Epictetus: The Stoic in a Storm at Sea

The following passage from Aulus Gellius‘ The Attic Nights describes the Stoic doctrine concerning involuntary emotional reactions or “proto-passions” (propatheiai).   See also Seneca’s On Anger, for a detailed discussion with some different examples, relating to anger rather than fear.  The concept is also mentioned in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations – all three of our main surviving sources for Stoicism.  Grasping the role of “proto-passions”, which are accepted by Stoics as natural and indifferent, is absolutely essential to an accurate understanding of Stoicism particularly in terms of the distinction between Stoicism (capital S), the Greek philosophy, and stoicism (small s), the “stiff upper lip” personality trait.

Regarding the anecdote below…  It concerns a Stoic teacher who was caught at sea in a very severe storm, where the boat was clearly in danger of sinking and the crew of drowning.  He turned pale and was frozen with fear, just like everyone else, but unlike the rest he wasn’t crying aloud and lamenting their situation.  Unfortunately, we don’t have any indication who the famous Stoic that Aulus Gellius encountered on his sea journey may have been.  He says the Stoic possessed a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses and was an important and well-respected teacher in Athens.  They were apparently both sailing from Cassiopa, a town in the region of Korkyra, on Corfu, to Brundisium, in southern Italy, possibly en route to Rome.   The only famous Stoic we hear much about who was teaching in Athens around the middle of the 2nd century AD is Apollonius of Chalcedon, a tutor of Marcus Aurelius – but there’s no reason to assume he’s actually the man in question.  Although, from what we know about Apollonius, he was perhaps slightly haughty like the character being described in this vignette.  We can rule out Arrian, incidentally, as he’s mentioned here in passing, and doesn’t seem to have taught Stoicism anyway.

It’s believed the Discourses of Epictetus originally spanned eight volumes, only four of which survive today.  The Stoic teacher mentioned here appears to have shown Aulus Gellius a passage from one of the volumes now lost to us, the fifth book of the Discourses.  However, Aulus Gellius also remarks that the doctrine of proto-passions described by Epictetus “undoubtedly” agrees with the original Stoic teachings of Zeno and Chrysippus.  (Incidentally, this could be read as implying that Epictetus was typically known for following early Greek Stoic teachings very closely.)   The Attic Nights were written in Latin, so Aulus Gellius sometimes comments on the fact he is quoting from the Greek language.

The proto-passions are here described as “brief but inevitable and natural”, precursors of full-blown emotions and desires.  They are classed as morally indifferent by Stoics.  I would add that the Stoics perhaps viewed them as comparable to the primitive feelings experienced by other animals, as a sort of reflex-like antecedent of full-blown human emotion.  Aulus Gellius concludes it would be a mistake to interpret the Stoics as teaching that feeling fear for a brief time, and turning pale, is the sign of a foolish and weak person.  Rather even Stoics yield to natural human (physiological) weakness in this regard  but they do not continue to go along with their initial feelings by giving conscious assent to the impression and believing that events are as terrible as they seem.

For instance, a Stoic who unexpectedly glimpses someone wearing a frightening mask out of the corner of his eye might be startled and automatically become tense and pale, his heart beating suddenly faster.  However, if we suppose it’s just a costume, when he realizes this he will no longer go along with the initial impression that something bad is going to happen.  He will no longer give assent to the idea that he’s in danger, and his feelings will naturally abate, although he may take a few minutes to regain his composure.  The Stoic Sage views all external events as indifferent but he probably has to remind himself of this as his body will automatically create troubling impressions in response to certain typical threats.  Rather than trying to suppress these feelings, or feeling ashamed about them, Stoics merely accept them with indifference, and shrug them off, which is a very different response to what people often mean by “stoicism” or having a stiff upper lip.

The reply of a certain philosopher, when he was asked why he turned pale in a storm at sea.

We were sailing from Cassiopa to Brundisium over the Ionian sea, violent, vast and storm-tossed. During almost the whole of the night which followed our first day a fierce side-wind blew, which had filled our ship with water. Then afterwards, while we were all still lamenting, and working hard at the pumps, day at last dawned. But there was no less danger and no slackening of the violence of the wind; on the contrary, more frequent whirlwinds, a black sky, masses of fog, and a kind of fearful cloud-forms, which they called typhones, or “typhoons,” seemed to hang over and threaten us, ready to overwhelm the ship.

In our company was an eminent philosopher of the Stoic sect, whom I had known at Athens as a man of no slight importance, holding the young men who were his pupils under very good control.  In the midst of the great dangers of that time and that tumult of sea and sky I looked for him, desiring to know in what state of mind he was and whether he was unterrified and courageous. And then I beheld the man frightened and ghastly pale, not indeed uttering any lamentations, as all the rest were doing, nor any outcries of that kind, but in his loss of colour and distracted expression not differing much from the others. But when the sky cleared, the sea grew calm, and the heat of danger cooled, then the Stoic was approached by a rich Greek from Asia, a man of elegant apparel, as we saw, and with an abundance of baggage and many attendants, while he himself showed signs of a luxurious person and disposition. This man, in a bantering tone, said: “What does this mean, Sir philosopher, that when we were in danger you were afraid and turned pale, while I neither feared nor changed colour?” And the philosopher, after hesitating for a moment about the propriety of answering him, said: “If in such a terrible storm I did show a little fear, you are not worthy to be told the reason for it. But, if you please, the famous Aristippus [the Cyrenaic], the pupil of Socrates, shall answer for me, who on being asked on a similar occasion by a man much like you why he feared, though a philosopher, while his questioner on the contrary had no fear, replied that they had not the same motives, for his questioner need not be very anxious about the life of a worthless coxcomb, but he himself feared for the life of an Aristippus.”

With these words then the Stoic rid himself of the rich Asiatic. But later, when we were approaching Brundisium and sea and sky were calm, I asked him what the reason for his fear was, which he had refused to reveal to the man who had improperly addressed him. And he quietly and courteously replied: “Since you are desirous of knowing, hear what our forefathers, the founders of the Stoic sect, thought about that brief but inevitable and natural fear, or rather,” said he, “read it, for if you read it, you will be the more ready to believe it and you will remember it better.” Thereupon before my eyes he drew from his little bag the fifth book of the Discourses of the philosopher Epictetus, which, as arranged by Arrian, undoubtedly agree with the writings of Zeno and Chrysippus.

In that book I read this statement, which of course was written in Greek:

“The mental visions, which the philosophers call φαντασίαι [impressions] or ‘phantasies,’ by which the mind of man on the very first appearance of an object is impelled to the perception of the object, are neither voluntary nor controlled by the will, but through a certain power of their own they force their recognition upon men; but the expressions of assent, which they call συγκαταθέσεις, by which these visions are recognized, are voluntary and subject to man’s will. Therefore when some terrifying sound, either from heaven or from a falling building or as a sudden announcement of some danger, or anything else of that kind occurs, even the mind of a wise man must necessarily be disturbed, must shrink and feel alarm, not from a preconceived idea of any danger, but from certain swift and unexpected attacks which forestall the power of the mind and of reason. Presently, however, the wise man does not approve ‘such phantasies’, that is to say, such terrifying mental visions (to quote the Greek, ‘he does not consent to them nor confirm them’), but he rejects and scorns them, nor does he see in them anything that ought to excite fear. And they say that there is this difference between the mind of a foolish man and that of a wise man, that the foolish man thinks that such ‘visions’ are in fact as dreadful and terrifying as they appear at the original impact of them on his mind, and by his assent he approves of such ideas as if they were rightly to be feared, and ‘confirms’ them; for προσεπιδοξάζει is the word which the Stoics use in their discourses on the subject. But the wise man, after being affected for a short time and slightly in his colour and expression, ‘does not assent,’ but retains the steadfastness and strength of the opinion which he has always had about visions of this kind, namely that they are in no wise to be feared but excite terror by a false appearance and vain alarms.”

That these were the opinions and utterances of Epictetus the philosopher in accordance with the beliefs of the Stoics I read in that book which I have mentioned, and I thought that they ought to be recorded for this reason, that when things of the kind which I have named chance to occur, we may not think that to fear for a time and, as it were, turn white is the mark of a foolish and weak man, but in that brief but natural impulse we yield rather to human weakness than because we believe that those things are what they seem.

In addition to his comments about proto-passions in On Anger, Seneca also wrote:

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)

In The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius appears to be referring to the proto-passions when he writes that although he tells troubling impressions “Go away”, because they have come according to their “ancient manner”, i.e., in the way basic feelings also arise in animals, he is not angry with the feeling, presumably meaning that he does not judge it to be an evil (7.17).

In the following passage, Marcus tells himself to view rough or smooth sensations that impose themselves on his mind with detachment.  He notes that unpleasant sensations are bound to impinge upon our awareness because of the natural sympathy between body and mind but we should not try to resist these natural feelings and we should refrain from calling them either good or bad.  Rather we should accept the presence even of these “rough” sensations with total indifference.

Make sure that the ruling and sovereign part of your soul remains unaffected by every movement, smooth or violent, in your flesh, and that it does not combine with them, but circumscribes itself, and restricts these experiences to the bodily parts. Whenever they communicate themselves to the mind by virtue of that other sympathy, as is bound to occur in a unified organism, you should not attempt to resist the sensation, which is a natural one, but you must not allow the ruling centre to add its own further judgement that the experience is good or bad. (Meditations, 5.26)

In passages like these Marcus appears to be referring to bodily sensations of pleasure and pain.  However, he also seems to recognize that sometimes these sensations will naturally communicate themselves from the body deeper into the mind, and this too is natural and indifferent.  He may be referring here to the anxious reactions we naturally have to pain and discomfort, etc., as in the anecdote from Aulus Gellius above.

5 replies on “Epictetus: The Stoic in a Storm at Sea”

Thank you for this post. It’s with relief that I read this. It’s a big part of a missing link in my journey to discover myself and my experiences. The thoughts that plague me most are the mean, critical, 3-in-the-morning thoughts, that now, from your post, I learn that “through a certain power of their own they force their recognition upon [humans].” I’ve been battling with these thoughts for years by trying to be a better person so they don’t attack me. But I will stop doing that and accept them now. I can let them live, and then tend to them rationally in the moments that follow their intrusion. Thank you.

[…] As Seneca observed, paradoxically, these virtues cannot exist without at least some trace of fear and desire for us to master, and the Stoics insist that even the perfect Sage requires moderation and courage because he is still subject to the first movements of passion or “proto-passions” (propatheiai).  Seneca explains this in detail in On Anger and elsewhere but it’s also very vividly described by Epictetus, as recounted by Aulus Gellius’ story of the Stoic teacher caught in a storm at sea. […]

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