Why Do the Stoics Seem to Hate Impressions?

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last Revised Date: August 16, 2013


Strictly speaking, Stoics ought not to hate impressions. In theory, they admit that some impressions are true; some even, according to Chrysippus and his more careful followers, are kataleptic ("cognitive" in some translations), that is, they have the kind of self-evidence that displays their inability to be false, and without those impressions it is doubtful that there could ever be knowledge. But this is theory, not common practice.

In practice Stoics are frequently overtly hostile to impressions or, as the passages from Marcus Aurelius recently introduced by Dave Kelly display, hupolepseis, a term which is occasionally translated as "suppositions" or "assumptions," but which a few translators (including one approved by Dave) render "judgments." Marcus' approving citation at Meditations IV, 3, of the Pythagorean philosopher Democrates to the effect that "ho bios—hupolepsis," "life is judgment (or opinion)," is almost equivalent to "life is vanity"! Put this in the context suggested by XII, 25, "Overboard with judgment (hupolepsis, again--JG)." Technically, a judgment is an impression to which we have assented. Marcus seems to focus so much on wrong assent that he calls for throwing out all judgments and impressions.

Of course, it is hardly kosher for Stoics to hate anything, hate officially being a passion (pathos), and all passions officially being bad. But the emotional investment that Marcus puts into his Meditations and the emotional investment of his devoted (Stoic) interpreters are unmistakeable.

Why does this occur? It occurs because the Stoics make use of a more or less coherent set of metaphors associated with what some cognitive scientists call the Strict Father Family model, which is fully alive in our own time. The SFF model is projected onto national politics and takes the general shape of conservative policy preferences. It is projected onto humanity or reality as a whole and takes the general shape of conservative or even fundamentalist forms of faith, or traditional sorts of philosophy. (For more on this line of thought, see George Lakoff, Moral Politics, and The Political Mind, and his other works related to politics.) In fact, the philosophical mainstream is so pervaded by SFF assumptions that it is difficult for most philosophers to notice: It is the air they seem to have always breathed.

Fortunately, anyone wishing to do an analysis of Stoicism from this perspective does not have to begin from nothing. An analysis of Kant has already been done, in George Lakoff's and Mark Johnson's Philosophy in the Flesh (henceforth referred to as LJ), chapter 20, and there are sufficient parallels between Kant and Stoicism—a parallelism that has often been noted—that we can use their analysis of Kant, with occasional modifications, to shed light on the cognitive unconscious of Stoicism.

I have already made initial forays into this area. Two of them are available at the Stoic Place website. Metaphorical Structure of Epictetus' Encheiridion 1 and Stoic Ethics and Family-Based Moralities.

Today I'm going to discuss only one additional aspect, and try to make sense of what would otherwise be an irrational hatred of impressions and judgments.


In the SF model of the family, the SF teaches self-reliance and self-discipline to the child. He sees himself as engaged in a battle against external evil. While the SF tries to train the child to be a moral copy of himself, the forces of evil aim to influence the child (who is not morally or spiritually mature) to become the opposite of the SF, namely weak.

Now, as LJ show in the case of Kant, Kant treats the mind metaphorically as a community consisting of various faculties metaphorically understood as persons or, in the case of the inclinations (passions), animals or forces of nature. This Community of the Mind metaphor is a part of general culture during the Enlightenment. (Pure) Reason is conceptualized as the Strict Father, who is the Moral Authority. Impure Reason, which would be Reason under the influence of the Inclinations, would be a Failure as a Parent, according to this model. The Will, which the Judaeo-Christian tradition typically distinguishes from Reason, insofar as it can act according to reason or right belief or not, is metaphorically conceived as the Child, who ought to follow (right, pure) Reason.

I maintain that the Community of the Mind metaphor, in some form or other, is much older than the Enlightenment. It goes back to the ancient Greeks. In the Stoic case, Divine Reason, or the reason of sages that fully comply with it, is the Strict Father and the moral authority.

Kant gets from the Strict Father cluster of moral metaphors an emphasis on moral strength, which leads him to see virtue as operating chiefly in the conflict between reason and the body (LJ 426): "Now, fortitude is the capacity and resolved purpose to resist a strong but unjust opponent; and with regard to the opponent of the moral dispositions within us, such fortitude is virtue." (Metaphysics of Morals 380; cited in LJ 426)

And "virtue is the strength of a man's maxim in obeying his duty. All strength is known only by the obstacles it can overcome; and in the case of virtue the obstacles are the natural inclinations, which can come into conflict with moral purpose." (Metaphysics of Morals 394; cited ibid.)

