Tense, nervous headache? Take Stoics

June 13, 1997

Forget psychiatry andother modern approachesto relieving depression. Ancient Greek philosophy holds the key to a happy life, as Richard Sorabji explains to Lucy Hodges

Overwhelmed by events? Help may be at hand from an almost-forgotten source. Ancient philosophers, notably the Stoics, have a lot to tell us about how to handle our emotions, to lead lives that are contented rather than tormented.

This news may come as a surprise to those who regard philosophy as an effete and abstract business, of little direct relevance to the beatings of the human heart. But according to Richard Sorabji, British Academy research professor in philosophy at King's College, London, ancient philosophy provides practical, answers to everyday problems: how to cope with bereavement, unhappiness in love, setbacks at work or failing to win the lottery. In fact, so acute was the analysis of the Stoics that one is tempted to recommend a bit of their philosophy to people having a personal crisis. It might provide more therapy than unburdening to a shrink.

Professor Sorabji maintains that the Stoics had a high-level debate on what the emotions were, more rigorous than many modern philosophical debates. They claimed, as modern philosophers do not, that understanding the intellectual question of what the emotions consist of could be a direct help in life. "I think they were right," says Sorabji, who has been addressing the subject in this year's Gifford lectures at Edinburgh University.

The idea is not new. Admiral James Stockdale, the US war hero who was Ross Perot's running mate in the 1992 presidential election, thinks similarly. He claimed that understanding one of the ancient philosophers, a Stoic called Epictetus, enabled him to withstand 19 sessions of physical torture and four years of solitary confinement in Vietnam.

The ancients who impress Sorabji most are the Stoics, who believed that ideally one wanted to be free of emotion. In the third century bc the Stoic Chrysippus, argued that all emotions essentially consist of two evaluative judgements: first, that an experience or event is either good or bad, and, second, that it is appropriate to react in a certain way. According to the Stoics there are four main emotions - appetite and pleasure; fear and distress. All other emotions can be subsumed under one of these types; anger, for instance, is a subheading of appetite, and the response judged appropriate is to try to get even. If you feel one of the first two emotions you judge something good is happening, with experiences of fear and distress, something bad.

In emotion, said the Stoics, besides judging that something is either good or bad, people judge that a reaction is called for: sometimes they judge they should pursue the good thing or avoid the bad. Sometimes, instead, they judge that experiencing "contractions" or "expansions" is appropriate. These contractions and expansions have mystified scholars until now. But Sorabji thinks he has worked out what is meant. You get sinking feelings in the chest when you are down and expansive sensations when you are happy.

For most people the two evaluative judgements are instantaneous, but the Stoics believed that you could learn to suspend your judgements and treat them as mere appearances while you decided whether things really were good or bad, and whether it was appropriate to react. Sorabji says: "Most people not trained in Stoicism judge that something is either good or bad as soon as it appears so. The Stoics say 'what you have is just an appearance, you can question it, are things really bad?''' Sorabji has an example. Recently there was a case of somebody who thought he had won the lottery, but then found he had not, so he committed suicide. The previous week this person had not worried about not winning. Why did he the next week think the experience of losing was so bad that he took his own life? The answer is expectation. "What happens is that people confuse the question 'Is it bad?' with 'Is it unexpected?''' according to Sorabji. If they see this they can revise their view that losing is unendurable.

Or there is the story of Democritus, a Greek philosopher summoned by the king of Persia and asked to bring his wife back to life. He agreed to try. "I only have one small request," he said. "Would you please find three citizens who will certify on her tomb that they have never suffered anything like you?'' The king of Persia could not do so. The point of this story is that you can change your judgement that what has happened is uniquely bad and this then calms the emotion.

Another Stoic, Posidonius, took issue with Chrysippus by showing that there are instances in which the two judgements are not always the same as an emotion. Posidonius argued that, besides rational judgements, there are irrational forces at work in emotion, which he compared (after Plato) with the horses that pull the charioteer of reason. To take a modern example, people may be afraid of flying, even if they reject the judgements that flying is particularly dangerous and that it would be appropriate to avoid it. Posidonius's explanation of why people feel fear, despite the knowledge that the risk is slight, is that the horses are still running. Conversely, if we fail to feel fear in real danger, it may be because the horses are exhausted. "Whatever we think of the explanation," Sorabji says, "Posidonius's examples show that the intellectual picture of an emotion as two judgements will not work in all cases."

