Is the Sage Free from Pain?

by Jan Edward Garrett

Western Kentucky University

Bowling Green KY 42101


This was originally published in the Volga Journal of Philosophy and Social Sciences, No. 6 (October 13, 1999), at Samara State University in Russia, Prof. Alexander Shestakov, editor. (The original link no longer seems to be effective for Netscape as of June 12, 2002. I have made minor formatting changes for this version located on the Western Kentucky University server.)

I. Introduction

In various translations and a number of recent interpretations of Stoicism, formulations by scholars and commentators tend to create the impression that the Stoic ideal was to live free from pain. While no scholar, to my knowledge, has ever explicitly argued for this interpretive thesis, it has also never been clearly challenged.

Failure to resolve this issue poses an obstacle to correct evaluation of Stoicism. To attribute to the Stoics the view that the sage lives without pain is to make it unintelligible why relatively large numbers of highly reflective Greeks and Romans became Stoics; for it is just not plausible that people could exercise such control over their lives that they could guarantee the eradication of all pain, that, for example, persons being tortured could avoid pain just by ensuring that they had correct judgments about it.

Another puzzle arises from the conjunction of the view that the sage lives free from pain and the well-known fact that the Stoics, unlike their later Christian critics, believed that suicide, on the part of sages themselves, was often morally permissible and perhaps even required. Now the idea that suicide might sometimes be morally permissible is intelligible, for example, in circumstances involving the prospect of extreme pain with little chance of remission.1 Yet if the Stoics hold that pain can simply be eliminated by correct judgment, this important argument for the justification of suicide evaporates.2

The impression that for Stoicism the sage enjoys freedom from pain is easily generated from passages in Epictetus' Discourses, as translated by W. A. Oldfather for the Loeb Classical Library: "The doctrine of the philosophers ...[says], 'Men, if you heed me, whatever you may be doing, wherever you may be, you will feel no pain' (ou lupêthêsesthe)" (3.13.11). Elsewhere Epictetus describes the "calling of a Cynic," in which an idealized Cynic philosopher serves Epictetus as a model who continuously practices what the Stoic sage should be able to practice if necessary, that is, to live "naked, without a home or hearth . . . without a city [of his own]" (3.22.45). Epictetus puts in this Cynic's mouth the words: "Yet what do I lack? Am I not free from pain and fear? (ouk eimi alupos, ouk eimi aphobos . . . ?)" (3.22.48)3

Translations of Diogenes Laërtius 7.96 by Hicks and by Caponigri (Hicks 1970; Caponigri 1969) also contribute to this impression. They show the Stoics placing "freedom from pain" (alupia) among the final goods (telika agatha). The sage, who is happy and therefore possesses the complete good, presumably lacks none of these goods. Once again, the impression is given that the sage will be free from pain.

More systematic considerations also seem to support the view that the Stoic sage is to feel no pain. According to the standard Stoic view, every emotion (pathos) is both a compound false judgment concerning indifferent values and a violent movement of the soul inseparable from this judgment. The view also holds that emotions are incompatible with happiness and wisdom. Furthermore, every emotion falls into one of four jointly exhaustive classes.4 Two of these, hêdonê and lupê, are commonly rendered in English as pleasure and pain.5 If, in fact, "pain" is the best translation of lupê, then indeed the Stoics are committed to denying that the sage feels pain. We shall see, however, that there are reasons for rejecting this translation and that this insight destroys the illusion that the Stoic sage is free from pain.

Our problem is insoluble apart from Greek and Latin texts surviving from the period in which Stoicism flourished, i.e. from the third century B.C. through the first few centuries A.D. In particular, we must look at the use of words denoting and relating to such things as pain and distress.

In the Stoic or Stoic-influenced Greek texts the most common word for pain appears to be ponos. We find it in Diogenes Laërtius' evidence regarding the earliest Stoics, in Epictetus, and especially in Marcus Aurelius. But translators also sometimes render lupê as pain, and this fact receives more attention, since lupê is the technical term for one of the four jointly exhaustive classes of emotion. Emotions, of course, are to be eliminated from the life of the sage. Now the texts treat ponos like illness, poverty, or low social status.6 Indeed, the distinction between ponos and lupê is fundamental for understanding the Stoics, even if they do not normally use ponos as a technical term but employ it somewhat informally to designate what we would call pain.

Cicero's Latin texts are important because they reflect early awareness of the distinction upon which I shall insist. Cicero distinguishes dolor, which corresponds to the Greek ponos and which I shall render "pain," from aegritudo, which corresponds to the Greek lupê and which I shall render "distress."7

My thesis is that while the Stoics throughout antiquity believed that distress would be banished from the life of the sage, they did not hold the same view about pain. I shall argue for this position in three stages, proceeding in reverse chronology from Epictetus and Seneca, Stoics of the imperial era (Section II), to Cicero, whose writing reflects Stoic influence and contains evidence about the views of earlier Stoics (Section III), to the earliest Stoics themselves, about whose views our evidence is most indirect and fragmentary (Section IV).

