Apatheia is a state of mind in Stoic philosophy in which one is free from emotional disturbance; the freedom from all passions. Apatheia is the root for the word “apathy” (i.e., indifference), but the ancient meaning of apatheia is closer to equanimity than indifference. To some extent, the Stoic term “apatheia” is misleading, even in the ancient Stoics’ own cultural context. In fact, the Stoic view is that the wise and virtuous person will have some feelings. The wise person experiences not delight but joy (at living a wise life); not fear but caution (which prevents her from agreeing with false appearances); not lust for preferred things but wish (that one choose well and not badly). So, Stoic happiness is not altogether devoid of feeling.
The Stoics say that if a person can be successful in eliminating the emotions (all of which are irrational and violent movements in the soul), that person too will enjoy tranquillity. This is another way of understanding apatheia, the elimination of all the excessive movements of the soul. Thus, the Stoic ideal is psychological invulnerability. In fact, with this in mind, the Roman Stoic Seneca will compare the wise person to a god.
Simplifying greatly, achieving apatheia is straightforward: Care about only those things you are in control of. Leave the rest behind. Upon reflection, according to the stoic thinkers, the only thing you DO have control over is your character and virtue. So, you worry about that and nothing else. That is, you worry about and work on what kind of person you are. What happens to you, event-wise, is largely out of your control. And, thus, out of the realm of your interests and passions. So, no matter what life throws at you, you deal with it, well, apathetically. Only your character matters, emotionally, to you.
To understand the Stoic teaching of apatheia, it is more convenient to go through Stoic ethics in more details, and define the terms in Stoics special own definitions.
Introduction: Stoic school was founded by Zeno of Citium. The tremendous influence Stoicism has exerted on ethical thought from early Christianity through Immanuel Kant and into the twentieth century is rarely understood and even more rarely appreciated. Throughout history, Stoic ethical doctrines have both provoked harsh criticisms and inspired enthusiastic defenders. Almost anyone who has any ideas about the Stoics has heard that the Stoics advocate two things:
1) Indifference to things not under our control (wealth, health, reputation, and the like).
2) Elimination of the passions or emotions.
These general ideas about the Stoics are partially correct: The Stoics place things like wealth and health, along with their opposites, poverty, illness, low status, etc., in the category of indifferent things. And they consider what they call the emotions (pathê) all bad. That is why they sometimes describe eudaimonia (Happiness) as apatheia (Freedom from the emotions): happiness is, or precisely coincides with, freedom from the emotions.
Moral Development: The Stoics held that virtue is the only real good and so is both necessary and, contrary to Aristotle, sufficient for happiness; it in no way depends on luck. The Stoics believed that compared to other animals, human beings are neither the strongest, nor the fastest, nor the best swimmers, nor able to fly. Instead, the distinct and uniquely human capacity is reason. Thus for human beings, “living in agreement with nature” means living in agreement with our special, innate endowment—the ability to reason.
The young child naturally wants to preserve itself; it should learn how, and it normally does. As we become older, we become aware that we operate in various roles: son or daughter, brother or sister, friend, student, apprentice, etc. And this goes on into adulthood: we learn what it means to be a citizen, a mayor, a client, a professional, a teacher, a craftsperson, a husband, a wife, a parent, etc. Corresponding to each of these roles is a set of appropriate actions (roughly duties), and there’s no particular mystery concerning what they are. The child’s appropriate action is to try to stay alive, the doctor’s appropriate action is to assist that process if the child is injured or gets ill; the apprentice’s appropriate action is to learn technical knowledge, his master’s job is to teach it well. And so on.
The final stage, which is fully reached only rarely, is the goal which Stoics seek to reach. The person who has reached it, they say, is living consistently according to nature. This person, the sophos or wise person, lives virtuously as well as happily. Such person can distinguish between goods, evils and Indifferents, but within the Indifferents, she distinguishes between the preferred and rejected Indifferents. From this perspective, only the virtues, actions that express the virtues, and feelings inseparable from virtue are good. By comparison, things like life, health, possessions, good reputation, etc. are not good but indifferent. The term “indifferent” does not imply that we should not care about these things; only that we should not care about them when they conflict with right living and lead us into temptation or towards evil.
