| Facing things
Professor Richard Sorabji CBE, FBA
What is it to face things Stoically? Perhaps we think of people
who clench their teeth and keep a stiff upper lip. But this is not
Stoicism at all. Stoic serenity was supposed to have passed beyond
the stage of inner struggle. There may be parallel misconceptions
about taking things philosophically. Oliver Edwards said, I
have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but I dont
know how, cheerfulness kept breaking through. Yet the Stoic
philosopher was free to be cheerful. The Stoic School was founded
in Athens in 300BC and it modelled itself on Socrates, who was executed
in Athens 99 years earlier. We shall see some connections with Socrates
at the end. But if one report is to be believed, Socrates achieved
his serenity by different means. When he saw the danger of anger
coming on, he would put a smile on his face and slow down his walk.
He was thus relying on neuro-physiological feedback to remain calm.
The Stoics relied entirely on thoughts, and on changing their thoughts,
so as to maintain the right attitude of mind.
Part of the Stoic recipe for calmness would be useful to us today,
I believe. There is also an unacceptable face of Stoicism, but the
acceptable and the unacceptable can be detached from each other.
We saw in an earlier year (Lecture 2, November 2000) that the Stoics
believed that emotions were just judgments, evaluative judgments.
This was relevant, because it meant that unwanted emotions could
in principle be changed by rational means, by thinking more carefully,
so as to view the situation differently. One did not have to use
physical means and wait for the invention of drugs, nor even change
ones diet, as some ancient doctors recommended, in order to
calm ones emotions.
Every emotion involved at least two judgments, they said, and one
was that there was harm or benefit at hand. The second judgment
was about how it was appropriate to react. In fear or appetite,
the second judgment would be that it was appropriate to avoid or
reach for the harm or benefit. In pleasure and distress, the second
judgment would be that it was appropriate to have sinking feelings
or expansive feelings. The feelings themselves would not be part
of the emotion, but only the judgment about their appropriateness.
The Stoics had a battery of methods for revising your two judgments,
only a few of which were mentioned in the earlier lecture. The first
judgment, the judgment that harm is at hand, might be questioned
by reflecting, you are not the only one to suffer. The
lot of others can be appealed to in different ways: others
have suffered even worse, or still better, others have
overcome such sufferings. Then again, there is the technique
of re-labelling. One Stoic advises you, if caught in a traffic jam,
to think of it as a festival. The Stoics did not mind using distortions
or even falsehoods in restricted circumstances. The Latin poet Ovid
parodied some of this philosophical advice in two contrasting poems
that he wrote. One advised both men and women how to seduce; the
other told men how to fall out of love. If his beloved is sallow,
the male seducer should call her honey-dark, if fat,
curvaceous, if thin, slender. But if it
is time to fall out of love, he should reverse the epithets for
himself. The honey-dark beloved should be thought of as sallow,
the curvaceous as fat, the slender as thin. What is reversed here
is a judgment of benefit, not a judgment of harm, but both equally
are examples of the first of the two judgments involved in emotion.
Ovid also advises the man to catch his lover at her toilet and smell
the malodorous chemicals in her cosmetics.
Another aid is to ask yourself whether your situation is really
bad or only unexpected. People who had thought that they had won
the national lottery, and who then found that they were mistaken,
have been known to commit suicide. Why? What is so bad about not
winning the national lottery? They had not won in earlier weeks.
What was different this week was only the expectation. The situation
was not worse, only unexpected, but they had confused the two.
The second judgment in emotion concerns how it is appropriate to
react, and this judgment too can be scrutinised. Someone mourning
her child is told after three years, you are neglecting the
grandchildren. In other words, it is not appropriate to go
on indulging the sinking feelings. The mourner is told that she
has become attached to the process of mourning, so that giving it
up would seem like a second bereavement. But the Stoics were well
aware that you must wait for the right time to offer these thoughts.
They will not work at once. That would be like striking the open
wound. The angry person should reflect, but I myself have
often behaved in the way of which I am complaining. That too
will make the reaction of seeking to get even inappropriate.
What if the mourner is still crying, or still experiencing sinking
feelings? These are mere side effects, according to the Stoics,
and are not the emotion itself. Nor do they matter. What matters
is, whether you are right that you are suffering harm, and that
your reaction is appropriate. I have referred before to William
James, who said, We are sad because we cry; we do not cry
because we are sad. This is not quite true, but there is a
lot of truth in it. People do think, Look, I am crying - I
must have been maltreated. But no such thing follows. The
crying is a side effect of the initial impression that you have
been maltreated. What is important is to evaluate that impression.
Again, the Stoic advice is to distinguish mere physical reactions,
and focus on the veracity of your judgments.
The restorative thoughts suggested above (you are not the
only one, you are neglecting the grandchildren)
may seem like old wives recipes. Do they need a philosopher
to produce them? The Stoics called such thoughts precepts,
but the Stoic Seneca argued that you need what he called doctrines
as well. I think that by doctrines he meant the Philosophy,
including the Philosophy that identifies emotions with judgments
and specifies the two relevant judgments, so that you know how to
target the precepts on them, and marks off the mere sinking feelings,
so that you are not distracted by those.
The techniques of the Stoics and of other philosophers were all
tried out by Cicero in the first century BC, when he first lost
office in the civil wars at the time of Julius Caesar, and then
lost his daughter, and found himself sobbing uncontrollably in the
woods. We find them again when in the next century the Stoic Seneca
addressed some of them to the imperial lady Marcia, who had lost
her son. What is striking is that the approach has come back again
in modern psychotherapy of the kind called cognitive therapy.
Modern cognitive therapy also says that emotions are just judgments,
and that unwanted ones can be removed by rational discussion in
no more than 4 to 6 meetings. Interestingly, the techniques have
been particularly successful with phobias, and also more with bulimia
than with anorexia, although committed practitioners say that they
will in time find how to get the same results there too. There are
small differences from the ancient techniques, with more use of
the imagination to help change judgments. And the judgments treated
are often factual ones about what is likely to happen to you, rather
than whether it would matter if it did happen. The Stoics, by contrast,
stuck to evaluative judgments like the last. One area in which cognitive
therapy has been successfully used, for example, is in a one-day
course supplied by British Airways to cure the fear of flying, which
was said to have an 80% success rate.
A great advantage of the Stoic ideas so far is that they could
be used by anyone, whether they believed the rest of Stoicism, or
not. And indeed, a famous early Stoic, Chrysippus, claimed that
he could enable people to get rid of unwanted emotions, whether
they agreed with Stoic values, or not. He could cure those who took
the diametrically opposite view to the Stoics, and thought that
the most important thing in life was pleasure. But now I must move
to the unacceptable face of Stoicism, and tell you about some far
less familiar ideas.
Drawing on hints in Plato, the Stoics held that in a certain
sense nothing mattered except character; the rest was in their words
indifferent. Being intellectualist, as we have seen,
they thought that good character boiled down to rationality, because
if you had the right views, you would have the right character.
A great advantage of treating character or rationality as the only
thing that ultimately matters, is thought to be that your character
is under your control. So no tyrant can take away from you the thing
that really matters. You are inviolable, if you once accept this.
Indifferent things include life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength,
functioning sense organs, wealth, reputation and their opposites.
But although these are indifferent, some are objectives that it
is natural and right to prefer. They are naturally preferred
indifferents. Moreover, we even have a duty to be energetic
about them. This emerges when we ask what, for the Stoics, is the
goal to be aimed at in life. A later Stoic, Antipater, defines the
goal as doing everything in your power to obtain these natural objectives.
But that is not because they are truly valuable in themselves. What
is truly valuable is having the right natural objectives, whether
you succeed in securing them or not, for this exemplifies the right
character. Antipater takes a metaphor from archery. Your objective
is to hit the target, but what really matters is not whether you
succeed in hitting it. That might be due to a freak of the wind.
What matters is aiming well. The English used to be taught the same
thing about cricket. You try very hard to win, but if you lose,
the thing to remember is that the games the thing.
Americans are taught the same thing in connexion with American football.
In the immortal words of Grantland Rice,
When the last Great Scorer comes
To mark against your name,
He asks not if you won or lost,
But how you played the game.
The indifference of winning, or hitting, or securing natural objectives,
comes out retrospectively, not prospectively. If you miss them,
through no fault of your own, there is nothing to regret, so long
as you did everything in your power to aim right.
