The Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy Newsletter

Document Type


Publication Date



The Stoic sage is a cold, heartless being who would not grieve over the loss of a beloved companion or child. Unmoved, unemotional, uncaring, the sage is an ethical and emotional monstrosity hiding behind the pretension of the so-called virtues of detachment and austerity. That, at least, is how many who study Stoic ethics perceive the sage in regard to his/her emotional life. In this paper I will argue that this conception of the Stoic theory of emotion and passion is misleading; emotions, in fact, are central to Stoic ethics and apatheia should not be confused with the contemporary idea of apathy or emotional flatness.

I must begin with a concession. It would be foolish to deny that Stoic ethics are unconventional and often disturbing to modem readers. Stoicism offers a radical ethic; the extreme nature of the ethical system is one of the main reasons for its appeal and its power in coping with extreme circumstances. Stoic life is not amenable to many of our contemporary values and ideals. Its solutions to life’s woes are foreign to us and often shocking. All this I grant.

I emphasize this point because in this paper I will be arguing against a common conception of Stoicism, namely that being free of emotion is a Stoic ideal. My objective is not to attempt to make Stoicism more acceptable to contemporary society. I would be doing a disservice to this great philosophical system if I whitewashed or softened the key doctrines. Rather, I present this thesis because I believe that the idea of the heartless sage is the result of misreading key texts and misunderstand several key terms and concepts. The Stoic term apatheia does not mean the same thing as its English cognate apathy. Emotional well-being is not emotional blankness for the Stoics; rather it is targeting the emotions properly. I will argue that without emotions Stoicism is inconsistent and internally untenable. In short, I will endeavor to show that emotions are central to Stoicism and should be celebrated as an indispensable element of the sage’s life.

My strategy is as follows: First, I will examine the language of emotion in both ancient Stoicism and contemporary speech; I will argue that it is misleading to conflate the contemporary idea of emotion with any single term or concept used by the Stoics. Secondly I will attempt to identify how emotion relates to the Stoic concepts of impulse [hormê] and passion \pathos\ in the context of Stoic psychology and action theory. Third, as the result of contrasting emotion with passion I will show that the Stoic rejection of the passions will not make sense if we also deny a significant role to legitimate emotions such as the eupatheiai. Indeed, we shall see that a significant motive for rejecting or extirpating the passions is the desire for emotional well-being.


Scott Rubarth presented “Targeting Emotion in Early Stoicism” to the Society at its meeting with the Eastern Division in Philadelphia in 2002.

For information about the author see: