BMCR 2008.07.56

Stoicism and Emotion

, Stoicism & emotion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 1 online resource (x, 289 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780226305202. $37.50.

Table of Contents

Don’t Stoics notoriously reject emotion altogether? Isn’t it precisely their utter lack of feeling, flat affect, and freakish insensibility which make Stoics seem so inhuman and unattractive? In this excellent book Margaret Graver deftly demonstrates that attentive study of the Stoics’ theory of emotion squashes such misconceptions. Graver follows her earlier work on Cicero on emotions1 with a lucidly written (though at times less than maximally engaging), compellingly argued, and carefully researched investigation which should remain an indispensable resource for study of the Stoics on emotions for years to come. As it is pitched to readers well versed in ancient Greek literature with a fair degree of philosophical training, scholars and graduate students in Classical philosophy will benefit the most from this work. It contains an introduction, nine chapters, an appendix on the status of confidence in Stoic classifications, endnotes, a good bibliography, an index locorum, and a general index. In what follows I will summarize each of its main parts and raise a couple of points to consider.

In her introduction Graver announces that her purpose is to present an accurate account of what the Stoics thought the natural feelings of human beings really are. She seeks to disabuse those who mistakenly believe that the ancient Greek Stoics advocated a global suppression of feeling. While her aim is neither to advocate for the Stoic position nor to find fault with it, Graver thinks that a sympathetic presentation best elucidates the intellectual appeal that Stoic thought enjoyed in its own time. Graver succeeds in producing just such an account. She is explicit that hers is not a neo-Stoic project, but a historical study that reveals ideas deserving of philosophical respect. Zeno of Citium and Chrysippus of Soli are the thinkers of primary interest, though Graver also cautiously draws from non-Stoic and anti-Stoic authors including Diogenes Laertius, Johannes Stobaeus, Galen, Plutarch, Sextus Empiricus, Alexander of Aphrodisias, and Simplicius to fill out her exposition. Because of their copious continuous texts, Graver also makes liberal use of Cicero, Seneca, and Epictetus. Curiously, she makes no use at all of Musonius Rufus or Marcus Aurelius; oddly, she even omits them from a timetable of major Stoic authors and sources (11).

Graver begins Chapter One by distinguishing two different approaches to the scientific study of emotion: the neuroscientist’s analysis on a physiological level and the cognitive psychologist’s investigation on an intentional level. She observes that though Stoic psychology is largely very different from modern neuroscience, it shares with our contemporary view the conception of the mind as a necessarily material thing causally embedded in the material world. Graver will describe the Stoics’ attempt “to undergird its intentionalist account with a low-level explanation based on the theoretical physics of [the Stoa’s] era” (16). Though for most purposes the Stoics prefer to account for mental events in intentional rather than physical terms, they nonetheless offer a serious account of how the material pneuma —the animating, gaseous mind-stuff which energizes all life functions—produces all of the physical characteristics of a human being. Graver presents a clear, rather standard account of the Stoic theory of perception, the integrative function of the ‘directive faculty’ ( hêgemonikon), the role of ‘impression’ ( phantasia), and how assent ( sunkatathesis) to an incorporeal proposition is what triggers an impulse ( hormê) to perform an action like walking. An emotion, as an impulse, is both a certain motion of the psyche and a judgment, that is, the formulation and ratification of a particular proposition about oneself and one’s surroundings. Graver rejects Galen’s assertion of a substantive difference between Zeno and Chrysippus on what happens when an emotion occurs. She sees Chrysippus as elucidating what Zeno had already implied, that it is the nature of the judgment that defines what sort of psychophysical change—impulse ( hormê)—has occurred (33).

The main task in the second chapter is to analyze the Stoic account of the logic at work in an instance of an emotional judgment. Since everyone is “hard-wired” to pursue what she takes to be good and to avoid what she takes to be bad, having the correct beliefs about what is truly good and what is truly bad separates the wise from ordinary people. The psychic movements of ‘reaching,’ ‘elevation,’ and ‘withdrawing’ can be exercised either properly or improperly (irrationally) in the form of desire, delight, and fear, respectively. Graver explains how the Stoics distinguish the disposition to believe that some object-type—say, bodily harm or financial gain—is bad or good, from the occurrent belief that a token of that type—being mugged or receiving a refund check—is present or impending. On this basis she constructs “the pathetic syllogism” at work in any experience of a feeling. In the case of the pathos of fear, for example, the syllogism would take this form: Objects of type T are evil. Object O belongs to type T. Object O is in prospect. Hence, an evil is in prospect. But in order to yield an emotion, the belief that an evil is present or in prospect must be combined with a second belief, namely, that it is appropriate to be upset by object O. Without the evaluation of good/evil and the occurrent belief about the token of the object-type being present/in prospect and the appropriateness belief, an emotion does not occur.