Nevertheless, the question remains: Does the theory fit enough cases to be of practical help in life? Sorabji thinks it does. For example, in almost all emotions you at least feel as if there is something good or bad happening or in the offing. The Stoics consoled someone who was bereaved and had been mourning for three years by saying, "look, you are neglecting your grandchildren by mourning over your son three years later''. In other words, the Stoics were attacking the judgement that it was appropriate to go on grieving.

The philosophy can work with anger as well. If you are sitting on a committee and hear that terrible things have been done, you might get angry and react by trying to get even with the perpetrators. But, if you say, "my objective is to get a sensible decision and clear up this mess'', you might then reject the judgement that it is appropriate to seek revenge and then you often find you are not angry at all. "In many cases the two judgements, or the feeling as if these two judgements are right, are necessary to the emotions,'' says Sorabji.

Another example was mentioned in Plato's Republic. In today's world it is called "re- labelling" or accentuating the positive. Thus, if you are caught in a traffic jam, think of it as a festival. If you are sacked, regard it as a chance to do more interesting things.

Admiral Stockdale was in rather more trouble. Shot down over Vietnam, he broke his leg just like Epictetus. Under torture he realised no one could confine themselves to only giving their name and number as they are trained to do. They gave away more. But the soldiers who talked were so ashamed that they could not face one another. That meant the Vietnamese could get them to do what they wanted, such as go on TV to denounce US foreign policy.

Stockdale said Epictetus tells us you have to distinguish between what is in your power and what is not. It was not in the soldiers' power to confine themselves to name and number. That cured them of guilt. But he said there was something they could do - deliberately court physical torture by disobeying their captors. So, they disobeyed. They were tortured again. Again they gave away more than their name and number, but it no longer mattered because they had regained their pride. After that, not one of the group could be persuaded to do anything for the Vietnamese captors and the Vietnamese were the losers, says Sorabji. The experience enabled them to revise their judgement that not winning was bad.

Much of this sounds like the kind of homespun philosophy that we learned in childhood, and certainly Sorabji's critics say as much. But Sorabji says the Stoical message is a package which needs to include the analysis as well as the homespun. The analysis shows it is possible for you to question the appearance that things are good or bad and that it is appropriate to react in certain ways. The Stoics say emotions are voluntary because you have it in your power to question the appearance. That is a valuable tool. It is very useful to be able to distinguish whether things really are bad or whether you have just got an initial shock or sinking feeling (what the Stoics called a first movement) because you have lost your job, for instance, or failed to get a promotion.

Stoic analysis gives people a focus and procedure for how to apply the homespun philosophy. You need to target it on the two judgements. Seneca (first century ad) said you could not just have the homespun precepts; you had to have the theory as well to organise the homespun precepts.

Later on, Christians adapted these ideas, Sorabji argues. They turned the Stoic theory of how to keep calm into a theory of avoiding temptation with all its degrees of sin. The Stoics' expansions or contractions - sinking feelings along with tremblings, going white, and unwanted tears - were turned into the bad thoughts of Mark VII, 22 in the Bible, according to Sorabji. Evagrius, a fourth-century hermit and effectively the inventor of the seven deadly sins, detailed them: they come before the emotion; it's your fault if you allow them to lead to the emotion; it's not yet a sin when you just have a bad thought but it is a sin when you assent; and so on.

Evagrius played these bad thoughts off against one another in the solitude of the desert. For example, if you are suffering from bad thoughts of vainglory, the way to cure yourself might be to stir up thoughts of lust because they are so humiliating for a hermit. Conversely, if you have bad thoughts of lust, it might be good to stir up thoughts of vainglory. Eventually, you will achieve freedom from emotion, which is the Stoic ideal. In the centuries following Evagrius, some people turned for a while against this ideal. According to Augustine, if you thought you could achieve such freedom, you were suffering from the sin of pride. And you should atone for such a sin by saying the Lord's Prayer every day.

The history of western thought is a continuous story, according to Sorabji. It has been the custom to look at a few great names, Plato and Aristotle, for example, and skip over 1,000 years and look at Aquinas, then another few hundred years and look at Descartes, without studying anything in between.

That way we fail to understand fully how western thought has developed and why we think what we do.

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