Now, the opposites of these indifferent things, bodily and external conditions like death, disease, poverty, and disgrace are in a similar position; compared with wickedness or evil, things like acting unjustly, in a cowardly manner, etc., these bodily and external conditions too are indifferent.
Preferred and Rejected Indifferents: Stoics do not altogether ignore the usual distinctions between life and death, health and disease, possessions and poverty. They call things like life and wealth “preferred,” things like death and disease “rejected.” The preferred things are preferred over the rejected ones. But their value is virtually zero whenever they have to be compared with good things, such as virtuous action. A person who becomes wise and virtuous will undergo a shift of perspective. Much of what was once called good or bad will be reinterpreted. Wealth, for example, is now understood as a “preferred” thing, no longer a good on the same scale with virtue; in comparison with goodness or virtue, wealth is essentially neutral.
Virtue for Stoics includes character traits like courage, fidelity, fairness, and honesty, plus the mental ability to make wise moral choices. For the Stoics, virtue is an art that governs selection among the preferred and rejected Indifferents. It is an art of living. The key to virtue for the Stoics is its consistency–courage, wisdom, justice, proper loyalty, proper generosity, proper friendliness–are all consistent with one another. And what is just in one circumstance is consistent with what is just in another circumstance. By contrast, pursuit of preferred things is not always consistent: one person’s pursuit of power or fame or money or erotic pleasure may clash with someone else’s.
The Emotions: One’s position on the so-called indifferent things is inseparable from her position on the emotions. Emotions, say the Stoics, are excessive attachments to preferred things. When we lust for the pleasures associated with fame, high social status, possessions, money, etc., we are regarding these things as good. Yet they are ultimately indifferent. If we fear losing or not getting these things, we are regarding their opposites–low social status, poverty, etc.–as bad or evil. Yet these too are ultimately indifferent. Thus fear and lust are wrong because they involve a false belief and likewise with distress (including grief) and delight. We feel distress when we get what we fear (a rejected thing falsely believed evil). We feel delight when we get what we lust for (a preferred thing falsely believed good).
These terms “fear,” “lust,” “distress” and “delight” should not be understood in the ordinary way, but need to be understood in relation to the other Stoic ideas. Just as “energy” in ordinary life means one thing, and in modern physical theory something a bit different, so “lust” in ordinary English is not quite the same thing as “lust” in Stoicism. You can lust after longevity, possessions, the praise of others, and even health as well as after another human being.
The Stoics say that emotions are excessive impulses disobedient to reason, that emotions are movements in the soul contrary to nature. (“Disobedient to reason” and “contrary to nature” mean about the same thing; the term “nature” sometimes means the ideal—“contrary to nature” here means contrary to reason.) The Stoics say that emotions are upsets or disorders in the soul. They are physical events, but they are also mental events. According to the Stoics every belief can be analyzed into two components ((a) and (b)):
(a) The thought itself, without endorsement.
(b) Assent, endorsement, of the thought.
Stoics call the first component (a) an “appearance.” Unless we assent to false appearances, we do not experience an emotion. It is our power to assent or withhold assent that makes it possible to avoid emotions. Unfortunately, most of us have not developed the skill to use this power correctly, so we tend to endorse the false appearances that lead to emotion.
Comparison between Epicurean ataraxia and Stoicapatheia:
|Comes from the absence of evil objects and threats||Comes from the presence of inner control|
|Consists of an arrangement of matter (and nothingness) inside the human body||Consists of a rational faculty temporarily dwelling in a human body|
|Takes the form of a life in quiet retirement||Takes the form of an actively virtuous life|
|Cultivated for its own sake, as an ultimate end||Cultivated for the service of virtue, instrumentally|