Stoic and Platonist Discuss the Emotions

© by Jan Garrett

Revised: October 31, 2006

Originally shared with undergraduate philosophy students at Western Kentucky University.

The Stoic reasonably assumes that the Platonist is familiar with Plato's Republic, especially books iv and ix.

P. I hear you Stoics don't accept Plato's view that the soul consists of three parts, and that morality and happiness consists in getting the non-rational parts to follow the rational parts. This is also, roughly, Aristotle's view too.

S. Plato moves too quickly from his study of the variety of mental activities and feelings to his three-part theory. He seems to be in too much of a hurry to make the soul parallel to the state, so he can argue that morality consists in the harmony of the parts.

P. But how do you account for moral conflict?

S. If you don't mind, I'd rather back up and talk about how we account for the diversity of mental states. Once I've clarified this, I can answer your question.

P. Well, go ahead, then.

S. Let's start from some things that Plato himself admits. For one thing, he admits that there are far more than three mental states. He distinguishes, for instance, between appetites for physical pleasure and the appetite for possessions, yet assigns both of those to the appetitive part. He distinguishes between fear and anger and love of victory, yet assigns both of those to the spirited part. He distinguishes between rational inference (dianoia) and intellectual perception of the ultimate truths (the goal of noesis).

P. This is correct.

S. He admits a form of desire in all three parts of the soul. Not when he first introduces them in Rep. iv, but later on, in Rep. ix. Even the rational part has its own natural desire, i.e., for wisdom and knowledge of reality, for the good.

P. And related to that, the common good of persons and the community.

S. The point is that every part of the soul has something in common, namely some sort of desire.

P. True.

S. We Stoics reserve "desire" (epithumia) for a violent feeling, but we recognize that in all human beings there is impulse (horme) and counter-impulse, the movement of the soul toward things or away from things. In fact, impulse and its contrary are found in all animals. But in humans, impulse takes the form of rational, or if you prefer, cognitive impulse. What is meant is simply that it does not occur without judgment on the part of the human being.

P. So Stoics think that the rational part of the human being is involved in all our desires.

S. All our violent feelings, including our desires, have a cognitive or judgmental component. So we cannot strictly divide the soul into two or three parts, and name one of them rational while the others are involved with the passions.

P. So you think that soul is radically unified.

S. Yes, we say a person is ruled by his hegemonikon, or ruling principle, his rational soul, whether he is good or bad.

P. You don't think that a person is always rational, do you? What if he is inappropriately angry or lustful.

S. A person is always rational in the sense that, throughout his waking life, he is making or refraining from making judgments, using his rational capacity. But a person can use this capacity badly. She is angry or lustful or fearful or distressed when she assents, or agrees to, an impression or appearance to which a wise person would not have assented.

P. And what exactly is an impression?

S. It's a thought that occurs to a person appearing to tell him the way the world is or what it would be appropriate to do (although it may well be false or misleading).

P. Example?

S. That Callias insulted you, or that what he said about you was a bad thing, or that it would be right for you to strike him in the face.

P. I can see how assenting to such impressions would lead to anger and possibly inappropriate action. Tell me, is a person blameworthy for that?

S. Well, it is up to each of us, to our ruling principle, to assent or not to impressions that occur to us. We certainly have nobody else to blame if we assent to an impression to which we should not have assented.

P. Let me get this straight. Emotions and willed actions depend upon judgments. Judgments depend upon assenting to impressions. Whether or not we assent to impressions depends upon our hegemonika.

S. Exactly.

P. How do we know to when not to assent to an impression?

S. This is where training in our school is superior to what is offered in others. We sharply distinguish between what is in our power and what is not. It's always in our power-so long as we retain rational capacity-to refrain from assenting to doubtful impressions.

P. And what is in your power?

S. Our capacity for assent and non-assent. Our capacity to critically evaluate our impressions. Our capacity to choose. Our capacity to make ourselves feel the violent passions or to avoid them.

P. So I can never truly say, "You make me mad."

S. Right. Everyone who gets angry is made angry by her own judgments.

P. OK, what is not in a person's power?

S. What other people choose to do. How other people choose to feel. Whether the barbarians defeat the king or lay siege to the city. Whether our children get sick. Whether an earthquake swallows us all. Whether the crops are bountiful or not.

P. You're not saying people should make no efforts to protect their children or produce a good crop, are you?

S. Not at all. We all have certain roles and we should make every reasonable effort to carry out the duties associated with those roles. But all the time remember that whether our intentions are successful in the external world is, in certain important ways, out of our hands.

P. In the lap of the gods, I suppose.

S. Zeus willing.

P. How do you explain the differences between the feelings, say, between appetite and fear, delight and distress?

S. These are all pathê, or violent movements of the soul, in our understanding. Actually, you have just mentioned the four major classes of pathê. Two them are oriented toward the future.

P. Fear and appetite, I suppose.

S. Exactly. The others, delight and distress, are oriented to the present, to what has just occurred or is lingering, having already occurred.

P. How do you differentiate them?

S. Delight and distress include judgments about what has just occurred, appetite and fear about what is about to come. These judgments, however, are mistaken in all cases.

P. What is mistaken about them?

S. The person who lusts after something judges a possible future event to be good. The person who fears something judges a possible future event to be evil.

P. Where is the mistake?

S. The thing judged to be good or evil is neither.

P. So if I fear death, I am making a mistake.

S. Yes, you are judging death, which is not an evil, to be an evil.

P. Surely you distinguish between the value of life and death.

S. We distinguish between primary natural things, which we call preferred (in some translations advantageous), and their opposites, which we call rejected (in some translations disadvantageous). If the only choice is between a preferred thing and a rejected one, we should select the preferred. But it is not possible to avoid a rejected thing that has already occurred or is approaching with obvious inevitability. The wise person accepts death, when it is unavoidable, or when it is the price of doing one's duty, as the will of Zeus.

P. So you might have an impression that death is evil, but that would be mistaken.

S. Stoics are aware that death is merely contrary to nature, in a superficial way. As is loss of reputation, office, wealth, etc. Stoic sages are ready for these eventualities, should they occur. What is truly contrary to nature is to act wickedly, to judge foolishly, to make ourselves distressed or fearful.

P. Are sages totally without feelings?

S. Sages will experience calm feelings that go along with their right judgments and smooth flow of life. Our school distinguishes three general classes of good feelings: wish (oriented toward the future), caution (also oriented toward the future), and joy.

P. Can sages avoid physical pain?

S. No, we do not say that a person being tortured feels nothing. But a sage will not be distressed.

P. Sages must be very rare.

S. No doubt, they are rare, but there are also persons who are making progress, who are beginning to learn how to apply the lessons our philosophy teaches.

P. What about physical pleasure?

S. A sage will not feel the pathos or violent feeling of delight, which a person has when he gets something for which he has lusted. But physical pleasure may be unavoidable, for instance, if you are hungry and are eating nutritious food. Physical pleasure is a preferred thing, although less preferred than health and survival. Recall that no preferred things are, strictly speaking, good.

P. I asked you before how the Stoics explain what seems to be conflict within the soul between reason and feelings contrary to reason.

[Here the dialogue breaks off . . . But see Julia Annas, Voices of Ancient Philosophy, pp. 110-118]