|Stoicism and the Value of Care
Asphaleia and Securitas
With the rise of the Roman Empire under Augustus, the term securitas comes to denote protection from external and internal threats. This political usage deviates from an earlier sense of securitas, first developed by Cicero, where the term denotes a personal freedom from emotional disturbances.
In Cicero’s time, during the last decades of the Republic, the word for denoting civil protection was salvus (“safety”). It is only with the establishment of the Empire, that salvus is replaced with securitas.
The main idea is this: with the Empire, the city itself is understood as a living being who needs to be protected, who needs to be secure. As emperor, Augustus makes a promise to the people that he will remove all the concerns (curae) that plague them. In this way, Augustus shifts the meaning of securitas away from its former, personal-psychological sense toward a collective-physical sense. Henceforth, the city is not simply in “safety” (salvus), but also in “security” (securitas), removed from concerning threats.
In the earlier, Athenian tradition, the word for political protection is asphaleia. Like securitas, this term also negates a threat, yet what is negated is not “concern” (cura) but rather the threat of falling or stumbling (sphallein).
The personal-psychological meaning of “security” was primarily developed by the Stoics. The main term here is apatheia—the negation of disturbing passions or emotions. Cicero coins the Latin term securitas as a rough equivalent of the Greek term apatheia.
Finally, then, when the Augustan Empire explicitly employs the word securitas, it bears with it both the Stoic sense of apatheia and the political sense of asphaleia. In the Empire, the removal of care or concern comprises the removal of internal, disturbing passions as well as the removal of external, destructive threats (i.e., that which threatens to cause the city to fall).
History of the Stoic School
Stoicism refers to a school of thought and thinkers that formed around the teachings of Zeno of Citium in the third century BC. In Athens, Zeno attracted students to his “painted porch” (poikilē stoa) on the northern end of the city’s agora, which would soon give the name to the school.
Legend has it that Zeno survived a shipwreck and found himself in Athens, where he happened upon a bookseller who introduced him to Plato’s Socratic writings. Eager to learn more about “philosophy,” he became a student of Crates of Thebes, who was one of the original “Cynics,” the kynikoi or dog-like philosophers who questioned all philosophical definitions and social conventions.
The Cynics were like dogs insofar as they did not care about a so-called successful life (i.e., they were indifferent to wealth or political ambition). They rejected all social conventions and were often perceived as “shameless”—walking about the agora naked, defecating in public, making love in public, and so on. They stressed the importance of being entirely “natural” (similar to hippies), carefree, unconcerned with the opinions of others.
Zeno elaborated on the Cynics’ thinking by stressing the connection between living naturally and living virtuously. Virtue meant living according to nature. And if one could learn to live according to nature, if one could become purely virtuous, then one would have happiness (eudaimonia).
But what, precisely, is “natural”? Is there no difference whatsoever between animals and humans? What about human rationality? The human capacity for language? The capacity to anticipate the future and to make judgments based on those anticipations?
Human being appears to be split from within between animal, merely biological being and cognitive, volitional being. How might these two poles be reconciled? How might they work together?
It was one of Zeno’s most brilliant students, Chrysippus, who developed and systematically presented his teacher’s precepts; and Chrysippus’s many, many books came to form the basis for the Stoic School.
Eudaimonia and Self-control
In Stoicism, the ideal goal of eudaimonia is accomplished only by bringing the emotions under control (apatheia). In order to do so, one must learn to train the will so that it always acts according to nature. This training consisted of physical and mental exercises: practicing moderation in food and drink, learning to concentrate intensely, practicing self-reflection, analyzing one’s motives and one’s impulses, striving to live without being affected by external circumstances.
Human beings are not merely animals, because human beings have “reason” (logos), which is precisely the capacity for language. With language, human beings are able to transcend the simple present—we are able to remember the past and anticipate the future (we can reflect on what is absent, what is no longer and not yet). In other words, thanks to logos, we can rise above present conditions and this capacity allows us to control the conditions that shape and direct our lives.
Wisdom and self-control are the results of utilizing our reason. Reason enables us to control our emotions, to remain steady and constant, no matter what befalls us.