II The Stoics of the Roman Era on Pain

A. Epictetus

A fresh look at Epictetus' Discourses will confirm that he is not committed to the view that the sage is free from pain. Consider this exchange between a student and Stoic teacher: "'I have a headache.' Well, do not say 'Alas!' 'I have an earache.' Do not say 'Alas!' And I am not saying that it is not permissible to groan, only do not groan in the centre of your being." (1.18.19; Oldfather trans.) The Greek phrase kephalên algô, here translated "I have a headache," repeats a phrase from 1.18.16 where it was translated "I have a pain in my head." Now, this is very strange if the Stoic goal is elimination of pain. Epictetus, as we see, says it is even all right to groan. He seems to imply that one may have to endure the pain after all. This passage suggests that for Epictetus a headache is something not entirely under our control.

The suspicion that, for Epictetus, headaches are not fully in our control is verified in the next chapter, where he says: "Is anything disgraceful to you which is not your own doing, for which you are not responsible, which has befallen you accidentally, as a headache or a fever?" (3.26.8: aischron esti soi to mê son ergon, hou su aitios ouk ei, ho allôs apêntêsen soi, hôs kephalalgia, hôs puretos) It is notoriously the Stoic view that we are responsible for our judgments. (Cf. Encheiridion 1.1: eph' hêmin men hupolêpsis.) Hence, if we are not responsible for headaches, it must not be the case that sages can always avoid them by adopting the proper judgments.8

B. Seneca

In Seneca's Epistulae Morales we find the following remark: "Pain is slight (levis est dolor) if opinion has added nothing to it; . . . in thinking it slight, you will make it slight. Everything depends on opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer. (Ad opinionem dolemus.) A man is as wretched as he has convinced himself that he is" (78.13).

It might appear that for Seneca pain is merely a function of opinion or judgment. But the passage is in fact ambiguous. It starts by saying that pain is slight if we do not think it more grievous. However, in the sequel the suggestion appears to be that one might do away with pain altogether. Our evidence for Seneca's considered view is overwhelmingly on the side of the first interpretation; if part of the passage suggests otherwise, it must be counted as hyperbole.

Seneca devotes De providentia to a reflection on the fact that good, and therefore, wise persons often have to endure hardship, including pain. The essay poses the familiar problem of how to reconcile the existence of a supreme deity who has designed the universe and is benevolently concerned about us with the empirical fact that hardships often beset the lives of apparently good human beings.

The first few pages marshal evidence that the universe is the well-made product of a divine craftsmanlike intelligence, but, says Seneca, his argument is not addressed to someone who questions this. The central issue is whether nature or nature's maker stands in a friendly relationship to human beings. Seneca says, "I shall reconcile you with the gods, who are ever best to those who are best. For Nature never permits good to be injured by good; between good men and gods there exists a friendship brought about by virtue." (1.5)

Seneca admits hyperbole in the use of the word "friendship": still, he insists, there is "a ... relationship and a likeness" between good humans and gods: the good person is the god's "pupil, imitator and true offspring (vera progenies)." Yet this "parent" believes in what we now call "tough love"; in Seneca's words, as "no mild taskmaster of virtues, [He] rears, as strict fathers do, with much severity. . . . He does not make a spoiled pet of a good man; he tests him, hardens him and fits him for his own service. (Experitur, indurat, sibi illum parat.)" (1.5-6)

"No evil can befall a good man," says Seneca (2.1). So in a sense it is false that adversities come to good men. "The assaults of adversity (adversarum rerum) do not weaken the spirit of the brave man; . . . for it is mightier than all external things (est enim omnibus externis potentior)." And yet in a sense adversities do affect him. "I do not mean to say that the brave man is insensible to these, but that he overcomes them, and being in all else unmoved and calm rises to meet whatever assails him."

External hardships, as Seneca describes them, represent exercises not only for the body but also and especially for the soul. "All his adversities [the good man] counts mere training . . . Without an adversary, prowess shrivels. (Marcet sine adversario virtus.)" (2.2-4) He says that the gods rejoice to observe a good man deal with calamity and recounts the story of the death of Marcus Cato, who stood for the dying Roman Republic against both Julius Caesar and Pompey; when Caesar finally defeated the Republic and the military forces led by Cato in particular, Cato not only stabbed himself in the chest but when the thrust failed to go deeply enough, he tore open the wound with his bare hands (2.9-12). Seneca is not saying that Cato felt nothing but rather that in spite of everything he was resolute and internally calm. He knew what he had to do to maintain his tranquillity, freedom and virtue in those particular circumstances.9

Seneca cites other examples of Roman heroes who endured burning, poverty, torture, exile, or death (3.4). None of these hardships (aspera) are truly evil in his view, for they are perfectly compatible with goodness. It can hardly be denied that burning and torture involve pain. If these hardships were not felt, they would make no difference in our estimation of the bravery of these persons. "No proof of virtue is ever mild" (numquam virtutis molle documentum est), says Seneca (4.12). Yet he also insists: "Disaster is virtue's opportunity" (calamitas virtutis occasio est) (4.6). He can hardly mean a disaster totally unnoticed by the persons to whom it occurs. But disaster is just the ultimate test, not an evil.

