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The Pre-Emotions of the Stoic Wise Man

David Kaufman

The Stoics held the surprising and often criticized view that the fully virtuous man – to use their terminology, the wise man (ὁ σόφος) – will not form any of the emotions (πάθη) experienced by the rest of us. Instead, according to them, in most conventionally emotionally salient situations the wise man will experience at most pre-emotions (προπάθειαι), which feel like emotions, but, unlike emotions, do not express any of the agent’s evaluative beliefs. While the Stoics argued that someone forms an emotion only if he assents to an emotionally salient impression, they held that pre-emotions are stimulated directly by such impressions, without the agent’s assent. Accordingly, if the wise man, as he observes his city burning, is faced with the (according to the Stoics, false) impression that his city’s destruction is bad for him, he will experience a psychic contraction and may even become pale and shed tears as a result, even though he will not subsequently assent to this impression, and so will not form the emotion of distress.

In this talk, I will focus on the following two puzzles in the Stoic account of the pre-emotions of the wise man. First, why would the wise man form false emotionally salient impressions that do not correspond to any of his beliefs and to which he will never assent? For example, since he knows perfectly well that death is not bad, why would he be faced with an impression falsely portraying his impending death as bad for him as he falls from the slopes of Mount Olympus? And second, will the same situations and events commonly stimulate false emotionally salient impressions and pre-emotions in the wise as in the non-wise? For example, even if both the wise and the non-wise will experience pre-emotions as their ship sinks beneath the surface of the sea, will the wise also commonly experience a pre-emotion if their tax-refund is less than expected or if someone cuts them off in traffic? Although answering these questions is crucial for understanding the Stoic theory of pre-emotions, scholarship on the Stoics has given very little attention to the former question and, to my knowledge, none at all to the latter.

My talk is divided into three sections. In the first, I give an overview of the Stoic theory of pre-emotions, and argue that the wise and the non-wise alike experience pre-emotions whenever they are faced with, to use Stoic vocabulary, an ‘impulsive impression’ (φαντασία ὁρμητική) portraying a merely apparent good or bad as good or bad for them. The next section turns to Seneca’s distinction, in his On the Constancy of the Wise Man, between conventionally distressing situations that the wise man ‘receives but conquers’ (recipit sed […] euincit), and those that he ‘does not even feel’ (ne sentit quidem, Const. 10.3-4). I argue that these passages, together with the rest of our evidence, suggest that the wise man is naturally and unavoidably faced with false impulsive impressions, and so also experiences pre-emotions, only in response to merely apparent goods or bads that are, to use Stoic vocabulary, preferred or dispreferred intrinsically (δι᾿ αὑτά), such as life or death. By contrast, things that are preferred or dispreferred merely instrumentally (δι᾿ ἕτερα), such as wealth or poverty, will not commonly stimulate pre-emotions in him. The third and final section considers why the wise man is faced with false impulsive impressions at all, and why intrinsically preferred and dispreferred things alone commonly stimulate such impressions in him. I argue that the Stoics answered these questions by appealing to their theory of childhood development, and especially to their account of the desires and aversions of newborn children. 

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Problems in Ancient Ethical Philosophy

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