BMCR 2001.10.38

Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation

, Emotion and peace of mind : from Stoic agitation to Christian temptation. The Gifford lectures. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000. 1 online resource (x, 499 pages).. ISBN 9780191544033. $45.00.

The emotions are a basic datum of human existence and since they are an inescapable part of our lives we must find ways of understanding and coming to terms with them. But what precisely are these emotions? How do they arise? How should we respond to them? When they threaten to overwhelm us, can we find ways to manage, control or even eradicate them? If so, what sort of techniques or therapies would be effective and why?

Sorabji’s book examines the various answers given to these questions by Greek and Latin philosophical writers over a period of more than eight centuries, beginning with Plato and ending with Augustine and Maximus the Confessor. Roughly a third of the book is devoted to examining Stoic analyses of the emotions and the various cognitive therapies (mental exercises) that they prescribed to prevent emotions from arising. The Stoic approach to the emotions is then compared and contrasted with alternative approaches. Sorabji concludes by discussing the ways in which Philo and early Christian writers adapted and transformed the Stoic account of the emotions, creating new ways of understanding desire, temptation and volition that remained influential up to the modern period.

Sorabji argues that if one is to manage the emotions, one must first understand their origin and nature. For example, if emotions depend upon judgments, one should be able to manage and control the emotions by using some form of cognitive therapy (i.e. rational exercises aimed at altering the judgment which comprises or underlies the emotion). Sorabji begins by examining the contrasting positions taken by the Stoics Chrysippus and Posidonius on this issue.

Chrysippus held that emotion consists of two distinct value judgments: one that something good or bad (i.e. beneficial or harmful) is at hand, the other that it is appropriate to react in a specified way. When the second judgment is added to the first and the agent assents, impulse and emotion follow. Thus, for example, if one were to lose one’s job, one might have a first judgment that this is a bad thing and a second judgment that it is appropriate to grieve over the loss.

Chrysippus argued that one must not offer an immediate, uncritical assent to these judgments, since the judgments in question are false and, if assented to, will produce an impulse that is excessive, disturbing the soul and impairing one’s rational control over oneself and one’s affairs. Instead of offering immediate assent, one should take time to reflect, questioning these judgments about how matters stand and refusing to assent to them. Distancing oneself from one’s particular situation can help one to see it differently. It is possible to attack the first judgment by reminding oneself that only rationality and a virtuous character are good and that all other things are indifferent (though some indifferent things may be preferred or dispreferred more than others). Chrysippus’ focus, however, was upon attacking the second judgment, the judgment that it is appropriate to react in a certain way (e.g. by grieving). Thus, for example, one might appeal to the lot of others, reminding oneself of the common condition of humanity: “You are not the only one who has lost his job; you are not the only one who has experienced such a loss.” This shifts one’s attention away from present or anticipated future evils and makes it possible to ask oneself some further questions which can facilitate a change in the second judgment, e.g. “Have not others faced this hardship but triumphantly endured every difficulty? Should I not also set an example? Grieving does not help; should I not desist then, so that I am able to comfort others who have been affected?” Regardless of the particular situation which one is facing—poverty, slavery, exile, infirmity, blindness, the death of one’s child, lack of recognition or failure to attain office—it always remains within one’s power to withhold assent and revise one’s judgments about that situation.

Sorabji argues that Chrysippus’ position, although insightful, does have some important limitations. While Chrysippus’ approach might be effective in dealing with a particular situation, it cannot deal with a mood or affective disorder (such as depression or melancholy) that is not directed to a particular situation but rather attaches itself to whatever situation is at hand. Furthermore, because of the Stoic focus on autonomy, only limited attention was given to understanding the emotional effect of one person on another or on the emotions of others. Finally, because Chrysippus’ approach focused on rational interrogation of a type best suited for adults, it had little to say about children and how their emotions should be formed or trained.

Because Chrysippus had precisely specified the two judgments necessary for emotion, his model was highly testable and extensively discussed. Sorabji analyzes the major responses to Chrysippus’ position, especially the influential criticisms offered by Posidonius. Posidonius felt that Chrysippus’ model offered an inadequate treatment of our bodily processes and states and failed to appreciate the pull of the irrational forces within us. He therefore rejected Chrysippus’ conception of the soul as wholly rational in character and introduced a number of counter-examples to show that judgment was neither necessary nor sufficient for emotion. Posidonius consequently adopted the Platonic view that there were both rational and irrational powers in the soul, arguing that this model better explained our experiences of being moved to act in conflict with what we judge to be good (i.e. appropriate or of greatest value). Since the non-rational parts of the soul could not be moved directly by reason (i.e. by cognitive therapy aimed at changing one’s judgments), their power had to be attenuated through non-rational habituation (i.e. altering the physical states upon which the emotions depend by regulating one’s diet, performing prescribed gymnastic exercises, and listening to music of a certain type). Such conditioning was especially important in the training of children, in whom the rational element was not yet operative or dominant.

