Ancient ways to peace of mind

Emotion and Peace of Mind
December 21, 2001

There are two radically opposed ways in which inspiration has been found from the study of ancient Greek philosophers. The first is to treat them more or less as colleagues, to use their texts as a resource for contemporary philosophising. The second is to engage in what I will call ancient anthropology, making the most of their being unlike us to explore the differences between their intellectual maps of problems and our own.

Two brilliant exponents of the first style were Gregory Vlastos and Gwilym Owen. What was truly remarkable, indeed inspirational, in their work was the way in which time and again they showed that the close scrutiny of ancient arguments yielded insights on subjects as diverse as the foundations of morality and negation that can be used as the basis for telling contributions to ongoing philosophical debate. Owen's analysis of how Aristotle's idea of focal meaning diverges from univocity has had fruitful repercussions in a variety of fields. The continued invocation of Aristotle in so-called virtue ethics is in the same tradition.

Advocates of the second style celebrate, rather, how alien the ancient Greeks were. E. R. Dodds's The Greeks and the Irrational , and Jean-Pierre Vernant's Myth and Thought in Ancient Greece , set out on a very different type of exploration, of ancient conceptions of the person, for instance, of possession, of what Plato could have meant when he wrote, in the Phaedrus , of the greatest benefits that come to humans from madness. Ancient anthropologists cannot interview their tribe, but when they investigate the traces of their thought, they expect to be jolted out of their own familiar preoccupations.

Richard Sorabji is an enthusiastic exploiter of ancient texts for insights we can use today. He has pioneered studies on topics varying from free will to vegetarianism, in which he has argued with learning and persistence that the ancients got it right, or they were closer to having the right answers than we might think, or at least that they recognised points that we would do well not to lose sight of ourselves. That puts him squarely in the Vlastos-Owen school of interpretation.

His most recent book is about what first the pagan Greeks and Romans, and then the Christians, thought about emotions and peace of mind. "From Stoic agitation" the story goes on to "Christian temptation". "Emotion" is, indeed, what the book is about in the sense that it is all about ancient and modern ideas about anger and lust and their control. Yet there is more of an anthropological problem here than Sorabji lets on. He recognises, for sure, that the ancient term he construes as emotion, namely pathos , has sometimes been translated "passion". That would immediately suggest a very different reading of the ideal that the Stoics (the heroes of the pagan part of the story) put forward. When they advocated getting rid of the pathe , it was a recommendation not to get rid of the emotions as such, but only the extreme ones. To that Sorabji objects that everyone agreed on the need to avoid extremes of emotion: so if passion was what was at stake, the Stoic position would hardly have been as controversial as it evidently was.

But the problem runs far deeper than that of a choice between those two renderings of pathos . That term, like the cognate verb paschein , suffer, picks out anything a person may undergo or be affected by. It is one of the most general words that doctors use for the diseases their patients suffer from, and that includes their mental illnesses, from depression all the way to madness. The ancient anthropologist might remark at this point that the Greeks applied the vocabulary of disease in a wider range of contexts than we might expect. In a passage in Plato's Sophist , that Galen cites with approval, there are not just diseases of the body and the soul. Plato seriously entertains the possibility that stasis , conflict - the term is generally used of civil faction or revolution - can be identified with disease, nosos , on the grounds that it is a "destruction of what is by nature congenial". We might be tempted to treat that as no more than a façon de parler . But that is not at all the way Galen saw it. He is clear that nosos is a generic concept that spans all its three main specific manifestations. These are in bodies, in souls (and we must remember that for the Stoics , though not for Plato, souls are corporeal too) and even in states.

Anger, fear and lust are affections from which, on the Stoic view, we need to be cured. It will not do to say that when Chrysippus - the arch-systematiser of Stoic doctrine - wrote a book on that subject entitled Therapeutics , that is just a "metaphor". Rather, we should see that the semantic stretch of the Greek terms for disease and for cure is wider than we are used to.

But the problem arises that if anger and so on belong to the genus of pathologies, how on earth can the Stoics have thought we were responsible for them? The answer is complex, but the key lies in their belief that they depend on judgements, indeed, according to Chrysippus, they are judgements. The definitions offered in our sources speak of impulses that are excessive and irrational or disobedient to reason. Fear, for example, is said to be an irrational shrinking or avoidance of an expected danger - where the correct judgement would be that there is nothing evil at hand. But the judgements are "up to us" and in our control, and so we can learn to modify them. Even paragons of virtue have impulses, though not excessive nor irrational ones, and they experience what came to be called eupatheiai (Sorabji translates this as "good feelings"). They include joy and its species, delight, gladness, cheerfulness, as well as goodwill and kindness. The sage, then, has plenty of what we would term emotions, though my argument is that to apply our terms is not to do justice to their map of human experience.

Against these Stoic positions, others were proposed by Platonists, Aristotelians, Epicureans, Sceptics, eventually Christians. The anthropologist of Greco-Roman antiquity has not just a few native informants, but scores of them, articulate spokesmen of competing views. With considerable subtlety Sorabji charts the fortunes of different terms and concepts, sometimes diagnosing mistakes both deliberate and inadvertent, in what was always a polemical debate. Thus he identifies Augustine's misreading of an ambiguity in Aulus Gellius as one factor that contributed to his misinterpretation of the Stoics, though with original sin by then on the agenda, Augustine had more on his mind than just doing justice to his pagan predecessors.

But one recurrent concern, shared by most, if not all the rival schools, was to offer advice, therapeutic exercises, in fact, to help people attain peace of mind. These are a mixed bunch, ranging from avoiding soft pillows, to reminding yourself when you kiss your partner that he or she is mortal. Sorabji explores their applicability to our modern situation, citing how helpful Epictetus was to Admiral Stockdale when he was taken prisoner and tortured in Vietnam. But the trouble about transplanting ancient techniques is not so much that our own agitations and temptations have become so different (though some of them may well have) as that for what used to be the work of philosophy, we now have a battery of other resources, counsellors, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, let alone doctors with a range of tranquillisers or anti-psychotic drugs to prescribe. Philosophers are tucked away in university departments teaching academic philosophy. Their teaching quality assessments do not include an evaluation of how far they have helped their students achieve peace of mind: indeed they might well be viewed with some suspicion if they set out to change their students' emotional life. Their ancient counterparts were under some obligation to offer advice that led to happiness as that was the way they made their reputation and collected fee-paying pupils. More importantly, they were expected to live out their own recommendations on the subject, which some did to the point of taking their own lives. The ancient ideal may be admirable, but too much has changed for it to be realistically recoverable.

Sorabji brings to bear insights from his study of the admittedly vast modern literature on the emotions. This book will be read with interest by those concerned with the analysis of aesthetic experience, in the theatre and listening to music, for instance, and it summarises the findings of Antonio Damasio and Joseph Ledoux on the amygdala among other work in modern brain research. Sorabji is even more learned in the ancient texts and commentaries, taking up robust positions on such questions as Plato's tripartite soul, Aristotelian catharsis, and on who brought together the various strands of the modern concept of the will. However, it is in the marriage of the ancient and the modern that the strategic difficulties for this ambitious project lie.

Sir Geoffrey Lloyd is emeritus professor of ancient philosophy and science, University of Cambridge.

Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation

Author - Richard Sorabji
ISBN - 0 19 825005 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 499

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