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Chapter 5 of Chris Gill's Learning to Live Naturally
Welcome to our study of Chapter 5 of Chris Gill’s exceptional new book, Learning to Live Naturally. After setting the stage in weeks past with virtue, indifferents, nature, and appropriation, we are ready to cover one of the trickiest Stoic subjects: emotions. Not only is this topic widely misunderstood, it is also nuanced and conceptually dense. Since this subject is so important, I’ll be devoting two posts to this chapter. In this first part, we’ll focus on three topics:
emotions as motives
good and bad emotions
do Stoics advocate emotional detachment?
Emotions as Motives
Before we can define emotions in a Stoic way, we have to zoom out a little and look at the whole Stoic conception of psychology. In folk psychology (and also in Plato and Aristotle), emotion is often seen as opposed to reason: our emotions just do what they want, often contradicting the “voice of reason” in our own minds and urging us to do things we know we shouldn’t do. Under this view, we feel that our emotions are outside of our own control, ungovernable and disconnected from the rest of our psyche.
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The ancient Stoics, in a brilliant move that prefigures contemporary cognitive psychology, completely flip this folk intuition on its head. Rather than seeing our psyche as divided into warring parts, they see our minds as unified and whole, with our emotions closely connected to our beliefs and understanding of the world. Here’s how Gill puts it:
The Stoics do not accept the existence of psychological parts in this sense. They adopt an innovative psychological model in which emotions and desires are shaped directly by beliefs and reasoning. In their terms, the ‘assent’ of the mind to a ‘rational impression’ necessarily generates a ‘motive’ corresponding to the impression. In this respect, the Stoic psychological framework is highly unified or holistic. Hence, psychological harmony, in their view, does not consist in agreement between distinct and potentially conflicting (rational or emotional) parts. It consists in the internal cohesion of the beliefs (‘rational impressions’ or ‘reasons’) and of the correlated emotions or desires (‘motives’) present in the mind at any one time or over time.
Instead of analyzing our minds in terms of parts, the Stoics analyze our mental processes in terms of beliefs, impressions, and motives. Here’s a very brief overview of what the Stoics meant by these technical terms:
Beliefs: Based on our life experiences and our internal responses to those experiences, we build up a set of beliefs (both conscious and unconscious) about the world. By the time we’re adults, we have many such beliefs, especially about our values (what is good and bad) and appropriate actions (how we should act toward other people).
Impressions: Impressions are propositions formed in our minds that something is or is not appropriate for us to do. Adult humans, with our powers of rationality, have the capacity to “assent” to these impressions or to withhold our assent. For example, if I wake up in the morning thinking, “Maybe I’ll go shopping today,” I can then decide whether this is really a good idea or not—“Yes, I do need a few things so I’d better go shopping,” or “No, I went shopping two days ago and I don’t need anything today.” These impressions and assents are based on our beliefs about what is good and appropriate for us. If I assent to an impression, that assent automatically generates a motive to act.
Motives: In most scholarly writing on Stoicism, “motive” (Greek: hormē) is translated as “impulse.” However, I think it’s a brilliant move on Gill’s part to translate hormē as motive, which he suggests is closer to the original Greek meaning. For English speakers this has the added advantage of linking this concept with “motivation” and “motion” (not to mention “emotion”), which I think is ultimately what the ancient Stoics were trying to express. It’s a close relationship: our motives are the direct result of our beliefs (and our assenting to an impression), and they in turn drive our actions in the world. As Gill describes this relationship:
The motivating effect depends directly on the judgement formed, such as ‘this act is appropriate’. This framework explains why Stoics, typically, define emotions in two ways, in terms of belief (that is, the impression which gains assent) and the motive which is the outcome of the assent. These are inseparable aspects of an emotion and are causally linked, in that the belief causes the motive. This linkage comes out in the Stoic definitions of the emotions, which specify both the relevant belief and the motive (or emotional reaction) which is triggered by the belief.
So, just to recap: our mental experience is not compartmentalized into conflicting rational and emotional parts, but rather our emotions derive directly from our beliefs about the world and our choices (assents) about what is good and appropriate for us.
