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Stoicism

What the Stoic account of the emotions leaves out

socrates dionysusAt the end of Philosophy for Life, I asked what the Socratic-Stoic tradition of philosophy misses out, and suggested there is an alternate approach to life and to emotional healing, which I called the Dionysiac tradition:

The virtues of the Socratic tradition are self-control, rationality, self-consciousness and measure. The Socratic tradition typically puts forward a hierarchy of the psyche, in whcih the conscious, reasoning parts of the psyche are highest, and the intuitive, emotional and appetitive parts of the psyche are lowest. The Dionysiac tradition celebrates a very different way of life. Where Socrates preaches self-control, Dionysus urges us to lose ourselves in sex, music, dancing and ecstasy.

The Socratic approach uses conscious reasoning as the means to emotional healing and virtue. Our emotions are caused by – or in some sense are – our beliefs and judgements. Sometimes our beliefs are unwise or wrong, which causes us suffering. But we can use our reason to re-appraise, to think differently, believe and behave differently, and this will bring us healing and wisdom.

This is the idea at the heart of Socratic philosophy, and the Neo-Stoic or cognitive theory of the emotions which is found in cognitive psychology, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and in the philosophy of Martha Nussbaum and many other virtue ethicists.

It’s true to an extent, and it can bring people a lot of healing. But it’s not the whole story. It is a partial account of the truth. It misses stuff out. If that’s all you know about the psyche, your philosophy of life will be over-rationalistic, and less effective than it could be in helping people heal and flourish.

Emotions and the Autonomic Nervous System

What I call the Dionysiac approach has a different theory of the emotions. It suggests that some forms of emotion – we might prefer to call them moods or feelings – are not primarily forms of cognitive appraisal. Instead, they are non-cognitive and physiological.

The Autonomic Nervous System
The Autonomic Nervous System

Our body, our Autonomic Nervous System, our limbic system, reacts automatically to a stimulus with powerful physical reactions (gut feelings, skin tingling, heart palpitations, heavy or shallow breathing, involuntary limb movements and so on), which our neo-cortex may then appraise and turn into an emotion.

William James, the most famous defender of this theory, described it thus. We see a bear. Our heart starts pounding, our hair stands on end, our body is flooded with adrenaline, we jump out of our skin and start running away, and as we’re running, we think to ourselves ‘this is fear, I’m afraid of that bear’. The bodily reaction comes first, and then the mind recognizes the body’s reaction and categorizes it as an emotion. The emotion, James suggests, is the physiological response.

This more non-cognitive account of the emotions focuses particularly on the Autonomic Nervous System, also known as the visceral or involuntary nervous system, regulated by the hypothalamus and running through the ganglia to our pupils, hair, skin, heart, lungs, stomach, groin and limbs.

The ANS also seems to be involved in trance states or altered states of consciousness. Music, poetry or cinema, for example, appears to have the power to send us into trance states by operating directly on our ANS rather than through our conscious rational reasoning – we feel it in our gut, it makes our skin tingle, our pupils dilate, our heart pound, and before we know it we are crying or euphorically dancing, almost involuntarily (see particularly Judith Becker’s Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion and Trancing). Our cognitive rationality is suspended, we go into a trance state, and are absorbed in the moment and the feeling.

The Stoics were aware of involuntary physiological reactions to shocks – they called them ‘first movements’. For example, a Stoic philosopher might be on a ship in a storm, and might turn pale and start shivering from fear. However, the Stoics insist it’s only an emotion if the philosopher gives their conscious assent to their physical reactions and thinks ‘this really is a scary and terrible situation’.

Seneca writes:

Emotion does not consist in being moved by the impressions that are presented to the mind, but in surrendering to these and following up such a chance movement. For if anyone supposes that pallor, falling tears, sexual excitement or a deep sigh, a sudden brightening of the eyes, and the like, are evidence of an emotion and a manifestation of the mind, he is mistaken, and fails to understand that these are just disturbances of the body.

So according to the Stoics, our ANS system may react powerfully to things – our toe may start tapping, our teeth may chatter, our heart may pound, our skin may tingle, we may even go into some kind of trance state or dissociative fit. The Stoic may feel all these things, but as long as the neo-cortex does not give its assent to these physical disturbances, it’s not an emotion, it’s ‘just disturbances of the body’. It’s a strange dualist separation of mind and body for a supposedly materialist philosophy.

