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A Stoic Theory of Pathology

At this point I'm using text from E. Vernon Arnold's chapter "Sin and Weaknesses" in Roman Stoicism, and some text from Cicero, to outline a Stoic theory of pathology. Arnold begins:


"The Stoic view of the universe is coloured by optimism. All comes from God, all works towards good. None the less the Stoic morals are stern. Men in the mass are both foolish and wicked; they defy God’s will and thwart his purpose. The world is full of sin, and all sins (to use the Socratic paradox) are equal. What then is sin? It is a missing of the mark at which virtue aims (αμαρτημα); it is a stumbling on the road (peccatum); it is a transgressing of the boundary line. It is the child of ignorance, the outward expression of ill health of the soul. Everywhere and in every man it weakens, hampers, and delays the work of virtue. It cannot however finally triumph, for it is at war with itself. The Persians were wrong when they conceived an Evil Power, a concentration of all the powers of mischief in one personality. This cannot be, for sin lacks essential unity. It destroys but does not build; it scatters but it does not sow. It is an earth-born giant, whose unwieldy limbs will in the end be prostrated by a combatant, small to the outward view, but inspired with divine forcefulness. If we understand what sin is, we shall see its repulsiveness; if we learn how it spreads, we shall seek protection against its infecting poison; if we attack it in detail, in individual men and in their daily acts, we shall in the end lay it low. Philosophy then proceeds to arm itself for its task.

The four conditions of sin are errors.

"Sin is ignorance; more accurately, it is that which appears to be knowledge, but is not knowledge; it is false judgment. If we follow the process by which knowledge is attained, we find that there is no error in the mind-picture (visum), whether it is sensory or partly sensory and partly rational; this is an adumbration automatically presented to the mind. But ‘assent is in our power’; it is both an intellectual and a moral act. A too hasty assent to that which appears to be but is not is both an error and an offence; and most particularly so when it lies in the application of the general conceptions (προληψεις) of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to particular cases. In this way we quickly reach four sinful conditions, which come about by mistaking things indifferent, that is, advantages and disadvantages, for things good or evil. These are:

(i) Fear (φοβος, metus), in which a future disadvantage is mistaken for a future evil;
(ii) Greed (επιθυμια, libido), in which a future advantage is mistaken for a future good;
(iii) Grief (λυπη, aegritudo), in which a present disadvantage is mistaken for a present evil;
(iv) Hilarity (ηδονη, laetitia), in which a present advantage is mistaken for a present good.

"In the case of the last two evils the title presents difficulty in all languages; thus for Grief we might substitute any term such as Discontent, Vexation, Worry or Fretfulness; it is a lack of Courage in bearing pain or disappointment. Again for Hilarity we might substitute Elation, Exaltation, Excitement: it is a lack of Soberness in the moment of pleasure.

They are also maladies.

"From another point of view all sin is due to a lack of moral force, a want of tone in the moral sinews, an unhealthy condition of the soul. Ultimately this point of view agrees with that just described: for it is the lack of health and strength which leads to hasty and ill-judged assent. But for practical purposes we may use this distinction to lead up to a difference of grade. Thus we may associate ignorance with that rooted perversity of mind which is the exact opposite of virtue, and which is therefore in the strictest sense ‘vice’ (κακια, vitium); and want of tone with a passing condition which we cannot deny to be an evil, but may nevertheless describe by the gentler terms ‘perturbation’ and ‘affection.’ Such an evil is a disturbance of the soul’s calm, an ‘infection’ of its health. It may exist in three grades to be hereafter described, as a ‘ruffling,’ a ‘disturbance,’ a ‘disease’; and in both the latter forms it must be rooted out, for in both grades it is an evil, and in the last it is a vice which threatens to poison the man’s whole nature. Hence we reach the Stoic paradox that ‘the affections must be extirpated.’" (Arnold, pp. 330-32).

Evils and weaknesses.

Under the four sinful conditions are subdivided numerous evils and weaknesses. Cicero subdivided and defined a list of them.