So it is false that the god allows evil to befall good men. Good persons are kept far from moral error and crime, evil intentions and schemes motivated by greed, lust, etc. If you are good, you will not encounter any evils--you will not be subject to the emotions (greed, lust, fear, distress, etc.) because you will consider things that provoke them, i. e., external things, to be indifferent (6.2). And from all the examples given, it seems that the pain associated with torture and the like must be similar to these externals although, of course, it must somehow be felt, it must register in the soul.

The Latin word for pain, dolor, does not occur often in this essay, though other words that clearly imply it do. Here is a place where it does occur: The god is imagined speaking to the good person:

Because I could not withdraw you from the path [of things hard to bear] I have armed your minds to withstand them all; endure with fortitude. In this you may outstrip the god; he is exempt from suffering evil (extra patientiam malorum), while you are superior (supra) to suffering it. Scorn (contemnite) poverty; no one lives as poor as he was born. Scorn pain; it will either be relieved or relieve you [i.e., you will die and so no longer feel it]. Scorn death, which either ends you or transfers you. Scorn fortune [i.e., luck, which can seem either good or bad, but in fact is not truly either]; I have given her no weapon with which she may strike your soul. (6.6)10

Seneca's point is that human beings can avoid distress, though their mere humanity does not guarantee that they will do so; distress, an evil, is avoidable by us, if and only if we judge properly; on the other hand, the god, given his qualitatively greater perfection, cannot judge badly and cannot feel distress.11

The essay De constantia sapientis ("On the Firmness of the Wise Person") has a similar theme. Its thesis, stated in its Latin title, is that "the wise person can receive neither injury nor insult." Seneca distinguishes between injury (iniuria) and insult (contumelia), declaring the former more serious than the latter. (5.1) Humans are not hurt by insult, though they are angered by it. The emotion anger is a defect, according to Seneca, but since it involves our own judgments, it is not the person who insults us but we ourselves who bring on the injury which anger represents.

Although an injury would be more serious than an insult, Seneca nevertheless denies that the sage can be injured. The sage cannot be injured because "all injury damages the person who encounters it, and nobody can be injured without loss relative to his dignity, his body or things external to him." Now the sage can lose nothing because "he has everything invested in himself, he trusts nothing to fortune, his own goods are secure, since he is content with virtue . . . . Fortune can snatch away only what she has given. But virtue she does not give; therefore she cannot take it away." (5.4)

Seneca tells of the fourth century B.C. Greek philosopher Stilbo, whose estate had been plundered, his daughters ravaged, and his city Megara conquered by the tyrant Demetrius. The tyrant asked Stilbo whether he had lost anything. His reply was "Nothing; I have all that is mine with me." Seneca comments (6.3):

Here is one who . . . says "There is no reason why you should doubt that a mortal man can raise himself above his human lot, that he can view with unconcern pains and losses, sores and wounds, and nature's great commotions as she rages all around him, can bear hardship calmly and prosperity soberly, neither yielding to the one nor trusting to the other; that he can remain wholly unchanged amid the diversities of fortune. . . . Alone and old, and seeing the enemy in possession of everything around me, I, nevertheless, declare that my holdings are all intact and unharmed. I still possess them; whatever I have had as my own, I have. There is no reason for you to suppose me vanquished and you yourself the victor."

If we realize that death is no evil and thus not an injury, says Seneca, we shall bear more easily other hardships--"losses and pains, disgrace, changes of abode, bereavements, and separations." The wise can endure such things even if they are struck by them all at once--much more easily if they are struck by them one at a time. (8.3) "No man receives an injury without some mental disturbance, yea more, he is perturbed even by the thought of it; but the man who has been saved from error, who is self-controlled and has deep and calm repose, is free from such perturbation." (9.3)

A sage is "free from that anger which is aroused by the mere appearance of injury, and in no other way could he be free from the anger than by being free also from the injury, knowing that an injury [in the strict sense] can never be done to him." Hence he is "resolute . . . and elate with constant joy." (9.3) Bodily pain and infirmity (dolor corporis et debilitas), along with the loss of friends or children and his country's ruin, do "buffet" the wise person but do not overthrow him. "I do not deny that the wise man feels these things," says Seneca. "We do not claim for him the hardness of stone or steel. There is no virtue that does not realize that it does endure." (10.4) True virtue is self-conscious, and self-consciousness of virtue is not possible unless there are felt hardships. Similarly, at 16.2:

We do not deny that it is an unpleasant thing to be beaten and hit, to lose some bodily member, but we deny that any of these things are injuries. We do not divest them of the sensation of pain, but of the name of injury, which is not allowable so long as virtue is unharmed.

