Marcus Aurelius – the Unemotional Stoic?

Massimo Pigliucci in iai:

The title of this essay may sound redundant: aren’t all Stoics unemotional, making it their business to go through life with a stiff upper lip? Actually, no, and neither was Marcus, whose 1,898th birthday falls on April 26th of this year. It is true that he wrote in the Meditations, his personal philosophical diary: ‘When you have savouries and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that the corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of mucus.’ (VI.13)

These don’t exactly sound like the musings of someone who delights in gourmet food or drinks (Falernian was the best wine an ancient Roman could buy), not to mention someone with a romantic bent. But Marcus was deploying a technique that modern psychologists call ‘reframing,’ and a good case can be made that he wrote the above precisely in order to help himself temper his own far too emotional attachment to things that are best seen in a slightly cooler light. Do not get so overexcited about your dinner courses — he tells himself — remember that food is for nutrition, and that one doesn’t need exotic fauna to enjoy a savoury meal. When you get too cocky about being the emperor, just bring back to mind that the purple of which you are so proud is derived from crustacean blood. And try not to go overboard with this sex thing; after all, you’ve already had 14 children!

So the most famous philosopher-king in history was not attempting to suppress emotions (which the Stoics, good psychologists that they were, recognised is both impossible and undesirable), but rather to question them when they take a disruptive form. In fact, one overall goal of Stoic training was to shift out emotional spectrum, so to speak, from negative ‘passions’ like fear, anger and hatred to positive ones, like love, joy and a sense of justice.

More here.

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