Stoic News

By Dave Kelly

Saturday, January 14, 2023

The conflict between morality and desire

In a message to the International Stoic Forum Grant Sterling provided the reason why we should eliminate all desires for externals.

John: How do we know when something is appropriate for the will and when something is better left alone?

Grant: This is a general problem, which would require a very long answer
to discuss adequately. Becker (in _A New Stoicism_) regards stoicism
and intuitionism as fundamentally opposed. I think quite the opposite--
they are answering different questions in a compatible way. Both systems
generally present the idea that what we ought to do in a situation is
fairly obvious the vast majority of the time, and only in those rare
occasions when we have conflicting duties is the case difficult.
In other words, I think [that] it is very rare when we really are
in a situation where we don't know what's appropriate to do--the
fundamental moral conflict is not between different ideas of what is
morally appropriate. The conflict is between morality and desire--we
see what we ought to do, but it conflicts with what we desire to do.
If we have banished desire, then we will no longer have much difficulty
in knowing what is appropriate and doing it, which is why stoic
teaching on the connection between desire and happiness is
compatible with stoic teaching on virtue.

Monday, January 02, 2023

The Stoics' doctrine of pathological feelings

Grant Sterling's message of 1/31/2022 to the International Stoic Forum in answer to Nigel Glassborow.


     The Stoic doctrine, repeated countless times throughout the

history of the movement is:

     1) Judgments about good and evil generate feelings.  (Let's

just use this neutral term for now.)

     2) Externals are neither good nor evil.  Never, ever.

     3) If you judge an external to be good or evil, then your judgment

is contrary to reason.  Always, without exception.

     4) A feeling generated by a judgement contrary to reason is always

excessive and contrary to reason.  {Since the feeling was generated by

a false belief that there is something good or evil out there, and there

isn't anything good or evil out there, then the appropriate level of

feeling in that case is zero.  So any feeling, in this case, is excessive.}

     5) Internals are good or evil.  True judgements about internals

feelings which are not excessive or contrary to reason.  Those feelings

are the eupathea, none of which are negative (grief, anger, sorrow, etc.)

     The Stoics were famous for rejecting the multi-part soul of Plato

and Aristotle, and holding that feelings arise from the rational

part of the soul--that is, the part of the soul that reasons and makes

judgments.  (Although, unfortunately, most of them result from

reasoning badly and making false judgments.)  The idea that feelings

have their origin outside and prior to the act of judgment is a key

element of the Aristotelian-Platonic picture that the Stoics rejected.

You cannot take Zeno's definition, which Plato and Aristotle would have

happily embraced, and pull it away from the critical areas in which the

Stoics took that definition in a radically different direction from Plato

and Aristotle.



Thursday, December 29, 2022

I've chosen to believe in Jesus Christ AND Stoic ethics.

I've chosen to believe in Jesus Christ AND Stoic ethics.

Here is the take of another Christian who speaks well of Stoicism.

"Why I would become a Stoic"

"As a professor at Houston Baptist University, each spring I guide a group of students through the Stoic Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. As part of that journey I always confess, to the surprise of many students, that if it could be proven Christ didn’t rise from the dead, I’d abandon Christianity and become a Stoic.

"I mean that. If the resurrection didn’t happen, then Christianity is a hoax. If Christianity is a hoax, then God has not really spoken. And if God hasn’t really spoken, then the best plan of action is to rein in one’s passions, curb one’s desires, and conform to nature. In a word, play it safe. And nobody plays it safer than the Stoics."

Can happiness be a pathos?

On 03/24/2022 Grant Sterling posted this message to the International Stoic Forum in answer to Nigel Glassborow.


    It is not a reasonable expectation that everyone on this List reads

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.  It is not necessary that everyone on

this List reads the collections of Stoic writings such as Long and Sedley,

or reads accounts of ancient Stoicism such as those of Long, although

regular posters usually do so.  It is a reasonable expectation, though,

that people responding to messages from others take a little time to

try to read the background posts cited by those people, especially when

those posts come from someone like me who has repeated the ideas many

times over the years.  (Note that I am not suggesting that anyone needs to

_agree_ with those posts, only that common courtesy and an effort to engage

in dialogue raises the expectation of trying to _understand_ posts that you

are responding to.)

    So I will try for the thousandth time to say this....

    Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, says that eudaimonia _means_ "living

well and acting well", and from the rest of the text we can see that he means

something like "enjoying one's life" ("living well") and acting in appropriate/

virtuous ways ("acting well").  Note that he is not putting this forward as a

theory, he is asserting that this is what the Greek word "eudaimonia" means

(in his day and age).  Further, he asserts that everyone, both philosophers

and ordinary people alike, agree that this is what the word means, and

furthermore they agree that this is the ultimate aim of life for everyone.  (I might

add that Aristotle is also clear that eudaimonia is an enduring state, a description

of a life or a large part of a life, not a momentary thing.)

    Now perhaps Aristotle was wrong.  But I think that it is patently ridiculous

for anyone living today to claim to have a better understanding of what the

ancient Greeks meant by "eudaimonia" (or any other word in their language)

than Aristotle did.  So let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Aristotle

was right.  (Again, right in his claim about how people used the word and what

they thought about it--I'm not suggesting that we need to believe his own

substantive philosophical theories.)

    Zeno of Citium was a younger contemporary of Aristotle, so there is no

reason to suppose that he understood the word differently from the way

Aristotle understood it.  He may have (and did) disagree with Aristotle about

exactly how to achieve eudaimonia, but there is no reason to think that he

disagreed about the meaning of the word.  While it is theoretically possible that he

could have disagreed with Aristotle's claim that everyone has eudamonia as their

highest goal in life, the evidence is clear that he did agree.  Zeno and the early Stoics

agreed that eudaimonia was the goal of life.