It may be objected that you cannot expect to calm people who miss
the natural objectives by telling them that they are really indifferent.
But in a way the Stoics agree. You cannot tell a bereaved person
that the life of their loved one is in the end indifferent. If they
could believe that, they would be sages already and would not need
your consolation. But with ordinary people, you both need to wait,
and then to suggest not that their loss is indifferent, but, for
example, they are neglecting the grandchildren. In lesser cases,
you might try to convince people that their objective was indifferent.
Does it matter winning the lottery or getting through the traffic
But what about those who sign up to be trained as true Stoics?
For them a far more strenuous regime is required. The attitude of
treating natural objectives as indifferent is to be practised not
merely in retrospect, but in advance, and across the board, not
only for losses that have actually occurred, but, for the whole
range of possible losses. This is again unacceptable to me. The
later Stoic Epictetus in the first century AD sends his students
out at dawn round the streets and asks them to report what they
saw. A man mourning his child. Is death under the control
of your will? No. Out with it then; it is not one of the things
that matter. What did the next student see? A consul passed
by. Is acquiring the consulship under the control of your
will? No. Out with it then; it is not one of the things that matter.
At their first lesson the students should feel agony - not usually
the test of a successful lesson - but they should feel agony at
their wrong attitudes. Epictetus is very severe with students who
are homesick and sends them home forever.
Notoriously, he recommends that each time you handle your favourite
pot, you should think, one day this pot will be broken.
And you should work upwards, until each time you kiss your wife
or child, you can reflect, I am kissing a mortal. My
reaction would be that it is better to suffer loss when it comes.
But Epictetus has a further answer. His detached love is the only
true love. Witness the case of those who profess undying love of
the ordinary kind. Let a woman or a necklace come between them and
that so-called love will turn into hatred. This is because they
have never learnt to treat naturally preferred indifferents for
the indifferents that they really are. Only the Stoic who has taken
in their indifference will never cease to seek their well being
or remain immune from hatred.
Other exercises are gentler. To cure irascibility, offer a sacrifice
when you manage to avoid anger 30 days in a row. When the strawberries
are passed round, do not wonder whether there will be enough for
you. Ignore it, until the plate is before you. This is why my grand
mother never allowed me to take a glass of water straight to my
lips. Always put it on the table first, as if you had all the time
in the world.
The Stoics practised wanting with reservation, the reservation
being if God wills. Your first preference might be to
regain your health and for God to will that. But failing that, a
Stoics second preference would be just for what God wills.
So the Stoic wants Gods will to be done in any case, and stands
ready to abandon the first preference that that should go along
with recovery of health. The reservation, if God wills
is paralleled, I presume, in the Islamic reservation, God
willing. And it is closely parallel to Christs saying
when facing betrayal and death, My Father, if it be possible,
let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will, but as thou
wilt. On my interpretation, the Stoics would initially will
the combination of life and Gods will, but stand ready to
abandon the will for life. But some Christians took it the other
way round with Christ. he did not will to stay alive, but merely
stood ready to do so, should that prove to be Gods will.
Given their belief in indifference, the Stoics thought that almost
everything that we would count as an emotion involved a mistaken
evaluation and should therefore be got rid of. For every emotion,
on their view, consists in part of the judgment that there is harm
or benefit at hand. But in fact nothing is harmful or beneficial,
for them, except character and rationality. This leaves just a few
emotional states free from error and therefore acceptable. Cheerfulness
is one of them, provided that this is defined as joy at Gods
conduct of the universe. No error would be involved in such an emotional
attitude, because the rational conduct of the universe is a genuine
benefit, and it is genuinely appropriate to have expansive feelings
at the thought of it. Most emotional evaluations, however, are erroneous,
attaching the wrong kind of importance to the preferred indifferents
like life, health and wealth.
It might be wondered why we should not retain the pleasant emotions,
while ridding ourselves only of the unpleasant. But quite apart
from the error involved in most emotions, the suggestion is multiply
impractical. Hoping for the pleasure of obtaining what you want
is inextricably linked to anxiety as to whether you will get it,
depression if you do not, pride if you do, fear you may lose it,
the possibility of actual loss, of jealousy, anger fear or subservience.
