DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

19. Passions

Everyone who has not achieved virtue is in a state of vice or moral badness. Most commonly – for example, in the work of Plato and Aristotle – vice was viewed as a state in which reason is dominated and deflected by strong irrational emotions, or ‘passions’ (pathē, singular pathos). But Socrates had established an enduring intellectualist alternative, according to which the soul has no irrational parts, and virtue is knowledge, so that its lack, vice, is simply ignorance: ‘No one does wrong willingly. The Stoics are fully committed to developing Socrates’ position, in particular the thesis that passions are really value judgments.

A passion is commonly thought of as disobedient to reason. Reason says that you should face some danger, but fear disobeys. Reason chooses to abstain from embezzlement, but greed wins out. This suggests that an emotion can hardly itself be a rational state. The Stoics accept the description of emotions as ‘disobedient to reason’, but redescribe what this amounts to.

An emotion is primarily a judgment – a false one. A fear may be the false judgment that some impending thing, say injury, is bad for you. The falsity lies in the fact that physical injury is actually not bad, just a ‘dispreferred indifferent’ (see §15) and therefore strictly irrelevant to happiness. Your belief that it is bad takes the form of an ‘excessive impulse’ to avoid it, and that impulse, as well as being a judgment, is like any intellectual state also a physical modification (in this case called a ‘contraction’) of the pneuma that constitutes the commanding-faculty of your soul. The new overtensioned and perturbed state of your mental pneuma is one that you cannot instantly snap out of. Were you to entertain the correct judgment that you should not shrink from the danger, your pneuma would not be able to respond. That is what makes the passionate state of fear ‘disobedient to reason’ – a status it can have while itself also being a piece of faulty reasoning. Chrysippus compared it to a runner who is going too fast and therefore cannot stop at will. (For a later Stoic’s disagreement with Chrysippus on this issue, see Posidonius §5.)

The four main kinds of emotion are appetite, fear, pleasure and distress. Appetite and fear are faulty evaluations of future things as good and bad respectively. Pleasure and distress are corresponding mis-evaluations of things already present. Each has a variety of sub-species, and one of particular importance in Stoic discussions (see Seneca, On Anger) is anger, identified as a species of desire, namely the desire for revenge. Calling pleasure a passion and a vice may sound harsh, but the kind of pleasure envisaged here is one involving conscious evaluative attitudes, such that its sub-species include gloating and self-gratification. (‘Pleasure’ understood as that sensation of wellbeing which automatically accompanies certain states and activities is not a vice but an ‘indifferent’. It is the view that pleasure – in this latter sense – and pain are indifferent that has given ‘stoical’ its most familiar modern meaning.)

It should not be inferred that a Stoic sage is feelingless. The wise lack the ‘passions’, which are overevaluations, but they do instead have the correct affective states, which the Stoics call eupatheiai, or ‘good feelings’. Thus the sage has no ‘appetites’, but does have ‘wishes’, whose species include kindness, generosity, warmth and affection. Similarly, instead of ‘fear’ the wise have ‘watchfulness’, and so on.

The Stoics’ conviction that emotional states, far from being mere irrational drives, are primarily specified by their cognitive content is one of their most valuable contributions to moral philosophy. Its most important implication in their eyes is that philosophical understanding is the best and perhaps the only remedy for emotional disquiet. In the short term strong emotions are disobedient to correct reasoning, but in the long term rational therapy can restructure the intellect and dispel all passions (see Emotions, nature of).

Citing this article:
Sedley, David. Passions. Stoicism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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