Stoic Book Review: More Than Happiness by Antonia Macaro

More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age is a new book by existential psychotherapist Antonia Macaro.  Macaro is also the co-author, along with philosopher Julian Baggini, of The Shrink and the Sage, based on their Financial Times column.

Macaro says that the philosophy she most identifies with is actually Aristotelianism but that over the years she’s found herself repeatedly coming back to both Stoicism and Buddhism, and wrestling with their doctrines. She notes that both Stoicism and Buddhism have influenced modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). She also observes that philosophies such as Aristotelianism and Epicureanism, which were contemporaries of ancient Stoicism, have not experienced a similar resurgence of interest for some reason. She suggests that, paradoxically, this might be because these philosophies of life appear somewhat less radical and demanding than Stoicism and Buddhism.

Her stated goal in this book is to extract beneficial aspects of the two philosophies, Stoicism and Buddhism, that are compatible with a modern naturalistic worldview. Macaro is also right to emphasize from the outset that there are many different versions of Buddhism and there are also some variations in the doctrines of the Stoic school. So she has to choose an interpretation of each to focus on because it would be impossible to compare every version of these philosophies. Buddhism, in particular, is an extremely diverse tradition both in terms of theory and practice. Stoicism is more consistent, although there’s clearly a difference in emphasis, for example, between Epictetus and Seneca. This may be an indication that they represented different types of Stoicism. We’re told, indeed, in one ancient source that by the Roman Imperial period, Stoicism had divided into three main branches represented by the followers of the last three scholarchs of the school: Diogenes of Babylon, Antipater of Tarsus, and Panaetius of Rhodes.

The first chapter of Macaro’s book provides a simple and highly readable introduction to Buddhism and Stoicism. She raises the question as to what extent antiquated-sounding religious and metaphysical doctrines are necessary to the modern reception of both philosophies.  Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the causes of human suffering. Chapters 4 and 5 with their solutions. The second part of the book then focuses on what useful elements may be extracted from both philosophies by those who reject the ancient metaphysical teachings in favour of a modern naturalistic perspective.

I thought this was an excellent book and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about what Stoicism and Buddhism have to offer us today as guides to living.  It was beautifully written and very clearly explained the key concepts.  I’m more into Stoicism than the author, though, so there are a couple of points I want to make about her interpretation of that philosophy.  In my opinion, Macaro is actually more of a Stoic than she realizes.  I’ll now explain some of my reasons for saying that…

Does Stoicism Advocate Eliminating All Emotions?

There’s a common misconception that the ancient Stoics advocated the elimination of all of our emotions.  That would obviously be a concept antagonistic to modern psychotherapy and something very few people would find appealing today.  Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine how a philosophy like that could have been popular at any point in time.  However, at least in some instances, Macaro does seem to portray Stoicism as advocating the complete elimination of all of our emotions.

For instance, she sums up the goal of Stoicism as “eradicating the emotions and achieving freedom from disturbance.”  This notion recurs in various guises throughout the book.  For example, she also writes “For the Stoics, there is no such thing as an appropriate emotion.” Later in the book she appears to write of the emotions in general:

Famously, unlike the Stoics, Aristotle called for their moderation rather than eradication. It is inappropriate emotions and excessive attachments that we should endeavour to change.

That’s not quite right, though. The latter description could just as easily be applied to the Stoics because their goal is not to eradicate emotion per se but rather to correct the mistaken beliefs underlying certain emotions described by them as unhealthy, excessive and irrational, and thereby transform them into more healthy, moderate, and rational ones.

I think Macaro has perhaps been too influenced by reading Martha Nussbaum’s account of Stoicism, which also interprets the philosophy as advocating the complete “extirpation” of all emotions, in general terms. Many readers notice that Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire seems to contradict this view at times by also acknowledging the Stoic theory of eupatheiai or healthy emotions.  Nussbaum doesn’t really explain how the Stoics could have advocated both the attainment of healthy emotions and the eradication of emotion in general.  Macaro’s book contains similarly conflicting statements about what the Stoics believed. Nussbaum is certainly a respected classicist, although her area of expertise is more Aristotelianism than Stoicism and many people have questioned her interpretation of the Stoics, which seems to have been influenced by her personal preference for Aristotle’s philosophy.  I certainly don’t get the impression that many (any?) people in the modern Stoicism community actually read the Stoics as advocating the total extirpation of all emotions.