"But numerous subdivisions of the same class are brought under the head of the separate disorders, as for instance under the head of distress [Grief] come invidentia, "envy" (for we must employ the less usual word for the sake of clearness, since invidia is used not only of the person who feels envy but also of the person of whom envy is felt), rivalry, jealousy, compassion, anxiety, mourning, sadness, troubling, grief, lamenting, depression, vexation, pining, despondency and anything of the same kind. Under the head of fear moreover are brought sluggishness, shame, fright, timidity, consternation, pusillanimity, bewilderment, faintheartedness; under pleasure [Hilarity] malice (taking delight in another's evil), rapture, ostentation and the like; under lust [Greed] anger, rage, hatred, enmity, wrath, greed, longing, and the rest of this kind.

"These moreover they define in this way: envy they say is distress incurred by reason of a neighbor's prosperity, though it does no harm to the envious person; for if anyone were to be grieved by the prosperity of one by whom he conceives himself injured, he would not rightly be described as envious, as for instance if Agamemnon were said to envy Hector; anyone however who, without being at all injured by his neighbor's advantages, is yet grieved at his enjoyment of them would assuredly be envious. But rivalry is for its part used in a twofold way, so that it has both a good and a bad sense. For one thing, rivalry is used of imitation of virtue (but this sense we make no use of here, for it is praiseworthy); and rivalry is distress, should another be in possession of the object desired and one has to go without it oneself. Jealousy on the other hand is what I understand to be the meaning of ζηλοτυπια [zêlotupia], distress arising from the fact that the thing one has coveted oneself is in the possession of the other man as well as one's own. Compassion is distress arising from the wretchedness of a neighbor in undeserved suffering, for no one is moved by compassion for the punishment of a murderer or a traitor. Anxiety is oppressive distress; mourning is distress arising from the untimely death of a beloved object; sadness is tearful distress; trouble is burdensome distress; deep grief is torturing distress; lamenting is distress accompanied by wailing; depression is distress accompanied by brooding; vexation is lasting distress; pining is distress accompanied by bodily suffering; despondency is distress without any prospect of amelioration.

"The divisions under the head of fear are defined in this way: sluggishness as fear of ensuing toil [shame as fear causing diffusion of blood] [trans.]; fright as paralyzing fear which causes paleness, trembling and chattering of teeth, just as blushing is caused by shame; timidity as the fear of approaching evil; consternation as fear upsetting the mental balance: and hence the line of Ennius: 'Consternation drives all wisdom from my nerveless bosom forth;' pusillanimity as fear following on the heels of fright like an attendant; confusion as fear paralyzing thought; faintheartedness as lasting fear.

"Further the divisions of pleasure are described in this way, that malice is pleasure derived from a neighbor's evil which brings no advantage to oneself; that rapture is pleasure soothing the soul by charm of the sense of hearing, and similar to this pleasure of the ear are those of sight and touch and smell and taste which are all of one class resembling liquefied pleasures, if I may say so, to steep the soul in. Ostentation is pleasure shown in outward demeanor and puffing oneself out extravagantly.

"The divisions again under the head of lust are defined in such a way that anger is the lust of punishing the man who is thought to have inflicted an undeserved injury; rage on the other hand is anger springing up and suddenly showing itself, termed in Greek Θυμωσις [thumosis]: hate is inveterate anger; enmity is anger watching as opportunity for revenge; wrath is anger of greater bitterness conceived in the innermost heart and soul; greed is insatiable lust; longing is the lust of beholding someone who is not present. They distinguish another sense of longing and make it also mean lust of the predicates affirmed of a person or persons (the terms used by the logicians being κατηγορηματα [katêgorêmata]), as for instance a man longs to have riches, to obtain distinctions; while greed is lust of the actual things, as for instance of distinctions, of money" (Cicero, pp. 339-51, trans. King).

Arnold continues:

Gradations of vice.

