Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Passionate Stoic


Free from gross passion or of mirth or anger
constant in spirit, not swerving with the blood,
garnish'd and deck'd in modest compliment,
not working with the eye without the ear,
and but in purged judgement trusting neither?
Such and so finely bolted didst thou seem.
       - Henry V, William Shakespeare


Ah language. I was recently asked regarding the so-called passionlessness of the Stoic. If Stoics are without passion, how can we actively engage in any truly worthy enterprise? If Stoics don't actually care about anything, how can Stoics speak of loving their children, or fighting for civil rights, or defending their country? The problem, as in most things, comes down to terms.

The word we bandy around so freely is 'passion.' We can be passionate about music, passionate toward a person, and passionate for a cause. The difficulty lies in using the same English word to mean two things. Passion can mean an intense emotional reaction. It can also mean a strong sense enthusiasm or engagement (i.e. a passion for justice). I will come back to this towards the end of this post.

If we want to know how the Stoics deal with passion, we need to be clear on what they say. The Stoic term pathê, which is usually translated as passion, means neither intense emotional reaction or a strong sense enthusiasm or engagement. Well, not exactly anyway. When the Stoic speak of pathê they are actually referring to four judgments:

  1. The belief that some anticipated thing is actually good (desire)
  2. The belief that some anticipated thing is actually bad (fear)
  3. The belief that some present thing is actually good (delight)
  4. The belief that some present thing is actually bad (distress). 
All of the other passions are actually subsets of these four. For example rage, lust, love of riches are specific types of desire.

The pathê are the judgments we make with regard to events and circumstances. In truth, they are judgments we make about circumstances before they actually occur to us, and we then trigger those judgments when the event they have been connected to occurs. We decide that it would be 'bad' (i.e. make us a worse person) if a particular person did not love us, and work to try to make them love us. If they do, we are elated (while secretly fearing that they will leave us). If they don't love us, we are crushed. (The Stoics also deal with correct judgments and emotional reactions, but those fall outside the scope of this post.)

The most important thing to keep in mind is that these are all mistaken judgments. What they are mistaken about is that the events and circumstances they reference, whether real or imagined, present or future, are either good or bad.

Events and circumstances, past present or future, are neither good nor bad, from a Stoic standpoint. The words good and bad, like the word passion, are so amorphous as to defy clear meaning. When the Stoic uses good, we mean to say that the action so described is virtuous, reasonable, in keeping with the very best that a human is capable of. Good, in the Stoic sense, is what we do to express our best selves. Bad, by the same token, is the opposite. If some act is good because it makes you a better human being, a bad act makes you a worse human being. Good acts, according to the Stoics, are just acts, courageous acts, moderate, compassionate, wise acts. Bad acts, again according to the Stoics, are unjust acts, cowardly acts, immoderate, uncaring, foolish acts.

Trying to use common terms, like passion, good  and  bad in a technical and special way is unnecessarily confusing, in my opinion. I realize the ancient Stoics did this very thing in Greek, but I believe that we can use different words, or sometimes short descriptive phrases, to provide clearer meaning. In my classes, I favour the use of Virtuous (reflecting Virtue) and Vicious (reflecting Vice) over good or bad. The Victorian sense of virtuous is just about out of fashion, so it leads to less confusion in my experience. The violence associated with the term vicious isn't alien to the special meaning I focus on, because when we act against our best nature we do violence to ourselves, and sometime irreparable harm. The term works well to convey the sense I mean.

For the term passion I prefer the phrase mistaken judgments and emotional reactions. It is an awkward, but necessary, expansion on the term but it serves the purpose.

Note that partway through the discussion I switched from talking about 'things' to talking about 'acts.' That was deliberate. Only our choices, opinions, selections and rejections, and the acts that we perform based on these decisions, are under our control. All the rest is not. Fame, fortune, the love of another, health, length of life are all ultimately out of our control.

The things that are in our control are either virtuous or vicious. It is these things that either make us better or worse human beings. The things that are not under our control are neither  virtuous nor vicious, because it isn't money that makes us virtuous or vicious, it is what we do with it. It isn't health (or lack thereof) that makes us virtuous or vicious, it is how we react to the circumstances of our lives.

What we usually think of as passions are the emotional reactions that come as a result of the mistaken judgments. When we believe that something 'good' is happening or is about to happen, we feel a sense of elation attached to it. This can come in the form of giddy anticipation, a strong desire or lust, or an intense feeling of pleasure. Conversely, if we believe that something 'bad' is happening or coming down the rail towards us, we feel a sense of depression. This can be fear, or distress, or hopelessness. These events, however, are just events. They have no actual moral value. It is what we do about the events in our lives that is either good or bad.

In short, the Stoics teach us to avoid mistaken judgments and the emotional reactions we attach to them.

With regards to the second definition of passion, that is of active engagement and enthusiasm, the Stoics actually show quite a bit of support. Social justice, politics, environmental concerns, poverty all fall within the purview of Stoic action. We are to help the poor and the suffering, both by the example of the teachers we posses (Epictetus for example) and by their teachings (Musonius Rufus taught that by spending excessively on decorating one's home, we are denying our fellow citizens the help and support that was their due.) We are to defend our society from attack from without, as Marcus Aurelius did, or stand against it when it needs to be changed, as Cato did. As Seneca wrote and demonstrated we are to engage, critique, lead, teach, correct, guide, and persuade our friends, family, fellow citizens and even our governments. We are to be engaged, seriously and completely, in the affairs of others. How someone else acts, be they friend, stranger or government, does not make me a better or worse person. Circumstance and the actions of others aren't good or bad in the technical Stoic sense, though they may be considered good or bad in the popular sense (i.e. that it is to the benefit or detriment of another).

As Stoics, we therefore avoid the the first definition of passion while engaging in the second. We make virtuous action our goal, while making the things we work towards our targets. We may fail in our targets (our fight against injustice might be lost) but our goal, to act virtuously, will be met.