Not only are pleasant emotions tied in this way to unpleasant ones,
but even within a single emotion that is bitter, there may be sweet
thoughts as of revenge in anger, the sweetness of tears in distress,
and of hopes in envy.
Aristotle and the Aristotelians could not disagree more. For them
good character actually requires you to feel the right emotions
to the right extent at the right time and towards the right people.
Emotion is involved in what it is to be good. The difference between
the two schools got summed up as the controversy between moderating
emotion and eradicating emotion. Which side are we on?
The Stoic ban on most emotion in no way robbed them of motivation.
There were two types of desire still to be practised, because free
from error. First, genuinely good things like goodness of character
should be desired as genuinely good and promoted in other people
and in yourself. Secondly, naturally preferred indifferents should
be seen and pursued, as the indifferents that they are. Indeed,
we have seen that is your Stoic duty to pursue them energetically,
but without illusion about their character. To this kind of desire
the Stoics gave a special name, selection, to distinguish
it from the emotional desire that wrongly pursued the indifferents
as if they were genuinely beneficial. Your desire for naturally
preferred indifferents, like your familys health or your own,
will not be emotional if, with Epictetus, you remember that these
are in the end only a naturally preferred indifferents.
But do not some outrages call for anger? Perhaps we should think
instead of the kind of compassion that is genuine in spite of not
including personal pain as a component. A modern example may be
provided by a certain kind of Buddhist, perhaps by the Dalai Lamas
attitude to the rape of his country. But without resentment and
gratitude, would we be human? I rather doubt it, but the Stoics
think that in any case humans belong in a community with the gods
and that human rationality is part of Gods rationality.
But are not the emotions essential? Do we not need them for warfare?
I regret to say that soldiers have often been trained to disguise
fair nature with hard-favoured rage, as Shakespeare puts it
in Henry the Fifth. Do we not need emotion, the ancient philosophers
debated, for self-defence, fighting in the arena, training animals,
independence of spirit, ambition, dutifulness, law-abidingness,
prudence offering succour, and punishment? As regards punishment,
the Stoics were able to say no since they regarded the
purpose of punishment as corrective, not retributive. Does not love
often help us to understand others, even if it can also blind us?
But here the Stoic can say that the Stoic will not lack this understanding,
since in reaching the status of sage, the Stoic will first have
had to experience the emotions before shedding them. Do we not need
anger sometimes to give other people a message? But the rival school
of Epicureans replied that this could be achieved by pretending
anger. The Stoics distinguished between mercy, which they approved,
and pity, which they rejected as involving misplaced personal pain.
Certainly, such pain can get in the way of being helpful. Nonetheless,
I am against the Stoics here. I do not see, for example, how, as
humans, we could eat or procreate without pleasure or rear happy
children, without giving them love of the ordinary kind.
Nonetheless, I should now tell you of a case in which certain Stoic
ideas were most successfully used quite recently. I invited to London
Admiral Stockdale, an American war hero, because he had survived
four years of solitary confinement in Vietnam, eight years of captivity
and nineteen occasions of physical torture and helped his men to
endure the same, and all, he said, through having studied the sayings
of the Stoic Epictetus. As he fluttered to earth from his crashing
plane, his parachute was fired at, and the fall was heavy enough
to break his leg. He thought, as he fell, I am leaving the
world I know for the world of Epictetus. The broken leg gave
him something in common with Epictetus, who had had his leg broken
when he was a slave, and imagined a conversation in which the victim
says, you can put my leg in chains, but not me. The
captors of Stockdale exploited the pain in his leg, when they tortured
What he specially took from Epictetus was the importance of distinguishing
what is under your control from what is not. When the U.S. prisoners
were tortured, they all gave away more than their name and number,
and then they were too ashamed to face each other. The captors were
not interested in the extra information. What they did instead was
to exploit the shame, to get the prisoners to denounce US policy
on television. Stockdales Epictetan response to the troops
was that it is not in anyones power to confine their answers
to name and number under physical torture, so they should not feel
ashamed. They had, however, overlooked that something else was in
their power, namely to get tortured again by petty acts of disobedience.