On the one side, then, are the Stoics and Neo-Stoics like Martha Nussbaum, who defend a rationalist and cognitive theory of the emotions, in which any emotion must involve an evaluation or judgement of value. On the other side – the side which Nussbaum calls ‘the Adversary’ – are James, Damasio, Joseph LeDoux, Jonathan Haidt, Pascal and other ‘intuitionists’, who challenge the cognitive theory of the emotions and insist that sometimes our moods, feelings and emotions don’t involve conscious rationality primarily or indeed at all. The ANS has its reasons of which the neo-cortex knows nothing, as Pascal almost put it.

Primary and secondary emotions

It’s a fault line that runs right through modern thinking about the emotions and the best way to heal them. Which is true?

It seems to me that both accounts are true, both capture something important about the emotions. Perhaps, as Antonio Damasio argues, there are two different ways we can feel emotions – primary and secondary. Primary emotions are mainly autonomic and physiological. These occur in all animals, and perhaps to some extent in plants too. Secondary emotions, by contrast, involve some cognitive evaluations or re-evaluations, both of our physical response and of the stimulus that prompted it. Secondary emotions involve the neo-cortex, the most recently evolved part of our brain.

The Stoic or Neo-Stoic account tends to focus entirely on secondary emotions. As a result, Stoic therapy, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, tends to focus mainly on cognitive re-appraisal and re-thinking as the best method for emotional regulation and healing.

But that is not enough. It does not give an adequate account of our powerful emotional and visceral responses to, say, the arts, or sex, or nature, or drugs, or some forms of meditation or ecstatic religious experience. It gives an account of rational consciousness (probably involving the neo-cortex), but not of other states of consciousness which are more hypnagogic or trance.

Stoics and Neo-Stoics are suspicious of these sorts of visceral emotional states because they are so powerful, and because they seem to by-pass or over-throw our rationality (which they insist is the sovereign or divine part of us). That’s why Plato is so suspicious of poetry – it creates a form of ecstasy in which we are no longer master of our self, and Plato’s philosophy is all about becoming master of your self.

Dilated pupils: one of the classic somatic responses of the ANS

But here’s the key point. Our Autonomic Nervous System is not entirely Autonomic. We can consciously engage in practices which operate through the route of ‘primary emotions’, that’s to say, directly into our ANS. This can be very healing, helping us to alter the ‘milieu’ or baseline of our daily moods in a way that the cognitive appraisal of CBT does not always do.

And such ANS-targeted practices transform our consciousness, giving us different ways of being and knowing beyond rationality. These different ways of being and knowing can sometimes give us the sense of connecting with the sacred or the divine. So they’re not necessarily ‘lower’ or more ‘bestial’ than conscious rationality, as philosophers have sometimes insisted. They are important parts of our psyche, which philosophy often leaves out.

ANS-targeted practices

What sorts of practices work directly on our ANS system?

Certain forms of meditation, like Transcendental Meditation or mindfulness, work not with our conscious rationality or logic, but instead work on our ANS to alter our consciousness and our emotions. That can be tremendously healing, as the evidence from 40 years of research into meditation shows. The repeated practice of meditation alters our baseline emotional state and our automatic reaction to potentially stressful stimuli. It alters our heart rate, our immune system, our breathing – and that all feeds into our thinking style, making us less likely to make anxious or depressed appraisals of events.

Likewise, we can consciously engage with the arts as a form of healing and emotional release. That’s precisely why dance is so important to human beings – it gives us a form of emotional catharsis that is more direct, more primary and non-cognitive than conscious rational deliberation. Philosophers (not traditionally the greatest dancers) have singularly failed to appreciate the power of dance to heal us, beyond a few brief statements in Plato or Rousseau.

J.M.W. Turner
We don’t calmly process Turner’s Snow-Storm, we’re astonished by it

The emotional impact of the beauty of nature and art cannot be adequately explained by the Stoic or Socratic account of the emotions – this is why Nussbaum’s attempts at aesthetics are so tepid. As Burke understood, the sublime and the beautiful operate not on our reason, but on our nerves, our stomach, our guts. Burke wrote: ‘In every one of its modifications the sense of the sublime has its nervous basis, due to changes which are in some degree painful, and an analogous nervous basis may be discovered for the sense of the beautiful.’We don’t calmly and rationally process sublime scenes. On the contrary, we’re astonished by them – they overwhelm us, defy our ability to process them.

DH Lawrence and other Dionysiacs would also say, quite rightly, that sex is a powerful form of emotional catharsis, one unfairly denigrated by Stoics as ‘a rubbing together of bellies’ in Marcus Aurelius’ unhappy phrase. Erotic love gives us a form of knowing deeper and more visceral than conscious rationality. Our bodies, our ANS systems, intertwine. That can also be very healing.