Sorabji argues that Posidonius’ critical response to Chrysippus has a number of commendable features. Reflecting on recent research in cognitive science, Sorabji contends that Posidonius was right to argue that judgments are neither sufficient nor necessary for emotion and that more attention must be given to the role played by bodily states and processes in the production of emotion. Thus, for example, a judgment that danger is at hand may fail to produce the relevant emotion if one is exhausted or inattentive. Sorabji also argues that Chrysippus’ account of emotion in terms of judgments did not offer a satisfactory explanation for why emotions can vary in intensity or fade with time. Posidonius, on the other hand, could argue that emotions fade when the irrational powers of the soul, through their movements, become either satisfied or exhausted. By allowing a place for non-rational powers within the soul, Posidonius was also better able to address issues surrounding the education of children and to explain (as Chrysippus could not) why children who have had good teaching and example could turn out to be of bad character.

Sorabji then discusses Seneca’s attempt to respond to Posidonius’ criticisms and to reconcile the two accounts of emotion given by Chrysippus and Posidonius. Seneca was willing to concede to Posidonius that the mind could be moved involuntarily by an external appearance (e.g. a perceived threat) but argued that this was not yet an emotion (as Posidonius supposed). Seneca argued that this “first movement” of the mind was merely a physiological reaction analogous to the shocks or jolts experienced by the body (e.g. growing pale and shuddering) and therefore did not reflect either a desire to be moved or a commitment to act on the agent’s part. At most, a first movement could be a preliminary to emotion. For emotion to arise, one had to take a further step and assent to the (mistaken) judgment that it was appropriate to react. Once assent was given, the resulting excessive impulse would ignore the appropriateness requirement (e.g. “revenge is appropriate”) and exceed the control of reason (“I will be avenged, come what may”). Seneca argued that although one could not alter one’s external situation and prevent the shock associated with first movements from occurring, one could question one’s initial assessment of the situation and refuse to assent to the appearances that the situation was bad and that it was appropriate to react with fear, grief, etc.

Sorabji then investigates the ways in which this concept of “first movements” was taken over and adapted by early Christian writers. The latter tended to conceive of first movements as bad thoughts introduced into one’s mind, often by demonic opponents. The Stoic question of how one might avoid agitation was therefore replaced by the Christian question of how one might avoid succumbing to temptation. Furthermore, early Christian writers were sympathetic to the idea that there were irrational powers in the soul (e.g. lust and anger) that could interfere with one’s rational control over one’s conduct. By allowing (unlike the Stoics) for the existence of irrational powers that were sufficient causes of certain types of emotion, early Christian writers blurred the distinction between first movements and emotions, since emotion, desire and pleasure could now occur prior to assent. Early Christian casuistry therefore began to recognize different levels of moral responsibility in assessing the agent’s response to the irrational movements of his or her soul. If one tried to moderate or stop the soul’s initial irrational movements by the use of reason, one might not be culpable. If, however, one acted in such a way as to deliberately stir up these thoughts or movements or allowed them to linger so that one might enjoy them, one would be blameworthy even in the absence of explicit assent to action. The agent’s initial consent to pleasure was therefore something morally ascribable to him or her and provided some insight into how he or she might act in the future when given the opportunity to act in the specified way.

In investigating how early Christian writers adapted and transformed Stoic accounts of the emotions, Sorabji touches upon a number of important philosophical topics (including the question of whether it is ever possible to eliminate the emotions or only to moderate them). Of the various topics he addresses, the most interesting is when and how the concept of will originated. Sorabji argues that “will is a desire with a special relation to reason and a number of functions associated with it” (p. 321). These functions can be divided into two major clusters, the first dealing with freedom and moral responsibility (i.e. the praise and blame associated with voluntariness), the second being concerned with willpower (i.e. the focused exertion which is involved in pursuing what we think best against desires of which we approve less and which may ordinarily be expected to be efficacious in moving us to act). Sorabji argues (I believe quite rightly) that these two clusters were kept separate in classical and Hellenistic writers’ accounts of choice and assent but were decisively brought together and integrated in Augustine’s account of the will ( voluntas). Sorabji then argues that a comparable development was slow to emerge in Greek Christian writers; even Maximus the Confessor’s account of volition ( θέλησις) does not represent a comparable achievement, since Maximus’ account of Christ’s natural will ( θέλημα φυσικόν) was simply a minor adaptation of the older Stoic conception of οἰκείωσις.

