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Plato and the Stoics on Non-Rational Feelings and Desires

David Kaufman

In this paper, I argue both that the Stoic and Platonic accounts of non-rational feelings and desires are more similar than scholars have generally thought, and that appreciating this similarity helps to elucidate Plato’s account of the positive contribution of non-rational feelings and desires to the fully virtuous soul. At first sight, the Stoics might seem to be of little help for understanding Plato’s account of the non-rational parts of the soul, since they famously denied that any of the desires and impulses of adult humans, including even the most intense emotions, are non-rational. However, at least later Stoics such as Seneca and Epictetus also developed a quite detailed and sophisticated account of the non-voluntary and non-culpable emotional feelings or, to use Stoic terminology, ‘pre-emotions’ (προπάθειαι) that even the Stoic wise man will naturally and unavoidably experience (Abel, 1983; Graver, 1999; Sorabji, 2000). I argue that, taken together, Stoic rationalism and the Stoic theory of pre-emotions help to clarify some philosophical challenges and motives for Plato’s account of the non-rational parts of the soul.

My talk begins by giving an outline of Stoic moral psychology and the challenge it poses for tripartite Platonic psychology. Since the Stoics took the rational part of the soul to be in and of itself perfectly capable of deciding when it is worth pursuing pleasure or honor, without the aid of further non-rational and imperfectly reason-responsive parts of the soul, their theory challenges the need for non-rational parts of the soul at all. Next, I turn to the role that, according to later Stoic sources, pre-emotions play in the life of the wise man. I argue that, like the non-rational desires and impulses of the well-ordered Platonic soul, the Stoic wise man both experiences a rarified set of pre-emotions and that such pre-emotions contribute to his virtuous activity by focusing his attention on action-salient features of his environment (Lorenz, 2011). In the third section, I turn to Plato’s account of non-rational desires and impulses and argue that he explains their positive contribution to the well-functioning soul partly on the lines followed by the Stoics, but that he also appeals to the specialization principle outlined in Republic II-IV. In particular, just as the philosopher-king would not be able to pursue his own function in the best and most effective way if he also had to patrol the streets or to farm the surrounding fields, so too, Plato argues, the rational part of the soul would be unable to pursue its function effectively if it was also directly responsible for the soul’s pursuit of appetitive and spirited goods. Instead, I propose that, according to Plato, the rational part of soul ideally exercises, to borrow a term from contemporary theory of action, ‘virtual control’ over the appetitive and spirited parts of the soul (Pettit, 2001). That is, it governs the agent’s desires and appetites for appetitive or spirited goods only in cases where appetite or spirit form inappropriate desires. In the fourth and final section, I argue that Plato’s endorsement of the specialization principle underlines an important difference between the Platonic and Stoic conceptions of reason: namely, while Plato takes the primary function of reason to be theoretical understanding and contemplation, the Stoics take it to be the virtuous governance of one’s desires and impulses.

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Perception and the Senses

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