And collective religious experiences are also a way of consciously manipulating and altering the Autonomic Nervous System. The music, the incense, the dancing, the singing, the prayer, the wine, the invocation of a Higher Power – all this by-passes our rationality and works directly on our primary emotions. And that can be tremendously healing and transformative. Of all philosophers, William James understood best how healing the altered states of consciousness attained through stimulation of the ANS could be. His classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, challenges the Stoic idea that healing only comes about through conscious reasoning. Sometimes people are healed and released from their old emotional habits through profound visceral or trance experiences.

Of course, we may get a temporary healing or release through a night of passion, or dancing, or religious ecstasy, or ayahuasca. Still, I think the Stoics were right that if this temporary release is going to become permanent transformation, it also needs to involve our conscious rationality. A spiritual life that is all about feelings and not at all about rational beliefs will not have very deep roots. Nor would a spiritual life that is entirely based on rational beliefs and not at all on bodily feelings. There needs to be a connection between the mind and the heart, in popular parlance.

It would be unfair to say Stoic therapy is entirely rational and that it misses out completely the non-cognitive and the non-rational aspects of emotions. A defender of Stoicism would point to the role of visualization meditations in their therapy, and their sense of awe in nature – both of which are rational but also non-rational / visceral. Certainly, Pythagoras and his follower Plato understood the power of music, dance, poetry and incantation to transform and heal our emotions.

sacred_heart_byzantineBut in general, Greek philosophy is rather suspicious of non-rational or Dionysiac approaches to the emotions. I think Christianity has a greater sense of the healing and transformative power of music, architecture, poetry, liturgy, dance and trance states (although of course it steered well clear of any drugs besides incense and wine). Judeo-Christianity speaks not just of reason or logic, but of knowing God through the heart or even the bowels – we are often told in the New Testament that Jesus reacts to suffering in his splagchnon, his bowels. How different to a Stoic, who would dismiss such visceral reactions as ‘just disturbances of the body’.

At its best, I think, Christianity can sometimes combine the rational ethical wisdom of Stoicism with the more non-rational, sublime or Numinous emotional experiences we have discussed. Though, I’m sure like a lot of you, I find my reason and my heart aren’t always in agreement.

There’s a difference between making noise and making change

seebohmIt is quite easy to make noise in our culture. The internet and online media are like a giant echo chamber, and within a few days one angry tweet can turn into an ear-splitting feedback scream of indignation. Because of that, we can become entirely focused on making noise in our culture – getting retweeted, getting on the news, getting publicity somehow or other. Anything to get the public’s attention for a moment. But making noise is not necessarily the same as making change.

Let me compare two revolutionaries: Seebohm Rowntree, and Russell Brand.

Seebohm Rowntree was Joseph Rowntree’s son, and eventually succeeded him as chairman of Rowntree’s chocolate company. Like his father, he was also a passionate campaigner for social justice. He wanted to improve the lives of British workers. He did this by quietly and pain-stakingly building an evidence base for higher wages.

He and a small team of researchers focused on working conditions in York. They investigated how many calories a person needed to eat to avoid malnutrition, and how much it cost to get those calories, as well as the basic fuel, clothing and household items necessary for survival. Anyone who could not afford these basics lived below the Poverty Line.

18.htm99His team then visited every working class family in York – 11,560 families, or 46, 754 individuals in all –  and interviewed them about their living conditions and income. His team discovered that 27.84% of the working class lived below the Poverty Line – they were not paid enough to avoid malnutrition. He also showed how many working-class people fell below the Poverty Line at the beginning and end of their lives – the so-called Poverty Cycle.

Rowntree published his results in a 1901 book, Poverty, in which he argued that employers should raise their wages and give sick pay and health insurance, while the state should provide unemployment insurance – otherwise, as soon as adversity struck, a family was plunged below the poverty line (if it wasn’t there already).

Andrew Marr, in his History of Modern Britain, writes:

Rowntree’s book arrived like a bomb in British politics. It showed that at the heart of the Empire, with all its pomp, wealth, and self-satisfaction, around a third of people were so poor they often did not have enough to eat, and many were sunk in utter poverty as bad as that of the Czar’s empire against which the communists raged. It did this clinically and statistically, in a way that was impossible to refute.

Rowntree’s work changed things. He worked closely with the Liberal government of David Lloyd George (1906-1914), which introduced many of the welfare provisions which Rowntree advocated. It also inspired (or shamed) many companies around the world to follow the example of Rowntree’s and introduce higher wages, sick pay, health insurance, free medical and dental consultations, employee pension schemes, and councils for consulting employees on management decisions.

