Emotional and Social Development
Continuing Chapter 5 of Chris Gill's Learning to Live Naturally
Although the term ‘learning’ may suggest a purely rational or intellectual process, the Stoics, like other ancient thinkers, believe that ethical development has a significant emotional dimension.
Chris Gill, Learning to Live Naturally
Welcome back to Stoicism for Humans, where we continue our study of Chris Gill’s outstanding new work on Stoic theory, Learning to Live Naturally. In last week’s post we examined the good and bad emotions, finding that the bad emotions are contrary to nature because they result from faulty reasoning, and the good emotions are “natural” because they align with reason and living in agreement with nature. As we proceed through Chapter 5 on emotions, we turn again to the broad question Gill posed at the opening of Part II: if virtue is natural, why does it need to be learned?
We can now ask this question specifically of the emotions. If the bad emotions (anger, fear, envy, etc.) are contrary to nature, then why do we all have them—why do we feel that they are natural? And why are the good emotions, based on good judgment, so rare? And, most important of all, how can we move away from those recalcitrant, ungovernable bad emotions and toward the beautiful, eudaimonic good emotions?
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In this important section on emotional development, Gill reviews the evidence for all these questions, starting with the ancient Stoic explanation for why most people fall prey to bad reasoning and bad emotions. He then considers Stoicism as a therapy of the emotions, examining the writings of Chrysippus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius as a means to emotional development. By the end of this post, you will have a better sense of the theory behind Stoic emotional development, as well as some practical ideas for spurring on your own progress.
The Twofold Cause
The ancient Stoics believed all normally-functioning humans are, in theory, capable of virtue. We all have the “starting points” of virtue provided by nature, just as every acorn has the starting points of an oak tree. By nature we are programmed to develop in this direction, and we will do so unless something prevents us. (We discussed this developmental process at length in Chapter 4 on oikeiosis.) But when we look around the world, we notice that few people actually come close to what we might call virtue. So what is going on to prevent this natural development from taking place?
As Gill explains, Chrysippus believed there are two main things that stand in the way of proper ethical development: the “persuasiveness of things from without” and the teaching or influence of the people around us. This first idea—the persuasiveness of things from without—sounds pretty vague, but essentially it means we are confused about what is truly good for us and don’t respond properly to our impressions. At a tender age we come to associate “good” with things that advance our health, wealth, or social status, which you might say “persuade” us by their appearance of goodness.
This deception is perfectly reasonable when we are too young to know better, since these things ensure our basic survival and security. As we mature, though, our rationality develops, and we should be able to look past these persuasive appearances to understand that our true good lies in our character. Unfortunately, many people do not grow past this stage and are not able to overcome the persuasiveness of things from without.
The second cause of faulty reasoning is more obvious. Humans, being social creatures, usually adopt the opinions and values of those around them. If everyone around you believes their good is to be found in making more money and/or elevating their status in the eyes of other people, then there’s a good chance you will come to believe this too. All the more so when their opinions are supported by the persuasive appearance of goodness attached to money, fame, popularity, etc.
These two causes combine to frequently derail the natural unfolding of virtue. By the time we reach adulthood, many of us have deviated from our proper course of development, and as a result we experience the disharmony, inconsistency, and unruly emotions that result from misguided judgment. However, all is not lost; there is hope for those of us who wish to get back on track. The Stoic analysis of emotion offers powerful tools for eliminating these bad judgments and bad emotions—a therapy of the emotions.
Therapy of Emotions
The ancient Stoics, like other Greek philosophical schools, explicitly compared philosophy to medicine: medicine cures physical ailments, and philosophy cures psychological ailments. As Gill writes of Chrysippus’s (now lost) book On Emotions:
The first and larger section of the book seems to have centred on the analogy between medical (physical) and philosophical (psychological) therapy. This includes a contrast between psychological health, strength, and beauty, features correlated with the good emotions, and bad emotions, viewed as feverish states, which reflect longer term weaknesses or susceptibilities to emotional fever.
It’s important to note, however, that the Stoics did not claim eliminating bad emotions as an end in itself. Rather, the goal of Stoic therapy is life in accordance with nature. In pursuing this life, we change our values, train our responses to impressions, and therefore shape our motives and emotions in new ways—and this is what brings about the therapy of emotions.
What promotes good emotions, or psychological health, is the process of ethical development, as standardly presented in Stoic ethics, namely, the two strands of appropriation, taken in combination. These two strands do not only inform beliefs and understanding; they also shape the whole pattern of motivation, including emotions. The growth in understanding of how to select between indifferents in a virtuous way, and how to recognize the distinction in value between virtue and indifferents, naturally brings with it a change in the overall pattern of desires and emotions.
While we certainly can take aim against the negative emotional experience itself—and Stoics from Chrysippus to Marcus Aurelius provided advice on how to do this—the primary mechanism for fighting anger, greed, fear, and the other bad emotions is developing a proper understanding of where our good lies (virtue) and how to achieve it (appropriate actions).
