Are we in control of our emotions or are they in control of us? Short answer: you can lessen their control over you.

We’re always told to be mindful of the people around us.  Don’t hurt other’s feelings, or offend, we’re told.  Well, there’s truth to this.  As members of society, we’ve been taught that people are responsible for how they act based on their feelings or how they manage those feelings.  But we’re also taught to not stir up people’s feelings.  We kind of have it both ways.  People can choose to act or not act based on their feelings but at the same time, we shouldn’t push people’s buttons because people are only human.

That’s really not too far away from Stoicism.  Stoics were radical in the belief that we could individually learn to manage our emotions far better but they were also mindful of the fact that we’re only human.  It’s just not nice to try to injure someone even if they’re the best Stoic you ever crossed paths with.

So are we, for better or worse, at the mercy of our emotions?  We are somewhat at their mercy but, with practice, we can lessen their hold on us and their efficacy.  The Stoics realized long ago that by judging externals to be morally neutral, we can deescalate our passions such as hate, jealousy, and lust.  By deliberately and mindfully discarding the moral importance of all things external, we can free up a lot of our mind from emotions reacting to external events.  Also, we can refocus our mind by turning it inward, toward our virtuous character.  By working on our character and perfecting it, we can be more relaxed, chill, and logical.

Society almost has it right in the way we should hold ourselves accountable for our own behavior despite having strong passions.  And society definitely has it right that we really shouldn’t try to push people’s buttons, at least, if it’s not for the betterment or for some more important effort than mere pushing people’s buttons for buttons’ sake.  One thing that all societies throughout time have gotten wrong though is the obsession over externals.  Externals are valuable but they’re not the most important thing ever.  Also, society is right to say that we should take responsibility for our emotions and not act out on them every time we become angry.  But the Stoics offered a better solution to this problem, and that was to pretty much kill off any kind of negative passion.  That way you’d be insured to not easily cave to whatever passion you might have.  Neutering a passion really goes a long way, it gives someone a freedom they didn’t once have.  They don’t have to feel like the dam holding back all that water.  The Stoics said to just reduce the level of the water in the first place so that no possible instances of leaking or rupture is even possible.

Gray Dam Under Blue Sky

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Plato’s Tripartite Theory of Soul vs the Stoic Monistic Soul with Varying Tension

Plato had the conception that the soul was composed of three parts:  reason, emotion, and desire/appetite.  This is somewhat useful because it explains some of our ideas about how our conception of the self works.  The rational area of the soul, which was the pinnacle, loves truth and wisdom.  The emotional area of the soul loves honor and victory.  Finally, the appetite area of the soul loves pleasure and money.  When reason was operating correctly it had the virtue wisdom, emotions operating correctly had the virtue courage, and the appetites working correctly had the virtue temperance.  As a result of three parts of the soul working correctly by achieving wisdom, courage, and temperance, the virtue justice would arise.  Justice was a result of a healthy soul with each of its three parts working properly.

The Stoic conception of the soul is much more unified.  The Stoics believed the soul or pneuma (breath) is an active material that was present throughout your passive material body, present in other organisms, in inanimate objects, and throughout the whole universe itself.  The Stoics classified the pneuma as having four different types of tensile strengths.  The most rarefied of pneuma was reason itself present only in humans.  The least rarefied pneuma was present throughout the whole universe including humans.

The Stoics weren’t exactly panpsychists but they were “panpneumists.”  They believe that an active airy/fiery breath was present throughout the cosmos and the most rarefied in the body of humans, specifically in the area of the brain (although they were once mistaken and thought reason was in the heart).

Plato’s tripartite theory of soul, as intuitive as it sounds, isn’t psychologically helpful.  Plato had the idea that reason is a charioteer that steers two horses, a white horse which is emotion and a black horse which is desire.  Unfortunately reason doesn’t exactly operate that way in my humble opinion.  Reason doesn’t command emotions and desires, reason persuades emotions and desires by using therapy.  The Stoics invented several techniques we can rationally use to persuade our emotions/desires and not have to compel them like a tyrant.  If we try to compel our emotions/desires like a tyrant, they’ll push back.

In fact, the source of our negative emotions has a lot do with our reason itself making false judgments about externals.  If we fix this issue by forming the correct judgments about externals our negative desires/sentiments will dissipate.  Reason cannot remove negative passions until reason has fixed itself.  Once you remove incorrect judgments from your rational faculty, your emotions will calm down and you’ll even feel some joy from this experience.

