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Comments on Martha Nussbaum Interview

From Registry Report, Issue #16

Original Questioner: Bold
Nussbaum: Green
DT Strain: Regular

So what do you think Stoics got right and wrong? [let's start off with a descriptive view]

"With that, I think they have a very powerful position about the role of judgments of value in emotions, which has now been amply supported by psychological research into the emotions, and i show that convergence between Stoic philosophical analysis and modern psychological analysis, which focuses on what psychologists call appraisals, that is, evaluations and their role in emotions. That part the Stoics got brilliantly right, and a lot more detail about particular emotions they also got right.

What you need to do, to make it a defensible philosophical view, is to correct their view that animals and small children don't have emotions. That's not correct, so you have to revise that view so that emotions still have a cognitive / evaluative character but it's the sort of cognitive character that animals and children could have."


"Secondly, the Stoics are also not very sensitive to cultural variation in emotion, so you have to learn from anthropology and put that into the neo-Stoic view."

I would like to hear more on this thought. Is she saying that what is a preferred or dispreferred indifferent varies by culture? Or, is she saying that the fact that a judgment lies between the stimulus and the passionate response is somehow absent or otherwise from culture to culture? What is it that varies with culture within the Stoic model according to Nussbaum?

"And finally, because they didn't think you had any emotion until you were sixteen, which is a very implausible position, they didn't care about development and how that influences emotions, and we do have to care about how emotions develop from infancy through childhood into adulthood. So we have to draw on developmental psychology and psychoanalysis."


So what did the Stoics get particularly wrong?

"I already told you three big things that are wrong in the descriptive view. Turning to the normative view, Stoics think the correct attitude is that nothing is worthy of serious concern except our rational nature, nothing outside of us, not our political culture, not our friends or our children, none of that is really worth serious concern, so we shouldn't get upset when bad things happen to them. It's hard to argue with that because it's a very complete view and internally consistent in most ways."

We should be careful about Nussbaum's use of the phrase "serious concern". To the contrary, the correct selection among indifferents is of great seriousness to the Stoic - and, in fact, 'concern' is one of the appropriate feelings of the Sage. The important distinction with those things outside our will, is that we do not allow ourselves to become engrossed by them - we do not attach our contentment and happiness to them. It can be said that a rational serious concern for some externals is not inconsistent with that.

"So if we produce an argument that will shake a modern Stoic, it needs to show something of importance to the Stoics themselves that the Stoic view can't explain. I try to show certain things Stoics want to say - for example that we should care about our country and should be committed to defending it - which contradict their view on externals, so in the end they can't defend their theory. It's not simple, you need to take a long time to show that, but I think you can show that, even on its own terms, it's not entirely successful."

We should care about defending ideals appropriate to human beings, and neighbors who are innocent and/or in the appropriate camp. These are duties, of which Stoicism speaks a great deal. They are duties to act in ways that promote some Indifferents, and diminish others. This correct selection is the essence of virtue and it is that internal decision to be virtuous which is the only true good for the Stoic. On the other hand, if "our country" is run by a vicious oppressive regime, then we most certainly should not be defending it, but rather, working against it. I should see more of Nussbaum's argument on this, since she makes it clear that it is not simple and takes a "long time" to make the case.

So the Stoic position that all externals are indifferent is untenable?

"The Stoics think you should never mourn, for example. Cicero reports that a good Stoic father says, if their child dies, 'I was always aware that I had begotten a mortal'. Now, Cicero is one of my favourite thinkers of all time, and I find it very interesting to look at his letters when his daughter died. Just before she died, he had been writing typical letter of Stoic consolation to a friend who had lost a child. But when his own daughter died, he was absolutely devastated. He says to his friend Atticus again and again, 'I can't do normal things'. Atticus says 'this is not seemly, not fitting, you should not mind this so much', and at one point Cicero says 'it's not only that I can't go about my normal business, it's also that I don't think I ought to'."

I hope there is not a suggestion here that an example of failure to follow a philosophy is an example of the philosophy's failure. The key question is this: was Cicero happier, more content, more flourishing, for having failed to adhere to the teachings?

"So he made un-Stoic judgments about both his daughter and the Roman republic. He lost his life trying to save the Republic..."