The ancient Stoics helpfully provided several examples of what this sort of therapy would look like. One of their favorite subjects was Medea, the title character of Euripides’ play who killed her own children as revenge against her unfaithful husband. Chrysippus examined Medea’s psychology in detail, focusing especially on the internal conflict exhibited in her famous line: “I understand that what I am about to do is bad (kaka), but anger (or “spirit”, thumos) is master of my plans, anger which is responsible for the worst things in human life” (Gill, p. 223). In Stoic terms, Medea’s attitude here exemplifies the rejection of reason that accompanies all negative emotions; she forms her plans even while recognizing that it is bad for herself and her children.
Interestingly, though, both Chrysippus and Epictetus suggest that Medea—despite performing one of the most heinous acts imaginable—is a potential candidate for therapy. Epictetus suggests that rather than punishing her, we should feel sorry for her. And Gill reminds us that,
From a Stoic standpoint, the internal conflict in the monologue and the articulation of this in the final lines bring out the irrational and unnatural character of bad emotion and of the rejection of reason it involves. In developmental terms, it shows that, despite the extreme corruption of Medea’s character…she retains the capacity for ethical understanding and the correlated emotional response. Even Medea, on the verge of killing her children, exemplifies the Stoic belief that ‘all humans have the starting points of virtue’ and that they retain these starting-points throughout their lives.
Ethical and Emotional Development in Marcus Aurelius
While Medea is an extreme and thankfully rare example, more run-of-the-mill negative emotions are a standard feature of most people’s lives—including that of Marcus Aurelius. In the Meditations, we see Marcus practicing a form of self-therapy, cultivating proper emotional responses toward the challenges of his own life. In his famous Meditation 2.1 (you will encounter people who are “meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable”), Marcus suggests two points of reflection that will reduce negative reactivity toward such vexatious people. These two points correspond to the two strands of oikeiosis, personal and social (cited from p. 234):
Personal: “One is the recognition that what is good consists in virtue, as expressed in right action, rather than preferred indifferents. This is the type of ethical understanding that forms the culminating stage of the first strand in appropriation, a stage that the people described (as ‘meddling’ and so on) have not reached.”
Social: “The other is the recognition that all human beings, as rational and sociable, form part of a larger family or co-citizenship group, one of the main features of the second, social, strand of appropriation.”
Reflecting on his personal philosophical growth, Marcus also reviews all the people who have influenced his ethical development since earliest childhood. It’s notable, of course, that this activity reverses one of the twofold causes identified by Chrysippus (the influence of our associates), showing that our associates can be a source of wisdom and positive influence when they themselves are ethically advanced. Based on this list, which comprises Book I of the Meditations, Gill extracts three particular ethical qualities that Marcus highly valued in the people around him. Each of these is nicely illustrated with examples from two of his Stoic teachers, Apollonius and Sextus (from pp. 235-236):
Ethical understanding or judgment
‘leaving nothing to the dice of fortune’ (Apollonius)
always taking ‘as one’s guide nothing but reason’ (Apollonius)
‘a secure and methodical discovery and organization of the principles necessary for life’ (Sextus)
Quality of interpersonal engagement
patience ‘in giving explanations’ as a teacher (Apollonius)
modesty as regards his intellectual expertise and skill in communication (Apollonius)
nicely judged responses to favours from his friends (Apollonius)
a kindly disposition (Sextus)
gravity without affectation (Sextus)
a careful regard for the interests of one’s friends (Sextus)
accommodating himself to all kinds of people (Sextus)
Quality of the pattern of emotional experience
‘to be always the same, in severe pain, at the loss of a child, during long illnesses’ (Apollonius)
recognition that ‘the same person can be both very intense and yet also relaxed’ (Apollonius)
he never gave ‘the impression of anger or any other passion but [was] at once completely free of passion and yet full of affection for others’ (Sextus)
From these ideals, we can see what advanced ethical development might look like. While Gill identifies the first two qualities (ethical understanding and interpersonal engagement) as virtues that result from personal and social oikeiosis, the third quality (emotional experience) illustrates the pattern of good emotions that result from advanced moral development. In other words, Marcus seems to explicitly link the two strands of oikeiosis with the good emotions (goodwill and joy) that result from perfected moral judgment.
This wraps up our discussion of emotion based on Chapter 5 of Chris Gill’s new book, Learning to Live Naturally. We’ve now answered one of the most significant questions in Stoicism: if virtue is natural, why does it have to be learned? Answer: because even though we all have the seeds of virtue within us, our natural development is frequently obstructed by deceptive appearances and the incorrect teachings of our associates.
And we’ve also answered a second pressing question: how do we overcome these liabilities and fulfill our capacity for virtue and the good emotions? Based on our discussion from the past two weeks, here are a few therapeutic activities that will set you on the right path:
Recognize that negative emotions are symptoms of psychological “sickness,” for which you need a cure
Train yourself to value virtue as necessary and sufficient for happiness
Cultivate your own personal and social development by
Attending carefully to your impressions, making sure you only assent to what is true and aligns with your values
Engaging with other people in a rational, affectionate, and benevolent way
Find positive moral examples wherever you can
I hope you have enjoyed our quick tour of good and bad emotions in Learning to Live Naturally. This wraps up Part II on development and emotion. Please join me next week as we begin Part III on Stoic Ethics and Modern Moral Theory, looking at how Stoicism can take its seat around the table of contemporary ethical discussion. See you then!
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