"From the study of the separate evils we revert to the general theory of Vice. And here we must recal the point that so far as vice is weakness or ill-health of the soul, it admits of gradations, which may conveniently be stated as three, namely (i) rufflings of the soul; (ii) commotions, infections, or illnesses; (iii) diseases or vices proper. It is not quite easy to classify the rufflings or first slight disturbances of the soul (prima agitatio anime) under the four perturbations; but the bodily indications of them seem to be more marked in the weaknesses of the active or heroic character, namely Fear and Greed. Thus in the direction of Fear we meet with hair standing on end—pallor of complexion—trembling limbs—palpitation, and dizziness, all of which are bodily indications that fear is not far off; in the direction of Anger (a form of Greed) we meet with heightened colour, flashing eyes, and gnashing teeth. In the direction of Grief we meet with tears and sighs, and in that of Hilarity the automatic sexual movements, amongst which we must perhaps include blushing.


"It does not appear that the early Stoic masters occupied themselves with the gradations of vice; although a text can be taken from Zeno for a discourse on this subject. Neither does the earnest and cynically-minded Epictetus care to dwell on such details. On the other hand Seneca lays the greatest possible stress on the doctrine that ‘rufflings’ are not inconsistent with virtue. For this two arguments are available, which are perhaps not quite consistent. First, the bodily indications are beyond the control of the mind; they are necessary consequences of the union of body and soul, that is, of our mortal condition. Secondly, the ‘rufflings’ correspond to the mind-pictures presented to the soul in thought, and therefore are neither moral nor immoral until the soul has given its assent to them. From either point of view we arrive at a result congenial to this philosopher. The wise man is, in fact, subject to slight touches of such feelings as grief and fear; he is a man, not a stone. Secondly, the sovereignty of the will remains unimpaired; give the mind but time to collect its forces, and it will restrain these feelings within their proper limits. The doctrine is in reality, though not in form, a concession to the Peripatetic standpoint; it provides also a convenient means of defense against the mockers who observe that professors of philosophy often exhibit the outward signs of moral weakness.


"If the soul gives way to any unreasoning impulse, it makes a false judgment and suffers relaxation of its tone: there takes place a ‘commotion’ or ‘perturbation’ (παθος, affectus, perturbatio), which is a moral evil. The Greek word παθος admits of two interpretations; it may mean a passive state or a disease; we here use it in the milder sense. By an ‘emotion’ we mean that the soul is uprooted from its foundation, and begins as it were to toss on the sea; by ‘affection’ that it is seized or infected by some unwholesome condition; by ‘perturbation’ that it has ceased to be an orderly whole, and is falling into confusion. When we regard these words in their true sense, and shake off the associations they carry with them in English, it is clear that all of them denote moral evils; nevertheless they cannot rightly be called ‘diseases’ of the soul. The evils and weaknesses which have been discussed are commonly displayed in ‘commotions’ or ‘perturbations,’ and are normally equivalent to them.

Diseases of the soul.

"The soul by giving way to perturbations becomes worse; it acquires habits of weakness in particular directions. This weakness from a passing disposition (εξις) changes into a permanent disposition (διαθεσις) or habit, and this is in the full sense a ‘disease’ of the soul. These diseases or vices are, strictly speaking, four in number, but the Stoics run into great detail as regards their titles and subdivisions. Diseases in the ordinary sense (αρρωστημας) display restlessness and want of self-control; such are ambition, avarice, greediness, drunkenness, running after women, passionate temper, obstinacy, and anxiety. An opposite class of maladies consists of unreasonable dislikes (κατα προσκοπην γινομενα, offensiones); such are inhospitality, misogynism, and quarrelling with the world in general" (Arnold, pp. 351-53).

Stoic Ethics

Epictetus by Keith Seddon

Arnold, E. Vernon (1911). "Sin and Weakness." Roman Stoicism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
[There is a copy of this book at the Stoic Voice Journal]

Cicero, Marcus Tullius (1945 c.1927). Cicero : Tusculan Disputations (Loeb Classical Library, No. 141) 2nd Ed. trans. by J. E. King. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard UP.

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