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Stoic passions:The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Cicero on the Stoic idea of bad passions vs good passions  (he calls them "emotions" and "consistencies"):

"This, then, is Zeno’s definition of an emotion (which he calls a pathos): “a movement of mind contrary to nature and turned away from right reason.” Others say, more briefly, that an emotion is “a too-vigorous impulse,” where “too vigorous” means “having deviated too far from the consistency of nature.” The different classes of emotions, they say, arise from two kinds of things thought to be good and two thought to be evil. Thus there are four possibilities: those arising from goods are desire and gladness, gladness being directed at present goods and desire at future goods; while those arising from evils are fear and distress, fear being directed at future evils and distress at present ones. For the things we fear when they are in prospect are the very things that bring distress when they are upon us. Gladness and desire, on the other hand, are concerned with beliefs about what things are good: desire catches fire from its attraction toward what seems good, while gladness is wildly excited at having obtained some longed-for object.

The Three Consistencies and Their Objects
By nature, all people pursue those things which they think to be good and avoid their opposites. Therefore, as soon as a person receives an impression of some thing which he thinks is good, nature itself urges him to reach out after it. When this is done prudently and in accordance with consistency, it is the sort of reaching which the Stoics call a boulesis, and which I shall term a “volition.” They think that a volition, which they define as “a wish for some object in accordance with reason,” is found only in the wise person. But the sort of reaching which is aroused too vigorously and in a manner opposed to reason is called “desire” or “unbridled longing,” and this is what is found in all who are foolish. Similarly there are two ways we may be moved as by the presence of something good. When the mind is moved quietly and consistently, in accordance with reason, this is termed “joy”; but when it pours forth with a hollow sort of uplift, that is called “wild or excessive gladness,” which they define as “an unreasoning elevation of mind.” And just as it is by nature that we reach out after the good, so also it is by nature that we withdraw from the bad. A withdrawing which is in accordance with reason is termed “caution,” and this, as they understand it, is found only in the wise person; while the name “fear” is applied to a withdrawing that is apart from reason and that involves a lowly and effeminate swooning. Thus fear is caution that has turned away from reason. For present evil the wise person has no affective response, but the foolish person responds with distress. For those who do not obey reason lower and contract their minds in circumstances which they believe to be evil. Hence the first definition for distress is this: “a contraction of mind contrary to reason.” Thus there are four emotions, but three consistencies, since there is no consistency which corresponds to distress."

- Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, 4.11-14

Quoted from Margret Graver's Cicero on the Emotions, University of Chicago Press, 2008, p. 41-42. 

Roman mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii. Now at the Archeological Museum in Naples

Everything we do is determined by what appear to be present good or bad things or future good or bad things. This goes both for foolish people and wise people alike. Foolish people, however, are foolish exactly because they don't understand what is truly good or bad for human beings. They typically think that some external thing - such as success or failure - is much more important than it is because they think that their life will be better, if they achieve or avoid the thing in question. Because they think that they lack something or that they can lose something they are in constant turmoil. Their reactions to present or future good or bad thing is always out of proportion. This means that there are four "out of proportion" human reactions: desire is an out proportion longing for something perceived as a future good ("my life will be much better when I find the prefect partner, the perfect job" etc), pleasure is an out of proportion exaltation over something perceived as a present good ("My life is complete now that my team has won, now that I get this revenge" etc), fear is an out of proportion concern over something perceived as a future evil ("What if I get fired, what if I die" etc) and pain (mental pain, that is: agony, sorrow, distress etc) is an out of proportion reaction to something perceived as a present evil (getting fired, losing a competition etc).

