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The Stoics on the Education of Desire

Part of the Positive Education book series (POED)

Abstract

The ancient Stoics proposed one of the most sophisticated and influential ethical frameworks in the history of philosophy. Its impact on theory and practice lasted for centuries during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Today, their arguments and theories still inform many contemporary ethical debates. Moreover, some of the framework’s main tenets have been used as a theoretical foundation for cognitive–behavioural therapy (CBT), a widely used psychosocial intervention for improving mental health. Much of its lasting impact is the result of the special attention Stoic ethics pays to moral psychology, action theory and education. Stoics consider one of the main components of the development of virtue to be a careful and systematic training of our desires and aversions.

This chapter will offer a clear, succinct and up-to-date discussion of four main topics: (1) the Stoic theory of desire; (2) the complex taxonomies of desire offered by the ancient Stoics; (3) the arguments, educational strategies, and practices the Stoics recommend to discipline our soul and extirpate our irrational desires and finally (4) a brief discussion of the possibility of adapting the Stoic philosophy for the education of desires in the present day.

Keywords

  • Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy
  • Virtue ethics
  • Zeno of Citium
  • Chrysippus
  • Mental health

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Diagram 15.1

Notes

  1. 1.

    H. von Arnim (1903–1924) compiled most fragments in their original language. See also Hülser (1987). For Panetius, see M. van Straaten (1952), and for Posidonius, Edelstein and Kidd (1972). I use the translations by Long and Sedley (1987) and Inwood and Gerson (2008) with little modifications. To refer to the Stoic fragments or reports, I give the reference to the original source using the abbreviations and corresponding numbers in the Long and Sedley edition [LS].

  2. 2.

    For the Latin edition of Seneca, see Reynolds (1965a, 1965b, 1977) and Zwierlein (1986); for Epictetus see Schenkl (1916), and for Marcus Aurelius, Dalfen (1979). Here I use the translations in Fantham (2010), Davie and Reinhardt (2007), Long (2018), and Gill (2013).

  3. 3.

    For Musonius Rufus, see Hense (1905) and Lutz (1947), and for Hierocles, von Arnim (1906).

  4. 4.

    According to Stobaeus (2.86,17–88, 2 = LS53Q), the Stoics identify rational impulses with practical impulses. See Salles and Boeri (2014) ad locum. However, see Gourinat (1996, 2007).

  5. 5.

    In some sources, assent and impulse seem two closely connected but distinct events (Plutarch, SR 1057A = LS53S; Clement, Strom. 6.8.69.1 = FDS 298). For the discussion see Inwood (1985), Salles and Boeri (2014), and Brennan (2005).

  6. 6.

    In the same text, the Stoics also distinguish ‘repulsions’ (aphormē), defined as movements of the intellect away from something which is involved in action. To simplify things, I will omit these avoidance behaviors for now, but I will come back to them later.

  7. 7.

    Our modern use of the word ‘desire’ is wider than orexis and is closer in scope to what the Stoic call rational impulses. Epictetus, however, uses hormē and orexis in a different way. For him, orexis is not a specie or a subordinated genus of hormē but two coordinated and mutually exclusive genera, one directed to the apparent good, orexis, the other to the appropriate (kathēkon) (Epictetus, Diss. 1.4.1–2, 3.3.2, 3.3.5; Salles and Boeri 2014; Inwood 1985).

  8. 8.

    According to Galen (PHP 316, 28–320,28), Posidonius, unlike the other Stoics, defended a psychology of parts in conflict. Scholars disagree on whether or not we can trust Galen’s reports (Salles and Boeri 2014).

  9. 9.

    For suggestions see Salles and Boeri (2014).

  10. 10.

    Stoic sages have no pain in the Stoic sense (contractions of the soul disobedient to reason). Good emotions have many subtypes. Wish includes goodwill, kindliness, acceptance, and contentment. Caution subdivides into respect and sanctity, while joy includes enjoyment (although there is also a type of pleasure called enjoyment), good spirits, and tranquility (DL 7.116 = LS65F).

  11. 11.

    For the Stoic use of the medical analogy, see Nussbaum (1994).

  12. 12.

    Epictetus (Diss. 1.28.30–33) calls madmen (mainomenoi) all people who follows their impressions recklessly.

  13. 13.

    ‘Impulses’ in Epictetus.

  14. 14.

    Alternatively: It would be appropriate to get a Flat White if nothing happens to prevent it (see Seneca, Ben. 4.34).

  15. 15.

    In Diss. 3.2.1–5 (=LS56C), Epictetus divides his training program into three topics: desires (orexis) and aversions, impulses and repulsions, and infallibility and uncarelessness, or acts of assent quite generally.

  16. 16.

    Sextus Empiricus also reports how the Academics challenged the Stoics: ‘They confront the Stoics with appearances. In the case of things which are similar in shape but different objectively it is impossible to distinguish the cognitive impression from that which is false and incognitive. For example, if I give the Stoic first one and then another of two exactly similar eggs to discriminate, will the wise man, by focusing on them, be able to say infallibly that the one egg he is being shown is this one rather than that one? The same argument applies in the case of twins. For the virtuous man will get a false impression, albeit one from what is and imprinted and stamped exactly in accordance with what is, if the impression he gets from Castor is one of Polydeuces’ (M 7.402–10 = LS40H; tr. Long and Sedley).

  17. 17.

    For the Stoic sage, see Brouwer (2014) and Cooper (2005).

  18. 18.

    Sherman (2005) has analysed the legacy of stoicism in military culture. Zuckerberg (2018) discusses the misuse and oversimplification of Stoicism in the far-right online community. For the use of the term ‘stoicism’ in health literature, see Moore et al. (2012). Stoics are also mentioned as the philosophical foundation and precursors of modern cognitive–behavioural therapy (CBT), a widely used psychosocial intervention for improving mental health (Robertson 2010).

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Vázquez, D. (2020). The Stoics on the Education of Desire. In: Bosch, M. (eds) Desire and Human Flourishing. Positive Education. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47001-2_15

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