Some of them followed Stockdale in this policy. They were tortured
again, and again revealed more than their name and number. But what
mattered was they had regained their pride. None of the prisoners
in this group was ever persuaded to go on television, and the captors
were powerless to get what they wanted.
Stockdale was unaware that the Stoic Seneca regarded the possibility
of suicide as a guarantee of freedom, because it was a way of frustrating
any tyrant, and that certain Stoics recognised five contexts in
which suicide was legitimate. Stockdale once attempted suicide in
circumstances that, unbeknownst to him, were among the five recognised
by the Stoics. To some extent, he said, you can select under torture
what information you give, so long as the captors do not know how
much you know. But on this occasion they did know that Stockdale
had the names of those who had committed a particular act of defiance.
To frustrate the captors, he made a thoroughgoing attempt at suicide,
and was rescued only by chance.
One might expect that to Mrs Stockdale Stoicism would have been
useless, a philosophy that says it is a matter of indifference whether
your husband returns alive or not. But in fact, from their joint
book In Love and War, in which they wrote alternate chapters
about their separate predicaments, it becomes clear that Stoic ideas
would have been very relevant to her position too. After five years,
she forced a meeting with the President of the United States in
the White House, on behalf of prisoners wives, to get their
previously secret existence acknowledged. It would have been relevant
in forcing the meeting to keep in mind a clear idea of what is and
is not in your power. As the situation dragged on, with no official
letters back and forth from her husband, she was finally given professional
advice by a psychologist, which I initially found shocking: assume
your husband will not return. But this too was in line with
Stoicism. The Stoics tell you not to pin hopes on the future - hope
is an emotion - and not even to expect the preferred outcome, since
unexpected frustration is harder.
When Stockdale returned, a war hero, I realised that Stoicism was
relevant again. Showered with honours and opportunities, and persuaded
to stand for the Vice-Presidency of the United States, he found
something trivial about the altercations of civilian life. His account
led me to realise that Stoicism is a philosophy for the emotions
of peace as well as war, and of good fortune as well as bad.
I should like to finish with something I have not said before.
I think we can see the Stoic view as something needed by Socratic
ethics, if that ethics was to be made more viable. Socrates was
a model for the Stoics. He had in 399 BC voluntarily stayed in prison
and drunk the fatal hemlock, rather than violate the laws which
had, however unjustly, led to his being condemned. But Socrates
said a lot of apparently paradoxical things. One was that anybody
who had the opinion that one course of action was better than another
would not even want to follow the other course. Again, he held that
the good person couldnt be harmed. Moreover, goodness is enough
to make you happy, whatever fortune does to you. Further, Socrates
subjected people to relentless cross-examination in the apparent
belief that they would be better off, if freed from contradictory
The Stoic system begins to show how all this might be true. If
emotional wanting simply is, as the Stoics think, having the opinion
that a given course of action is the beneficial one and, accordingly,
is appropriate to pursue, then we will get Socrates result
that you wont even want a course that is contrary to your
opinion. If the Stoics are right that emotions are opinions, then
again we get Socrates result, that Socratic questioning, by
making all your opinions consistent with each other, will have made
all your emotions consistent with each other and so you should be
happier. If the Stoics are right that everything is indifferent
except character and rationality, then we should get Socrates
result that good character assures you of happiness, whatever fortune
does to you. Finally, if the good Stoic only wants things, provided
that Zeus wills them, we get Socrates result that the good
person cannot be harmed. These four doctrines, which seemed so paradoxical
when Socrates uttered them, are shown by the Stoics to fit into
a whole system, which gives them certain credibility. We may in
the end not believe the system as a whole, but it requires careful
evaluation, and forces us to see how the Socratic sayings might
be defended. My own opinion is that Socrates is not credible, but
that nonetheless we have much to learn from the Stoics who develop
his views into a system.
© Richard Sorabji
15 May 2002
Plato Euthydemus 280B7-D7; Laws 661D; Aristotle An.Post. 97b15-25
 The doctrine is already in the founder of Stoicism, Zeno, ap.
Stobaeum 2.57.18 = SVF 1.190.
 Jim and Sibyl Stockdale, In Love and War, New York 1984, rev.
ed. Annapolis, Md. 1990.