Do Stoics Ignore Their Emotions?

When it comes to Stoicism, the most common mistake people make is to assume Stoics ignore their emotions. In this article, we will see why quite the opposite is true.

Just like any ordinary human being, Stoics have emotions and they do not ignore them. Emotions are one of the reasons why living is worthwhile, and one of the main tenets of Stoicism is to live a worthwhile life. As a result, it is completely wrong to assume that Stoics are cold, emotionless and estranged from the world and from themselves. If you are under the assumption that Stoics ignore their feeling and emotions, that belief will surely collapse with the following quote from the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius:

“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …

Marcus Aurelius

We can feel the tone and enthusiasm in these words, for the joy of simple things in life and how wonderful our emotions can be if we focus on them. However, Marcus Aurelius also commented on the adverse side of such emotions:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own … And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him… To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”

Marcus Aurelius

The above two quotes highlight the duality of emotions. In the first case, the emperor notes the value of life and emotions, but in the second quote, he reminds himself of the struggles he will have to endure that day due to others’ emotions. However, the emperor chooses to reject the idea of estrangement and withdrawal, and to instead face the world and whatever it may bring.

It is of vital importance to understand that Stoics do not deny emotions; they deny affects. Affects are strong emotions that can cast a shadow on reason, disabling our thinking and logical actions. Such affects include fear, anxiety, lust, arrogance, jealousy, anger, etc. In principle, all those affects burden our mind and deny us access to the clearer picture.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca provided numerous examples of the destructive force of anger. As a result, anger cannot be ignored; it must be dealt with.

“The entire world would perish, if pity were not to limit anger.” 

“Anger is like a ruin, which, in falling upon its victim, breaks itself to pieces.”

Seneca

On the other hand, emotions that are born from reason are healthy and worth living for. These emotions are naturally pure and represent only our feelings in the moment. Such emotions include gratitude, love, benevolence, compassion and joy, to name a few.

It is evident that emotions are not taboo in Stoic philosophy, as they are needed to live a fulfilled and worthwhile life. However, we must be cautious that emotions don’t take control over our mind, because this leads to the clouding of our judgement and thinking that is the opposite to the Stoic principle of living a life according to our nature. Emotions and affects should never be ignored or suppressed; they should be recognized in order to be dealt with. If we are grateful for something, we cannot ignore that feeling, nor can we ignore our feelings if somebody is threatening us or the ones we love. 

What we can do is overcome our affects and act with reason. In Stoic philosophy, the point is to not allow emotions to overshadow the mind, especially since any emotion can give birth to affects when left to wander without the guide of reason.