Sorabji concludes by offering both sympathetic and critical comments upon the notion of the will. The notion of will, he argues, leads one to recognize that in voluntary action there is always an internal cause; this internal cause, however, may be a kind of desire (as Aristotle had believed) and not necessarily the rational will Augustine requires. Sorabji admits that this will mean that voluntariness and moral responsibility will now no longer be restricted to rational adults but must be extended to children and animals. This position, however, agrees with the particular interpretation of Aristotle’s conception of voluntariness that he had defended in an earlier book ( Animal Minds and Human Morals, pp. 111-112) and reiterates in the present work (pp. 326-327). Sorabji also believes that the notion of willpower is useful in describing the exertion experienced in moral struggle. Nonetheless, he argues (drawing upon Harry Frankfurt) that moral struggle could be better analyzed in terms of first-order desires that are the subject of second-order approval or disapproval. In this model, exertion could be described in terms of directing one’s attention or focusing one’s thought or imagination in such a way as to promote action in accordance with the first-order desire that has received second-order approval.

Sorabji’s book is an insightful and compelling study of the emotions and their role in the psychology of human action and should be considered mandatory reading for anyone doing academic research on the analysis of the emotions in Hellenistic, late antique or early Christian philosophy. What is particularly impressive is Sorabji’s ability to provide a detailed and critical discussion of primary sources ranging over a period of nearly a thousand years and his willingness to include early Christian sources in his investigation (rather than marginalizing or excluding them due to the arbitrary boundaries imposed by modern academic disciplines). In developing his argument, Sorabji offers a thorough treatment of the relevant primary sources and secondary literature and often draws upon parallel discussions in contemporary analytic philosophy and cognitive science in an illuminating and helpful manner.1 The book’s one significant fault is the lack of a concluding chapter to aid the reader in drawing together the various conclusions arrived at in the course of this detailed and wide-ranging study.

The format and presentation of the text are commendable. The book has been carefully proofread and is generally free of errors. (I noticed only a minor printing error in the last line on p. 125; the ambiguous citation “Thessalonians 4:13” on p. 237 n. 63; and “472” for “372” on p. 400.) On pp. 431-435, Sorabji provides a list of the ancient writers to whom reference is made in the text together with their respective dates and some identifying information; this should be helpful for the general reader, though possibly redundant for the book’s core audience of specialists in ancient philosophy.

Five minor problems were noted in the course of the book, although these do not affect the principal arguments advanced there. First, some minor factual errors appear in the discussion of the early Christian sources. Didymus the Blind should probably not be described as “the head of the catechetical school of Alexandria” (p. 344), since it is doubtful that any such formal institution existed in the mid- to late fourth century.2 It should also be noted that Augustine’s ascription to the Manichaeans of a belief in two souls (pp. 315-316) is mistaken.3 What the Manichaeans did endorse was a belief in two ἐνθυμήσεις, i.e. the fundamental inclinations of the mind and fleshly body toward their different respective ends; this belief is in some respects analogous (rather than opposed) to Augustine’s distinction between spiritual will and carnal will.

Second, in citing early Christian literature Sorabji often refers the reader to the early modern editions reprinted in Migne’s Patrologia Graeca and Patrologia Latina. It would have been preferable to use the recent critical editions of these works, e.g. the Corpus Christianorum Series Graeca edition of Maximus the Confessor’s Questions to Thalassius and the Corpus Christianorum Series Latina editions of Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew and Augustine’s On the Trinity. The need to use contemporary critical editions is particularly acute in the case of Evagrius’ works (ch. 23, passim), where the existence of Syriac and Armenian versions has helped modern researchers better to understand the nature of the original text.

Third, in discussing the term προαίρεσις, it would have been helpful to translate the term in a uniform manner. On p. 215 Sorabji translates προαίρεσις as “will” but on p. 245 he admits the inadequacy of this translation, observing that προαίρεσις“is really something more intellectual than will. It is the disposition of reason towards certain kinds of moral decision.” Sorabji therefore abandons the translation of προαίρεσις as “will” later in the book and instead translates it variously as “policy” (p. 310, 326) and “chosen policy” (p. 311). Although finding a single English equivalent for the term is admittedly very difficult, it would be slightly less confusing for the reader if a more uniform terminology were used throughout the book. The recent secondary literature on ancient and Hellenistic philosophy has tended to render προαίρεσις as “deliberate choice” in Aristotle and “purposive choice” in Epictetus (since deliberation does not play a central role in Epictetus’ account of the psychology of action). In discussing the historical development of the concept of προαίρεσις, I have elsewhere suggested that this is a defensible though hardly perfect solution.4

Fourth, the use of a large number of primary sources from diverse authors sometimes makes it difficult to formulate general conclusions that will hold true throughout the book. Thus, for example, on p. 153 Sorabji argues that the Stoics were relatively unconcerned about the impact of one’s emotions on other people. On p. 165, however, he admits that one of the principal ways in which one can attack the second judgment (e.g., “it is appropriate to grieve”) is by recognizing that one’s emotion “has inappropriate consequences for other people.” To illustrate this point, Sorabji refers to Seneca’s On Consolation to Marcia, where Seneca points out to Marcia that her grieving makes her neglect the living.