We see a similar emphasis on moral strength in Epictetus. It comes out clearly in his discussion of moral habits in general, the good habits being treated metaphorically as the physical strength to do something. For instance, in Discourses II.181:

"Every habit and faculty is maintained and increased by the corresponding actions: the habit of walking by walking, the habit of running by running. If you would be a good reader, read; if a writer, write. But when you shall not have read for thirty days in succession, but have done something else, you will know the consequence. In the same way, if you shall have lain down ten days, get up and attempt to make a long walk, and you will see how your legs are weakened. Generally then if you would make any thing a habit, do it (if you want to do something, make a habit of it—Oldfather trans.) ; if you would not make it a habit, do not do it (if you want not to do something, refrain from doing it —Oldfather trans.), but accustom yourself to do something else in place of it. So it is with respect to the affections of the soul: when you have been angry, you must know that not only has this evil befallen you, but that you have also increased the habit, and in a manner thrown fuel upon fire. When you have been overcome in sexual intercourse with a person (when you have yielded to someone in carnal intercourse—Oldfather trans.), do not reckon this single defeat only, but reckon that you have also nurtured, increased your incontinence. For it is impossible for habits and faculties, some of them not to be produced, when they did not exist before, and others not be increased and strengthened by corresponding acts."


According to the Stoics, vices are metaphorically not merely weaknesses but more serious conditions, i.e. diseases.

"In this manner certainly, as philosophers say, also diseases of the mind (arrostemata) grow up. For when you have once desired money, if reason be applied to lead to a perception of the evil, the desire is stopped, and the ruling faculty of our mind (hêgemonikon) is restored to the original authority (exarchês). But if you apply no means of cure, it no longer returns to the same state, but being again excited by the corresponding appearance (fantasias), it is inflamed to desire quicker than before: and when this takes place continually, it is henceforth hardened (made callous), and the disease of the mind confirms the love of money. For he who has had a fever, and has been relieved from it, is not in the same state that he was before, unless he has been completely cured. Something of the kind happens also in diseases of the soul. Certain traces and blisters are left in it, and unless a man shall completely efface them, when he is again lashed on the same places, the lash will produce not blisters (weals) but sores."

In speaking again of cultivating virtue, Epictetus returns to the habit metaphor.

"If then you wish not to be of an angry temper, do not feed the habit: throw nothing on it which will increase it: at first keep quiet, and count the days on which you have not been angry. I used to be in passion every day; now every second day; then every third, then every fourth. But if you have intermitted thirty days, make a sacrifice to God. For the habit at first begins to be weakened, and then is completely destroyed. "I have not been vexed today, nor the day after, nor yet on any succeeding day during two or three months; but I took care when some exciting things happened." Be assured that you are in a good way.3 Today when I saw a handsome person (kalon ê kalên), I did not say to myself, I wish I could lie with her, and Happy is her husband; for he who says this says, Happy is her adulterer also. Nor do I picture the rest to my mind; the woman present, and stripping herself and lying down by my side. I stroke my head and say, Well done, Epictetus, you have solved a fine little sophism (problem—WAO), much finer than that which is called the master sophism. And if even the woman is willing, and gives signs, and sends messages, and if she also fondle me and come close to me, and I should abstain and be victorious, that would be a sophism beyond that which is named the Liar, and the Quiescent. Over such a victory as this a man may justly be proud; not for proposing the master sophism."


Just as Kant regards ideal human reason as "pure" reason, so Epictetus describes the person who keeps himself from assenting to impressions that seem to promise pleasure as having a pure and beautiful self before Zeus (Discourses II.18.19). He also refers to the tempting pleasure as "filthy" (ryparan) (II.18.25), which is exactly as we should expect giving the association of purity with cleanliness.