As we move through this discussion it’s extremely important to bear in mind the dual nature of emotions, consisting of both belief and the emotional reaction triggered by the belief. This dual nature is what enables us to voluntarily change our own emotions. By changing our beliefs (remember, this includes our values and our ideas about what is appropriate for us), we also change our emotional reactions. No longer are we helpless bystanders in the war of desire vs. reason; instead, we are the authors of our own emotions.
Good and Bad Emotions
If you’ve read anything about Stoicism, you’ve surely read about its power to reduce negative emotions. This is one of its most popular elements, so much that the term “stoic” in common parlance has come to mean someone who doesn’t have any emotional reactions at all. However, you hopefully also know that this image of the unfeeling stoic is a gross misconception of Stoicism. Stoics do want to eliminate strong negative emotions, but we do not want to eliminate all emotion. Emotions are an essential aspect of our psychological experience, and as we saw above, they exert a strong motivational pull. They are simply part of human nature.
What we want to do is perfect our emotions. We want to make them better. Instead of allowing our emotions to take control—acting out of anger, fear, envy, or misguided desire in ways we might later regret—we want our emotions (our motives) to be based in wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. So emotions can be good (based on correct beliefs) or bad (based on incorrect beliefs). The good emotions lead us toward virtue and happiness, while the bad emotions lead us toward inconsistency, inappropriate actions, and regret.
You might be surprised to learn that there is such a thing as “good emotions” in Stoicism, but it actually all goes back to nature and virtue (which we discussed in Chapter 1 of Learning to Live Naturally). Our emotions are based on our beliefs about what is good or bad for us. So if we believe that our good lies in our own character rather than in indifferent things, we won’t get upset if supposedly bad things (illness, pain, loss, hardship) happen to us:
The underlying distinction between the two types of emotion, at the specific as well as the generic level, is that the good emotions express an understanding of the difference in value between indifferents (preferable and dispreferable) and virtues or vices, whereas the bad emotions confuse or conflate these. The bad emotions express the mistaken belief that our happiness in life depends on acquiring preferable indifferents and avoiding dispreferable ones, rather than on developing and exercising the virtues and thereby living ‘the life according to nature.’
At the simplest level, you might say that incorrect judgment = bad emotions, while correct judgment = good emotions.
We’re all pretty familiar with the bad emotions, having experienced them throughout our lives. We know exactly how they feel and how they seem to take control of our minds and push us around—they are often overpowering, unruly, and “disobedient to reason.”
But what exactly do good emotions look like? Not only are they based on correct judgment, but they also have a different emotional tenor than the bad emotions. Good emotions align with reason, and as a result they don’t push us around; they are well-measured. Examples provided by the ancient Stoics include joy, cheerfulness, goodwill, and good intent. In other words, these are not weak, watered down, or incomplete emotions. They are robust, full-bodied, and extremely positive. I think most of us would love to experience these good emotions throughout our lives!
In fact, next week we will be talking about emotional development, and we’ll look at some ways we can cultivate the good emotions, as well as some reasons most people never manage to experience them. But before we close for today, I’d like to take a little detour and address another common misunderstanding about Stoicism and emotion: does Stoicism suggest we should practice emotional detachment from others? Do Stoics even care about other people?
Yes, Stoics Do Care About Other People!
In the last section of Chapter 5, Gill addresses another misinterpretation of Stoicism, which both scholars and general readers fall victim to. Unwary readers often come across the following passage in Epictetus’s Discourses and snap the book closed in horror, thinking Stoicism advocates emotional detachment from other people:
From now on, whenever you take delight in anything, call to mind the opposite impression: what harm is there in your saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, ‘Tomorrow you’ll die’? Or similarly to your friend, ‘Tomorrow you’ll go abroad, or I will, and we’ll never see each other again’.
Or, perhaps these readers stumble across a similar passage from the Handbook:
With regard to everything that is a source of delight to you, or is useful to you, or of which you are fond, remember to keep telling yourself what kind of thing it is, starting with the most insignificant. If you're fond of a jug, say, "This is a jug that I'm fond of," and then, if it gets broken, you won't be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you're kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won't be upset.
