Stoicism, Society, and Emotions

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, despite being taught that people are responsible for how they act based on their feelings or how they manage those feelings, like the motto “sticks and stones may break my bones but words we’ll never hurt me,” we’re also taught to not stir up people’s feelings.  We kind of have it both ways, as a society.  People are expected to choose to act or not act based on their feelings but at the same time, we expect people shouldn’t push other’s buttons because people are only human.

That’s a Stoic position.  Stoics were radical in the belief that we could individually learn to manage our emotions far better, in fact, perhaps extinguish the negative passions (pathos), but they were also mindful of the fact that we’re only human.  It’s not nice to try to injure someone, even with mere words, even if they’re the best Stoic you ever crossed paths with.
If we’re having to walk on a minimum amount of eggshells, are we, for better or worse, at the mercy of our emotions?  Somewhat, to be honest. We are 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 negative 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 when it demands that we should hold ourselves accountable for our own behavior despite having strong passions.  And society definitely has it right that we shouldn’t try to push people’s buttons, at least, if it’s not for the betterment or for some more important effort than merely pushing people’s buttons for buttons-pushin’ sake.  However, one thing that all societies throughout time have gotten wrong is their obsession over externals.  Externals are valuable but they’re not the most important thing ever.

While, society is correct to say that we should take responsibility for our emotions and not act out on them every time we become angry, it hasn’t done a good job explaining how to deescalate anger or other negative passions. The Stoics offered a great solution to this problem, and that was to extinguish your negative passions by changing your value judgments.  If you believe that nothing external is evil, then you can believe that nothing can harm you without your consent. Yes, you can die, yes you can have bodily harm but the Stoics believed strongly that you couldn’t feel negative passions if you don’t believe these events or things are bad or evil in the first place. By changing your perspective, neutering a passion really goes a long way, it gives a person 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.

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Published by Jess W

JW has a B.A. in Philosophy from Drury University. JW has practiced philosophy for years after graduating Drury U, though he hasn't pursued philosophy as a career of choice. JW eventually learned what Stoicism was really all about and decided to adopt virtually all of its precepts. It's served JW well and has helped him through his journey through a life of ups and downs.

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