    You yourself, Nigel, gave us a link to an article which contained the claim that

Stoic Ethics was plausible in the context of Stoic Physics and Logic.  But, interestingly,

the VERY BEGINNING of the "Ethics" section of that article reads:

     "In many ways, Aristotle’s ethics provides the form for the adumbration of the ethical

teaching of the Hellenistic schools. One must first provide a specification of the goal or end

(telos) of living. This may have been thought to provide something like the dust jacket blurb

or course description for the competing philosophical systems – which differed radically over

how to give the required specification.

    A bit of reflection tells us that the goal that we all have is happiness or flourishing (eudaimonia)."

    It then goes on to show different statements like "living in accord with Nature" were not

rival accounts of the highest goal, but were elucidations of what kind of life the life of

eudaimonia looked like.  (Notice that this means that if you deny that we should seek

eudaimonia, not only are you denying the first principle of Stoic Ethics, but you

eliminate any support from the ancient Stoics for the claim that Physics and Logic are

necessary for Ethics--if Physics and Logic were necessary for eudaimonistic Ethics,

that is no proof that they would be necessary for a non-Stoic non-eudaimonistic Ethics.)

    But perhaps the author of that article got this wrong.  (I myself have criticized his

interpretation of Stoicism in other places.)  How about the VERY FIRST PASSAGE in

the "The End and Happiness" section of Long and Sedley?

    "They [the Stoics] say that being happy is the end, for the sake of which everything

is done, but which is not itself done for the sake of anything." 

    Indeed, I am not aware of any scholar of Stoicism who denies that the ancient Stoics

thought that eudaimonia was the ultimate goal of life.  So when you say that you

reject "This theory of Grant's" and when you say that "The Stoic take is not that everyone

wants to be happy", then you are adopting an interpretation of the ancient Stoics which is

radically at odds with the interpretation of every serious scholar that I know of.  Now

maybe you're right and all the rest of us are wrong, but you owe it to the people on the

List to make it clear to them that you're offering a fringe theory of Stoicism.  Certainly

you should not adopt a tone of scorn when other people assert the standard version

of Stoic theory.

    Or, perhaps, you merely mean that you think that the Stoics _should have_ adopted

the position you advocate.  That's fine, too--I sometimes assert that I think that the

Stoics would have been better served to defend views other than the ones they chose,

as for example when I have claimed that the Stoics ought not to have been so strict about

the idea that it is impossible for anyone but the Sage to have _any_ "good feelings" or

_any_ Virtue.  But I try to go out of my way to point out when I am offering a revisionist


    In any case, your heading as well as your other comments make it clear that you have

not done serious research into ancient Greek philosophy, contrary to your claims.

"Happiness" (when it is understood as a translation of eudaimonia, as you accept in your

post) is not a feeling, and so it cannot be a pathos.  That's like asking "Can a herd be a buffalo?"

A buffalo could in principle be a part of a herd, but a herd cannot be a buffalo.  Feelings

are part of eudaimonia, but eudaimonia cannot be an individual feeling.  Furthermore,

eudaimonia is _by definition_ a good state, and a pathos is _by definition_ bad.  So your

question is more like "Can Health be a disease?"

    You point out, correctly, that the pursuit of happiness often leads people into all sorts

of problems.  True enough.  Aristotle and the Stoics would completely agree.  But that

doesn't mean that we don't all (even the Sage) pursue it--that only shows that those

people were mistaken about how to get it.  That's precisely the point of Stoic theory--to

teach people how to _rationally_ pursue eudaimonia, so that they can actually succeed

in getting it rather than being mired in pathos and Vice.

    You also claim that 'wanting is a form of desire'.  I don't think that's necessarily so

(the English word "want" is sometimes used more broadly than "desire"), but even if that

were true it wouldn't matter.  There's nothing wrong with desiring a _good_ (and not merely

preferred) thing that is _in our control_.  Eudaimonia is good (indeed, the highest good),

and on the Stoic view is in our control, since Joy and the other Good Feelings are a

necessary counterpart to Virtue.  (This is another way in which your view that our

feelings have their origin outside our judgment causes problems, because if that is

true that it is not in our control whether we have positive or negative feelings.)



Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Can we have intuitive knowledge of fundamental moral axioms?

Grant Sterling's 11/19/2014 message to the International Stoic Forum

Again, I think we need to make a key
distinction here, the distinction between
(roughly) axioms and theorems.
Theorems are Provable, by an application
of logic (or the logically-structured rules of
the discipline). However, proofs require premises.
If the premises are themselves provable, they are
provable on the basis of more fundamental premises.
Eventually one must arrive at axioms--principles
that are not provable, but provide the basis for
proof in the subject.
Axioms, of course, could be totally arbitrary,
but then the subject would be of little interest to
most people except as an intellectual puzzle. (Indeed,
logic puzzles work this way. Or Sudokus--you are
given an arbitrary collection of numbers, along with
some arbitrary logical rules, and you have to derive the
location of the other numbers.) But serious subjects
seek axioms which are _true_, and this requires an
act of intuition or perception of self-evidence (I
think those are the same thing) or some equivalent.
If someone asserts a theorem as true, it is
right to demand that they show the proof. If someone
asserts an axiom as true, then demanding a proof is
a sign of misunderstanding.
But that doesn't mean that one cannot provide
evidence for the truth of an axiom. This will have to
be indirect evidence, but it can be evidence nonetheless.
But it will only be necessary for someone who is not
themselves sure of the axiom. If I can "see" that if
A=B and B=C then A=C, I need offer myself no evidence
of its truth. Only someone who doesn't see the necessity
of this truth will have reason to ask for evidence.
{By 'indirect evidence' I mean something like
consulting others to see if they find the axiom
self-evident, considering the logical consequences of
the axiom to see if it yields any wildly implausible
consequences, seeing whether the principle has been
accepted by a wide variety of cultures in different
time periods, etc.}