Graver explains that the Stoics see developing one’s own coherent, thoroughly rational system of beliefs, including having only true evaluations or ‘proper feelings’ ( eupatheiai), as the goal of human maturation. This logical perfection of the understanding belongs to the sage, the normative human being. “The perfected human would resemble Zeus in goodness, though not in comprehensiveness; he or she would be practically a lesser divinity” (51). Nonetheless Graver considers becoming like the sage to be becoming more human, not less. Tidy charts display the Stoics’ matrix of the genus-emotions: delight ( hêdonê), distress ( lupê), desire ( epithumia), and fear ( phobos), which ordinary people experience, in contrast to the corresponding genus- eupatheiai (joy, no counterpart to distress, wish, and caution) experienced only by the wise. Graver thinks that at the level of feelings, the eupatheiai so closely resemble pathological emotions ( pathê) that they differ from them only in being felt “without any sense of conflict or contradiction” (52). She sees the eupatheiai not as diminished versions of ordinary human feelings (which involve false beliefs), but as robust, corrected versions of those same feelings, akin to the easy, powerful movements of an athlete. She then turns to discussion of the markedly unsystematic classifications of species of ordinary emotions and eupatheiai. Under the genus “wish” ( boulêsis) the presence of eunoia, defined as “a wish for good things for another for that person’s own sake,” and its subspecies eumeneia (“lingering good intent”) and aspasmos (“continuous good intent”), together with Cicero and D.L.’s reports of eupathic erôs as “an effort to form a friendship through perceived beauty,” lead Graver to conclude that the rich affective life of the wise includes “some concern for other human beings that goes beyond disinterested service to the level of genuine affective involvement” (59).

Graver explains in the third chapter how, on the Stoic theory, to be a passive victim of one’s emotions is to have the mind of a child. The sage, in sharp contrast, is one who has fully matured into an adult. Progressors can thus be seen as those who are still in the process of becoming adults. Graver presents the early Stoics as holding that to be unfree is to be at variance with oneself, to judge that one should act one way while being swept away by a conflicting judgment (an emotion) that pushes one to act otherwise. Graver insists that it is a mistake to think that the apatheia of the wise consists in bland insensibility. The sage’s eupathic responses are not diluted feelings, but rather can be vigorous and powerful. Intense feeling about virtue, for example, is entirely licit for the wise person. But whereas Euripides’ Medea and Menelaus in Andromache, like most of us, vacillate in their judgments of how to act, and Odysseus in the Odyssey, like most of us, struggles to overcome his unwise emotional impulses, the wise get their affective responses right in the first place. No second thoughts, doubts, or vacillations afflict their veridical view of the appropriate response.

A difficulty arises with Graver’s treatment of the psychê having parts. When discussing Chrysippus’ account of the experience of inner struggle between emotion and reason, she reports that, on the one hand, “The mind is unitary in that all its action tendencies come about in the same way, through the exercise of its capacities for impression and assent” (69). In this respect the Stoics may appear to be psychological monists. On the other hand, Graver asserts that Chrysippus holds that the psychê“has parts ( merê), of which its reason and its condition in reason are composed” (73), quoting Galen, On the Precepts of Hippocrates and Plato 5.2.49 as a source of book 4 of Chrysippus’ On Emotions (234, n. 28). Graver interprets these psychic parts as elements with propositional content, namely, as “various judgments a person has made” (73). She adds: “Despite all that has been written about the unitary psyche in Stoicism, it should be obvious that the psyche can hardly be partless. The capacity for reason is necessarily a capacity for establishing logical relations among multiple elements” (234, n. 29). But if there is one capacity for receiving impressions and another capacity for assenting to or withholding assenting from them, and there are multiple judgments that result from the exercise of those two different capacities, and many more memories, then the sense in which the psyche is one is confusing at best and illusory at worst. A clearer account of what the mind’s unity consists in for the Stoics would have been helpful here.