Hellenistic philosophy (Cynicism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism) focuses philosophical discussion on the problem of human suffering. How can philosophy make our lives better? How can philosophy solve the perplexities of living in the world and living with others?
Whereas the Platonic and Aristotelian schools were moving toward abstract intellectual issues, the Hellenistic philosophers turned toward practical human, ethical problems. For them, philosophy should not teach us some esoteric knowledge but rather real practical advice; it should teach us how to grapple with human misery, how to conquer the fear of injury and death, how to moderate the overwhelming effects of love and sexuality, anger, aggression, and violence.
For the Stoics, as well as for the Epicureans, philosophy was therapy. Emotional disturbance is curable.
The ideal philosopher was not simply a wise man who could argue persuasively or demonstrate a great deal of knowledge. Rather, the philosopher should be a kind of medical doctor, capable of diagnosing human problems and offering a cure.
It was Democritus who first likened philosophy to medicine: the physician cures physical diseases of the body; the philosopher cures the emotional dis-ease of the soul.
False beliefs and bad judgments, intellectual confusion and emotional anxiety, are all treated as diseases—diseases that only a philosopher can remedy.
There is also a decisive social critique included in the Stoic vision: regardless of social class, regardless of wealth or political status, everyone has the basic human right to flourish, to live in happiness, in eudaimonia. Slaves, women, foreigners—all have this right as human beings.
Logos is not only a powerful medicine for curing human souls. It is also a great instrument for establishing a human ethics, which treats all people on an equal footing.
To be wise is to be healthy (to enjoy internal stability), as well as to be just (to maintain external stability). Stoic philosophy is a philosophy of security.
Nussbaum: The acquisition and maintenance of virtue
Stoicism spread easily across the Roman world as the primary philosophical school. Anyone could gain admittance and everyone stood to benefit from the teachings. For Cicero and for Seneca, the attainment of Stoic virtue—the eudaimonia or beata vita that resulted from a virtuous life lived in accordance with reason and nature—was understood as securitas.
In her chapter on the Stoics and the Passions, Martha Nussbaum analyzes the meaning of Stoic virtue as having control over the emotions. Virtue simply means being unaffected by contingency (359).
But how do we acquire this virtue and how can we maintain it? Are we able to lose virtue after we attain it?
Attaining virtue has to do with control: virtue therefore implies both a subject (the one who controls) and an object (that which is controlled). This system of control is evaluative. Only those things that can be controlled have value. Items over which the subject has no control are worthless.
Worthless things are literally not worth thinking about. They belong to the Stoic category of “indifferents.” It is best to ignore them and focus instead on what can be controlled, like our own emotions, because this control alone will bring us happiness.
External circumstances generally fall beyond the subject’s control. We should be indifferent to the circumstances of our birth and our lives. All the same, there is some dispute, insofar as many Stoics appear to prefer good circumstances as opposed to awful circumstances.
In any case, virtue is understood as an absolute. It is a unique quality and cannot be exchanged or quantified (361).
The Stoics depart from Aristotle, who accorded some intrinsic value to external goods. For Aristotle food is good, comfort is good, activity is good, loving relationships are good. For the Stoics, anything outside the subject’s own self can never be intrinsically good. Virtue is the only good and it brings with it a pure self-sufficiency.
The Stoics therefore condone complete detachment from the world. The world is nothing but a mess of temptations and disappointments, a trap of seductions that damage the stillness of the soul. We recall that Cicero wrote about securitas only after he fled the Forum and could enjoy the tranquility of Tusculum.
Stoic ethics has little to say about the external world, which is merely a site of ungovernable, uncontrollable forces (the world is a matter of indifference). For the Stoics, ethics means taking care of the self.
Yet, the Stoics admit that we find ourselves in the world—we are surrounded by uncontrollable circumstances. For this reason, it is crucial to develop perfect “self-control” (enkrateia) and avoid any “loss of control” (akrasia). If an act is performed with self-control it is necessarily good.
Aristotle’s ethics allow for the possibility that a subjective act may have consequences, which do not match the subject’s intention. Here, the external circumstances, the arena in which an act is judged to be either good or evil, should play a role in determining the value of an act.