Now take the moral case. I am asked by the
tyrant to bear false witness against a friend. Should
I do so?
In one sense, 'deliberation' and 'reason' and
'logic' are certainly appropriate. The Stoics always
defend the crucial importance of reasoning in practical
(as well as theoretical) affairs. In that sense they
would not have approved of someone who simply chose
impulsively or relied on 'intuition' about how to act.
But what do we use as premises for such an
argument? Principles about what kinds of things are
and are not good or evil:

> And what did you decide?
> 'That justice and fairness are good, vice and injustice bad.'
> Is life a good?
> 'No.'
> Is dying bad?
> 'No.'
> Or jail?
> 'No.'
> And what about slanderous and dishonest talk, betraying a friend, and
> trying to ingratiate yourself with a tyrant -- how exactly did you
> characterize those?
> [[Discourses, 4.1.]134] 'As bad.'

But where do we get _those_ principles? I
hold, and I think the Stoics hold, that they are
self-evident or intuitive. {That life is not good
and death or jail are not bad may not seem intuitive,
but the Stoics think that when we help people strip off
the fact that they _desire_ these outcomes they can see
these truths. See '2', below.} The Stoics would regard as
absurd a demand for "proof" that one ought not betray
a friend (ceteris paribus, at the very least!)--indeed,
that's part of the point of this passage.

So, as I see it:

1) The Stoics accept that we can have intuitive
knowledge of fundamental moral axioms. Without
such knowledge, the moral project of Stoicism cannot
get off the ground.

2) One's character, especially one's desires, does
indeed obscure our knowledge...more correctly, it
adds pseudo-axioms to our moral system that create
contradictions and consequently immoral choices. So
we need to work on our character, and question some
of our moral assumptions.

3) This does not mean that our 'conscience' is
merely a reflection of our character or our
upbringing. The fact that our desires have piled
fool's gold on top of the true gold of our moral
intuitions doesn't make them any less golden.
{See 'X', below.} If you throw out the baby with the
bathwater, you're left with no moral axioms at
all, and that's nihilism, not Stoicism.

4) Deliberation is needed when we discover a
legitimate reason for acting in one way and a
legitimate reason for acting in another. I
should not need to deliberate in the 'tyrant'
case, because I should have performed the gleaning
of my axiomatic system in advance, and so I
should be able to see immediately that there is
in fact no reason for agreeing to bear false witness,
and very good reasons not to do so.

X: A digression. This is, I think, the
main reason that society today mistakenly assumes
that morality is by definition other-regarding.
No-one ever regards an action beneficial to themselves
as a command of conscience. (No-one ever says
"I was going to use this money to buy a gift for
my mother, but my conscience told me to spend it
on a gift for myself instead.") We can only identify
true acts of conscience when they conflict with
our desires or with social expectations. As a result,
people come to think that 'morality' consists of
rules that demand self-sacrifice, because they
don't see that their ideas of self-interest are
mistaken, and so they only 'see' the moral rules
that constrain them from doing what they want.

So, once again, I'd say that you're both


Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The vital heart of Stoic doctrine


Stoicism says that the common-sense view of emotions is completely and totally wrong.

The following is Grant Sterling's message to the International Stoic Forum in answer to Anna Kinesman.

On 9/18/15 8:42 AM, Anna Kinesman [ ... ] [stoics] wrote:
> Dear Grant,
> Before I went away we were discussing my view that Stoicism is common
> sense and simple.
> Looking at Nigel’s response to your posts, he seems to have dealt with

> most of your objections.However when it comes to you saying that <<< The

> Stoics explicitly reject the common sense view of the emotions >>> -
> perhaps if you were to read a piece by John Sellars (Research Fellow at
> King's College London) which you can find at
> will see what I was trying to explain.
> He offers what I find to be a very good common sense approach to the
> various types of emotions and the Stoic attitude to them.
> Yours sincerely,
> Anna

I have been extremely busy with matters of university
governance, so I haven't had a chance to respond to the contributions
on this thread (and related threads, such as the one on Epictetus'
ethics). I have a little time now, but only for one post, so
I'll try to tackle some broad issues that will apply to many
different discussions.

I have read the linked article. I find, in general, that
he has accurately stated Stoic doctrine but drawn the wrong
conclusions. I won't follow step-by-step through the article, but
I will highlight a few points.

1) On the word "emotion". I quite agree with the author that the
Stoic technical term "pathos" doesn't perfectly match up with the
ordinary-language English word "emotion", because like most ordinary-
language words "emotion" is not used with anything like a consistent and
rigorous definition, and so sometime it is used for things the Stoics
wouldn't have called "pathe".
However, I think we can easily go on talking about "emotions"
(as I have done), for two reasons:
a) If you try to converse with people about Stoicism outside
a fairly technical setting, then insisting on using ancient Greek
terms will end the conversation with no information being passed.
As a professional philosopher, I am quite comfortable with having
conversations that rely on technical terms from other languages, but
on this list I usually use English except when narrowly technical points
are being discussed (or occasionally when I think no English word is
even close to the meaning I want). Since this thread was about, in
part, discussing Stoicism with non-philosophers, I don't think we should
"go Greek".
b) "Emotion" is much closer to "pathos" than any other English
word, including "passion". ("Passion" is now used almost exclusively
for intense desires, especially sexual ones. Just as "emotion" is
sometimes used too broadly in comparison to "pathos", "passion is
typically used far too narrowly.)