"How then shall this be done? Be willing at length to be approved by yourself, be willing to appear beautiful to God, desire to be in purity with your own pure self (meta kathorou sautou) and with God. Then when any such appearance visits you, Plato says, Have recourse to expiations, go a suppliant to the temples of the averting deities. It is even sufficient if you resort to the society of noble and just men, and compare yourself with them, whether you find one who is living or dead. Go to Socrates and see him lying down with Alcibiades, and mocking his beauty: consider what a victory he at last found that he had gained over himself; what an Olympian victory; in what number he stood from Hercules; so that, by the Gods, one may justly salute him, Hail, wondrous man, you who have conquered not these sorry boxers and pancratiasts, nor yet those who are like them, the gladiators. By placing these objects on the other side you will conquer the appearance: you will not be drawn away by it. But in the first place be not hurried away by the rapidity of the appearance, but say, Appearances, wait for me a little: let me see who you are, and what you are about: let me put you to the test. And then do not allow the appearance to lead you on and draw lively pictures of the things which will follow; for if you do, it will carry you off wherever it pleases. But rather bring in to oppose it some other beautiful and noble appearance and cast out this base appearance. And if you are accustomed to be exercised in this way, you will see what shoulders, what sinews, what strength you have. But now it is only trifling words, and nothing more.

"This is the true athlete, the man who exercises himself against such appearances (pros tas toiautas fantasias). Stay, wretch, do not be carried way. Great is the combat, divine is the work; it is for kingship, for freedom, for happiness, for freedom from perturbation. Remember God: call on him as a helper and protector, as men at sea call on the Dioscuri in a storm. For what is a greater storm than that which comes from appearances which are violent (ho ek fantasiwn ischyrwn) and drive away the reason? For the storm itself, what else is it but an appearance (fantasia)? For take away the fear of death, and suppose as many thunders and lightnings as you please, and you will know what calm and serenity (galenê kai…eudia) there is in the ruling faculty. But if you have once been defeated and say that you will conquer hereafter, and then say the same again, be assured that you will at last be in so wretched a condition and so weak that you will not even know afterwards that you are doing wrong, but you will even begin to make apologies (defences) for your wrong doing."

Kant differs from the Stoics in regarding universal pure practical reason as internal to all rational beings, at least as potentiality, and distinct from God, whose existence cannot be proven by rational demonstration or by empirical science, whereas the classical Stoics were more inclined to equate right reason with Zeus/Nature/the Logos, and the right reason of the sages as an full participation this Logos by persons who are wise.

This, by the way, explains why the God problem keeps coming up in the International Stoic Forum. Many members of the ISF are influenced by modern anti-theist skepticism and, though they are attracted to the Stoic technique and discipline that promises to help us develop self-reliance and invulnerability to the vagaries of the social and cultural environment, they resist the theist dimension that was unmistakably present in classical Stoicism.

But I digressed.


What is the analogue for the Stoics of the Enlightenment metaphorical community of (the faculties of) the Mind? Don't the Stoics insist upon the unity of the mind, that it is essentially a capacity for (intellectual) judgment, so that even emotions are intellectual judgments, and there is no division between rational and passionate parts of the soul such as we find in Plato and often in Aristotle.

The solution is to recognize that the Stoics reproduce something of the same structure while insisting upon the unity of the intellectual capacity, or capacity for judgment. They do so by erecting a conceptual wall between the essence of the rational human soul and everything else--the imagination, the propatheia (the preparatory movements preceding the passions), and perceptions. All of these fall under impressions or are so closely allied with impressions as often to be indistinguishable from them. The obvious hostility of the Stoics to (most? many?) impressions, and even to judgments (most of which they assume arise from easy assent to misleading impressions) arises from the Stoic metaphorical understanding of these mental events and the corresponding capacities of the soul as "external" evils; external to what? From the prohairesis, or the rational power of correctly processing impressions.

Well, if right reason is the metaphorical Strict Father, who is the metaphorical child? Well, the metaphorical child is the prohairesis as such. Essentially, the prohairesis is not identical to right reason (or to Zeus, understood as the universal principle of right reason), but is in principle able to obey it or to participate in it or to rise to its level.

So we have the following metaphorical mapping:

Strict Father --> Universal Right Reason (The Will of Zeus, the Law of Nature)

Moral Strength --> Moral Virtue

Family Moral Authority --> Right Reason

The Child --> The Prohairesis or capacity for judgment

External Evil --> (Most? Many?) Impressions (along with perceptions, the preliminary movements of the passions, and the imagination)

Let me anticipate an objection. The Stoics are committed to regarding nothing as good or bad that does not depend upon human volition prohairesis), and the appearance, to our consciousness, of false impressions does not always depend upon us. How, then, can the Stoics metaphorically conceive impressions as evil?

First, let us remind ourselves that impressions are indeed often labeled in pejorative ways. Encheiridion 1 refers to "harsh (tracheiai) impressions"; in Discourses II.18 the troublesome impressions are called "violent" (ischyrwn). To be sure, Epictetus also recognizes "beautiful and noble" impressions. (II.18) Generally, impressions that are regarded as a potential stimulus to wrong action are pictured as the main challenge to the person making progress. They are regarded as more of a threat than the external person or event to which their cognitive content refers.