Just as there are reactions that are out of proportion, there are reactions that are based on accurate understanding of what's good or bad for human beings: we can wish for something that is nice to have without tormenting ourselves with the mistaken belief that our life won't be complete without it. Since we are wishing for something we don't have this is the sensible version of desire - but, importantly, a wise person does not think that anything he or she doesn't have is a good thing since in as much as that person is wise he or she is already in possession of the only truly good thing: wisdom. Since the wise person is always already in possession of the only truly good thing, he or she is always in a state of joy - and that state is the sensible version of pleasure. Since the wise person can't lose his or her wisdom, he or she can't possible lose anything that is truly good and, thus, he or she has nothing to fear. Even so, the wise person will prefer not losing his or her life or the lives of loved ones and, so, the wise person will be cautious to see that none of this happens - and caution is, then, the sensible version of fear. This leaves pain. There is no sensible version of pain (agony, distress, sorrow), since a wise person is always happy.

An "out of proportion" reaction is what in Greek Stoicism is called a "pathos". Cicero call this an "adfectus" - and this is what Graver translates as "emotion". The sensible reaction is in Greek Stoicism called "eupathos". This is what in the Cicero text above is translated as a "consistency".

Does all this mean that the wise Stoic man's response to, say, the death of his/her child is to accept it without sorrow nor agony?

Essentially the answer is yes:

"No one can change Fate with insults, tears, or arguments. Fate spares no one and gives no one a second chance. Therefore, let's stop tears that have no effect. This sorrow will take us to .join the dead more readily than it will bring our dead back to us. And if sorrow isn't helping us but hurting us, we should set it aside as soon as possible and rescue the spirit from useless consolations and the bitter pleasure of grief."

- Seneca, Consolation to Polybius 4.1.

This doesn't mean that the wise person doesn't feel sorrow at all, though:

"But it is natural to mourn for our loved ones.' Who denies this, provided it is done in moderation? For even when our dearest ones merely part from us, far less when we lose them, we feel an inevitable pang, and even the strongest of hearts is wrung. But what opinion adds to our grief exceeds Nature's prescription. Consider the mourning we see in dumb animals, how intense it is and yet how short-lived: the sad lowing of cows is heard for one day, or two, and the frenzied and aimless galloping of mares we see lasts no longer; beasts of the wild, after following the tracks of their stolen young, after roving through the forests and returning many times to their pillaged lairs, quench their fury within a short time; birds circle noisily around their empty nests with loud shrieks, but in no time they calmly resume their accustomed flight; and no creature spends a long time in mourning for its offspring except man, who nourishes his grief and has as the measure of his affliction not what he feels but what he has decided to feel."

- Seneca, Consolation to Marcia 7.1

Another category of emotions are infirmities - described by Seneca in the following quote:

"The difference between infirmities of mind and emotions is something I have explained more than once. I will remind you now as well. The infirmities are faults that have become ingrained and hard, like greed and ambition. These are conditions that bind the mind much more tightly and have begun to be permanent afflictions. To give a brief definition, an infirmity is a persistent judgment in a corrupted person that certain things are very much worth pursuing that in fact are only slightly worth pursuing. Or, if you prefer, we can define it this way: it is being overly concerned with things that one ought to pursue either casually or not at all, or considering something to be of great value when in fact it is either of some lesser value or of no value at all. The emotions are unjustifiable movements of the mind that are abrupt and agitated. These, when they occur frequently and do not receive any treatment, cause the infirmity, just as a single cold in the head, if it is not protracted, brings on nothing more than a cough; but if it happens repeatedly for a long time, it brings on the wasting disease. Hence those who have made the most progress have gotten beyond the infirmities, but they still experience emotions, even though they are very near perfection" 

- Seneca, Letters 75.11-12

(Margaret Graver and A.A. Long's translation from 2015)

Since the passsage is a bit dense, here's Richard Gummere's translation from 1917 for perspective:

"I have often before explained the difference between the diseases of the mind and its passions. And I shall remind you once more: the diseases are hardened and chronic vices, such as greed and ambition; they have enfolded the mind in too close a grip, and have begun to be permanent evils thereof. To give a brief definition: by "disease" we mean a persistent perversion of the judgment, so that things which are mildly desirable are thought to be highly desirable. Or, if you prefer, we may define it thus: to be too zealous in striving for things which are only mildly desirable or not desirable at all, or to value highly things which ought to be valued but slightly or valued not at all. "Passions" are objectionable impulses of the spirit, sudden and vehement; they have come so often, and so little attention has been paid to them, that they have caused a state of disease; just as a catarrh, when there has been but a single attack and the catarrh has not yet become habitual, produces a cough, but causes consumption when it has become regular and chronic. Therefore we may say that those who have made most progress are beyond the reach of the "diseases"; but they still feel the "passions" even when very near perfection."