I wish Macaro had been able to read the recent book on Stoicism by Brad Inwood, Professor of Philosophy and Classics at Yale, who is much more of an expert on ancient Stoicism than Nussbaum.  She would then have been able to compare his more balanced (and more accurate) account of Stoicism against Nussbaum’s portrayal of them. Inwood, pace Nussbaum, makes it very clear this notion of complete “extirpation” (or elimination) of emotions is indeed just a common misinterpretation of Stoicism and that it’s definitely not what the ancient Stoics actually believed:

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.

Inwood, Stoicism, 2018

In passages like the following, though, Macaro seems to be saying the opposite: that she reads Stoicism as advocating the ideal of totally depriving us of all our emotional experience:

We don’t have to agree with the Stoic ideal of freeing ourselves from all emotion [italics added], but we can agree that we shouldn’t get too joyful or distressed about things that are relatively unimportant.

I think part of the confusion here is caused by the too heavy-handed translation of apatheia as “freedom from emotions”:

The Stoics used the term apatheia to refer to their ideal of being ‘free from emotions’ (which is what the term literally means), although different Stoics held different views on what exactly this involved.

I would say, pace Macaro, that the word literally means not being in a passion (pathos), something slightly different from what she seems to mean by being “free from emotions”.  To be more specific, what the Stoics have in mind are irrational, unhealthy, and excessive feelings (both emotions and desires), which are potentially under voluntary control, and from which we suffer. They don’t just mean “emotion” in general.  Cicero mentioned the problem of translating pathos from Greek Stoicism into Latin.  He explains that these “passions” make the lives of most people a misery and that he was tempted simply to translate this term as “illness” but thinks “emotional disturbance” or “perturbation” better captures the Stoics’ meaning and makes more sense as a general term (De Finibus, 3.35).  Indeed, the word pathos is also the source of our modern term “pathological”, as in “psychopathology” or mental health problems.  In ancient Stoicism it specifically denoted unhealthy emotions not unlike those addressed in modern psychotherapy.

Moreover, Diogenes Laertius also tried to explain how the Stoics distinguished what they meant by the apatheia of the wise man from the same word used in a different, more negative sense:

They say the wise man is also without passions [apathê], 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”. (7.117)

Diogenes Laertius

Nussbaum, and Macaro, seem to interpret the word as meaning unemotional, which is more like the second meaning above (“hard-hearted” or “insensitive”). We’re told emphatically that’s not what the Stoics meant, though.

Note that the wise man isn’t even said to be completely devoid of (unhealthy) passions here but to be free from them in the sense of not being vulnerable to their influence. The same word is used to call vicious men hard-hearted and insensitive (lacking in love or affection) but we’re explicitly told here that that’s not what the Stoics meant when they talk about the apatheia of the Sage. 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 he adds that this has to do with engaging in “appropriate action” and maintaining one’s natural and acquired relationships, as a family member and a citizen (Discourses, 3.2).

Cicero also portrays the Stoic Laelius the Wise 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. He goes so far as to warn us that 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, too, 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)

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. And, again, elsewhere he 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)

Even the Stoic wise man, therefore, experiences a range of natural sensations and emotions.  Indeed, similar figures of speech about the goal not being to become like a man as unfeeling, hard-hearted, or unemotional as stone, are scattered throughout the Stoic sources. It sounds to me like it had long ago become a familiar or cliched way in which they distanced themselves from what they saw as a common misinterpretation of their philosophy, probably because this lack of emotion was an idea more associated with earlier traditions, such as Cynicism, rather than with the Stoics themselves.