The emotion of distress, which would involve the (false) judgment that torture, pain, etc. are evil, would be a defect, because it would involve an upset in a soul. It would constitute an injury, albeit a self-inflicted one. But pain does not harm the wise man, any more than poverty "or any other of life's storms" (Ep. Mor. 85.37).

Speaking of things that "buffet" (feriunt) the wise man (such as torture), Seneca says: "The wise man," then, "does receive some wounds, but those that he receives he overcomes, arrests, and heals." Then he adds, "Lesser things," such as insult or not being promoted for some political office, "he does not even feel" (10.4).

That the sage will feel pain is confirmed by Ep. Mor. 71.27:

I do not withdraw the wise man from the category of man, nor do I deny to him the sense of pain (nec dolores ab illo . . . summoveo) as though he were a rock that has no feelings at all. I remember that he is made up of two parts: the one part is irrational--it is this that may be bitten, burned, or hurt; the other part is rational, it is this which [in the sage] holds resolutely to [correct] opinions, is courageous, and unconquerable.

Denying that human virtue transcends nature, Seneca says that the sage "will tremble, feel pain, turn pale. For these are sensations of the body." What can truly be evil occurs in the mind if such trials "draw it down . . . and cause it to regret its existence." (71.29)

Again, in Letter 85, in describing the torture of a virtuous man,12 Seneca writes: "'Shall you say that he has felt no pain either?' Yes, he has felt pain (iste vero dolet); for no human virtue can rid itself of feelings. But he has no fear; unconquered he looks down from a lofty height upon his sufferings." (85.29)

It is clear from these passages that Seneca does not regard pain as an evil (for if it were, the sage could not be happy), but it is not a good either: "It is not pain that we praise; it is the man whose pain has not coerced him." (2.82.11) Thus pain belongs to the middle or "indifferent" group of values (82.12: illa in medio posita sunt): "I classify [it] as 'indifferent' (indifferentia) . . . ." Explaining himself further, Seneca divides "the things we call indifferent and 'middle'" into two groups, on the one hand, "riches, strength, beauty, titles, kingship," on the other hand, "their opposites--death, exile, ill-health, pain" (2.82.14). Here he seems to follow the standard Stoic division between things that accord with nature (often called "preferred") and things contrary to it (often called "rejected"). Seneca's view that pain is contrary to our nature is reflected at Ep. Mor. 3.124: "there is no pain that does not conflict with the senses" (Nullus dolor non offendit sensum)."

III. Cicero as Testimony Regarding the Stoics

From our reading of Epictetus and Seneca, it is clear that leading imperial-era Stoics did not think that pain would be eliminated from the life of the sage. But the thinkers classified as Stoics were a somewhat diverse group, as might be expected in a school founded in 300 B.C. in Greece and still flourishing in the Roman Empire over four centuries later. Might we not, therefore, be dealing with a late Stoic or even a Roman Stoic development?

Moving backward historically, our evidence becomes less direct and conclusions must be more cautiously stated. Yet this evidence too seems to confirm the attribution to the early Stoics of the doctrine that while the sage must be essentially distress-free, he will not be free from pain. Cicero is not a Stoic but a Skeptic who had close friends among the Stoics and was sympathetic to many features of their ethical thought. If we read him carefully, we can glean insights regarding Stoic views during and prior to the first century B.C.

In Cicero's Tusculan Disputations we find the clearest and most sustained differentiation of the sort of pain which is not under our control from the emotion called lupê by Greek-speaking Stoics. Pain (dolor) is the topic of most of the second book of the Tusculans (chapters 5ff.), distress (aegritudo) of most of the third book (chapters 3ff.).

In the second book Cicero's conversation-partner states (TD 2.5.14): "I consider pain the greatest of all evils," but, when challenged, he admits that a shameful deed is worse. It is then quickly established that to escape vice, crime and baseness, pain should be "voluntarily invited, endured and welcomed." For

what shame, what degradation will a man not submit to in order to avoid pain, if he has once decided it to be the highest evil? Who, moreover, will not feel wretched, not merely at the moment that he is overtaken by attacks of extreme pain, if they involve the highest evil, but also when he is conscious that there is the prospect of pain? And who is there beyond its reach? The result is that absolutely no one can be happy. (TD 2.6.16-17)

Cicero has in mind the sort of pain that arises within a sentient being directly as a result of bodily injury. This is clear from his examples, such as the victims of sixth c. B. C. Sicilian tyrant Phalaris, who were roasted alive inside a brazen bull (2.7.17, 164 n. 1).13