Whatever the version of the OED that Sellars has may say
(my OED defines it much differently), ordinary English speakers
_almost never, in fact, use the word "emotion" for just any mental
feeling whatsoever_. Try this test: find 10 people at random, and
ask them to write down the first three types of emotion that enter their
heads. I am willing to bet that almost all 30 of the words they
write down would qualify as Stoic "pathe": fear, grief, anger, love,
hate, etc. While someone might in theory use the word "emotion" to
describe "the joy experienced by a virtuous person when they perceive
that an act of virtue has been performed", no-one in fact thinks of
this sort of thing when they think of "emotions". The physical pleasure
of eating a good meal could conceivably be called an "emotion", but
few people think of that when the word "emotion" is used. Instantaneous
shock might be called an emotion, but it's not one that anyone thinks
So, in fact, when you tell someone "the Stoics called for the
elimination of all emotions" most English speakers will think that
you mean that the Stoics called for the elimination of love (as a
passionate feeling), hate, anger, fear, grief, etc. And since that
is exactly what the Stoics called for, your statement will convey
accurate information. If the conversation continues and you need to
make explicit that things like virtuous joy and physical or aesthetic
pleasures don't count as "emotions" you can easily do so. But you
will have brought the other person far closer to the truth than if
you try to say something like "the Stoics want to eliminate excessive
emotions" (which they will interpret as "go ahead and fear anger,
fear, grief, etc., just not too strongly" which is totally and
completely off the mark) or "the Stoics want to eliminate negative
emotions" (which they will understand as allowing passionate love
and desires) or any similar formulation.

2) On "care" (or "love"). It's true that the Stoics think that
a kind of concern for the well-being of oneself and others is
appropriate, and that indeed it should be extended and not
eliminated. But to call it "care" is even more misleading than to
call pathe "emotions". According to the Stoics, I should have concern
for my wife, but if she dies tomorrow I should feel NO grief. (I
might be stunned for an instant if she were to die unexpectedly or
suddenly, but no more than that.) This completely rational and logical
attempt to make someone's life better is nothing at all like what
English-speakers usually call "care" or "love". If I am diagnosed with
possible cancer I should feel NO fear. If my child is murdered I
should feel NO anger. Etc. This sort of Stoic care or love is not, in
fact, any reason to say that the Stoics don't call for the elimination
of all emotion.

3) The vital heart ⁶of Stoic doctrine...
The Stoics believe that only things directly related to virtue
(beliefs, desires, will) are in our control.
They believe that only virtue is good and only vice is evil.
They believe that all things not in our control ("externals")
are neither good nor evil.
They believe that desires are caused by beliefs about good
and evil.
Hence, the good Stoic will have no desires whatsoever regarding
external things.
They believe that our feelings of love, hate, fear, grief, anger,
frustration, disappointment, etc., are all caused by beliefs
that external things are good or evil.
Hence, the good Stoic will never experience any of those
feelings, even in the slightest degree.
Of course, we haven't been brought up as Stoics. So they
believe that we have a lifetime of habits built around believing that
externals are good or evil. This means that we are liable to make
_false_ judgments, and hence feel those feelings to some degree.
Some Stoic teachings are designed to helping us deal with those
mistakes when they occur--but this doesn't mean that these mistakes
are somehow acceptable or appropriate.
{Ordinary people believe that every single one of those
basic principles is false.}

The ordinary, common-sense view of emotions is that emotions
are a natural response to situations of a certain sort. (Natural
both in the sense of 'arising from our nature and hence not in
our control' and in the sense of 'appropriate and acceptable'.)
Emotions shouldn't get "out of hand", in the sense of leading us
to do obviously self-destructive things or preventing us from
leading normal lives, but less violent emotions are just fine.
If my wife dies I _should_ be overcome for a while by grief (if
not, then I didn't really love her and I am therefore to be
condemned). Although I should gradually recover from this grief
over a period of days, painful memories of loss may be expected to
persist for the rest of my life. If my cat dies I should feel
grief of a lesser degree, and should recover more quickly and
If my child is murdered or raped I should feel intense
and lasting anger. Not anger so violent as to lead me to run
across the courtroom and try to strangle the accused attacker,
although I probably wouldn't be condemned if I did so. As with
the grief, the anger should dissipate somewhat as time goes by,
although if I ever completely forgive the attacker that will be
an act of saintliness, which would not be normal or expected.
If someone insults me at work I should feel anger of a lesser
If I am diagnosed with cancer, I should feel fear.
That fear may well be severe enough to interfere with my normal
life for some time, although not so severe as to completely
debilitate me. If I might lose my job, I should feel fear to a
lesser degree.

That's the common-sense view of emotions. That's
the view of emotions that every single person that I know
of who hasn't studied Stoicism holds. Stoicism says that this
view is completely and totally wrong. Emotions (as here
understood) are not "natural", they result from our beliefs, and
our beliefs are in our control. (They may be _habitual_, but
that's completely different.) And the appropriate level of grief,
anger, and fear to feel

So I stand by my claims. Stoicism calls for the elimination
of all the things that people ordinarily think of when they think of
"emotions". Stoicism completely rejects the ordinary view of emotions.
Stoicism is utterly radical.


Sunday, December 18, 2022

Contra the idea that the pursuit of Eudaimonia ('happiness') is selfish

In the following message to the International Stoic Forum Grant Sterling answers Nigel Glassborow's claim that the Stoic pursuit of Eudaimonia as the 'end' is selfish.

On 2/23/16 5:19 AM, Nigel Glassborow [ ... ] [stoics] wrote:

> Eudaimonia is the ‘selfish’ aim of the individual, but, taken as a
> whole, Stoic principles also give us the aims (amongst others) of living
> life as part of a fully integrated whole and of trying to align our will
> with the will of the Divine Fire (God). Stoicism is more about
> practicality than about the aspect of training the mind. The latter is
> necessary for the practice of Stoicism, but it must not become the end
> aim of Stoicism.

This represents another common fundamental
misunderstanding of Stoic philosophy, so I thought I
should respond.

