Against being unemotional and the case for a “Passionate Stoicism”
Against being unemotional and the case for a “Passionate Stoicism”
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. — Seneca, Letters, 71
Stoicism has become a quite trendy over the past couple of decades. When I first began writing about it, roughly 25 years ago now, things were very different.
Until recently, there were very few popular books about the subject and they weren’t very widely-read. There were not many articles on websites. Now, though, new books and articles appear every day. That’s a good thing because Stoicism has a great deal to offer people. It’s the original philosophical inspiration for cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), the leading form of modern evidence-based psychotherapy. Perhaps more importantly, it offers a way of building emotional resilience, which may reduce the risk of developing anxiety or depression in the future.
Put bluntly, Stoicism is not the same thing as stoicism. Virtually all modern academics capitalize the name of the Greek philosophy to highlight the difference…
However, the downside is that when as idea becomes more and more popular it can become oversimplified and distorted. Often a good idea can become a victim of its own success. The glaring example of that with Stoicism, the Greek philosophy, is the widespread tendency for people to confuse it with stoicism (lowercase) the unemotional coping style. When people talk about lowercase stoicism they mean things like “have a stiff upper-lip”, “suck it up”, “boys don’t cry”, etc.
Put bluntly, though, Stoicism is not the same thing as stoicism. I highlighted this misconception in How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, my recent book on the life and philosophy of the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius:
Another popular misconception today is that Stoics are unemotional. The ancient Stoics themselves consistently denied this, saying that their ideal was not to be like a man of iron or to have a heart of stone.
For example, the Oxford English Dictionary makes a distinction between two definitions of the word:
The endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.
An ancient Greek school of philosophy founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium. The school taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge; the wise live in harmony with the divine Reason (also identified with Fate and Providence) that governs nature, and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.
Definition 1 is lower-case stoicism, and definition 2 is the Greek philosophy of Stoicism, which we know today mainly through the works of Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. There are two separate definitions because there are two different meanings of the word. Virtually all modern authors therefore capitalize the name of the Greek philosophy to highlight this distinction, and this simple convention has become well-established in common usage. The unemotional coping style called “stoicism”, by contrast, is never capitalized by anyone.
Although it’s a simple terminological mistake, it can potentially have very serious psychological consequences.
The Internet is awash, though, with individuals who seem oblivious to this distinction and they end up woefully confusing both themselves and other people. Why should that matter? We’ll see shortly that although it’s a simple terminological mistake, it can potentially have very serious psychological consequences.
stoicism ≠ Stoicism
Brad Inwood, one of the leading academic scholars of Stoicism, and a professor of philosophy and classics at Yale, likewise wrote in his recent book on the subject:
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, Stoicism: A Very Brief Introduction
Another excellent introduction to Stoicism by a leading academic scholar in this field, Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars, makes the same point.
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.
“The Stoics”, he adds, “certainly do not envisage turning people into unfeeling blocks of stone.”
The meaning of many other Greek philosophical terms has become degraded over the centuries. These words are now used in ways that distort, water-down, or caricature their original meaning. For example:
cynicism ≠ Cynicism
sophist ≠ Sophist
epicurean ≠ Epicurean
academic ≠ Academic
skeptic ≠ Skeptic
In each case, the original term denoting a branch of Greek philosophy is still in use but with quite a different meaning. For example, what we mean today by “cynicism” (lowercase) is something along the lines of being negative and thinking the worst of people, etc. That’s very loosely based on the Greek philosophy of Cynicism, which was really a whole way of life centred on the notion that virtue, or strength of character, was the goal of life.
So what? It’s Just Words!
Some people might think it doesn’t matter but, well, they’re wrong. First of all, it causes a huge amount of confusion online when people get stoicism and Stoicism mixed-up. It leads to crossed-wires and misinformation being spread.
One of those things is known to be good for your mental health whereas the other is known to be harmful.
Many articles, and even a few books, have been written by people who don’t know the difference between Stoicism, the Greek philosophy, and stoicism the unemotional personality trait or coping style. Other people read the resulting dog’s breakfast, and come away mistakenly thinking that Stoicism is just about having a stiff upper-lip or suppressing painful emotions. What if I told you, though, that one of those things is known to be good for your mental health whereas the other is known to be harmful? You really would not want to get them confused then, right?
