The Stoic Socrates: Four Emotional Resilience Strategies

Socrates billboardThere’s a remarkable series of passages in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates is portrayed describing four reasons why wise men don’t allow themselves to indulge in excessive grief when faced with misfortune.  We can also view these as four cognitive (thinking) strategies for coping with adversity, and building emotional resilience.  These appear to foreshadow Stoic advice for coping with adversity or themes found in the Hellenistic “consolation” (consolatio) literature written by both Stoics and Platonists, most notably including Seneca and Plutarch.   (If you want to learn more about Socrates, incidentally, check out my free mini-course on his life and philosophy.)

This first comes up in Book 3 of the Republic, where Socrates argues that the heroes depicted in tragic poetry often provide people with negative role models, insofar as they’re made to give pitiful speeches lamenting their misfortune to excess (387d-e).  He says that a good man doesn’t regard death as a catastrophic thing for someone to suffer, even the death of one of his friends.  A wise man, therefore, will not grieve as terribly over the loss of his loved ones as tragic heroes did such as, say, Achilles.  The wise and good man is surely someone as self-sufficient as can be, Socrates says, and the least dependent on others of all men.  So to lose his son, brother, possessions, or any such thing, would seem less dreadful to the wise and good man than it would to other people.  Therefore, concludes Socrates, he will give way to lamentation less and bear misfortune more calmly and quietly than others.  He doesn’t, though, say that the wise man would not grieve or lament at all.

The idea that good (or wise) men somehow cope better than others with misfortune is finally picked back up again in Book 10 of the Republic (603e-604d).  Socrates now appears to claim, unsurprisingly, that training in philosophy can contribute to emotional resilience.  He begins by recalling his earlier assertion that a good man who has the misfortune to lose his son, or anything else dear to him, will bear the loss with greater equanimity than others would.  Although such a man cannot help feeling sorrow, he will moderate his sorrow.  There is, he says, a “principle of law and reason” in man that bids him resist being overwhelmed by the feeling of misfortune, although grief pulls him in the other direction.  (He then proceeds to use this observation in order to provide support for Plato’s tripartite division of the soul, which the Stoics rejected, and which was probably an alien notion to the real Socrates.)

Socrates claims that the intellect of the wise and good man is willing to follow the law of reason, which tells us it is best to be patient in the face of suffering.  He adds that reason (or presumably also philosophy) tells us that we should not give way to impatience for the following reasons:

  1. There is no way to be certain whether the events that befall us will turn out to be good or bad for us.  (Many of our greatest setbacks in life turn out to be for the best, and they’re often opportunities or blessings in disguise, but what matters most is whether we respond wisely or foolishly to events.)
  2. We gain nothing by taking misfortunes badly, grieving overmuch simply adds another layer to our problem.
  3. No human affairs are of great importance anyway, in the grand scheme of things, so they’re not worth taking seriously enough to get highly upset about them.
  4. Grief actually stands in the way and prevents us from exercising reason, the very thing that would help us most when faced with adversity.

Socrates elaborates upon the last point by saying that the thing most required when facing misfortune is that we take counsel with ourselves and deliberate rationally about the problem, “as we would the fall of the dice”.  We should plan the best response under the circumstances, or as psychologists today often say we should employ a rational problem-solving response.

We mustn’t, like children who have taken a fall, he says, keep hold of the part hurt and waste our time wailing.  Instead, we should train our minds to apply the psychological remedy as quickly as possible, healing what is sickly, fixing the problem, and banishing our cries of sorrow through the healing art.  That’s easily recognizable as a description of what we call today “emotional resilience”, or the ability to rebound after experiencing some misfortune.  That is how we should meet the attacks of fortune and not by indulging those irrational emotions, agrees Glaucon, his interlocutor.  On the other hand, those who indulge their unruly passions never tire of recalling troubles and lamenting over them, says Socrates, in an irrational, useless, and even cowardly manner.  That sounds like a description of what we would call “morbid rumination” in modern psychotherapy.

We might compare these reasons or cognitive strategies to four exercises found in Stoic literature:

  1. Remembering that external things, beyond our direct control, are neither good nor bad in themselves, but rather indifferent with regard to the goal of life.
  2. Contemplating the consequences of responding rationally versus passionately, which I call Stoic “functional analysis”.
  3. Grasping events from a broader and more comprehensive perspective, such as the “View from Above”.
  4. Asking ourselves what “What virtue has nature given me to deal with this?”, bearing in mind that the virtues of courage and moderation, which we praise in others, are designed to limit the emotion of fear and unruly desires, in accord with reason.