The idea that the pursuit of eudaimonia is
"selfish" is based on a worldview that is the very
thing[ ] that the Stoics take the greatest pains to

Consider Bentham. He holds that pleasure
is good (and pain bad), and so the right action is
the one that maximizes pleasure regardless of who
will be receiving it. On this view, the idea that
some people are "selfish" makes perfect sense--they
perform actions that will give _themselves_ smaller
pleasures at the expense of greater pleasures they
could have provided for someone else. Pleasures are
"goods" that can equally be allocated to oneself or
to others, and so to choose to ignore giving goods to
others to keep them for oneself is a common sort of
immorality: that's what the "selfish" person does.
To put it another way--in Utilitarianism, I
often must _choose between_ my own good and goods
for others. Utilitarianism says that I _ought_ to
choose whichever good is bigger, which will often
(but not always) be the good for someone else. In
the Utilitarian world, doing the right thing is often
in fundamental conflict with doing what's best for me.
I have to choose which I want: right action or my own

But the Stoics hold that the only good is
Virtue. And it is logically impossible for me to
give someone else Virtue. So it is _impossible_
for me to sacrifice my own good to give more good
to others. 100% of my good is generated by my
own actions, and 100% of your good is generated by
your actions, and so no choice ever arises. On the
Stoic view, the "selfish person who pursues his own
good at the cost of harming others" does not exist,
_cannot_ exist.
Of course, the Stoics think that the vast majority
of people don't _realize_ that Virtue is the only good.
They _falsely_ judge externals (like pleasure) to be
good and other externals (like sickness) to be evil.
So the selfish person pursues what he _falsely believes_
to be good for himself at the cost of what he _falsely
believes_ to be goods for others. Ironically, the cost
is that he loses the real good (Virtue) in the process.
So the Stoics don't deny that selfish people
exist, but they do deny that the _correct_ pursuit
of eudaimonia is selfish. I never have to choose between
doing the right thing and maximizing my own good, because
what's good for me _is_ doing the right thing.
Doing the right thing on the Stoic view may
require many of the same actions, many of the same
"sacrifices", that the Utilitarian thinks it requires.
Both the Stoic and the Utilitarian think that I may
sometimes have to give up my life for others, or give
up my wealth, or forgo a pleasure. The difference is that
the Utilitarian thinks that in these cases doing the right
thing is _bad for me_, and the Stoic thinks that it's _good_!
It's beneficial to me, in some cases, to allow myself to be
tortured to death.

The idea that the pursuit of eudaimonia is "selfish"
makes sense only in the world where externals have value.
The Stoics deny that this is true.

The Stoics make it clear that pursuing Virtue
is the way in which we align our wills with the will of
Zeus, with the Divine Fire. We don't have to choose between
those two goals. Zeus enjoys perfect eudaimonia himself,
from a life of perfect Virtue.


Tuesday, December 13, 2022

The word "Stoic" now designates an ethical/psychological theory

The following 7/24/2017 message of Grant Sterling to the International Stoic Forum was addressed to Chris Fisher.


Thanks for your thoughtful letter. Unfortunately,
like Nigel, I think you have misunderstand a key issue.
The scholars you cite are not, generally speaking,
discussing the issue of what is essential to Stoicism,
understood as a general philosophical school. They are
attempting to explain the doctrines of the historical school
of Stoicism which existed among the ancient Greeks and
Romans. No-one that I know of has denied that the ancient
Stoics were theists. No-one that I know of has denied that
they connected their theological principles to their other
principles (Ethics and Logic, as they called them). I
don't doubt that if you had asked them, they would have
said that their theology was "essential" to their ideas.
(Just as they would have said that their doctrine of
kataleptic impressions was essential.) All of this is
true, well-documented (as you have pointed out), and
The question that some of us have been discussing
on this List is quite different. We are asking "if I
am looking at a philosophical theory of someone writing
at any point in history (today, 200 years ago, 2000 years
ago), what are the doctrines that would be most critical
in deciding whether to call that theory a "Stoic" theory
or not? And that issue has been decided by philosophers
just as decisively as the historical issue. Because if
you were to compile all the references to Stoicism in the last
two millenia of the form "X was heavily influenced by the Stoics", "I
reject the doctrine of the Stoics on this issue. They held....",
"I take from the Stoics the idea that...", "I here develop
a new Stoicism", etc., etc., etc. you will find that virtually
none of those references have anything to do with Physics
(/theology) or Logic (/epistemology). Nearly 100% of those
references are to ethical and/or psychological doctrines--
the cognitive theory of emotions, the denial of value to
externals, the elimination of emotions, etc.
This is not an historical accident. The fact is
that after the debates between the Stoics and the Skeptics
regarding the existence of kataleptic impressions, the
issue disappeared from philosophical discussion. Skepticism
fizzled, and was not seriously revived for centuries, and
when it was, the epistemological ground had shifted and
the notion of "impressions" had been revised so radically
that no-one would talk any more about them being a source
of certainty.
And the fact is that _even during the time of the
ancient Stoics themselves_ the theological ground was
shifting. Epictetus (at least in the surviving written
works) holds on only to a generic Providentialism. That
theological doctrine was still tied to his ethical principles
quite strongly, but it is no longer identifiable as a
distinctive doctrine. Almost everything that Epictetus
says about the gods could be readily and easily affirmed by
a Christian, Jew, Muslim, etc. (apart from the use of the plural
form--and even in that Epictetus is not consistent). So
even by Epictetus' time a distinctively "Stoic" theology
was disappearing--and, as far as mainstream philosophy is
concerned, it never reappeared. The vast majority of philosophers
today are monotheists or atheists--but even among the pantheists,
panentheists and polytheists, the fragmented writings of the
ancient Stoics are not widely discussed.
But the Ethics...that's a different story. Stoic
ethics is distinct--no other philosophical movement in history
advocated the complete severance of value from the external
world while still preserving the idea that ethical truths
existed and were objective facts. And not only was this idea both
revolutionary and unique to the Stoics, it is continually revived
throughout the history of philosophy. While it has never again
attained the popularity that it achieved during the Roman era,
there have been philosophers ever since who have been influenced
by Stoic Ethical ideas.
So, to be blunt, Stoic Logic is effectively dead. The
few philosophers who defend views very similar to those of
the Stoics (I am one) virtually never discovered those views
first in Stoic writings, virtually never present them in
discussion using Stoic terminology or by citing Stoic authors,
and in most cases have no idea that their views are similar to
those of the Stoics. I know of eminent, leading epistemologists
who know [nothing] at all about Stoic "Logic".
Stoic pan(en)theistic theology is effectively dead. The
few philosophers who defend views very similar to those of
the Stoics (I am not one) virtually never discovered those views
first in Stoic writings, virtually never present them in
discussion using Stoic terminology or by citing Stoic authors,
and in most cases have no idea that their views are similar to
those of the Stoics. I know of eminent, leading theologians
who know [nothing] at all about Stoic "Physics". (Providentialism,
on the other hand, is alive and well but has become entirely
divorced from Stoicism--_Stoic_ Providentialism is dead.)
But Stoic Ethics is alive. The philosophers who defend
views very similar to those of the Stoics (I am one) often
discovered those views first in Stoic writings, frequently present
them in discussion using Stoic terminology or by citing Stoic authors,
and in almost all cases are fully aware that their views are similar to
those of the Stoics. I know of not one eminent, leading ethicist
who knows [nothing] at all about Stoic "Ethics"--indeed, I know very
few epistemologists or theologians who know nothing about Stoic