Epictetus, Handbook, 3
Whichever passage they find, many people are shocked—as were Epictetus’s ancient listeners and readers—that he seems to callously compare a wife to a jug, or that he suggests thinking about the death of your loved ones. As his student exclaims in response, “But these are words of bad omen!” Like most people, this student would rather not think about death at all, especially that of his wife or children. Our knee-jerk reaction is that it’s unloving, or for the superstitious, that it may invite calamity.
But Epictetus has his reasons: “I don't mind, provided only that they do good.” In other words, if whispering this thought accomplishes something good, then it’s not bad at all. The only ill-omened things in life, says Epictetus, are vices such as cowardice and meanness of spirit. But not death. Death is an ever-present fact of life, a benevolent natural process that should not be feared:
But would you describe any word to me as ill-omened if it refers to something that follows the course of nature? Say that it is also of bad omen for ears of corn to be harvested, because that signifies the destruction of the corn. Say that it is ill-omened, too, for leaves to fall, and for a fresh fig to turn into a dried one, and for grapes to turn into raisins. For all these things involve a change from a preceding state to a new and different one; it's not a matter of destruction, but of ordered management and administration. Traveling abroad is like that: a change, and a small change; death is like that: a bigger change from what presently is, not into what is not, but rather into what presently is not.
Discourses, 3.24, 91-93
It may seem inhumane to think about the death of a person in the same way that you think about the death of a fig or a grape. But that is exactly Epictetus' point: if you trace all of us down to our essence, we are all just small bits of nature. It's a shocking idea, both then and now. But it is also undeniably true. We are mortal creatures, and we will someday pass away. To shy away from thinking about it means we are not seeing things the way they really are. Gill reminds us that these passages are actually serving a memento mori function rather than advocating that we detach from other people:
[Epictetus] does not say we should stop loving our family and friends and expressing this in our actions and attitudes (that is, expressing philostorgia). What he says is that we should continue to love them, while remaining aware that our relationship to them—or their relationship to us, of course, if we die first—may be terminated by death at any time.
In other words, these famously misunderstood passages do not suggest emotionally distancing ourselves from other people, but rather loving them more wisely. Having a true and accurate understanding of life helps us to live in the best, wisest way while we still can. When you remember that death is a real possibility for yourself or your children, you start to make better decisions. Should you read the news on your phone, or should you pay attention to your child? Should you try to control things you can't control, or should you focus your energy on loving the people around you?
Remembering our mortality helps us to navigate and choose wisely—when we gain an understanding of death, we also gain an understanding of life. Epictetus is well aware of this. His shock-and-awe routine is surely one of his most effective teaching strategies. So in order to fully understand his meaning, we need a lot of background information—we have to go beyond a superficial reading of the words. But ultimately, this advice is to help us love more deeply, not to diminish our love. Gill concludes:
We should act in line with the basic human motive of care for others (of which the paradigm is parental love), and aim at a way of life shaped by virtue, which carries with it good emotions such as good will and good intent and avoids bad emotions such as anxiety and fear. Epictetus does not here suggest that the overall aim of the approach he recommends is to achieve one’s own peace of mind at the expense of forming and maintaining close relationships…
Epictetus wants to bring out as forcibly as possible the point that affection needs to be combined with awareness of the possibility of death; but he does so while maintaining that the affection is not therefore diluted or negated.
So there you have it. Epictetus and the other ancient Stoics, rather than advocating emotional detachment from other people, advocate caring wisely for them. And that means loving them with full knowledge and acceptance of their mortality.
Thank you for joining me on a very brief tour of the Stoic theory of emotions, from Chapter 5 of Chris Gill’s Learning to Live Naturally. This week we’ve covered three major points: emotions as motives, good and bad emotions, and how an appreciation of death can help us care wisely for others. I hope these topics are as beneficial for you as they have been for me.
Next week we’ll move on to the meaty middle section of the chapter, covering emotional development. We’ll look at ways humans might develop emotionally over their lifetime, as well as some reasons why they often go astray. And we’ll think about what this means for cultivating our own emotions. See you then!
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