Paolo Monti - Servizio fotografico (Napoli, 1969) - BEIC 6353768.jpg

 

Stoicism, Autonomy, and a Right to an Abortion

The Stoics believed in virtue and, in particular, the chief one among them, justice.  The Stoics also believed in preferred indifferents, for example, health, wealth, reputation, pleasure, and education.  What did they believe about autonomy though?

The Stoics believed that autonomy was something within our possession.  In fact, if we worked hard at it, we would achieve freedom from everything.  The only path to freedom was to focus on what was truly in our power:  virtue.

Honestly though, virtue is only freedom if you are truly virtuous.  Since none of us are truly free, like the Sage, we need a form of autonomy that is lesser in nobility but still carries some weight.  We need a life of self-determination.  We also need a life where we can pursue our preferred indifferents.  Our natural preferences for health, wealth, education, pleasure, and reputation are where we derive our rights.  We have a right to these preferred indifferents, so we ought to have a society that allows for that.  Where does the lesser form of autonomy fit into this?  The lesser form is being free to participate in health, wealth, education, pleasure, and reputation within reason.  We’re free when we can do this.  And these preferred indifferents give us a chance to find the true autonomy:  virtue.

Where does a woman’s right to an abortion fit into this?  She has autonomy over her own health.  She can determine what is best for herself, even if that means terminating a pregnancy.  People will debate this point because they feel “life” might begin at conception.  I presume these people are wrong because zygotes hardly represent a person in the way we can conceive of them.  In fact, babies hardly represent people.  But, nonetheless, we can maybe agree as a society that we can terminate pregnancies up to 9 months.  It’s kind of arbitrary to make this determination but we have some historical reasons for doing so.  Many of the ancients, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans seemed to believe that life began at first breath.  With this conception in mind, we have some historical precedent to base our determination on what distinguishes infanticide from a mere abortion.

Of course, as a society, if we really want to do away with abortion, one way is to make all forms of contraception free for everyone.  This also means educating people about sex and contraception as early as we can.

Not everyone can agree that abortion is a right but maybe we can all agree that contraception is a right.  One thing is for sure, contraception is certainly worth talking about as often as the taboo topic of abortion arises.

silhouette of pregnant standing on seashore during golden hour
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Why is there something rather than nothing? The Stoics provide an answer.

Our scientifically estimated 13.6 billion year old universe could have come from nothing as bizarre as that is to conceive in our minds.  How could something come from nothing?  This question never seemed to bother the ancient Greco-Roman philosophers as much as it did later Medieval philosophers.  God created the universe ex nihilo according to the Medieval interpretation of the Bible so it was thought that there was nothing in the beginning.  If an atheist during the Dark Ages had dared to question the existence of God, she would’ve been met with the question, “well, then how could something come from nothing?”

The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers never cared too much about the issue of how could something come from nothing because they just assumed something had been around since eternity so there was never a nothing.  The Stoics, for example, just assumed the universe had always been.  It, like a fire, sets off, sustains itself, and then extinguishes itself only to be set off again and this process goes on forever.  In fact, the universe is always dying and being reborn and everything that happened in all the previous universes happens in this universe.

The ancient Greco-Roman philosophers tended to have a cyclic vision of time that the universe would be born, sustain itself, die, be reborn and repeat ad infinitum.  This didn’t just happen cosmically but microcosmically.  Civilizations would be born, sustain themselves, and then die, only to have new civilizations be born from those civilizations.  It really wasn’t until Christianity that Western Civilization got the concept of linear time that began at some certain point, say, 4004 BC and terminates on Judgment Day say 2000-something when Jesus is supposed to return.

Anyway, it’s still possible the Stoics are right.  Maybe even though our universe had a beginning, our universe was just born from another universe that is part of an infinite multiverse that has always existed and will never die.  If our universe came from another universe, then it came from something, and if the multiverse is always there, then we never have to deal with the question, “how did something come from nothing?” because something has always been forever and ever.

Before the universe began, it might’ve been a singularity that went unstable.  While mathematically singularities are difficult to describe and physics breaks down, it’s possible that that singularity could’ve been eternally existing, thereby making it never needn’t of an explanation for where it came from.  The singularity had always just been, eternally existing.  Therefore, something never did come from nothing.

This is all just speculation but it makes you wonder how old things really are.  While our universe appears to be 13.6 billion years old.  How old was the singularity before it?  How old is everything outside our universe IF there is an OUTSIDE.

The Stoics had their answer so what is yours?