So the fact is, if you go to a philosophy conference and
tell people "I'm a Stoic" or "My views are heavily influenced by
Stoicism", etc., they will immediately assume that you mean
that you hold that externals are neither good nor evil, virtue
is the only good, emotions are caused by false value judgments,
etc. They will not assume that you are a theist, much less
assume that you are a pantheist. They will not assume that you
believe in kataleptic impressions. They may very well not know
that the ancient Stoics believed in such things. They'll assume
that you're talking about Ethics.

To put this another way:
1) Historically speaking, Stoic influence on epistemology
and theology in the last 2,000 years has been almost non-existent.
But Stoic Ethics has been very influential (even though only a
small minority of ethicists are Stoics).
2) Philosophically speaking, Stoic pantheism has not
stood out from other pantheisms as a substantially different
doctrine, nor has Stoic Providentialism stood out from other
providentialisms (or Stoic dogmatist epistemology from other
dogmatisms). But Stoic Ethics remains unique. And (Long's
"broken-backed" comment aside) no-one has shown any reason why
one would have to be a Theist (much less a pantheist) in order
to defend those doctrines.

Hence--I agree that the ancient Stoics thought that
all three areas of thought were important. If you are a
traditional Stoic in all three areas, that's fine with me.
(I wonder how you resolve some of the tensions that arise
from trying to be a pantheist and a Stoic in ethics at the
same time, but that's a discussion for another day.) I agree
that fully traditional Stoicism is a viable philosophical
theory. I'm certainly not trying to argue that you aren't
a Stoic. (Nigel's not a Stoic--he's an Aristotelian. But
you may be a fully traditional Stoic for all I know.) But
the word "Stoic" now designates an ethical/psychological

(The Greek Stoics would probably reject Steve
from their camp (he is at the very least heavily skeptical
of the notion of kataleptic impressions). They would
reject me (I'm not a materialist or a pantheist). They
would reject Nigel (he thinks that it is sometimes appropriate
to feel anger, grief, etc.). That's an interesting historical
fact, but irrelevant to the question of what is essential to
Stoicism as a perennial theory.)


PS: It's very much like the term "Marxist". If someone
at a philosophy conference sits next to me at lunch and
tells me that she is a Marxist, I will immediately (and
reasonably) assume that she holds all or most of the
distinctive _economic_ principles that Marx held--the
labor theory of value, the theory that personality is
shaped by the economic system of one's society, etc. I
will not assume that she is an atheist or holds Marx's views
about the Jews, etc.
Marx was an atheist, and he thought that atheism was
critically connected to his economic theories. But
others have shown, since then, that one can easily hold
distinctively Marxist economic views without being atheists.
Marx had distinctive views about the Jews (I will not enter
into the debate about whether those views constitute anti-Semitism),
and connected those views to his economic theories, but people
with different views of the Jews (harsher or milder) have
embraced his economic theories. What stands out about Marx
is his economic theory--and today the word "Marxist" denotes
that, and only that.

Monday, December 12, 2022

For the time being entirely eliminate desire

In the following message to the International Stoic Forum Grant Sterling addressed questions about the desire for virtue, and preferrence.

On 10/22/2013 10:30 AM, Richard wrote:
> Does a Stoic let go of Desiring Virtue, Wisdom, etc., too
> Regards, Richard

Epictetus recommends that "for the time being"
desire should be entirely eliminated. (Ench., #2)
That is, the person who is just beginning to make
progress will be unable to make the proper distinctions
and change their habits immediately, and so any desire
at all is likely to lead to passions. But, presumably,
after a while it will be acceptable to begin desiring
again, but only those desires that cannot fail and
cannot lead to vice--in other words, desires for
correct choices and judgments.
Anger is a passion. I don't remember any
Stoics speaking of it as the object of a desire.
(I suppose I could imagine someone desiring to
be angry, but such a desire would always be an
inappropriate one.) More commonly, anger _arises
from_ our desires. (I desire to be the exclusive
lover of some woman. Then I find out that she has
had sex with someone else. Hence, I become angry
(with her, or with the other person, or both, or
with myself, or with all women in the world, or
whatever). Since anger is a passion, no degree
of anger is ever appropriate. [This is one of the
few areas where the Stoics profoundly disagree with
Aristotle. Most of their other disagreements are
matters of degree.]

