|Margaret R. Graver on the Stoics, their view of emotions,
and the value of their philosophy today
LiturgicalCredo.com recently conducted an email interview with Margaret R. Graver about her most recent
book, Stoicism and Emotion (University of Chicago Press, 2007). Graver is a professor at Dartmouth
University and an author of other books related to the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.
LiturgicalCredo: A.A. Long wrote, “Margaret Graver’s book [‘Stoicism and Emotion’] expertly demolishes
the widespread belief that ancient Stoicism was a philosophy that advocated repression of every feeling we
call an emotion. With admirable clarity she gives an in-depth analysis of how the Stoics assessed emotional
health and pathology, and of why, while taking such emotions as anger and fear to be always irrational and
culpable, they held that human perfection requires joy and love.” How would you introduce the actual Stoic
view of emotions, versus the “widespread belief” about them, to undergraduate students?
Margaret Graver: One helpful exercise is to ask students to make a list of everything they consider to be
“emotions.” Once they get past the first three or four, the lists begin to diverge, and students rapidly discover
that it is much easier to talk about ‘emotions’ and ‘emotionality’ than it is to state what has to occur in order
for us to classify an experience as an emotion. Does there have to be a physiological change such as blushing
or weeping? Does there have to be a specific kind of thought? What kind? Is curiosity an emotion? How about
sexual arousal? Depression? I then challenge students to write a definition and see which items on their list fall
Now, the Stoics (by whom I mean especially the Greek writers Zeno of Citium and Chrysippus, both 3rd
century B.C.E.), were more precise in how they used their word pathos than we are about the word
‘emotion.’ After all they approached the subject as analytical philosophers. For them, a pathos is a certain
physiological sensation in the chest which is caused by one’s forming a particular kind of belief. For instance
fear is a shrinking sensation that is caused by one’s forming the belief that something bad is about to happen
to oneself, and gladness is a sensation of uplift caused by one’s forming the belief that something good has
happened. If you don’t actually form a belief—for instance if you see something scary but it’s in a play, not
real life—you might have similar sensations, but you wouldn’t be experiencing an emotion; they called this a
Notice that the examples I just gave prominently include the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Those value terms are
where the Stoics’ psychological analysis of emotion intersects with their ethics. The fact that human beings
respond with fear and sadness to what we see as bad, and with desire and delight to what we see as good, is
just part of our nature, imparted to us by the intelligent design of the universe. So there’s nothing wrong with
that. But those responses still need to be examined in light of a correct understanding of what kinds of things
are truly good or bad for a person. The essential ethical principle of Stoic thought is that only those things that
are under a person’s own control are properly considered good or bad for that person. Thinking clearly,
behaving fairly or courageously, having good qualities like generosity or self-control; those things are good for
you; things outside your control like whether you get famous, make money, bear children, or even whether
you stay healthy or have keen eyesight, can certainly be convenient but aren’t ‘good’ in the same sense at all.
And similarly for bad things: being unjust or abusing a child is bad for the person who does it; losing your
money, getting sick, even losing a family member, is something you can legitimately try to avoid but isn’t truly
an evil. That means that the emotions we might feel in response to the latter sort of object are based on a
misconception. It’s fine to try to avoid pickpockets, but if you’re actually frightened of them, you are putting
your values in the wrong place.
When you put it that way, it sounds pretty reasonable; if you press the implications, though, it is indeed a
radical position. It does mean that you should not fear death, should not be angry when someone insults you,
should not even grieve when a family member dies (though you might cry for a while, as a ‘pre-emotion’).
There is a lot of challenge in this. But we should not distort that challenge by assuming that what the Stoics
urge is that a person should train herself to be affectively ‘flat’, unresponsive like a stone. The goal of ethical
development for them is that we should get our judgments right and our values right. Once we really
understand our world and ourselves, we are free to respond affectively in accordance with that understanding.
A truly rational person would, for instance, experience joy in a courageous action and would actually yearn for
opportunities to serve others. Even more, he or she would have a high quality of friendships with others who
have the same ethical commitments. It’s even part of the Stoic position that such a person would experience
erotic passion and would be a lot of fun at a party.
