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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sick and Frightened Stoics

The Sick Stoic

The Roman antiquarian writer Aulus Gellius, in his Attic Nights (12.5), tells the story of a journey taken by himself and his philosopher friend Taurus. The story is illuminating for what it can tell us about the Stoic attitude towards the emotions. In the popular imagination, Stoicism is a philosophy the central goal of which is the conquest of the passions by reason. The ideal Stoic sage is characterized by his supposed emotional passivity towards all experience. It is this characterization which has most often made people averse to Stoicism. The ideal seems too unattainable, and even if it were attainable, it seems too inhuman.

Taurus and Gellius came to the town of Lebadia, where word was brought to them of a friend of Taurus, who was a philosopher of the Stoic school. The friend was seriously ill, so Taurus and Gellius went to visit him. There, they witnessed “the stifled groans that burst from him, and the heavy sighs that escaped his panting breast, revealed his suffering, and no less his struggle to overcome it.” Upon leaving the scene, another acquaintance posed to Taurus — who, it must be noted, was not himself a Stoic — the following query, which I will quote at length:

“If the bitterness of pain is such that it struggles against the will and judgment, forcing a man to groan involuntarily and confess the evil of his violent disorder, why is it said among the Stoics that pain is a thing indifferent and not an evil? Furthermore, why can a Stoic be compelled to do anything, or how can pain compel him, when the Stoics say that pain exerts no compulsion, and that a wise man cannot be forced to anything?”

To put the question in context, what the interlocutor is asking is this: Given that the Stoics divide everything into the three classes of things that are either good, bad, or indifferent; and given that pain is supposed to be a thing indifferent; and further assuming that the sick philosopher is a good Stoic; then why is he groaning?

Taurus’ reply is centred on the Stoic idea that we are all born with a natural and instinctual self-concern, an instinct towards self-preservation and continued existence. It is important not to mistake this self-concern with selfishness or self-centredness. The self-concern involved is normal, healthy, and indeed necessary for survival. What Taurus in effect argues is that the sick philosopher’s groans are not elicited against his will. Nor are they signs of the weakness of his will. On the contrary, they are expressions of the strength of his will, of his struggle against bodily impulse caused by the pain. The case is not one of passively having groans forced from one. Rather, the groans are an epiphenomenon of the active struggle against pain impulses.

Though it sounds a bit arch, it seems to me that groaning in pain is acceptable Stoic behaviour on this account, but that whimpering in pain is perhaps not, the latter indicating passivity.

The Frightened Stoic

Elsewhere in the same work, Aulus Gellius tells us another story (19.1), which, again, takes place on a journey. He was with a party on board a ship, when they found themselves in a storm. Among the party was an eminent philosopher of the Stoic school. While there was much fright among the crew and passengers, Gellius expected to find his philosopher to be an oasis of calm amidst the tempest. Instead, he found the man “frightened and ghastly pale… in his loss of colour and distracted expression not differing much from the others.”

After a time, the storm cleared, and the danger had passed. A wealthy Greek smart aleck began to poke fun at the Stoic: “What does this mean, Sir philosopher, that when we were in danger you were afraid and turned pale, while I neither feared nor changed colour?” The philosopher answered the question with tongue firmly in cheek. He basically said that the smart aleck had been unafraid because the death of such a worthless coxcomb would be no great loss, whereas the loss of a wise man would be a loss indeed.

Gellius, however, was unsatisfied at this. When he had the philosopher alone, he posed the question again, in a more serious tone. The philosopher replied that, according to the Stoics, it was natural when in danger to briefly experience an involuntary impulse of fear. He then pulled the writings of the Stoic Epictetus from his bag and quoted from them. The passage he reads argues that the difference between the wise and unwise is that the unwise are overcome by the impulse of fear; their minds assent to a proposition as if it were true when it is in fact false, the proposition in question being that loss of life is an evil (when in fact it is indifferent). Fear happens. The difference is that the unwise are passive in the face of it.

On the other hand, the wise man, being wise, has correct beliefs about what is good, bad, and indifferent, and refuses rational assent to the false proposition that death is an evil, and gives assent to the true proposition that death is indifferent.

All of this is fine as far as it goes, but why is it that the wealthy smart aleck experienced no fear? Was he wise? This goes unanswered, but assuming that the man was not wise, I can try to offer a response that would be consistent with Stoic doctrine.

On the account offered, he simply did not experience that first natural impulse of fear. Because the impulse is natural, for the Stoics it is also healthy. Therefore, the man who fails to experience the impulse of fear where such an impulse would be appropriate must be somehow unnatural or unhealthy. As such, the man cannot be wise. Put this way, then, it follows that there must be more than one way of being an unwise person in this situation:

1. One can fail to experience the impulse of fear in the first place.

2. One can experience the impulse of fear, but fail to form any proposition with regard to it.

3. One can experience the impulse of fear, form a false proposition with regard to it, and assent to that proposition.

4. One can experience the impulse of fear, form a true proposition with regard to it, and fail to assent to it.

In the first case, the wise man is insensate, which is a form of stupidity. In the second case, the impulse of fear will operate unhindered, neither countervailed by true belief nor bolstered by false belief. Here, the man is unwise because he does not exercise reason of any kind. It is a form of intemperance. In the third case, the impulse will be allowed to hold sway by being bolstered by a false belief. Here, the man is unwise due to erring reason. I suspect that the fourth case collapses into the second, for although a proposition is formed, it has no causal effect on behaviour. I suppose we would say that this is a different way in which reason goes unexercised.

All of this illustrates that the Stoics were by no means completely opposed to emotion. Certain emotions were not only healthy, but necessary. The point, rather, is to exercise one’s reason in the face of the emotion, trying to form true beliefs about the causes and implications of the emotion. In this way, one can detach the emotion from the facts, ensuring that one is not passively swept along into error by it. On the other hand, the Stoics nowhere say that doing this is easy. It takes practise, moral exercise, and a good working knowledge of the things that matter and the things that do not.

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