Why I am not a Stoic!

25 July 2006


I learned alot about Stoicism both in preparing for yesterday's episode and from our guest  John Cooper.  Fortunately, although John Cooper  knows a great deal about the stoics, he wasn't very stoical in his discussion of them.  He was lively, impassioned, and engaging.  It was, I thought, a very good episode.   If you didn't hear it, check it out.   (I can't yet link to it, though, since the episode usually goes up on the web only after it's also aired on OPB.)

I don't profess to fully understand stoicism.   I never read much stoic philosophy before now.  I did read the Enchiridion by Epictetus as an  undergraduate, but  frankly, it left  me pretty cold at the time.   I couldn't relate to it at all.    Maybe that's because as a young man,  I was pretty non-stoical.   I was  prone to  bouts of what I took to be deep existential angst,  prone to fall deeply, utterly in love with mostly unavailable members of the opposite sex, prone to be swept up with joy and anticipation when I finally did get a date with some much desired dreamgirl.

In my advancing years,  I wouldn't say that stoicism leaves me cold in the same way it did when I was a n angst-ridden,  romantic youth.  It probably takes some maturity  and life experience to appreciate what is right about stoicism.   As one ages,  life hands one many surprises, often quite dismaying ones at that.   Life will surprise you about your  own abilities, your  own character,  about the people you admire, trust or love and about what human beings at large are capable of. All the hard truths and harsh realities that one tries one's best to ignore as a youth can strike you with force and vividness as one ages.  In the face of  life's disturbing surprises,  one needs to find a way to go on, to live one's life still on one's own terms.  So it's not  surprising that  experience and maturity make  us more receptive to stoic teachings.

They sometimes say that philosophy is wasted on the young.  I know the Stoics were on me.

Despite the fact that  I see  more clearly than I did as an angst-ridden overly romantic youth that there are certain deep truths about human life to which stoicism is a reasonable response,  I think I still  ultimately reject  stoic views about the passions, at least as I understand them. The  stoics thought that  the emotions, at least the intense ones that most of us experience, rather than the calm ones that apparently only the stoic sage is able and entitled to experience,  are a species of evaluative  judgment.  They thought, moreover, that those judgments are  always false.   Now I think there is something right that in having an emotional response to a person or situation we thereby represent it as mattering.  So emotions really are evaulative, at least in part.  But  I'm not quite sure that I'd  call such  representations of persons and/or situations as mattering a species of   judgment.  That's because there is  both more and less to emotion than there is to judgment.   Less,  because emotions seem  apt or inapt, but not really  true or false.   More,  because  emotions seem to have both intrinsic motivational powers and intrinsic phenomenological characters not shared by judgments.   But I won't dwell on these points of dispute with the stoics here. 

What I really want to focus on is the stoic view that our "intense" emotions are always false or inapt presumably because they  misrepresent the significance  of their objects   for the  quality and character of our lives.  If I deeply mourn the loss of a loved one, or the demise of a marriage, or the end of a friendship,  I thereby represent the abesence of  my beloved, friend or partner as somehow  diminishing  my own well being.     If my well-being can be dimished or enhanced  by the loss (or gain) of another, the stoics seem to think, that makes me some sort of lesser being, a  dependent,  imperfect, vulnerable being, and so certainly not fully  virtuous.  If one were fully virtuous one would be a being perfect and complete onto himself such that the gain or loss of another would have no affect on one's fundamental well-being.

On this picture,  what makes  emotions always  false, I guess, is that  an emotion always  wrongly  represents the subject of the emotion as dependent and vulnerable and represents the object as having the power to augment or diminish the subject's well being.   I'm not sure I've exactly got this right.   I guess it supposes that all of us, even schmucks like me who are not  fully virtuous stoic sages , have it as our inner telos to be complete and perfect onto ourselves. If qua human being we all share the same telos, even if we haven't achieved that telos,  there is still a sense in which our intense emotions misrepresent their subjects (us)  in relation to their  objects (the people and situations to which we respond emotionally).  Or something like that.

Where I disagree with the stoics fundamentally, I guess, is in their assessment that the telos  of a human being is to be a complete and perfect thing onto itself, invulnerable and morally impenetrable, as it were.   I'm not sure it makes sense to talk about the  telos of human life.  But if it does make sense to do so,  it strikes me that our telos is rather that of   a deeply needy and highly vulnerable creature, a creature  for whom living well and doing well require a great deal from others and from the external, physical world.  Not just because of our bodily frailty but because of the very structure of our minds, we are creatures who  hunger for union and community with others, for attachment and engagement. Indeed,  I think we are designed for  loves that  grip our souls, designed to march under shared banners that help shape and define who and what we are in the world.  The parts of our psyches by which we manage what I elsewhere call  normative and affective  communities of both small and large scope are, I think, what is most distinctive and characteristic of the human mind.    The loss or gain  binding attachments greatly enhances or dimishes our sense of well-being and well-doing, I would submit.  Our capacity for emotional reaction is  part and parcel of the psycholgoical machinery by which we manage this all.  Our emotions  are exquisite devices for helping us to coordinate our lives with a host of others, who are, in turn, as hungry for attachment and engagement as we ourselves are. 