LC: When I heard about your book “Stoicism and Emotion,” and read comments like Long’s (above), I
wondered: Is there a larger purpose to your scholarship? For example, do you believe that the Stoics hold
value for people in our time? And was a correction of “widespread beliefs” about the Stoics and emotions
necessary to help others consider (or reconsider) Stoic writings?
MG: Probably the most important thing the study of Stoic thought can do for us is to encourage us to
examine our own assumptions about the place of emotions in our lives and try to construct our own well-
thought-out positions. In some ways the issues that confront us on a daily basis are enough similar to what
the Stoics saw in antiquity to make their way of thinking directly useful to us; in other ways there are vast
differences we need to take into account. In particular, we now have medications available that can really be
effective in coping with overpowering anxiety and sadness, and also with various kinds of impulsive and
compulsive behavior. If you chose to study Stoicism and ignore the medication option, you might be doing
yourself a grave disservice.
With that said, I do feel that having a more detailed and accurate understanding of what the Stoic position
really was can be quite valuable for two kinds of readers. The first are scholars, either scholars of ancient
philosophy or scholars in other disciplines who are trying to understand the place of Stoicism in intellectual
history. For instance a colleague of mine was trying to understand why ‘patripassionism’ (the attribution of
emotions to God the Father) was considered a heresy by the Catholic Church; well, the Stoic theory of
emotion had an influence there. The second group are non-scholars who just want a set of ideas to “think
with” as they construct their personal view of the world. The Stoic material is ultimately pretty systematic, so
it’s satisfying to use in that way.
LC: Would you describe the path that led you to researching and writing “Stoicism and Emotion”? What got
you interested in the topic and how did it unfold for you? Did it begin with Cicero (for “Cicero on the
Emotions”), and from there grow outward to other Stoics?
MG: The Cicero project certainly had a lot to do with it. That book is a translation of Cicero’s third and fourth
Tusculan Disputations, a part of his writings that has to do with various ancient views on what the emotions
are and how they should be managed. The Stoic position is very prominent there, and I had promised to
include an extensive philosophical commentary. So in order to write that I had to vastly increase my familiarity
with the fragmentary remains of Stoic psychology in the earlier period—I had studied the subject in graduate
school, but not in such depth. The actual treatises of Zeno and Chrysippus, and later Posidonius, have not
survived, so I had to go back through all kinds of bits and pieces of evidence for what they said. For instance
the medical writer Galen quotes a lot of material from Chrysippus; Plutarch (who hates Stoicism) likes to
quote things to show how wrong they were; some Stoic terms show up in the Jewish commentator Philo of
Alexandria, and so on. All of that gave me a lot more confidence that I understood the sources well enough to
reconstruct the Stoic position with a reasonable degree of accuracy. And I felt there was a lot to it, both a lot
of interesting detail and a lot of connections to other areas of their thought—for instance, their position on
moral responsibility and on the development of character.
LC: Have you planned another book on the Stoics? If so, would you describe it?
MG: I’m at work now on another translation project for Chicago University Press, of the Moral Epistles of
Seneca. Seneca wrote this long series of letters all to one person, his friend Lucilius who was also the
governor of Sicily, explaining different philosophical topics and also describing people he knew and events in
his daily life. Some of the letters are important in the history of ideas; for instance there’s one that concerns
the ethical treatment of slaves, and another that gets into Plato’s theory of forms as understood by a Roman.
Others are just short notes and are more interesting as works of literature. Insofar as there is a single main
theme, it’s the moral development of the individual toward the Stoic ideal, and in fact this collection will be a
nice introduction to Stoicism for the general reader. It’s quite a big project as there are over five hundred
pages of these letters. I’m translating the first half, and A.A. Long, of the University of California at Berkeley,
is doing the second half.
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"...a colleague of mine was
trying to understand why
attribution of emotions to
God the Father) was
considered a heresy by the
Catholic Church; well, the
Stoic theory of emotion had
an influence there."