Classically Inclined

October 11, 2018

The irrationality of the Stoic passions and what they believe

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:38 am
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This post is one in a series designed to help students and teachers working with the OCR Classical Civilization A-level special subject Love and Relationships and its focus on Seneca. All these posts are tagged with OCR Seneca.

One reason that the Stoics thought that the passions were a problem for people, and needed to be replaced with the eupatheiai, was that they caused an irrational disturbance in the soul. This was grounded in the fact that the passions were caused by incorrect beliefs about what will make us happy.

A related Stoic theory that becomes relevant here is that of indifferents. The Stoics held that everything which wasn’t virtue or vice was an indifferent – that is, in and of itself, it was neither good nor bad. Health, wealth, poverty, sickness, fame, obscurity… these were neither things to chase after nor things to avoid per se. By Seneca’s time, the Stoics had modified this a bit to allow for the idea of preferred indifferents; that is, health was a preferred indifferent that you’d choose if all other things were equal, but it wasn’t in and of itself necessary for achieving virtue. The family and marriage falls into this same category: if the opportunity arises and all other things are equal, then marrying a spouse and starting a family are preferred indifferents, not least because they’re according to nature. (More on that in a future post.) But they’re not actually worth going for by themselves.

The problem with the passions is that they haven’t got to grips with this idea of indifferents. They arise from the false belief that, for instance, getting lots of money is going to make you happy, and so you behave in such a way that will get you lots of money, but not in a way that is in accordance with reason or is virtuous. Due to your irrational passion, you might cheat or swindle or bribe or take on degrading or immoral jobs or commit any one of a whole series of acts which are not virtuous and which are not in accordance with reason – all because of your mistaken belief that you will be happy if you have lots of money.

One immediate result of these passions is that you experience internal mental upheaval as a result of them. For instance, when you lose the large bet you’ve placed on the sure-fire tip in the chariot race, you will be distraught because of the money you have lost; if you win the bet, you will be excessively delighted, because you have got closer to your unattainable financial aims. The sage, by contrast, probably wouldn’t have placed a bet in the first place, since money is an indifferent and not to be chased after (not to mention that the sage would be fully aware that trusting anything to chance or fate has pretty good odds of losing what you’ve put down as a stake, and that that’s a game not really worth playing). The result of that internal upheaval, experienced on a daily basis, in various different ways and on the basis of multiple incorrect beliefs, is that you can never achieve internal balance or calm.

The significance of this is that the Stoics believe one of the things which characterises the sage is her equilibrium, or balance – she cannot be upset by things going wrong, from a train delay to being thrown in prison and worse, because she is in tune with perfect reason and thus understands either why what has just happened has no bearing on her virtue and her happiness, or why it is the most rational and suitable thing to have happened in the universal scheme of things. In order for the Stoic disciple to get closer to sagehood, he needs to correct some of his mistaken beliefs which generate the passions in him, so he stands a chance of achieving a balanced and calm inner state.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] established how the Stoics thought emotions worked, and the problems they saw with the irrational passions. So where does love fit into all of this? Did the Stoics think that you should try and get rid of […]

    Pingback by Can you be a Stoic and be in love? | Classically Inclined — October 16, 2018 @ 8:48 pm | Reply


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