Lowercase “stoicism” is often equated with the way of coping with stress that people call “having a stiff upper-lip”. More specifically, it means suppressing or concealing unpleasant, painful, or embarrassing emotions. The problem with that is that there’s now a substantial body of scientific research from different teams of psychologists around the world, working with different populations, which tends to converge on the finding that stoicism is unhealthy. In fact to highlight that — and because it’s pretty awkward to distinguish between “Stoicism” and “stoicism” when speaking rather than writing — I sometimes just refer to lowercase “stoicism” as pseudo-stoicism. Many people assume that lowercase stoicism is synonymous with emotional resilience or toughness. Ironically, though, research tends to show the opposite. It doesn’t lead to resilience but often increases emotional vulnerability and it would better be described as a form of weakness rather than strength.
First of all, people who dislike admitting painful emotions are less likely to seek help either from friends or from mental health professionals. We know that having appropriate support available from others tends to predict resilience. People who score high on ratings of “stoicism” are the sort of people who would try to put up with a toothache by adopting a “grin and bear it” attitude rather than just going to the dentist and getting it fixed. They’re masking their emotional problems rather than getting help dealing with the root cause. Of course, other people sometimes complain excessively or compulsively seek reassurance. That’s not resilient either. But a healthy attitude would be somewhere in the middle: seeking help where necessary but not complaining to others too much.
Second, efforts to actively suppress or conceal painful feelings, such as anxiety or sadness, tend to make them worse. It leads to something psychologists call “the paradox of thought suppression”, whereby undesirable thoughts and feelings tend to grow stronger. There are several reasons for that. One is that trying to suppress automatic thoughts and feelings requires paying more attention to them and, as if we’re putting them under a magnifying glass, that naturally intensifies our experience of them. Another is that by struggling against our feelings in this way we tend to reinforce associations between them and other aspects of our experience so they become more likely to “rebound” or recur frequently in the future.
I would qualify those criticisms by saying that suppressing or distracting yourself from painful feelings may sometimes work in the short-term. It can be one way of coping with acute pain or getting through a short-lived crisis. The real problem is when these strategies are used repeatedly over the long-term, to deal with chronic problems. That’s because they tend to prevent normal, healthy emotional processing from ever being able to take place. Lowercase or pseudo stoicism can become pretty toxic, in many cases, when people come to depend upon it as their main way of coping throughout life.
So if stoicism is unhealthy what about Stoicism? Well, there is growing interest among psychologists in conducting research on Stoicism itself, and there are some initial positive findings emerging. However, Stoicism, the Greek philosophy, also happens to be the philosophical inspiration for cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). There are hundreds of independent research studies demonstrating the efficacy of CBT. They can therefore be viewed as providing indirect support for the psychological benefit of concepts and techniques derived from Stoicism.
Psychological Research on Stoicism
Modern Stoicism is a nonprofit organization, run by a multidisciplinary team of volunteers, which spreads reliable information about Stoic philosophy. It also carries out scientific research on Stoicism. (I’m one of the founding members.) In 2020, the team gathered data from over 2,500 participants in the online course Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT). One of the main questionnaires, the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS), is used to measure participants’ belief in and adherence to the basic principles of Stoic philosophy. Results from this were compared to those from the Liverpool Stoicism Scale (LSS), which is used in medical and psychological research to measure the unemotional coping style called stoicism.
Some items from the Liverpool Stoicism Scale include:
“It makes me uncomfortable when people express emotions in front of me.”
“I don’t really like people to know what I am feeling.”
“One should keep a stiff upper lip.”
“Expressing one’s emotions is a sign of weakness.”
“I would not consider going to a counsellor if I had a problem.”
Our hypothesis was that stoicism, as measured by LSS, would not be positively correlated with Stoicism, as measured by SABS. Not only did we confirm that but we also found a very small negative correlation (r=0.1). If anything, the more someone follows Stoicism they less likely they are to exhibit lower-case stoicism by suppressing their emotions, etc. Indeed, whereas adherence to Stoicism (SBS) later increased after training, pseudo-stoicism (LSS) actually decreased. In plain English, the data confirmed that stoicism and Stoicism are two different things.