Cicero attributes to early Stoics the view that pain, though not an evil,14 is "to be rejected,"15 i.e., avoided unless virtue demands otherwise, because it is "unpleasing, against nature, hard to endure, melancholy, cruel" (2.12.29). But to Epicurus, whose hedonism implies that pain is an evil, Cicero attributes the paradoxical claim that the wise man, inside Phalaris' bull, will say, "How sweet; how indifferent I am to this!" (2.7.17) Referring to the contrary position of certain early Stoics (cf. 2.5.15), Cicero responds, "Those very philosophers who deny that pain is an evil do not generally go so far as to say that it is sweet to be tortured; they say that it is unpleasing, difficult, hateful, contrary to nature, and yet that it is not an evil." (2.7.17) Against Epicurus, Cicero says: "I do not attribute to wisdom such wonderful power against pain. It is enough for duty if the wise man is brave in endurance; I do not require him to rejoice." (2.7.18)

Cicero, to be sure, is no uncritical follower of Stoic ethics. He agrees on a key point with what he takes to be the Peripatetic view: that pain is an evil but one of so little account that, in comparison with moral wickedness, it is of no account (2.13.30-31). This position, though distinct from Stoicism, is practically very close to it (2.13.30; 2.18.42). Thus Cicero can remark in the spirit of Stoicism or in an Aristotelian spirit tinged with Stoicism, "So long as honour, so long as nobility, so long as worth remain, . . . assuredly pain will lead to virtue and grow fainter by a deliberate effort of will; for either no virtue exists or all pain is to be despised." (2.13.31)

To say that pain is to be despised is to say that, in spite of its being cruel and contrary to nature, as at least some of the Stoics also say, its presence, alongside virtue, does little to detract from the good one possesses. And Cicero further remarks: "I do not deny the reality of pain--why else should courage be wanted?--but I say that it is overcome by patience if only there is a measure of patience." (2.13.33)

Whether "the wise man is susceptible to distress" (3.4.7) is the central issue in the third book of the Tusculans. Cicero proceeds to argue, along Stoic lines,16 that he is not. TD 3.7 considers the situation of the brave person and his opposite. The brave man is self-reliant, and the self-reliant man is not excessively fearful. (A strict Stoic would say that he does not fear at all.) Whoever is subject to distress is subject to fear, for that which would distress us if it were present is something that we fear when we anticipate its occurring to us. People subject to fear and distress are too ready to admit themselves beaten; thus an element of cowardice creeps in, incompatible with bravery. But persons who are practically wise must be virtuous; hence nobody who is not brave is wise. Therefore, no persons subject to distress are wise. Thus the wise person cannot be subject to distress.

Cicero adds, "The brave man must also be high-souled, and the high-souled must be unconquered; and the unconquered must look down on human vicissitudes and consider them beneath him. But no one can look down upon the things which can make him suffer distress. And from this it follows that the brave man never suffers distress." (3.7.15) Now, it seems clear from TD 2 that pain is one of those human vicissitudes. The sage, then, will be capable of suffering pain but he will "look down" on it. Pain will not cause him distress.

At TD 3.10 Cicero considers the parallel that sometimes exists between bodily conditions and conditions in the soul: in particular, distress in the soul "closely resembles the condition of bodies out of health" (3.10.23), while other emotions, such as lust, intemperate delight and even fear do not. "Like sickness in the body, so distress in the soul has a name which is not distinct from pain (dolor)."

Cicero appears to be noting that dolor in ordinary Latin means both pain and grief, while grief is a kind of distress. He is also aware that distress, though an emotion and thus a judgment of the soul, generates a feeling of pain in the body or augments a preexisting feeling.17 But he is not saying that distress and physical pain are identical. He describes distress as follows: "Distress is the idea of a serious present evil and indeed an idea freshly conceived of an evil of such sort that it seems a due reason for anguish; now that means that the man who feels the pain believes that he ought to feel the pain" (3.10.25). We can reconstruct this account as follows:

(1) some negatively valued indifferent appears to be present (In this case it is physical pain but it could be something else);

(2) the judgment that it is an evil;

(3) the judgment that this evil is serious and present

(4) the fresh belief (depending [2] and [3] ) that this evil is a due reason for anguish or distress.

This analysis reveals that the presence of physical pain is not a sufficient condition for distress; it is possible to avoid distress by having a firmly entrenched belief that the pain, though real enough, is of little or no weight on the scale of evils. Hence Cicero says, "We must with all our might and main resist these disturbances which folly loosens and launches like a kind of fury upon the life of mankind, if we wish to pass our allotted span in peace and quiet." (3.10.25) By "folly" he clearly means wrong judgments about what things are evil or how evil they are.18

Thus we have found that, according to leading Stoics of the imperial era and Stoic-influenced writers of the late Republic like Cicero, the sage will not be free from pain (ponos, dolor); but the sage will be free from distress (lupê, aegritudo). Pain, sometimes called explicitly "bodily pain," like its counterpart, bodily pleasure, belongs to the class of indifferents.

IV. The Early Stoics on Pain

The evidence is thus overwhelming that, from at least the time of Cicero through the first century A.D. and beyond, Stoic writers distinguished between pain, which could not be expunged from the life of the sage, and the pathê, aegritudines (Cicero) or adfectus (Seneca), which were up to us and thus able to be eliminated from the soul. But there is some ground for suspicion that, beginning with Middle Stoics such as Panaetius and Posidonius, a more dualistic psychology influenced by Plato and even more by the tripartite theory of the psychological faculties found in Plato and Aristotle began to make itself felt. Perhaps this is the case for Stoic and Stoic-influenced writers in the Roman-era. What can we say of the earliest Stoics, Zeno the founder, his successor Cleanthes, and the third and greatest head of the Stoic school, Chrysippus?

A passage in Aulus Gellius (Noctes Atticae 12.5.10) seems at least indirectly to support the view that some Stoics believed it possible and desirable to eliminate pain. Aulus cites the philosopher Taurus as saying the following: "Not only in my opinion but in the opinion of some of the wise men of the Stoics, such as Panaetius, insensibility to pain (analgêsia) and apatheia are disapproved and rejected."19 Taurus appears either to equate insensibility (analgêsia) and apatheia, as Rist says (Rist, 52) or to treat the former as a species of the latter. Either way, this passage strongly suggests that other Stoics thought analgêsia was possible and as desirable as apatheia. We should ask whether these included Zeno, Cleanthes, or Chrysippus, the three great leaders of the early Stoa.

However, from Cicero we have testimony that, according to Zeno, pain is not an evil.20 It is indeed "to be rejected"21 because it is "unpleasing, against nature, hard to endure, melancholy, cruel" (2.12.29) (TD 2.7.17; cf. 2.5.15). To say that something is "to be rejected" is only to say that it is to be avoided unless virtue demands otherwise; but precisely because virtue can demand that we endure it, it is not possible to regard living free from pain as part of happiness.

At the beginning of this study, I cited translations of Diogenes Laërtius on Zeno as evidence for the view that the Stoics favored elimination of pain. Yet this evidence depended upon the misleading rendition of lupê and its relatives in terms of pain. Lupê should not be translated as "pain," but rather as "distress" (or, occasionally, when context demands, as "grief"). None of the evidence that Zeno or other early Stoics advocated elimination of pain rests upon use of the term ponos. Moreover, ponos is listed among indifferent things at Diogenes Laërtius 7.102.22 No more than the later Stoics do the leading early Stoics think that indifferent things can be eliminated--they are, in important ways, beyond our control. Thus, when Diogenes says at 7.96 that, for the Stoics, alupia is a "final good," we must read this as testimony about freedom from distress, not freedom from pain. The claim that freedom from distress is a good is entirely consistent with the Stoic aim of eradicating the emotions, since distress is an emotion.23

Diogenes Laërtius reports it explicitly as the view of Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school, that pleasure is an indifferent. It is, however, a preferred indifferent rather than a rejected one, to use the Stoic terms for subclasses of indifferent things (7.102).24 Thus, pleasure is roughly on the same level as life or health, but not on the same level as virtue, wisdom, or happiness. Aulus Gellius (Noctes Atticae ix 5,5; S.V.F. 1, 195) attributes to Zeno himself the view that pleasure (voluptas) is an indifferent.

Motivated by a desire to clarify the nondualistic nature of early Stoicism, John Rist tried to reconstruct Chrysippus' thinking on pleasure and pain in contrast to that of later Stoics (while, in passing, distinguishing Chrysippus' view from that of his predecessor Cleanthes). Rist concentrates on pleasure, tracing possible influences on the early Stoics from Aristotle. But he is especially concerned that we not misinterpret Chrysippus through the lens of later Stoicism, whose texts seem occasionally to support a distinction between mental and physical pleasures. Rist states that doing so would be a mistake in exegesis of the early Stoa, for it reflects an overly dualistic picture of the human being. For Chrysippus, he says, all hêdonai, whether pathê or not, are impulses (hormai) and all impulses are movements and acts of assent (Rist, 39-40). Chrysippus is concerned to distinguish sharply between humans and nonhumans, and he discovers that distinction in the presence and absence of assent. (Even the desires and pleasures of infants involve assent.) Later discussion about the involuntary groans of the wise man, Rist thinks, reflect Posidonius' more dualistic psychology, and is a departure from the more orthodox Stoicism of Chrysippus.

According to Rist, Chrysippus sometimes uses hêdonê to denote a bad pleasure, in which case "it is a pathos or unhealthy state of the personality" (Rist, 39). The sage, of course, will not experience this emotion and instead will experience "a rational state of exhilaration (chara)" (Rist, 37-38), which is a (good) kind of pleasure (Rist, 45). Chrysippus' view on pleasure (in those cases when it is neither a pathos nor a rational state of exhilaration) is that it is neither good nor evil, but rather an intermediate and indifferent thing, i.e., though one which is preferred (Rist, 47; D.L. 7.102, S.V.F. 3.155; there is perhaps contrary evidence: 3.136, 154, 155). Such pleasure is preferred "instrumentally," i.e., for the sake of other things (Rist, 48 n. 1). Preferred things are in accordance with nature. The view of Chrysippus as understood by Rist can be contrasted with that of Cleanthes, Chrysippus' predecessor as head of the Stoa; for Cleanthes, pleasure, though a by-product (epigennêma) of other activities, is non-natural and without value.