In Chapter Four Graver examines texts from Aulus Gellius, Epictetus, Seneca, and the Alexandrians Philo and Origen to argue that the essential features of the ‘pre-emotion’ ( propatheia) remain consistent, and so are likely to have been emphasized by Chrysippus too. These features are: (1) the pre-emotion occurs involuntarily and without blame when one perceives a rational impression of the emotive type; (2) unlike the phenomenologically similar genuine emotion, in the case of the pre-emotion no assent is given to the rational impression—that is, one does not accept both that the object presented by the feeling really is charged with value or disvalue and really merits a vigorous response; and (3) the pre-emotion may occur in the wise person, thus establishing that the moral ideal of virtue does not exceed the potentialities of human nature. Particularly interesting is Graver’s brief discussion of the eupathic weeping of the wise in Moral Epistle 99. There Seneca says that the wise person weeps both involuntarily, when sobbing at a funeral, and voluntarily (eupathically) when remembering with some joy the departed loved one’s kind deeds and cheerful companionship.

In Chapter Five Graver discusses the Stoics’ distinction between two kinds of insanity: the virtually universal type of flawed, epistemically deficient rationality characteristic of all who are not wise, and the rare, medicalized type known as melancholia. The former is meant by the Stoic paradox that “all fools are mad.” The latter, Chrysippus says, afflicts Orestes and Homer’s Theoklymenos. Graver reports Cicero’s distinction in Tusculan Disputations book 3 between furor (‘frenzy’) and insania as superior Latin terms to the Greek pair melancholia and mania respectively. Seneca draws yet another distinction among feritas (‘brutishness’) in Apollodorus, Phalaris, Hannibal, and Volesus, crudelitas (‘cruelty,’ defined by Seneca in On Clemency as ‘harshness of mind in exacting penalties’), and the insane form of crudelitas Graver renders ‘bloodlust,’ which neither follows vengeance nor is angry at any wrongdoing. The chapter concludes with an exegesis and careful philological analysis of Seneca’s On Anger 2.4.

I found Chapter Six to be one of the most interesting. Here Graver argues that the Stoics didn’t merely divide all people into the vanishingly tiny class of the wise (virtuous) and the enormous class of the non-wise (vicious). Rather, the Stoics offered an account of traits of character which differ from the ‘non-scalar’ virtues and vices ( diatheseis) in that they do not interentail and can vary in degree. These are the ‘scalar’ traits or ‘conditions’ ( hexeis). The ‘habitudes’ ( epite=deumata) belong to the virtuous. The ‘proclivities’ ( euemptôsiai), ‘sicknesses’ ( nosêmata), ‘aversions’ ( proskopai), and ‘infirmities’ ( arrôstêmata) afflict the vicious. Scalar conditions are lasting attributes that help explain the feelings and behavior of some individuals, their presence can be variable from person to person, and they can be entirely absent in other individuals. Since a habitude is not a form of knowledge but rather a ‘worthwhile condition,’ Graver thinks the habitudes—fondness of music, fondness for literature, and the like—need not characterize all wise persons equally, though all such activities remain inconsequential to their happiness.

Graver reconstructs the Stoics’ naturalistic, empiricist account of character formation in Chapter Seven. Though each person’s character is shaped by genetic factors, physical environment, treatment within one’s family, education, role models, and other forces beyond one’s control, on the Stoic view, all these influences are antecedent causes, since they precede the formation of the pneuma which composes one’s psyche. But the Stoics distinguish an antecedent cause from a sustaining cause. A sustaining cause is responsible for an object’s continuing to exhibit a particular state. Consequently, certain forces beyond his control may, for example, initially cause Crassus to be greedy, but those causes are not the direct, sustaining cause of his ongoing character traits. As agents we enjoy autonomy on account of our rational ability to scrutinize and correct our beliefs. The false beliefs we unwittingly and blamelessly absorb in childhood produce in us vicious dispositions, yet by exercising the rational faculties we gain as adults we can expel these false beliefs and reverse the corruptive process. Graver notes that the Stoics agree with Plato that moral error results not from any inherent evil in human nature, but rather from confusion and lack of guidance. Zeus is ultimately responsible for all the antecedent causes of our states of character, but we remain rational beings nonetheless, and so we retain responsibility for failure to reform the characters we have.

In Chapter Eight Graver argues that “the friendships and love relations which would be found among the wise are not, for Stoics, entirely austere relations but are rich in affect, charged with powerful responses to the goods exhibited by the other or, in the case of the immature beloved, to the nature which is well-suited to develop those goods” (189). She contends that the occurrence of an intense feeling is in itself no indication of error. Rather, an affectionate disposition may be a disposition of strength enabling identification of one’s own needs and motives, in the right circumstances, with those of a larger social unit. The wise person’s erôs is not a desire for sexual interaction per se, but a ‘resolve’ ( epibolê) to befriend. As such, Stoic erôs is a legitimate eupathic feeling. Graver concludes from this that “a eupathic eagerness for a deep level of intimacy with the right person could undoubtedly lead to sexual behavior on suitable occasions” (188).