What Stoicism Really Said
Pseudo-stoicism is based on a very crude and simplistic view of how our emotions work. It’s basically both false and unworkable. The ancient Stoics, by contrast, had a much more nuanced conception of the psychology of emotion. That’s how they were able to develop an effective system of psychotherapy and emotional resilience-building. They were actually well over two thousand years ahead of their time in anticipating modern cognitive-behavioural therapy.
We call the naive psychological assumptions made by people in ordinary language their “folk psychology”. The folk psychology of emotions is remarkably simplistic. People tend to talk about feelings such as anxiety as if they were homogenous. Psychologists sometimes call this the “lump” theory of anxiety, for example. Anxiety is talked about as if it’s just a blob of unpleasantness and somehow we have to struggle to contain or suppress it. That’s such a crude concept, though, that it’s almost superstitious. In reality, there are many different types of anxiety, which function in different ways. Snake-phobic anxiety is not at all the same as a clinical panic attack or generalized anxiety, in psychopathology. They have different causes, symptoms, prognoses, and respond to different treatments.
Moreover, emotions such as anxiety are composite. They’re made up of lots of different elements, such as thoughts, actions, and feelings, of different kinds, which interact with one another. Anxiety, I like to say, is a cake baked from many ingredients — it’s not just a homogenous lump. The more we understand the ingredients of our emotions the more easily we can process and control them, in healthy and natural ways. Perhaps the most fundamental and important distinction is the favourite one of the Stoics — some things are up to us and other things are not.
A great deal of misery is caused by people struggling to suppress or control the involuntary (automatic) aspects of their emotions. This usually goes hand in hand with a failure to take responsibility for the aspects of emotion that are, at least potentially, under our voluntary control. The Stoics, remarkably, understood this long ago. They labelled involuntary aspects of emotion such as blushing, shaking, sweating, heart racing, etc., as propatheiai or “proto-passions”.
These are “not up to us”, they’re automatic or reflex-like, predominantly physiological reactions. So the Stoics class them as natural, inevitable, and morally “indifferent” — neither good nor bad. Pseudo-stoicism, however, does the opposite. It tries to suppress or conceal these involuntary emotional reactions and treats them as though they were bad, harmful, or even shameful. From this perspective, it should be more obvious that pseudo-stoicism is almost the polar opposite of ancient Greek Stoicism. Ancient Stoicism is not about trying to eliminate automatic thoughts and feelings.
As Epictetus puts it, the goal of Stoicism is not to be as cold and unfeeling as a rock, or “like a statue” (Discourses, 3.2). Similar phrases recur throughout the Stoic literature. For example, Seneca 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. — Seneca, On the Constancy of the Sage, 10.4
By judging these involuntary aspects of emotion in strongly negative terms we actually make them worse in the long-run, and we become emotionally weaker rather than stronger, vulnerable rather than resilient.
The Cognitive Nature of Emotion
The voluntary aspect of emotion consists mainly in what happens next, after the first flush of anger, fear, or sadness. What we tell ourselves in response to the situation and our automatic feelings. The Stoics were far ahead of their time in proposing that emotions are cognitive in nature — they consist not only of feelings but also of thoughts and beliefs. When you get angry, for example, it’s because you are having angry thoughts and your mind has activated underlying angry beliefs and attitudes.
People who use pseudo-stoicism as a coping strategy don’t distinguish between the “lump” of emotion and the cognitive aspects, though. They just try to shove all of their emotions down, forcing them out of their minds. Alternatively, they use alcohol, drugs, or distractions such as comfort eating or compulsive checking social media to try to escape their emotions by numbing themselves. The word “stoic” is therefore often just used as a synonym for “unemotional” and that’s definitely not what Stoicism teaches. The ancient Stoics repeatedly emphasized that their ideal was not to be like statues or men with hearts of stone.