Russell Brand has just as good intentions as Seebohm Rowntree, although I suspect he is more of a narcissist than the shy Seebohm was. Brand doesn’t just want social change, he also likes revolution as a pose, a look. He was calling for revolution on his radio show a decade ago, long before he had any idea what it would involve. It just sounded good, it felt cool, it felt naughty. Calling for revolution on Radio 2, fancy that!

517EhMdH-SLThen, last year, he published a manifesto in the New Statesman calling for ‘total revolution of consciousness’, for a ‘spiritual revolution’. This year, he expanded it into a book. Sounding like Thomas Traherne in Doc Martens, he declared that greed, power, capitalism, time itself were just ideas in the mind, and as ideas, they could be changed in an instant. We should ‘meditate, direct our love indiscriminately and our condemnation exclusively at those with power. Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster.’

Well, OK. But why ‘focus our condemnation exclusively at those with power’, as if all the evils of the world come from the Illuminati? Isn’t that letting us, the public, massively off the hook? Who is perpetuating a culture of shallow narcissism? We are! Who is perpetuating a female-denigrating patriarchy? We are! Who is putting our short-term consumer demands above the long-term survival of us and every other species? We are! But it feels so good to demonize ‘those with power’ and project our guilt onto them – it makes us into the heroic warriors of light, truth, justice and righteousness, just like those righteous ISIS dudes.

And saying ‘money is just an idea’ is not necessarily going to free us from that idea. Consciousness-change can happen in an instant, but usually it takes a lot longer. It takes strong evidence to make your argument the consensus rather than just a passing gesture. But when Brand went on Newsnight, he angrily waved away any contrary evidence or data: ‘I ain’t got time for a bloody graph!’

Brand doesn’t know the difference between making noise and making change. Imagine Seebohm Rowntree saying ‘I ain’t got time for a bloody graph’. Without evidence, you merely have rhetoric, gesture, charisma, warm sentiment and good intentions. And that can help you make noise, but not real worthwhile change.

I’m thinking about this because I’m wondering how those of us working to revive Greco-Roman philosophy (and ancient wisdom in general)  can not just make noise, but make change.

It’s relatively easy to make noise, as a practical philosopher. Sometimes if you’re lucky you can get on the media for a few minutes, write some articles, visit some schools, sell some books, do some cool stuff, make an OK living. But how do you really make a long-term difference rather than short-term noise?

My visit to Boston last month, for the Mind & Life Institute’s International Symposium of Contemplative Studies, was a real wake-up call. It seems to me that the people involved with Mind and Life – scientists and philosophers like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Richard Davidson – have over the last 30 years made genuine change. They have established mindfulness as a serious and evidence-based intervention, widely used now in medical schools, in higher education, in schools, in prisons, in mental healthcare, in business.

I’m particularly struck by the success of Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course. Kabat-Zinn established a course that was easy to follow, and easy to replicate. He started to build up an evidence base for its success in lowering stress. He let other people use the course and test it out – he put the promotion of the intervention above the promotion of his personal brand.

600_400453522He leveraged the credibility of his institution – UMass medical school – to help bring his research into the mainstream. He built up alliances with other key change-makers in his field, through the Mind and Life and other organizations and networks. He wrote both journal articles to make his case in academia, and popular books to make his case to the public.

That’s how to do it.

I feel that those of us working in practical philosophy (such as the Stoicism Today team) are at the beginning of that process. Like the mindfulness people 30 years ago, we’re trying to marry ancient wisdom practices with modern evidence-based psychology, and then take that out into different contexts – schools, prisons, mental healthcare, companies. We’re doing well – next week, Stoic Week is happening for the third year, with over 1000 people taking part in the online course (you can read the handbook in preparation for next week here). And we’re just about to sell out all the 300 tickets for the modern Stoicism event in London, so this will be the largest Stoic event…er…ever!

We’ve got Stoicism into the cultural conversation again, which is great. And I think a great deal of Stoicism Today’s success, perhaps all of it, has been because of partnerships – putting the movement before the promotion of our personal brands. That’s how to make change.

But we need to think about how to make more long-term change. Speaking personally, this year has been great fun, but everything has felt quite ad hoc – working with a rugby club one month, then a school the next, then a prison, then an accountancy firm. I personally feel the need for more of a coherent long-term strategy.

We need, I suspect, to establish a centre, within a university or several universities. There are mindfulness centres in many different universities and medical schools, but as far as I know, only one centre dedicated to the revival of ancient Greco-Roman philosophy (at the University of Warsaw). We need more partnerships with clinical psychologists and neuroscientists. We need more simplicity and replicability in our course materials, so it’s not just about our personality. And above all, we need to build up a stronger evidence base, so the case for learning wisdom practices becomes ‘impossible to refute’.