But, of course, from the Stoic perspective, they are only a threat insofar as the prohairesis is inclined to assent to them. If it has virtue, metaphorically understood as moral strength, it will be immune to their temptation. But this is not very different from the basic Strict Father Family model. The child is in (moral) danger from the external threat only to the extent to which he lacks the moral strength the Strict Father is assumed to have and which the SF has been trying to inculcate in him.

Similarly, Stoics want to limit the class of literal evils to internal evil, i.e., moral inferiority, bad choosing, and the passions, which result from assent to false impressions. The false impressions would not literally be evils but dispreferred indifferents, if the Stoics ever bothered to classify them using their value classifications. (I recall no evidence that they ever did so classify them.)

There is a close parallel between Kant and the Stoics on this point. Kant treats the inclinations as the basic SF model treats external evils; but he too does not regard external evils as "radical evil"; "radical evil" must be rooted in a "natural propensity" in the human will and our free power of choice. (Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone, 6:37, cited in Halberman and Stevenson, Ten Theories of Human Nature, 116).

In this respect Kant inherits Augustine's pessimism about the possibility for human goodness (expressed most famously in Augustine's doctrine of original sin), even if Kant's insistence on free choice also pulls him in the direction of Pelagius, the chief critic of Augustine's doctrine of original sin during Augustine's lifetime. (The general Stoic view that the sage, who alone among humans is wise and good, is extremely rare may have been influential in the generation of Augustine's pessimism. The Stoics of course were influential in Roman culture two centuries before Augustine and their influence on the general culture outlived the school itself.)

In the SF model of the Family, Internal Evil occurs when the Child does not heed the authority of the Strict Father and "falls" to the level of external evil. In Stoicism, people become morally weak and inferior (phauloi) when the prohairesis, turning away from Right Reason (or the Law of Nature), falls under the influence of uncriticized impressions or the imagination, that is to say, assents to impressions to which it should not have assented.


This approach not only displays the unconscious logic of Stoic philosophy, on at least one important issue and, in passing, several others, it also shows why classical Stoicism, along with much of the philosophical tradition including Kant, is deeply wrong about the nature of moral thinking.

Like much of the philosophical tradition, Stoicism begins from hostility to the body2, which it gets from the Strict Father model of the Family. This in spite of the fact that from the perspective of classical Stoic physics the rational soul is a kind of "pneuma" consisting of fire and air, but mostly fire. (The "body" toward which Stoic philosophy is hostile or at least contemptuous is what's left when one conceptually subtracts the rational pneuma from the whole human being.) In Plato, the separation of reason from the passions is already under the influence of the Strict Father model, especially given the undoubted privileging of reason and the assumption that, in Plato's most dualistic passages (e.g., Phaedo), reason is a part of the soul that is capable of leaving the troublesome body behind. But Stoicism goes at least as far as Plato, in treating the imagination as something not only distinct from right reason (identified with Zeus and the reason of the sage) but as something that is at least metaphorically an enemy of right reason and virtue.

However, the analysis of Kantian morality rooted in cognitive science presented by Lakoff and Johnson, as well as my analysis of Stoic philosophy here and elsewhere, requires that recognition that the imagination and sensorimotor experience are primary and unavoidable resource for reason. The Stoic philosophy of the mind would have been impossible without the metaphorical resources derived from the model of the Strict Father Family. The metaphors that make up that model in turn are rooted in embodied experience early in our lives, the concrete experience we have, or watch other people having, with real strict fathers and the experience we have or watch others having as children in a real strict father family.

1. I am using the translation by George Long at www.perseus.edu. This translation renders fantasia, often translated "impression," as "appearance." I have occasionally supplied the Greek words and included the alternate translations of particular words or phrases by W.A. Oldfather, the translator of the LCL edition.

2. This is a version of Nietzsche's claim that the philosophical tradition from the (Platonic?) Socrates on is nihilistic, in Nietzsche's special sense of the term, although Nietzsche seemed to have focused his attack on Christianity and social philosophies that he could regard as spawned by Christianity, which he regarded as a continuation of "Platonism." I think Nietzsche was wrong about the source of "nihilism" and to link it to compassion. I am working on an essay that I hope will clearly explain why this hostility to the body has its source in Strict Father Morality, which has much less room for compassion than its contrary Nurturant Parent Morality.