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The Ontology of the Stoics and Epicureans

The Stoics borrowed their arche of the universe from Heraclitus.  Heraclitus believed that the universal element of all things was ultimately fire.  It’s not clear whether he believed this metaphorically or literally.  Heraclitus believed the universe always in a state of becoming, never any substantial being to anything.  Everything was in a state of flux.

One can suppose that Heraclitus believed fire was the primary element of the universe because he saw everything always in a state of process or transience, things going in and out of existence.  A fire starts, burns, and then extinguishes itself.  Similarly things are born, sustain for a little while, and then die.

The Logos, which is the word, law, or order of everything is itself fire and manifestly orders the world.  Heraclitus saw the Logos as containing contradiction: day/night, birth/death, winter/summer, love/strife, war/peace, etc, etc.  The Logos was the unifying principle of opposites and it explained why people had contradictory opinions.  But the Logos was the ultimate truth because it contained all things and all opposites.

The Epicureans borrowed their arche of the universe from Democritus.  Democritus believed that all change in the universe was a result of changeless atoms that moved through the void.  Democritus had the idea that if you kept cutting things into pieces, you’d eventually yield indivisible pieces that could no longer be cut any further:  atoms.

Democritus actually had a pretty good idea about how atoms and the void were real but our impression of sweetness, bitter, cold, hot, color were all in our heads.  Democritus believed that only atoms and the void were real but everything else built from atoms was an illusion.  This is particularly interesting because it seems almost like a time travelling physicist went back in time and told Democritus that this was really how the universe was ordered.

The Stoics basically took the idea of the Logos and made it into a deterministic driving force of the universe not too dissimilar to Heraclitus.  The Epicureans took the idea of the atoms and void and made it into a system of randomness with coincidental order.  The Epicureans believed that everything was pretty much randomly produced from atoms and then dispersed back into atoms.

Because of the Stoic’s notion of the universe as deterministic and orderly, they essentially had to believe free will was somehow compatible with determinism.  Because of the Epicurean’s notion of the universe as indeterministic and chaotic, they essentially believed free will was totally enabled by atoms being able to randomly swerve and thus people were able to freely do things without being dictated by prior causes.

It’s interesting to think that the Stoic notion of determinism and the Epicurean notion of indeterminism basically foretold 20th century physics.  On the macroscopic level, the universe appears to be deterministic.  On the quantum level, the universe appears to be indeterministic.  It really makes you think that physicists from the 20th century told the Epicureans and Stoics incomplete information about the cosmos and told them that was how things actually were.

A drawing of a Lithium atom. In the middle is the nucleus, which in this case has four neutrons (blue) and three protons (red). Orbiting it are its three electrons.pexels-photo-207353.jpeg

Ontologies

Stoics: there is only the fiery Logos and its providence
Epicureans: there is only the atoms and the void
Aristotle: there is exactly five elements and earth is at the center of all the elements
Plato: there is only abstract entities and matter is an illusion
Skeptics: it is impossible to know what is
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Diogenes the Cynic: there is only this barrel. It’s a really nice urn, it keeps me sheltered at night. It’s made of the finest ceramic.
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The Divine

Plato: There is the Divine Good (or the One), which is the greatest of the Forms. There is also the Demiurge which fashioned the imperfect material universe.

Aristotle: There is the Unmoved Mover, a completely Formal being that is completely actualized that all objects in the universe try to become and actualize towards.

Epicureans: The Gods exist and are made up of atoms. Everything is made up of atoms and the void.

Stoics: There is a completely material universe with a fiery reasoning substance called Logos that pervades all of it. In short, you can call the Universe God.
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Cynics: did someone mention DOG? I like dogs. They’re very important beings to emulate.

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How did the ancient Greek philosophers get over their stage fright?

How did the Sophist get over his stage fright?

He imagined the crowd naked.

How did the Epicurean?

She imagined the crowd was just atoms and void. How can mere atoms and void be scary?

How did the Platonist?

He imagined that the crowd was just shadows on the wall of the cave. The crowd is just a less real version of the World of Forms.

How did the Stoic?

She just imagined the crowd as mean, judgmental, coarse in language, and throwing fruit at her while she imagined herself indifferent to this. After the brief visualization, the crowd before her seemed much more tame and manageable.

How did the Cyrenaic?

He just drank from his bottle of wine between lines he had to recite.

How did the Cynic?
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She imagined herself naked and then proceeded to get naked. The crowd yelled, “you have no shame!” and began throwing fruit. She then responded by peeing on the stage floor. She took a quick bow and threw her menstrual rag into the crowd and exited stage right.

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