I think one pitfall we tend to encounter, when we try to put Stoic teachings into practice, is that of becoming unfeeling, “like a stone.” I mentioned four such difficulties in a previous post. Here, I want to expand on this particular one.
What this expression means, becoming or being “unfeeling like a stone,” is being emotionless, unfeeling. Or more likely, it means suppressing, or even repressing, one’s feelings and emotionality, and not expressing any feeling and emotion. For whatever reasons, Stoic teachings often seem to get interpreted this way, as advocating that one should become without feeling. I don’t know if this results from misunderstanding words and ideas of the teaching, or whether it is something that happens when we try to put the teachings into practice (without exactly misunderstanding the idea of the teachings). In the one case, it would be a theoretical error, while in the other, a practical difficulty or mistake.
Regardless, Stoic teaching in fact does not instruct us to become expressionless, unfeeling, or emotionless. It is very easy, for example, to end up trying to suppress or repress “negative” feelings (and thoughts) relating to things that we are “supposed” to regard as “indifferent” (indifferent in the technical sense meaning neither good nor bad). Yet this actually runs counter to the teachings. Epictetus says explicitly that one should not be “unfeeling like a stone.” Whether dabblers, beginners, or committed philosophers, we must remember that in general, the recommendation is to “withhold assent” from certain impressions and their accompanying impulses, not to immediately alter them to the way a fully accomplished sage might think and feel (as this is not possible).
In connection with this, I also want to direct attention to an insightful discussion of this that @Andy Peterson (Lens Taoism) left in a comment to the previous post I mentioned above.
Please share! What is your experience with these matters, even if you haven’t been specifically practicing Stoicism?
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2 thoughts on “The pitfall wherein we become unfeeling”
I appreciate this post. The argument of Stoicism being a philosophy that lacks feelings was one that always puzzled me: it wasn’t how I read or interpreted things at all.
“Regardless, Stoic teaching in fact does not instruct us to become expressionless, unfeeling, or emotionless.” This could be an automatically-generated meme that pops up when someone quotes Marcus Aurelius.
Thank you Em! Also I love your idea for the automatically-generated meme lol.