Graver is troubled by Seneca’s remarks (Ep. 9.5) that imply that friends are merely the passive recipients of one’s own artistry as a friend maker, and so no friend is irreplaceable. Given that Cicero reports that the wise person “values his friend’s reason equally with his own” (Fin. 3.70) and that in Hecato’s scenario of two shipwrecked wise persons clinging to a plank big enough to support only one of them the one sage will let go and drown if the other sage’s skills are likely to be more useful to the state, Graver infers that “a Stoic wise person also thinks of the friend as an equal whose existence is as important as his own” (184). But despite Graver’s entirely apt desire to examine the experiences that the Stoics posit for the normative agent in order to glean “a new philosophical understanding of friendship and erotic love as they exist even among nonwise persons” (189), it is disappointing that she didn’t consider the question of whether a sage would sacrifice her own life to save a nonwise person. If a wise woman and a nonwise man were sharing Hecato’s plank, the wise woman may well fail to convince her plank-partner that a sage is more valuable to the state than an ordinary bloke and so he ought to do as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Jack Dawson does in the end in the film Titanic (1997). If her attempt at suasion fails, should she shove? Or could a nonwise person possess extraordinary skills in diplomacy or the science of biofuels, making him the bigger asset to the state? Prudently, perhaps, Graver hugs close to the texts instead of making bold to venture out into the icy waters surrounding this particular Stoic doctrine.

Chapter Nine is terrific. Graver offers a nuanced, insightful analysis of the Stoic account of metameleia (‘remorse’ or ‘agent regret’) shown by the tearful Alcibiades who begs for Socrates to rid him of the vices Socrates detects all too clearly in the handsomest, greatly talented youth. Alcibiades’ failing is not to misjudge some external like wealth or fame as a real good, but his inability to correctly recognize his own personal vices as evil. Since these real evils are present to him, the appropriate response is for his psyche to contract and for him to feel mental pain. Graver cogently defends the view that such a judgment is not at all inconsistent with Stoic doctrine. Rather, the wise person is justified in affirming the contrafactual that it would be appropriate to be pained at a genuine evil—a vice afflicting one’s own character—if one were present. In Alcibiades’ case, vice is present and his remorse is in order. Graver interprets aidôs or the entreptikon as a prospective affect which Epictetus, as a philosophical pedagogue and psychic physician, values highly. Epictetus believes that ordinary imperfect people like his students have the capacity to be mortified at the prospect of justified censure for their disgraceful acts in prospect. Graver also flags recognition of remorse and moral shame displayed by Serenus in the prologue to Seneca’s On Tranquility of Mind. Consequently, she finds reason to think that some important components of our own emotional experience, grief mixed with remorse, desire with aspiration, fear with moral shame, fall within the parameters established by Stoics for appropriate responses to goods and evils of character (211).

Graver stresses that for the founding Stoics the endpoint of personal progress for all rational beings was to come to have only true beliefs about the world. With the elimination of all false beliefs comes the disappearance of the pathê which depend on them. Graver’s overarching argument in the book is, that while the pathê the Stoics sought to extinguish are cases of emotion in our sense, not everything we now call an ’emotion’ was counted by the Stoics as a pathos to eliminate. The eupatheiai of the wise are affect-laden responses of joy, eagerness for what is good, goodwill, friendship, and love that are definitely not pathê. Apatheia makes a person godlike in the harmonious knowledge of her intellect, not a stone devoid of feeling.

The appendix contains a discussion of Cicero’s statement about confidere in Tusculan Disputations 4.66, two texts in Stobaeus (Ecl. 2.7.5b and 5g), and Epictetus’s remarks on tharros in Discourses 2.1.1-7. Graver makes an interesting case that these passages should be read as remnants of a Stoic classification system according to which ‘confidence’ is a eupatheia exhibited in selecting among indifferents, and so a virtuous feeling contrary to fear. This classification scheme was an alternative to that which held that the opposite of fear is not an emotion at all. Rather, selection of the indifferent was a ‘definitively right action’ ( katorthôma) by the wise person, or an ‘appropriate action’ ( kathêkon) by the ordinary person, unaccompanied by an affect.

This book is a fine, soberly crafted contribution both to our understanding of the Stoics’ theory of emotion and to an appreciation of the Stoics’ subtle, insightful arguments against non-cognitivism. The patient reader’s persistence will be repaid.


1. Cicero on the Emotions. Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4. Translation and commentary. University of Chicago Press, 2002.