Think of the powerful role that  anger may play in the coordinationg of a shared life with another, especially --  when that anger presents itself as a righteous   response to a slight by the other.  Anger is a thing about which something must be done -- either by the subject of the anger or by the object of the anger.  Ignored or unappeased  it can lead to the shattering of a self, of  a marriage, of   a community.  Addressed and appeased it can lead to reconciliation and renewal.   The point is that anger gives a moment in which breach is possibe a kind of urgency, a "to-be-addressedness"  that mere detached  judgment  does not quite provide.   You must not leave this until tomorrow or another day,  lest the anger fester and grow, lest the distance between us become ever greater. 

It hardly needs acknowledging that  sometimes anger is out of proportion to the slight.  Sometimes,  it leads us to do things we later deeply regret.  But that anger sometimes leads us astray  gives us no reason to believe that anger is always false or inapt, that it will always lead us astray.  What that fact does give us, however, is good reason to manage our emotions well.  It does not give us good reason to strip our emotions from any and every role in  governing our lives.  Or so it seems to me.

The fact that emotions are things that need to be managed and regulated that they are not entirely "self-regulating"  does reflect a deep truth, I think,  about the structure of the human psyche and will.  It's a truth that the stoics perhaps got partly right, but misunderstood, I think.     The deep truth is that we do seem to have the ability to stand back from our emotions,  to reflect upon them, and either endorse or disendorse them.   But that doesn't mean that our emotions are merely things that happen in us, to which we must never give in.   Rather think of our emotions as offering up recommendations to us as to how things stand for us with respect to our cares, concerns, and values.  They also often recommend actions to us.  Both the recommended representations and the recommended actions are at least candidates for our reflective endorsement.    When we accept an emotion's recommendation through reflective endorsement,  we have made the relevant emotion, or at least its recommendations,   fully our own, in a sense, and we have  for a period given the emotions and its proffered up representations and actions temporary hold of the reins of our lives.

I see no reason for supposing that such endorsements are never ever  wise,  prudent or rational.  Of course, it does mean that merely having an emotion or merely being moved to act by an emotion is not yet as such a   fully rational response.  But you don't need to go all the way over to stoicism to admit as much.   Emotions may not deserve to be commander in chief of our souls.  About that perhaps the Stoics were right.  But what they failed to appreciate, I think, is that the emotions have a strong claim to be perhaps the  captiains or  majors of our souls.   

Or so it seems to me.

Comments (5)

Guest's picture


Tuesday, July 25, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

But if we can step back and dispassionately make a

But if we can step back and dispassionately make a second-order judgment about whether a given emotive response is apt, then arguably we ought not to give our emotions such practical force. For if one were able react to what otherwise would be an infuriating of heartbreaking state of affairs with insuperable serenity and yet *still* choose the best course of action, it seems one should be better off. And I do think this is an authentic psychological possibility.
On the other hand, my life does somehow seem richer for at least some of the heartache I have felt. It's not so much that such emotions regulated my actions or created or illuminated options so much as, in some ineffable way, they enlarged me. (That's not to say I'm pining for more heartache in the future; the philosophical attitude so often fails us when we need it the most.)

Guest's picture


Wednesday, August 2, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

Now, it's impossible to listen the episode of Stoi

Now, it's impossible to listen the episode of Stoicism by clicking "listen the episode" menu. Clicked the menu, the episode of Hegel is played.
For me, the way to listen the episode of Stoicism is to click the following address.
ps. Are you Kenneth A. Taylor who wrote "Emptiness without Compromise"? If so, thank you for writing good paper.

Ken Taylor's picture

Ken Taylor

Thursday, August 3, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

I am indeed the Ken Taylor who wrote that article.

I am indeed the Ken Taylor who wrote that article. I'm glad you found it useful. Our web guy should correct the link problem shortly.

Guest's picture


Sunday, September 10, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

I'm glad that I found this sight! There are so man

I'm glad that I found this sight! There are so many great topics here. I've recently taken an interest in stoicism. Is it possible to download this episode and others to listen to on the go?

granty987's picture


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