Herodes Atticus on Stoic Apatheia

In his Attic Nights, the grammarian Aulus Gellius relates the following anecdote in which Herodes Atticus, a famous Sophist, criticizes the Stoic concept of apatheia, or freedom from irrational passions. However, Herodes was a notoriously quick tempered and violent individual, who stood trial (and was acquitted) of kicking his pregnant wife to death. So his own life may not be the best advertisement for his theory of the passions.

A discourse of Herodes Atticus on the power and nature of pain, and a confirmation of his view by the example of an ignorant countryman who cut down fruit-trees along with thorns.  

I once heard Herodes Atticus, the ex-consul, holding forth at Athens in the Greek language, in which he far surpassed almost all the men of our time in distinction, fluency, and elegance of diction. He was speaking at the time against the ἀπάθεια, or “lack of feeling” of the Stoics, in consequence of having been assailed by one of that sect, who alleged that he did not endure the grief which he felt at the death of a beloved boy with sufficient  wisdom and fortitude. The sense of the discourse, so far as I remember, was as follows: that no man, who felt and thought normally, could be wholly exempt and free from those emotions of the mind, which he called πάθη, caused by sorrow, desire, fear, anger and pleasure; and even if he could so resist them as to be free from them altogether, he would not be better off, since his mind would grow weak and sluggish, being deprived of the support of certain emotions, as of a highly necessary stimulus. For he declared that those feelings and impulses of the mind, though they become faults when excessive, are connected and involved in certain powers and activities of the intellect; and therefore, if we should in our ignorance eradicate them altogether, there would be danger lest we lose also the good and useful qualities of the mind which are connected with them. Therefore he thought that they ought to be regulated, and pruned skilfully and carefully, so that those only should be removed which are unsuitable and unnatural, lest in fact that should happen which once (according to the story) befell an ignorant and rude Thracian in cultivating a field which he had bought.

“When a man of Thrace,” said he, “from a remote and barbarous land, and unskilled in agriculture, had moved into a more civilized country, in order to lead a less wild life, he bought a farm planted with olives and vines. Knowing nothing at all about the care of vines or trees, he chanced to see a neighbour cutting down the thorns which had sprung up high and wide, pruning his ash-trees almost to  their tops, pulling up the suckers of his vines which had spread over the earth from the main roots, and cutting off the tall straight shoots on his fruit and olive trees. He drew near and asked why the other was making such havoc of his wood and leaves. The neighbour answered; ‘In order to make the field clean and neat and the trees and vines more productive.’ The Thracian left his neighbour with thanks, rejoicing that he had gained some knowledge of farming. Then he took his sickle and axe; and thereupon in his pitiful ignorance the fellow cuts down all his vines and olives, lopping off the richest branches of the trees and the most fruitful shoots of the vines, and, with the idea of clearing up his place, he pulls up all the shrubs and shoots fit for bearing fruits and crops, along with the brambles and thorns, having learnt assurance at a ruinous price and acquired boldness in error through faulty imitation. Thus it is,” said Herodes, “that those disciples of insensibility, wishing to be thought calm, courageous and steadfast because of showing neither desire nor grief, neither wrath nor joy, root out all the more vigorous emotions of the mind, and grow old in the torpor of a sluggish and, as it were, nerveless life.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *