Stoicism on Emotions

A dialog on the Stoic attitude towards emotions.

(A dialogue about quotes from How to Think Like a Roman Emperor):

However, before we turn to the Stoic use of language, we first have to understand a little more about the Stoic theory of emotions. The curious tale of an unnamed Stoic teacher provides our best introduction to this topic. We find it in The Attic Nights, a book of anecdotes written by Aulus Gellius, a grammarian who was a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius. Gellius was sailing across the Ionian Sea from Cassiopa, a town on Corfu, to Brundisium, in southern Italy, possibly en route to Rome. He describes one of his fellow passengers as an important and highly regarded Stoic teacher who had been lecturing in Athens. We can’t identify the teacher with certainty; it’s not impossible, though, that Gellius could have been referring to Apollonius of Chalcedon.
Out on open water their boat was caught in a ferocious storm, which lasted almost the whole night. The passengers feared for their lives as they struggled to man the pumps and keep themselves from drowning in a shipwreck. Gellius noticed that the great Stoic teacher had turned as white as a sheet and shared the same anxious expression as the rest of the passengers. However, the philosopher alone remained silent instead of crying out in terror and lamenting his predicament. Once the sea and sky calmed, as they were approaching their destination, Gellius gently inquired of the Stoic why he looked almost as fearful as the others did during the storm.

Adam (A): So Gellius expected the stoic to be totally calm during the storm, or at least significantly calmer than the other passengers (in a manner beyond just remaining silent instead of crying and lamenting).

Bob (B): Yes. Continuing the quote:

He could see that Gellius was sincere and courteously answered that the founders of Stoicism taught how people facing such dangers naturally and inevitably experience a short-lived stage of fear. He then reached into his satchel and produced the fifth book of Epictetus’s Discourses for Gellius to peruse. Today, only the first four books of the Discourses survive, although Marcus appears to have read the lost discourses of Epictetus and quotes from them in The Meditations. In any case, Gellius describes Epictetus’s remarks, which he confidently asserts were true to the original teachings of Zeno and Chrysippus.
Epictetus reputedly told his students that the founders of Stoicism distinguished between two stages of our response to any event, including threatening situations. First come the initial impressions (phantasiai) that are imposed involuntarily on our minds from outside, when we’re initially exposed to an event such as the storm at sea. These impressions can be triggered, says Epictetus, by a terrifying sound such as a peal of thunder, a building collapsing, or a sudden cry of danger. Even the mind of a perfect Stoic Sage will initially be shaken by abrupt shocks of this kind, and he will shrink back from them instinctively in alarm. This reaction doesn’t come from faulty value judgments about the dangers faced but from an emotional reflex arising in his body, which temporarily bypasses reason. Epictetus might have added that these emotional reactions are comparable to those experienced by non-human animals. Seneca, for instance, notes that when animals are alarmed by the appearance of danger, they take flight, but after they have escaped, their anxiety soon abates and they return to grazing in peace once again.16 By contrast, the human capacity for thought allows us to perpetuate our worries beyond these natural bounds. Reason, our greatest blessing, is also our greatest curse.

A: This makes some sense but I don’t think I agree with all of it. I think the way that animals deal with situations is through some kind of programming (e.g. maybe their programming tells them to flee if there is a sufficiently loud noise or big physical vibration or something) and that that is fundamentally different than how humans form impressions of situations. A human’s immediate reaction is always connected to some kind of value judgment, though it’s a very automated judgment that one hasn’t necessarily thought through very well. But like, with the example of hearing thunder, one could imagine a positive reaction from a scientist who has been waiting many days to conduct an experiment which requires lightning, or from a farmer who takes the thunder to indicate a coming rain and the end of a drought. On the other hand, one could imagine people having joyous reactions to horrific events, like the 9/11 attack or their child becoming a suicide bomber and murdering people, and I’ve seen examples of that sort of thing in real life.

B: Those are good examples, and I agree that the way people form and have even their immediate emotional reactions is different than what happens with an animal. Nonetheless, I think there is wisdom here. I think that we can draw a distinction between the level of control one has over an immediate emotional reaction and over a more sustained emotional reaction over time. The control you have over your immediate emotional reactions is very indirect. They are the result of the ideas you’ve picked up in the culture, and you can change them, but such change may require introspecting and changing a bunch of your ideas in a thorough way over a long period of time. So it is possible to do, but it is something that I think most people would find a challenge. However, I think the point of the Stoic analysis here is to distinguish the first stage of emotional reactions from the second stage. I’ll let the book lay out a bit more of that analysis before commenting further:

In the second stage of our response, the Stoics say, we typically add voluntary judgments of “assent” (sunkatatheseis) to these automatic impressions. Here the Stoic wise man’s response differs from that of the majority of people. He does not go along with the initial emotional reactions to a situation that have invaded his mind. Epictetus says the Stoic should neither assent to nor confirm these emerging impressions, such as anxiety in the face of danger. Rather, he rejects them as misleading, views them with studied indifference, and lets go of them. By contrast, the unwise are carried away by their initial impression of external events—including those that are terrible and to be feared—and continue to worry, ruminate, and even complain aloud about a perceived threat.

A: So it sounds like the stoic wise person questions and rejects the initial impressions. Does he necessarily reject them? Maybe they make sense. Like if you see 9/11 happening, and your reaction is, wow that’s horrible — well, isn’t it actually horrible?

B: I think the thing to focus on here is the behavior and attitude one takes to the situation. I think it will help to keep in mind that there is a distinction between one’s evaluation or judgment about a situation and one’s emotional reaction. So maybe focusing on that point will help with understanding. So, consider an extreme case like 9/11. You initially see it happening. You, understandably, have a horrified emotional reaction. Okay. So then the question is: now what? Are you going to stay focused on that emotional reaction? Or is there something you can do? What you can do might vary tremendously based on your situation, but there might be some actual action that you can take to try to help the people dealing with this tragedy. You won’t take whatever action that might be, however, if you are in agony because of getting carried away with your initial emotional reaction. Note that I’m not saying you should repress your understandable emotional reaction. But, don’t wallow in it. Feel it, but don’t become it. Take a moment — or 5 — but then move on.

Because people experience a judgment of something (e.g. thinking “X is bad”) and an emotional reaction to it (e.g. feeling bad about X) roughly simultaneously, I think that they get the two confused. But they are not the same. Putting a negative emotional reaction aside so that you can take some action does not mean that you judge what happened to be fine or okay. Your judgment and your emotional reaction are two separate things. They are related, but they are separate. Viewing your emotional reaction with “studied indifference” does not mean viewing the morality of things happening in the world with studied indifference.

A: But why then does the book say:

Epictetus says the Stoic should neither assent to nor confirm these emerging impressions, such as anxiety in the face of danger. Rather, he rejects them as misleading, views them with studied indifference, and lets go of them.”

Saying that the emotional reaction is misleading seems to be saying that the emotional reaction is wrong.

B: I think the example there matters a lot. Suppose you see a bear in the woods. You become anxious. Does that anxiety help you? If you are feeling afraid and don’t move because of the fear, you might be killed like a deer in the headlights. If you use your emotional reaction as a guide to action, you might freeze and get mauled to death. So that is a sense in which the emotional reaction is misleading — it is misleading as a guide for what you should do. It is not misleading in the sense of being some sort of indicator that bears are a potential problem for you — that part is obviously correct.

Imagine if the two stages of reaction to something were represented by two different people within you. The first person will represent the initial emotional reaction. So that first person is very emotional, and says something like:


For a non-stoic, they will often let their second-stage person go along with the reaction of the first person. So then you have TWO people shouting “OMG A BEAR A BEAR!” And that’s not very productive.

But in the case of a Stoic, you get a different reaction from the second “person”. The Stoic hears out the initial emotional reaction from the first person, gets what information it can from it, and then says “noted” and tries to proceed in a rational manner. So the Stoic’s second “person” basically acts as a circuit breaker for what could have been a cascade of negative emotional reactions.

A: Interesting.

B: I wanted to say something regarding this bit: “In the second stage of our response, the Stoics say, we typically add voluntary judgments of “assent” (sunkatatheseis) to these automatic impressions.” Building on what I said eariler, I don’t think that the initial judgments are totally automatic in the same way that an animals “judgments” are totally automatic. However, I do think that your more considered/thoughtful reaction is more voluntary. You have more control over that. You might imagine a spectrum. Your automatic, immediate reactions are theoretically possible to control, but they are the hardest to change; however, the more time passes from the initial incident that caused your initial reaction, the more control you have over your emotional state, and the more responsibility you have for what you feel. It’s understandable that you might have some immediate emotional reaction in the moment. If you’re still bothered by something 3 days later, though, then that’s much more of a choice that’s on you. Emotions don’t sustain themselves — you need to keep them going, like a fire. This is empowering, because it means that if you’ve been agitated by something, you can just choose to stop feeding that particular fire.