimes preceded by “proto-passions” (propatheia), involuntary emotional reactions or physiological changes (such as blushing or trembling or being startled) that even the Sage may experience. Seneca describes something similar in relation to anger and there are perhaps passing allusions to this in Marcus Aurelius also, I think. In Epictetus’ example the Sage exhibits courage despite being startled by a sudden loud noise or even unexpected bad news, if I remember rightly, insofar as he then prevents himself from being “carried away” by the initial impression and his involuntary physiological or proto-emotional responses. He does not “assent” to the impression that something bad or harmful is about to befall him. Seneca says “There is no virtue in putting up with that which one does not feel.” Only the Sage truly possesses virtue, though. I don’t think it’s the only interpretation possible, but my opinion is that one possible interpretation is that he means the Sage feels the involuntary proto-passions but his courage and temperance consist in not going along with them and withholding his assent from the impressions associated with them, thereby preventing them from evolving into fully-fledged “passions”.

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