Finally, one of the broader arguments that Sorabji makes in the book does not seem entirely persuasive in its present form. Sorabji rejects the Stoic ideal of freedom from emotion ( ἀπάθεια) (pp. 169, 173-174, 181). He argues (quite understandably) that it seems strange to think of the life and welfare of our loved ones as something merely preferred (i.e. of relative value) rather than good (i.e. having a value which need not be so carefully qualified). Sorabji therefore argues (contrary to the Stoics) that we should regard our attachments to our loved ones and our reactive attitudes toward their well-being as both good and necessary. Sorabji’s position here is certainly defensible, but there is an aspect of the underlying Stoic argument which he needs to address in greater detail, namely, the need to maintain a qualitative distinction between the pursuit of virtue and all the other interests and goals which could move one to action. From the Stoic perspective, if in times of moral conflict one is to make choices consistent with the preeminence of virtue, one will need to maintain a certain cognitive and emotional distance not only from one’s own interests but also from the immediate interests of one’s family and friends. It is certainly possible to imagine contemporary situations in which it would be both good and necessary for one to suppress thoughts about the welfare of one’s loved ones and eliminate reactive attitudes relating to their well-being. For example, a totalitarian regime may attempt to break the will of a prisoner of conscience by mentioning the hardships being faced by his or her family while he or she is imprisoned. By expending cognitive and emotional energy in worrying, the prisoner is further weakened and can be more easily forced into compromising or renouncing the ideal for which he or she was imprisoned. If, on the other hand, the prisoner wishes to continue upholding this ideal, he or she will need to suppress such thoughts and the emotions that would ordinarily arise in response to them.5 It is noteworthy that Sorabji has elsewhere in the book expressed his sympathy for the Stoics’ rejection of universalizability in ethics (pp. 249-250, 412-413) and their consequent assertion that a morally assessable act “can be wrong for one person can be right for another” (p. 412). In defending the propriety of emotional reactions against the Stoics, Sorabji should consider explicitly extending this claim to emotional reactions, arguing that emotional responses to the welfare of others are ordinarily good (at least in moderation) but admitting that in certain circumstances it is both good and necessary to suppress or eliminate them.

Despite these minor criticisms, Sorabji’s book is a major contribution to research on the analysis of the emotions in classical, Hellenistic and late antique philosophy and should be regarded as essential reading for all scholars with a serious interest in this topic.


1. One important article which has appeared since Sorabji’s book went to press is Richard A. Layton, ” προπάθεια : Origen and Didymus on the Origin of the Passions,” Vigiliae Christianae 54 (2000), pp. 262-282.

2. See Byard Bennett, “The Origin of Evil: Didymus the Blind’s Contra Manichaeos and Its Debt to Origen’s Theology and Exegesis” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Toronto 1997), pp. 16-17, 38-39 nn. 22-27.

3. See the discussions of F.C. Baur, Das manichäische Religionssystem (Tübingen: C.F. Ostander, 1831), pp. 162-177; H.-C. Puech, “Le manichéisme” in M. Gorce and R. Mortier (eds.), Histoire générale des religions, v. 3 (Paris: A. Quillet, 1945), p. 101; idem in Les sources de Plotin, Entretiens sur l’antiquité classique V (Geneva: Vandoeuvres, 1957), p. 39; idem, Sur le manichéisme (Paris: Flammarion, 1979), pp. 53, 291; J.P. Asmussen, Xuastvanift (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1965), pp.16-17, 25 n.69 ; J.K. Coyle, Augustine’s De moribus ecclesiae catholicae. A Study of the Work, Its Composition and Its Sources (Fribourg: University Press, 1978), p. 42 n.184; R. Ferwerda, “Two Souls: Origen’s and Augustine’s Attitude toward the Two Souls Doctrine. Its Place in Greek and Christian Philosophy,” Vigiliae Christianae 37 (1983), pp. 361-362; W. Sundermann, Der Sermon vom Licht-Nous: Eine Lehrschrift des östlichen Manichäismus (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1992), p. 22. For a recent, unsuccessful attempt by G.G. Stroumsa to defend the accuracy of Augustine’s testimony on this point, see G.G.Stroumsa and Paula Frederiksen, “The Two Souls and the Divided Will” in A.I. Baumgarten, J. Assmann and G.G. Stroumsa (eds.), Self, Soul and Body in Religious Experience (Leiden: Brill, 1998), pp. 198-208.

4. Bennett, “Origin,” pp. 180-181.

5. Cf. the remarks of the Romanian prisoner of conscience Christo Kulichev in his autobiography Imprisoned for Christ (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 2001), pp. 22, 47-48, 81.