Rather than trying to suppress feelings or sensations, which would entail judging an indifferent to be bad or harmful, the Stoics tried to modify the underlying value judgement. That approach happens to be more in accord with the way modern cognitive therapists bring about emotional change and it’s very different from what people mean by “keeping a stiff upper lip”. For instance, the Stoics believed that fear is based on the underlying belief that something bad, something awful, is about to happen. That’s virtually identical to modern cognitive models of anxiety. If someone has an irrational fear it’s typically the case that they’ve overestimated the probability and/or severity of the anticipated threat. (They’ll also often underestimate their ability to cope.)
It’s the slippery slope to long-term emotional vulnerability, the opposite of psychological resilience.
Cognitive therapists help their clients to reappraise feared situations by using Socratic questioning, and related techniques. What if the chances of something bad happening are slim? What if it did happen but turned out not to be as bad as you’re assuming? The Stoics also used Socratic questioning to question irrational fears and other unhealthy emotions, although they focused, more radically, on questioning whether any external event could ever be truly awful.
Someone who is pseudo-stoic, though, and suppresses or conceals their painful emotions will never do this. They’ll never identify the beliefs that underlie their anger, fear, and sadness, let alone question them and replace them with more rational beliefs. That’s another reason why pseudo-stoicism is actually a form of psychological weakness masquerading as strength. It’s the slippery slope to long-term emotional vulnerability, the opposite of psychological resilience.
When people conflate stoicism and Stoicism they’re typically ignoring the entire social dimension of Stoic Ethics. When they say that someone is a stoic they don’t usually have in mind that they believe justice, fairness, and kindness are cardinal virtues in life, that we should cultivate the bond of natural affection that exists between us and other human beings, and treat them as equals, as part of a brotherhood of man, viewing all people as our fellow-citizens in a single cosmic city. (The word cosmopolitan is another whose meaning has been corrupted over the centuries — it means a citizen of the whole cosmos who treats others as her fellow-citizens.) I’ve found that the following question serves to highlight the distinction.
What’s the difference between these two statements?
I am being very stoic about the welfare of others.
I am being very Stoic about the welfare of others.
To anyone’s who’s studied Stoic philosophy, it should be pretty obvious that these are two completely different things.
There’s also the matter of healthy emotions in Stoicism. For many people, as we’ve seen, stoicism carries the connotation of being unemotional. At least it sounds a little odd to their ears to say that stoics could be particularly cheerful and affectionate. However, the Stoic philosophers had a whole system of classification for healthy emotions: their goal was not simply to be emotionally empty but rather to experience healthy feelings of joy, cheerfulness, affection, and so on, which naturally supervene upon virtue.
Indeed, Marcus Aurelius described the goal of Stoicism, as exemplified by his teacher, Sextus of Chaeronea, as being someone “full of love and yet free from passion” (Meditations, 1.6). He clearly doesn’t mean all passions but specifically the ones Stoics consider to be pathological: unhealthy, excessive, and irrational. The Greek word for love that he uses (philostorgia) can also be translated as “natural affection” or “family affection” — it’s the kind of love parents have for their children. Love, of this sort, is one of the healthy passions (eupatheiai) of Stoic psychology. Marcus therefore refers to this and other good emotions many times throughout The Meditations.
We’re not going to stop the flow of articles and online discussions that are sadly vitiated by confusing Stoicism with being unemotional. It’s a remarkably simple mistake, a schoolboy error. Yet even some quite intelligent people have fallen into the trap of conflating stoicism with Stoicism, just because two different words happen to look the same.
Nevertheless, being clear about the problem can help people who are interested in studying Stoicism to see through the confusion of others. John Sellars and Brad Inwood’s recent books on Stoicism, for instance, make it clear that this is just a common misconception. Psychological research published by Modern Stoicism and others has helped by confirming that Stoicism and stoicism are not positively correlated. I find that calling stoicism “pseudo-stoicism” or “lowercase stoicism” also helps, especially on podcasts, etc., where capitalization obviously isn’t an option. It also helps to bear in mind that confusing an unhealthy emotional coping strategy with a healthy one, is obviously (to use an old-fashioned term) a recipe for neurosis.