In other words, for a lot of us the passions have become so rooted that they are in a new category - infirmities. The only thing that can save us is philosophy:

"In order to develop toward the human good, people must first overcome the effects of moral corruption that have acted upon them since childhood [...], inducing them to adopt incorrect notions of value. Such errors become ingrained through repetition in the absence of rational reflection, at which point they become the stable traits of character termed “sicknesses” or “infirmities.” Typical examples include greed, irascibility, and ambition. The acquisition of virtue thus depends on continuous self-scrutiny and training." 

- Margaret Graver's note to Seneca's letter no. 50, paragraph 5 in Seneca, Letters on Ethics, University of Chigago Press, 2015, p.

Infirmities described by another major source for Stoicism:

"A disease is an opinion connected to a desire which has settled and hardened into a condition, in virtue of which people think that things not worth choosing are extremely worth choosing, for example, love of women, love of wine, love of money; there are also certain states opposite to diseases which turn up as antipathies, such as hatred of women, hatred of wine, hatred of humanity. Those diseases which occur in conjunction with weakness are called ailments." 

 - Stobaeus, Anthology, 2.10e 

Infirmities described by Cicero:

"The point to be grasped, then, is that although emotion itself is turbulent and in consistent, constantly in movement through shifts in belief, it sometimes happens that this simmering and agitation of mind becomes habitual, set tling into the veins and marrow, as it were. It is then that the sicknesses and infirmities come into being, and also the aversions which are their contraries. The conditions I have mentioned differ from each other in theory, but in reality they are closely linked. They arise from desire and from gladness. When a person has conceived a desire for money, and when there has been no immediate application of reason—the Socratic medicine, as it were, which might have cured that desire—then the evil works its way into the veins, and settles in the vital organs, and comes to be a sickness and an infir mity. Once it has become habitual, the sickness cannot be removed, and its name is “greed.” It is the same with the other sicknesses, such as desire for glory or liking for women (if I may so translate the Greek philogunia), and the other sicknesses and infirmities, which arise in the same way. The contraries of these are thought to arise out of fear. Examples in clude hatred of women, such as we see in the Misogyne of Atilius, and hatred of the whole human race, such as we have heard of in the case of Timon, who is called “the Misanthrope”; also hostility to guests. All these infirmities of mind arise from some kind of fear of those objects which the per sons in question dislike and avoid. They define an infirmity of mind as “a vigorous opining that some object is worthy of pursuit which is in fact not worthy of pursuit, that opinion being deeply attached and rooted in the mind.” The state arising from aversion they define as “a vigorous opinion, deeply attached and rooted, that some object is worthy of avoidance which is in fact not worthy of avoidance.” “Opining” is when a person judges that he knows something which he does not in fact know. Classified under infirmities are such things as greed, ambition, liking for women, stubbornness, gluttony, fondness for wine, covetousness, and so forth. “Greed” is “a vigorous opining, deeply attached and rooted, that money is very much to be pursued,” and a similar definition is given for each of the others. Definitions for the aversions are like this: “hostility to guests,” for instance, is “a vigorous opinion, deeply attached and rooted, that company is very much to be avoided.” Similar definitions are given for “hatred of women,” like that of Hippolytus, and for “hatred of the human race,” like that of Timon." 

- Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, 4.24-27

I highly recommend Margaret Graver's "Stoicism and Emotion", University of Chicago Press, 2007. It's a very thorough discussion of this topic - a topic which even now appears to be quite badly understood among modern students of Stoicism. 


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