I agree with the distinction that has been
made between preferences and demands, but I do not
agree with the way that it has been presented.
Preferences and demands (to adopt that terminology
for the present) do not differ in _degree_, but
rather in _kind_. {I know that this is a controversial
matter on this List, but my own view hasn't changed.}

I enjoy roast turkey. Suppose that I go
to a restaurant, and I see turkey on the menu.
There is nothing wrong, on the Stoic view, with
the fact that I prefer the taste of turkey to the
taste of (almost anything else in the world), or
with the fact that I consequently choose to order
it. (I chose this example because I do in fact
like turkey, and it's not an unhealthy food that
would make the story more complicated.) Indeed,
it is probably completely beyond my control that
I have this preference.
But if I have not merely a preference for
turkey over the other things on the menu, but an
actual desire for turkey, then this will be demonstrated
if the waitress returns and says "I'm sorry, the
chef says we're out of turkey today". If my taste
for turkey is merely a preference, I will simply
choose from the menu my next-favorite food. If I
have a desire for turkey, then I will be unhappy
about not getting it--I will be disappointed, or
angry, or sad at not getting what I wanted.
There is a student in one of my classes that
I find extremely attractive. This is probably not
in my control. But if I actually desire her, then
I will be disappointed that she's not mine, or I
will invite her to my office to talk about the class
(when it's completely unnecessary), or I will be
upset when I see her flirting with another student,

Biological urges or preferences are not in
our control, and are not subject to praise or blame.
Even the Sage will have them. Even the Sage will
like some foods better than others, or be sexually
attracted to some people and not others. But
desire are very different things, though they may
often be built upon those same urges or preferences.
The difference shines through only when we don't
get what we prefer--if it was only a preference, we
go on through life completely undisturbed. If it
was a desire, we are unhappy (perhaps only slightly,
perhaps grievously). It is crucial to Stoic doctrine,
and it accords with my own experience, that we _do_
control whether or not we allow our urges to become
desires. I have had times when I dwelt on my thought
of how good the turkey would taste, or when I fantasized
about undressing an attractive woman...and I was
unhappy when I didn't get the turkey (or it wasn't
as good as I imagined) or didn't get the woman. And
I have had times when I ordered something at a
restaurant, or saw an attractive woman, and went on
with my life undisturbed when the object of my
preference could not be obtained.


Friday, December 09, 2022

The Stoics hold that all emotions are bad

In the following message of 8/7/2019 to the International Stoic Forum, Grant Sterling's comments are interspersed with Adrian's response to Dave's (my) post.


  Although the post below is a response to Dave, I'll

chime in here.  (Comments interspersed below).


Hello Dave,


I was going to leave this subject alone but I was surprised that you appear to be ignoring all the points I had made about the use of the word ‘evil’ by posting:


“Stoicism teaches us to make true value judgments, and to eliminate

false value judgments..


1) Emotions are evil.

2) Emotions are caused by false value judgments.

3) Ergo, if we change those false value judgments, the

bad emotions will go away.”


Repetition of a formula does not make it any more understandable than on its first outing.  If it was questionable on the first outing, clearly more needs to be said to improve on the original statement to make the intent clear.


In response to the first bit of what you have said, ‘value’ is derived from the Latin ‘valere’.  So yet again we may be falling foul of problems in translation from the original Greek intent. 


The point I have made regards ‘observational judgements’ being preferable to ‘value judgements’ is that, as Stoicism points out, most value judgements are based on our feelings (emotions) and unsound entrenched opinions, whereas sound judgements are based on observation and sound opinion that is known to be sound in that it has been examined. It is only through observation and examined opinion that we can make what we may today call a sound value judgement. 


  You appear to have Stoic thought backwards.

  I judge the death of my neighbor to be bad (or evil...

more on that later).

   My neighbor dies.

   I experience an emotion (grief, or anger [if I think

my neighbor's death was someone's fault]), etc.

  In other words, it's not emotions that cause us to

make bad value judgments, it's bad value judgments that

cause us to experience emotions.  

  That's why the Stoics regard emotions as being in our

control--they are caused by judgements (i.e., assenting

to impressions), and that's in our control.

  A sound value judgement is one that aligns with the facts

about value.  (I think we have to be very cautious about

presenting judgements of fact and judgements of value as

if they are different things.  Sometimes it's necessary, but

too many people today think of values as chosen by the

individual rather than facts about objective reality.)

  This is not to deny, of course, that such judgements

may require us to carefully examine our opinions, etc.


In response to your attempt at logical argument, if I was in your place, in order to continue the discussion I would have been less challenging and would have conceded the point I had made and would have started your points with:


• Emotions are ‘kakon’ (bad/harmful or counter to ‘agathon’).


That way a false value judgement would have been avoided in that, as I appear to have demonstrated, the word ‘evil’ is not an appropriate value word to translate ‘kakon’ and so ‘evil’ offers a false value judgement regards the Stoic view of emotions or anything else. 


  I reject this claim, by the way.  I see nothing wrong

with using the term "evil" in connection with Stoic

thought.  In particular, if I choose to rape or murder someone,

my actions are "evil"--they are irrational, destructive of my eudaimonia,

a violation of the proper use of my abilities, etc.  