Elsewhere in her book, like Nussbaum, Macaro appears to contradict her depiction of Stoicism as advocating “freeing ourselves from all emotion” when she acknowledges that the Stoic ideal consisted in experiencing certain “good passions” (eupatheiai).

But even more important is cultivating what could be called ‘calm emotions’. For the Stoics, these were joy, wishing and caution. These are supposed to be a rational alternative to ordinary kinds of emotions: joy replaces pleasure, wishing replaces desire and caution replaces fear. But these are not, as one might think at first sight, just milder, more reasonable versions of their nefarious counterparts. Rather, they occur only in relation to virtue and/or lack of it, resulting in the limited emotional palette of joy at having acted virtuously, wishing that we were more virtuous, or caution when our virtue is in danger. No emotions other than the calm variety are considered legitimate.

She adds “There is another stumbling block: for the Stoics, only the sage is able to experience these calm emotions.” This is partially true but misleading.

The Stoics clearly believed that the rest of us are capable of experiencing healthy emotions, which is precisely what Macaro seems to be interpreting them as denying here. All of the major surviving Stoic sources describe the experience of natural healthy emotions. For example, Marcus Aurelius frequently refers to love and friendship, cheerfulness or joy, and also a healthy sense of shame or aversion to vice as within the range of emotions experienced by someone practising Stoicism. The love or joy of a Sage might be perfect and our own glimpses of healthy, rational, and moderate versions of these feelings may be imperfect but the Stoics certainly don’t advise us to try to eliminate them. Rather they acknowledge that rational beings have the seeds of virtue already within them and as such are capable of glimpsing perfect wisdom. So we should, of course, nurture the attitudes that underlie these healthy and praiseworthy emotions.

Marcus Aurelius, for example, praises his Stoic teacher, Sextus of Chaeronea, in Book 1 of The Meditations, for being “free from passions and yet full of love” (philostorgia).  He obviously cannot mean free from all emotion but “passions” here are clearly a specific class of unhealthy and irrational emotions.  Moreover, Marcus clearly does not think that a Stoic like Sextus should have sought to eradicate this rational love, and purged it from his heart, just because it’s inferior to the ideal love expressed by the perfect Sage. Passages like these appear to provide evidence that Macaro’s interpretation of Stoicism, which she feels to be very much at odds with common sense, is also at odds with what the Stoics actually believed.  For instance, Marcus mentions “love” far more times throughout The Meditations than he mentions virtue and at no point does he indicate that he interprets Stoicism as requiring him to eradicate the healthy, rational sort of love from his heart. On the contrary, he clearly aspires to cultivate more of these feelings.

Conclusion

Surely most readers of Macaro’s book will be puzzled as to how she can both claim that Stoicism advocates an ideal that requires “freeing ourselves from all emotion” and also that it “[sees] a place for ‘calm emotions’”? On the face of it, these two statements and the others like them scattered throughout the text are at odds with one another.  Moreover, as Prof. Inwood put it, this notion that Stoicism advocated eradicating all trace of emotion is mistaken because “the passions 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.”

Without going into too much detail, although she certainly does touch on the subject, I also think Macaro’s account of Stoicism doesn’t fully recognize the significance of the concept of proto-passions (propatheiai) and the sense in which it conflicts with the claim that Stoicism advocates the elimination of all emotion.  I also think she overstates the extent to which Stoicism advocated asceticism.  I’d therefore advise readers who are particularly interested in Stoicism to look at a wider range of commentaries to get a more rounded and balanced picture of the philosophy.  

Overall, though, with those reservations in mind, I’d recommend this book. It’s very easy to read and I’m actually in agreement with much of what it says about both Stoicism and Buddhism.  I think most readers will find aspects of this book helpful in their daily lives. It’s very well-written, as I mentioned above, and even where I disagree with the interpretations of Stoicism it contains, I certainly think they’re worth reading and evaluating. Most people will read this as a general introduction to Buddhism and Stoicism, for daily life, and they’ll definitely get a lot out of it in that respect.

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