I admittedly am unaware of all the details on this, but it is not necessarily un-Stoic to attempt to save a Republic. And, the loss of one's life is no proof of its innappropriateness. It may be the case that it was Stoically appropriate for Cicero to work for the Republic, and as well to die for it. I would need to discuss more details to be sure if it is true in this case, however.

"If he hadn't stayed in Rome so long trying to criticize Mark Antony, he wouldn't have been assassinated. He lived his life for both these things - his daughter and the Republic - and both were lost. What I find admirable is that he really wrestled seriously with the norms of Stoicism, and saw that they could help us correct an inappropriate kind of worldliness - he saw a lot of people go wrong because they were too ambitious, too competitive, too attached to worldly goods. But about the things we really love, and rightly love, we shouldn't be Stoic."

I would say these are among the most important of things about which to be Stoic. These are the things most likely to cause great suffering at some point. It is odd that Nussbaum sites an example of a man incapable of even carrying on his life, a man who has died (allegedly due to being un-Stoic), and then says that this is reason why we should be un-Stoic in these cases, rather than the opposite. To the contrary, it is these sorts of violent swings of passion which Stoicism is specifically designed to address. If we are only to be Stoic about the things that don't really matter, then Stoicism would truly be of little use or value.

In Upheavals, you argue that Stoics are part of what you call an anti-compassion tradition, as opposed to a pro-compassion tradition. Could you unpack those ideas a bit?

"Sure. When people read figures like Nietzsche, who say you shouldn't have pity, they read that it means you should be cold and hard-hearted. That's not it at all. Nietzsche tells us he's following a whole slew of people like Seneca, Epictetus, Kant. These people think that what you rightly value is your own good will and rational purpose, and that external things shouldn't upset you so much. And then they say 'OK, if you yourself are not deeply upset when you lose money or status, then you shouldn't pity or have compassion for someone else who loses those things. If you think you shouldn't be upset when you lose a child, then when someone else loses a child, you shouldn't feel compassion'."

Much of this depends on the definition of 'compassion' we choose to use. The essence, however, is that we should not be pulled into their first-person sense of attachment and suffering. Rather, we should feel appropriate concern for their suffering, understanding its real causes, and then act to assist in its relief. This, to my view and consistent with the Buddhist-like notion, is Stoic compassion, even if translators may choose not to select that word.

"Marcus Aurelius says, if someone is upset, and you know they have wrong values, you can treat them the way an adult treats a child - you can console the child, while understanding that the child is upset over nothing. That's the Stoic view. In other words, you have to be consistent. You can't say 'I'm going to get rid of anger, jealousy, hatred, but I'm going to keep compassion, because it's so nice'."

You can say precisely that if your understanding of what compassion is, is as mine. However, if your understanding of 'compassion' is being lost in some swaying emotional passion, then not so much. I'm not certain how useful that sort of rapture is to others who are suffering, however.

"No, what they say is, the best thing to do is get rid of your unwise attachments to externals, so you won't feel compassion, but you also won't want to hurt people, or to retaliate against them. You will be detached. So Seneca writes to the young emperor Nero on mercy, saying you should be gentle and merciful, but in the middle of the letter is an attack on compassion. Compassion is this soft thing where you care too much about what's out there. And they think in that is the seeds of anger, jealously and ultimately cruelty."

If "caring too much" means being consumed by sympathetic painful passion, then it is true, this helps no one and is un-Stoic. But if "caring too much" is merely the impetus to have concern for others, see things from their point of view, and have a wish to help them, then Stoics would not call this "too much".

It seem to me that Stoics' problem with emotion is it is either attachment or aversion, either a running towards or a running away from something. But could we argue that compassion could be something more Buddhist, that could not involve attachment or aversion, and rather bean attitude of disinterested concern, which we could integrate into a modern Stoic approach?

"Sure, you could. It depends how you define it. Some people do define it like that. But then it's not really an emotion at all, because it doesn't involve the idea of a deep attachment to an external object and a mental upheaval about the fortune of that object."

Precisely. And further, the Buddhist notion of compassion is not an entirely unjustified translation, given the close proximity of these two philosophies, and their thematic overlap. In fact, I would therefore argue that Stoicism should use the English word 'compassion' in precisely this sense.

And it doesn't necessarily involve the judgment 'this shouldn't have happened'...

"Exactly, or the idea that this person has suffered some important damage. No, you're supposed to think these things really aren't that important. But you can still have an attitude of concern, that's right."