  But more to the point, the Stoics are trying to explain their

views in contrast with the ordinary views of others.  In doing

that, they create a new technical vocabulary for the external

things that other people _falsely_ believe to be good or

evil/bad, but they do NOT create a new technical vocabulary

for the internal states.  In other words, they are in effect saying

"You are correct to regard some things as good and other

things as evil, but you have made a mistake about _which_

things are good and evil."  Hence, using ordinary English

translations of 'kakon', 'agathon', etc. as "evil"or "good" is not only 

acceptable but is in some sense necessary to understanding their 




And while we are on the subject, I am with Steve.  Your list of points fails as a piece of logic.  To offer a cohesive and logical argument all three of your statements need to be about either ‘emotions’ or ‘bad emotions’.  Logic does not allow the unsubstantiated jumping between both.


  There are no good emotions.  That is, the English

word "emotions" conjures in the mind of the reader/listener

the idea of a certain set of states.  None of those states 

are good.

  I don't care about the origin of words when I am trying

to communicate to a modern audience.  It doesn't matter

to me if I translate Greek words using English words that

were not originally derived from Greek.  It doesn't matter

to me if I translate two Greek words that are related in

origin using two English words or phrases that are utterly

unrelated.  All I care about is what ideas will appear in a

listener's mind when I use a certain set of words, and whether

those ideas do or do not correspond well with the ideas that

the author intended his reader to think about..  {{{In other

words, I have Aristotle's theory of language.}}}

  Suppose that the Greek name of the rose bush was

derived from the word for "tree".  Imagine, for example,

that the Greeks called rose bushes "beautiful trees".  

Now imagine further that temples to Aphrodite were often

adorned with rose bushes, but never with any taller plants.

I would happily say (in English) "temples of Aphrodite

were never adorned with trees", because in English rose

bushes are never considered to be trees.  The fact that the

ancient Greeks happened to call them "trees" is irrelevant--

a modern reader wouldn't call them trees, so I would have

conveyed accurate information to the modern reader of



Next, in that Stoicism uses the Greek ‘pathos’ and ‘eupathos’ where ‘pathos’ is used to describe what we would today call ‘harmful emotions’ and ‘eupathos’ is used to describe what we would today call ‘beneficial emotions’, it is misleading to state that ‘emotions’ are harmful if translating  the Stoic use of the word ‘pathos’.  In common Greek usage ‘pathos’ refers to feelings.  But as a Stoic technical term ‘pathos’, to differentiate it from the common usage, is to be better translated as ‘bad/harmful emotions’.


So your statement, based on the Greek ‘all pathos are kakon’, following the Stoic use of the word ‘pathos’ we ought to translate it as ‘bad/harmful emotions are bad/harmful’.


To insist on saying in English that ‘emotions are evil’ is to say that ‘good emotions’ (eupathos) are also ‘evil’.


  The problem is that this is an analysis of the Greek words

with no corresponding thought about modern English.

  I repeat my assertion, made many times on this List

and never (that I can remember) denied or disproven.

   100% of the things that will come to the mind of a

modern English speaker when they hear the word "emotion"

are things that the Stoics would have considered bad.

  Try it.  (I've tried it.)  A 'eupathos' is a perfectly rational

positive state in a fully virtuous person in which the person

recognizes that no external thing is good or evil (intrinsically).

Ask someone to list 5 emotions (or 10, or 20), and they will

never list something like that.  They may list 'love', but their

love wouldn't be Stoic love--their love will be a passionate

attachment to an external.  They may list "joy", but it won't

be the eupathos of "Joy" that comes from a fully rational

recognition of God's hand in the world...their "joy" will be

the feeling of elation that comes when something "good"

happens...where they conceive of some external thing as

the good.

  Hence, when I say "All emotions are bad (or evil) on

the Stoic view" I risk making the listener think that the Stoics

held that all _feelings_ are bad, which is a distortion of

Stoic thought.  But it's only a small distortion--the "good

feelings" are as rare as the Phoenix.  On the other hand, when

you say "The Stoics believed that some emotions were good

and others were bad", what the listener will hear is "The

Stoics thought that emotions like love and the happy feeling

that comes when your team won the game are good, and

emotions like hatred and anger are bad"...because that's what

people think of when they think of "emotions" and especially

"good" and "bad" emotions.  And that is a _huge_ distortion of

Stoic thought.  My way of talking (and Dave's) is a more

accurate translation of Stoic _thought_ than yours..

  Of course if we have unlimited time and the unlimited

attention of the listener, either of us could explain the

subtleties of Stoic thought in such a way as to avoid the

potential confusions.  But since that rarely happens, I

will choose the description of Stoic thought which is less



So may I suggest the following rewording of your three statements:


1) Bad emotions are harmful to the wellbeing of the individual.

2) Bad emotions are caused by judgments based on false observation and/or unsound opinion.

3) Ergo, if we re-examine our observations to see the reality of any given situation and/or correct any unsound opinion, the bad emotions will go away.


By adding detail the intent becomes more obvious and provides the student with the tools with which to improve their rational thinking processes.


Of course we are then left to define ‘bad emotions’ and why they are harmful.  Just what are these feelings that we call ‘pathos’ or ‘bad emotions’ and what quality differentiates them from other emotions?  How do we recognise them?


  Exactly my point.  Because if you hand 100 English

speakers Dave's 3 statements, and then hand another 100

your 3 statements, the ones who get Dave's will be closer

to understanding Stoic thought than the ones who get

yours.  Because the ones who get yours will immediately

think "bad emotions" means anger or hatred.  That is, they

won't think that "bad emotions" needs to be defined, because

they already know what it means.  On the other hand, if you

use Dave's version, they will think that the Stoics are saying

that not only hatred or anger, but even (what they think of as)

love and joy and grief and fear, etc., are bad...and that is exactly

what the Stoics _are_ saying.

  Put it another way...if you transported Epictetus through

time, taught him English, and then let him spend many

years among English speakers learning how they used words...

Epictetus would say "All emotions are bad".