The foundation of this argument in Plato’s Republic, though, is undoubtedly the first of these, which amounts to the argument that external things are neither good nor bad in themselves, but should be viewed as indifferent.  What matters is whether we make use of them wisely or foolishly.  That basic notion crops up several times throughout the Socratic literature and becomes central to Stoic therapy of the passions.

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4 thoughts on “The Stoic Socrates: Four Emotional Resilience Strategies”

  1. Thanks for the reply! A lot to think about there.

    One of the things that has me pondering this issue is contemplating the person you think of as a Stoic or warrior who seems mentally strong and resolute, understands the concepts of challenging irrational thoughts, yet is brought to his (or her) knees by unexpected unconscious responses to an event or events (ie PTSD) that they may not even be aware of. (You would think that it would have to be a specific event but I also think (especially with first-responders) there can be an accumulated effect of multiple psychological micro-trauma’s). There is definitely fascinating “stuff” going on at an unconscious level.

    1. I’m not sure “unconscious” is the best term to use, though, because of its associations with psychodynamic psychotherapy. Especially if we use topographic language like “unconscious level”. There’s a tradition in psychotherapy and philosophy of this being criticized for a number of reasons. It proved very problematic in the history of psychotherapy. So psychologists began just speaking of “non-conscious” processes, etc. There are definitely things that go on in our brain of which we’re not aware, just the same as there are in other parts of our body. Often these seem to obey simple physiological or behavioural principles like classical or operant conditioning, though, rather than the sort of complex picture that Freud painted. For example, in PTSD the increased startle reaction often seems to exhibit the characteristics of a conditioned reflex response and we know it often responds pretty well to exposure therapy based on classical conditioning principles. Freud, by comparison, believed that all anxiety was the symbolic expression of repressed (unconscious) infantile castration anxiety – something virtually nobody today would agree with. The other psychodynamic therapists, like Adler and Jung, who followed him just added their own versions of these sort of wild speculative theories until the field of psychotherapy, to be honest, was completely awash with competing interpretations and theories of the unconscious, none of which had any scientific basis or, arguably, any real therapeutic value. So there was a reaction against that from the 1950s onward, with humanistic and behavioural therapists questioning whether this had all just been a wrong-turn in the history of the field. When we’re talking about psychotherapy or psychopathology and use terms like “unconscious” and “subconscious” it tends to hark back to that era. So we usually just talk about processes that people aren’t aware of or that are nonconscious, to try to phrase things in more naturalistic and neutral terms.

  2. The concepts and strategies of Stoicism and REBT/CBT seem useful and useable for working with conscious thoughts. But how much of our psychological health is based on conscious thought? I don’t know…who does?
    More importantly, how would a Stoic recommend understanding, managing, and coping with the subconscious and unconscious minds’ thoughts and influences?
    I would really be interested to hear thoughts on this!

    1. Well, the distinction between conscious and unconscious is a notorious can of worms and it’s caused a lot of confusion in the history of psychology, especially in psychotherapy. So generally people have looked for other ways to articulate what they were doing. Does CBT work on conscious or unconscious beliefs? Most of our beliefs are unconscious, in a sense, most of the time. (Or what Freud would call “preconscious”.) As long as we can bring them into awareness and articulate them we can work on them as normal, though. Are there other types of unconsciousness like what Freud called the “dynamic unconscious”. Yes and no. Probably nothing like he imagined. However, we can actually measure how much of our health is correlated with beliefs that are accessible to consciousness just by using quite simple questionnaire techniques. There are many studies in this area and we actually know quite a lot now about the sorts of beliefs that correlate with different psychological problems. As for advice, that would take more time to unpack because of the problem I mentioned: the distinction between conscious and unconscious is a messy and confusing one. It’s always hard to answer questions because people use the terms to mean quite different things. (You say “unconscious” and “subconscious”, for example, which, strictly speaking, are traditionally two terms that designate slightly different things.) If we’re just talking about ordinary non-conscious beliefs then CBT helps people to identify those using a variety of means to “triangulate” information from self-monitoring records, questionnaires, research on the problem, and other sources, in order to arrive at hypotheses about what they might be.

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