With respect to pain, Chrysippus does not differ from later Stoics in holding that "the sage will feel pain" (Elegen de ho Chrusippos algein men to sophon. S.V.F. 3.574 cited in Rist, 37 n. 5). Pain, however, cannot be treated as a phenomenon exactly parallel to pleasure. For one thing, there is no good feeling corresponding to pain. But, as is the case with the intermediate feeling of pleasure, the intermediate feeling of pain is, or involves, an act of assent. As Rist explains, to admit that a weight dropped on your foot is painful is already to assent, not, of course, to the goodness or evil of this occurrence but to the fact itself. It is awareness of the fact. Chrysippus, Rist thinks, regarded this sort of pain, like the pathos some commentators have called pain but I have called distress (i.e., lupê), as a contraction (sustolê) of the soul, yet not one producing the morally objectionable sort of "pain" (i.e., distress) that is a pathos. Given the the existence of such pre-moral judgments or assents, the early Stoics regarded assent itself as a total indifferent (S.V.F. 3.136; Rist, 52).

V. Conclusion

Whatever the differences between the leading early Stoics and later Stoics who may have made concessions to dualism or the tripartite theory of soul, so far as we are able to tell, the early Stoics, like the later, do not appear to have set themselves or their disciples the goal of avoiding pain in this life. Like the later Stoics, philosophers like Zeno and Chrysippus did not deny that the sage may have to endure pain. The early Stoics, like the Stoics of the Roman era, were able to distinguish between the feeling of pain, usually called ponos, and the pathos (i.e., lupê) that produces wretchedness, even though, at least in the case of Chrysippus and those who follow him, they hold that both involve assent, that is, the one involves a merely factual assent (to the proposition that this experience indeed is painful) and the other an additional evaluative assent (to the proposition that this pain is an evil). Our evidence is too scanty to prove that no Stoic, during the more than four hundred years of the school's influence, ever held that the sage would feel no pain, but the case seems well established that most of the major figures of the school did not.


1. For the Stoic view that pain can be a reason for suicide, see Seneca, Epistulae Morales 98.16: "' . . . shall he not take his departure?' Of course, if he can no longer be of service to anyone, if all his business will be to deal with pain."

2. The thesis that the sage feels no pain also clashes with the ordinary language meaning of the adjective "stoic" as understood today: "manifesting indifference to pleasure or pain" (Webster's, 1956, s.v.). Pain must somehow register in consciousness if people are to manifest indifference to it. If people are completely free from pain, if it does not register at all, they can hardly do so. Moreover, persons who think that we can and should eliminate pain from our lives must be committed to regarding it as evil, not as indifferent. Of course, word meanings do change over time. For example, we know that the word "epicurean" (or "epicure") no longer means what it meant for ancient Epicureans. But I shall argue that the current meaning of "stoic" is more faithful to its origin, and that the root of the confusion lies elsewhere.

3. See also 2.22.6-8, 4.3.8, 4.6.8-9; at 3.8.3, 3.11.2, 3.22.61, 3.24.23, 3.24.81-82, Oldfather inconsistently, though in my view a bit more accurately, renders lupê as "grief.".

4. In Arius Didymus' account of Stoic ethics, loving (to eran) is not a bad thing but an indifferent; therefore it is excluded from the genus "lust" (epithumia) (S. V. F. 3.717; Stobaeus Eclogae ii 65, 15 W). Thus, presumably, it is not an emotion. In Diogenes Laërtius' account, loving is a kind of lust.

5.. Translators and commentators who render the last two terms in this way include Hicks and Caponigri, translators of Diogenes Laertius (though they sometimes render lupê "grief" as well as or instead of "pain"); Gerson and Inwood 1988; Annas 1992, 104, and 1993, 63 n. 50. Sandbach 1975, 61 renders these terms "mental pleasure" and "mental pain"; W. A. Oldfather 1925 appears to be in this tradition; Long and Sedley 1987, 411 render hêdonê by "pleasure" but lupê by another English word.

6. It is curious that Epicurus, contemporary of Zeno and his rival as a founder of a school that was very influential during our period, does not appear to use either of these terms very frequently for pain. Pain, his only intrinsic evil, is rendered by algêdôn, or to algoun, both derived from algeô. Cf. Diogenes L. 10.129-41. The first c. A.D. Stoic Epictetus uses a related word, kephalalgia, to signify headache.