For Aristotle, a person who contemplates committing a crime is morally wrong, but less wrong than the person who actually carries out the criminal act. Here, virtue is not an absolute, but rather a quality that exhibits relative degrees: Some may be less virtuous and others may be more virtuous.
If a man attacks a figure on a dark street, attempting to rape her, only to discover that the figure is a mannequin, he cannot be tried as a rapist, only as someone who intended to rape. The intent to rape is a lesser crime than an actual rape. The external circumstances (the figure was merely a mannequin) help us to determine the severity of the crime.
In contrast, for the Stoics, virtue must be understood as absolute. External circumstances do not play any role whatsoever. For the Stoics, the man who intends rape and the actual rapist are equally criminal. They have committed the very same moral transgression. Virtue is judged entirely on subjective intentions and motives (and not on the acts themselves).
According to Stoic theory, external circumstances have no moral relevance. Internal mental processes are to be judged the same as actions (365). An act is judged on its moral inception not on its actual completion.
Securitas resides internally—stabilizing the will, controlling the passions. It does not consist merely in physically refraining from carrying out what one continues to desire.
What then are these desires and emotions—these curae—that must be controlled? Where do they come from, if not from the external world? Where do they reside in our inner lives? Are they purely irrational? Or do they already show rational qualities? Are the emotions at least potentially rational?
Chrysippus had defined the passions or emotions (pathē) as false judgments, which are based on false beliefs. Insofar as the emotions are based on cognitive judgments, they are rational.
As Nussbaum points out, this definition is a major departure from Platonic philosophy. For Plato, the emotions are rigorously distinct from reason, which is the seat of judgment. In other words, for Plato, all judgment is rational and all emotions are irrational.
How, then, can the emotions be judgments? Plato strictly distinguished between judgments, which are active, and emotions, which are passive. For Plato, the emotions are animalistic, without logos and therefore without any relation to judgment.
In contrast, for the Stoics, the passions are not animalistic—they are not irrational—but rather fully rational. Specifically, the passions are bad judgments. They result from a perverse or diseased use of reason. This perverse use of reason disturbs the soul; it allows our minds to be confused by all sorts of troubling concerns. And in order to achieve securitas, the elimination of concerns, one must train reason itself to judge virtuously.
Securitas, therefore, does not consist in making reason stronger (more capable of controlling irrational passions). Rather, it consists in correcting reason, in curing reason, in transforming it from a site of bad judgments to a site of good judgments.
The Stoic modification of Platonic theory has ramifications for modern economic theory, specifically in macroeconomic models based on “rational expectations” theory (Robert Lucas, Chicago): Impulses and desires that motivate consumption and purchasing are not purely irrational and thus incalculable. On the contrary, these consumer forces that drive the market are essentially logical—calculable and capable of manipulation.
Emotions belong to the sphere of reason: the passions entail a cognitive element (they are not merely thoughtless urges). Plato and Aristotle also admitted a cognitive aspect in the emotions, insofar as emotions are based on beliefs (and all beliefs are evaluative: either good or bad). However, whereas the Platonic and Aristotelian schools ascribe these values to external items, the Stoics locate the source of all value in the soul.
It was Chrysippus who first linked the passions with practical reasoning. For the Stoics, judgment entails two stages, which may be coincident: 1. Determining what is the case; and 2. Accepting it or rejecting it. One first judges whether something is good or bad, whether it is beneficial or harmful; and then one judges how to react it.
This theory depends on the primary meaning of logos, from the verb legein “to gather, to select.”
Our reason selects, either for good or for bad. We make propositions and either embrace them or reject them. If reason is untrained, we may embrace bad judgments or reject good judgments. In this way, in Stoic theory, the passions are cognitive and selective—fully housed within reason. Rationality is emotional (381).
Emotions are “fresh”—they have an overwhelming effect, but this does not deny the cognitive element. For the Stoics, we are still dealing with propositions, however vivid or troublesome. Long-held propositions, especially damaging ones, can have long-term effects on the subject’s character.
The difference between Platonic and Stoic ethics hinges on a difference in psychology:
The Platonic tripartite soul pits reason against the emotions: reason leads us toward the good, emotions lead us toward the bad—like two horses pulling in different directions (Phaedrus).