7. In this I follow Nussbaum 1994; Long and Sedley 1987, 65A, B, D, E, G, O and p. 420; J. E. King, tr. of Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (book 3 passim; 4.16). Cicero also occasionally uses a term other than voluptas (typically translated as "pleasure"), i.e., laetitia, to translate hêdonê when it represents an emotion. I shall render it "delight" (following Nussbaum 1994; H. Rackham 1914, 3.35; and J. E. King, Cicero TD 4.7.14). Cicero's awareness of the double sense of hêdonê in the Greek Stoic tradition is best displayed in De Finibus 3.35. His use of laetitia for the emotion is indicated both in Fin.3.35 and TD 4.7.14. He is not strictly consistent in designating the emotion hêdonê by laetitia--for example, he returns at TD 4.7.16 and 9.20 to the literal translation of hêdonê as voluptas, even when it represents an emotion. Matters are also complicated by the fact that dolor, in our Latin Stoic or Stoic-influenced authors, does not always represent pain. See note 16.

8. In none of these passages on headaches does the term lupê or its cognates appear in the Greek.

9. Seneca also discusses Cato at Ep. Mor. 24.3 ff. and 67.14.

10. I have modified the Basore translation of one word. "Patientia" should be translated "suffering," not "enduring."

11. For the Stoics, the supreme deity has an immortal body which cannot be injured (the cosmos).

12. A theme to which Seneca often returns; see Ep. Mor. 1.14.33 ff.; 1.24.14-16, 2.67.3, 2.71.5.

13. Other examples include Philoctetes, the mythical Greek hero who was wounded by one of Hercules' poisoned arrows--the outcries from his torment induced his fellow Greeks to leave him behind him on the island of Lemnos while they went on to besiege Troy (TD 2.7.19, 164n3); the agony, dramatized in a play by Sophocles, of Hercules himself as he lay dying from contact with the poisoned blood of the centaur Nessos (2.8, 166n2); and the torments of the Titan Prometheus, portrayed in Aeschylus' Prometheus Unbound, as the Titan's liver becomes the daily meal of Jove's eagle (2.10).

14. The view that pain is not an evil is also mentioned as Stoic doctrine in Cicero, Fin. 3.29; see also 3.42.

15. What Cicero writes here is consistent with his presentation of Stoicism in Fin. where he says that pain is an indifferent with negative value and thus a "rejected" (3.52). See also Fin. 3.62. Note the discrepancy between this view, which parallels that of Diogenes Laërtius 7.102, and that reported by Arius. See note 23.

16. Cf. TD 3.10.22: "This is how the Stoics state the case."

17. Lupê in ordinary Greek, like dolor in ordinary Latin, can mean pain and grief. Pain is precognitive--to the extent to which it is not affected by our judgments; grief, on the other hand, is not. The Greek Stoics chose lupê to designate the general class of emotions (D.L. 7.111) which Cicero calls aegritudines (distresses), of which grief is a subclass. Cicero uses dolor not only for physical pain (TD 2) but also, in the ordinary language sense, to designate grief as a subclass of aegritudo in Latin (TD 4.7.16). Seneca Ep. Mor. 99.25-26 shows that dolor, when it means grief, is sometimes an appropriate translation of lupê.

18. Cicero tells us again that distress is "nothing else than the idea and conviction of an instant and pressing great evil" (TD 3.25). Thus, "physical pain, the smart of which is exceedingly keen, is endured when we can see before us the promise of good, and a life spent honorably and nobly (splendide) affords a solace so complete that either no touch of distress approaches those who have lived such a life or else the prick of pain in the soul is only superficial." (tr. J. E. King, slightly mod.)

19. analgêsia enim atque apatheia non meo tantum . . . sed quorundam etiam ex eadem porticu prudentiorum hominum, sicuti judicio Panaetii, gravis atque docti viri, inprobata abiectaque est. The translation is from Rist, 52.

20. See note 14.

21. What Cicero writes here is consistent with his presentation of Stoicism in Fin. where he says that pain is an indifferent with negative value and thus a "rejected" (3.52). See also Fin. 3.62. Note the discrepancy between this view, which parallels that of Diogenes Laërtius 7.102, and that reported by Arius Didymus in Stobaeus. See note 24.

22. It is similarly listed in S. V. F. 3.136 (Stobaeus Ecl. ii 80.22 W).

23. S. V. F. 3.378 (Stobaeus ii 88,6 W); Diogenes Laertius 7.110.

24. Diogenes' claim that, at least for some Stoics, pleasure is a preferred indifferent should be compared with what we find in Arius Didymus' account of Stoic ethics (S.V.F. ii 136; Stobaeus Ecl. ii 80, 22 W). The latter says that, among indifferents, preferred things like health and strength have much positive value while rejected things like illness and weakness have much negative value. But there is a third group of indifferents which are neither preferred nor rejected. Of this middle group, some pertain to soul, others to body. Pleasure and pain belong to this last group of indifferents. Arius' account of indifferent things varies from that of Diogenes. Those things that are neither preferred nor rejected may naturally attract or repel us but need not be of much positive or negative value. The view reported by Arius may derive from Cleanthes. See R. P. Haynes 1962, 413.


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