The Stoic soul is not divided in this way: the damaging forces are located within reason and they can therefore be recognized and ultimately denied. The soul is one single unit, not split into warring parties.
Whereas the Platonists stage a conflict, the Stoics speak of a dynamic oscillation—an oscillation that can ultimately be stabilized.
Specifically, the Stoics categorize the emotions according to two criteria: good and bad, present and future (386f):
“pleasure” or “delight” (hēdonē): a good that is present
“desire” or “longing” or “appetition” (epithymia): a good that is anticipated in the future
“distress” (lupē): a bad that is present
“fear” (phobos): a bad that is anticipated
Each type of emotion is cognitively recognized, based on mental propositions. Moreover, each type of emotion contains a whole variety of sub-species (see p. 387). Although we distinguish between good and bad emotions, Stoic philosophy shows us that all emotions are bad (poor uses of our rational soul), insofar as they arise when value is given to external things, when value is given to what is essentially worthless.
The emotions make the soul sick because they motivate a reaching out to external circumstances (either in the present or the future). To cure the soul, to make it secure, requires dissolving the soul’s attachment to these circumstances, to realize that they are beyond control and therefore indifferent.
It is therefore impossible to simply moderate or domesticate the emotions (as in Plato, where the rational part of the soul conquers the irrational part). Aristotle, of course, is the great philosopher of moderation (the “golden mean”); but the Stoics reject this approach: the emotions (our attachment to externals) must be extirpated.
We are born as natural creatures, but we are raised to give value to what does not naturally belong to us (See Seneca Ep. 22.15 on p. 389).
The perfectly wise man is “without passion” (apathēs), and therefore perfectly self-sufficient.
That is not to say that the wise man must remain entirely passive: on the contrary, he is often motivated to act, however this motivation should not arise from emotional impulses but from a rational attendance to virtue.
Acting emotionally is always disruptive—it makes the soul sick. We may believe that we can control our passions, yet these impulses gradually become stronger, uncontrollable, often to a point beyond recovery.
But is an entirely dispassionate life alive? Is the Stoic ideal of happiness little more than a euphemism for death? Is this security any different from the perpetual peace of the grave?
Is complete detachment from the world possible? Can we live outside the world, transcendent to the world? And is this world in fact without value? Is the world around us—are the people around us: strangers, acquaintances, loved ones—are they utterly worthless?
Graver: Ethics and the Problem of the Other
How can there be an ethics without any relation to otherness?
Margaret Graver attempts to address some of these questions by distinguishing emotions from feelings (35) – apatheia is not anesthesia.
As Nussbaum has indicated, for the Stoics, emotions have cognitive content; they are based on propositional beliefs. Graver specifies further: we develop dispositional beliefs (certain cases have certain values), which then help us to judge an occurrent belief (what is present belongs to a determined case).
The Stoic theory of the eupatheiai allows an affective response without the emotional disturbance. The eupatheiai are the result of perfect understanding. Whereas the emotions attach us to externals beyond our control, the eupatheiai point to an internal, moral response to externals.
Instead of being attached to pleasure—which may at any point become a dangerous obsession—the Stoics experience a feeling of joy. Instead of expressing a strong desire, the Stoics contemplate a certain wish. Instead of being afraid—being nervous and confused—the Stoics exercise calm caution.
In brief, the eupatheiai allow the Stoic to remain human. Securitas detaches us from externals, but does not remove our capacity to respond with affect.
But how can we ensure that securitas will not lead to cold indifference? Are feelings without emotional attachments in fact possible? Is the theory of the eupatheiai simply an attempt to shield the Stoic from charges of inhumanness?
At the beginning of its semantic history, securitas describes a state of utter detachment from the external world and the world of others. It denotes an inner stability that regards anything outside of the self as worthless, without value. Securitas would imply complete coldness, complete impassivity, were it not for the good feelings (eupatheiai) that the Stoics claim to experience.
To what extent does our current usage of the word security imply complete indifference to the outside? To what extent does security rob the world and the environment worthless? To what extent does it promote a certain narcissism, where nothing outside the subject counts, be it on the level of the individual, the social, or the national?