Nancy Sherman on Stoic Emotion and Seneca’s Humanity

Nancy Sherman | Stoic Emotion and Seneca's Humanity

ABOUT OUR GUEST

Nancy Sherman is University Professor and Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University.  Sherman is a New York Times Notable Author. Her books include Afterwar, The Untold War, and Stoic Warriors.  From 1997-1999, she served as inaugural holder of the Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the US Naval Academy, designing and teaching the brigade-wide military ethics course and laying the groundwork for the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership.  Sherman has received numerous prestigious fellowships, including those from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Center, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council for Learned Societies, the Mellon Foundation, the Yale Whitney Humanities Center, the American Philosophical Society, the Newcombe Fellowship of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and NYU’s Center for Ballet and the Arts. Sherman is a frequent contributor to the media worldwide. She has research training in psychoanalysis from the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute and regularly consults with military and veterans groups in the U.S. and abroad on issues of ethics, moral injury, and posttraumatic stress. In October 2005, she visited Guantanamo Bay Detention Center as part of an independent observer team assessing the medical and mental health care of detainees.  She lectures widely nationally and abroad. She holds a Ph.D. from Harvard in philosophy.

GUEST LINKS

  • We should recognise fully that we are, as human beings, attracted to living with and around other people. 
  • We share a common rationality among all humans and we naturally live within a highly-connected and highly effective community. We should embrace this. 
  • We need to have attitudes of social connection that don’t put us at total peril of psycho-trauma and soul-trauma from losses. 
  • We need to make sure that the concentric circles that connect us all as human beings don’t become so far apart that the people on the outside become different to the people on the inside. For example, if you feel prejudice towards another human being then you have failed to recognise your shared value of humanity. This leads to tribalism. 
  • We should also aim at finding solutions for better preparing for and dealing with the various tragedies of life. This might be any one of the Stoic techniques for identifying and training our various perceptions and reactions. 
  • We need to practice healthy interaction with our emotions. For example, a period of grieving may be in order. 
  • The picture that people are getting of Stoicism isn’t quite complete. There is much still to learn!
  • The Stoics are largely indebted to Aristotle for their ethics.
  • The Stoics do reject many of Aristotles ideas, for example that happiness comes, at least in some part, from the pursuing of external goods. However, they never quite gave up on his view of the social connectedness of life (cosmopolitanism).
  • The Stoics thought that we were social beings but that this sociality shouldn’t get in the way of our internal joy.
  • Stoicism is not about having grit at all costs or discipline at all costs. They simply thought that we should shift our attitude towards external things so that we won’t be so harmed if we lose them. 
  • In agreement with Aristotle’s ethics, the Stoics taught that it is in our nature as social creatures to need webs of human connection. 
  • We are to align with nature, not convention. 
  • Convention, the Stoics believed, would land you in the lap of luxury and material inquisitiveness. 
  • Oikeiosis is a feeling of being “at home in the world”. 
  • By Nature we’re attracted to living in groups, but by convention we have come to fear death and loss. By saying, for example, that our son or daughter may very well die in their sleep we’re training ourselves to appreciate what is good for us while at the same time changing our conventional and learned irrational and unaligned belief structures. 
  • Seneca offers a brilliant example of someone who is subject to systemic constraints seeing as he was the advisor to arguably the most tyrannical leader of Rome. 
  • This leads us to seeing why so many people in positions of power and in business hubs like Silicon Valley have begun to favour Stoicism, because Seneca shows us that we must be ever-cautious to the many trappings of an egocentric life. 
  • Military figures are also drawn to Stoicism to help them to focus on the virtue necessary to excel as opposed to the medals and awards. 
  • Seneca shines as a “doctor of the soul”, the doctor and the patient. He’s imperfect and loves money and keeps his job as advisor to Nero despite the hypocrisy. But this actually makes him fascinating and nearer to us seeing as we can relate to the struggle of trying to live in accordance with our best natures while simultaneously being overcome by desires. 
  • Because Seneca is such a power broker and a man with many desires he can show us Stoicism’s true power in the real world.  
  • There tends to be cherrypicking in Stoicism where people view it as a philosophy of rugged self-reliance. What we’ve failed to see is the connective tissue that shapes our resilience which is a part of the human story, and we also fail to see that we can express our emotions and show them to other people with effectiveness and humility. 
  • It takes a lot of vulnerability to share our weaknesses and failures with others, and yet this one of the most necessary and essential human experiences. 
  • Stoicism is often portrayed as a hyper-masculine philosophy (as seen in figures like Marcus Aurelius on the horse) and it can be exploited as merely a “toughness” philosophy which aims at mental fortitude and self-sufficiency as the highest pursuits. This is simply not all that Stoicism has to offer.
  • Hyper-masculine views are often paired with hatred and anger, but Stoicism does not offer these feelings as relevant to the happy life. 
  • Stoicism actually offers us a framework for welcoming some of the softer sides of our interconnected and socially reliant character. 
  • People need to be able to find their way into wide circles of support and friendship. Stoicism is not about removing ourselves from society.  
  • The Stoics lived in a world of difficulty, tyranny and great tragedies. They really tried to figure out how they could mitigate the inevitable suffering and vulnerability that we experience in life. 
  • Obviously we know that a buildup of tragedy in life will inevitably lead to sadness and despair, however the Stoics believed that through a series of exercises we could train our minds to better handle those great tragedies of life. 
  • It’s necessary that we add to Stoicism in order to make use of the understandings that we now have in, for example, modern psychology. 
  • Maybe the part of the brain that deals with untimely deaths and tragedy isn’t the same part of the brain that deals with the pre-rehearsal of tragedy as taught by the Stoics. 
  • The Stoics constantly updated their philosophy as they believed there was better information. 
  • Seneca taught that we should, if necessary, grieve for a period of time when we’ve suffered loss. This is good common sense advice that might be overlooked in our study. 
  • Much of the Stoic cannon focuses on the resilience of the Cynics like Diogenes or the strength of character of Socrates, but Seneca shows us an example of real-life practical wisdom about how to deal gracefully with some of the tragedies of life. 
  • The Stoic does need friendship to the extent that friendship is a natural and necessary element of human life.
  • Seneca wrote plays, the themes of which often represented our need for closeness with other people. 
  • Nancy Sherman believes that through Seneca’s plays we find great examples of the necessity of friendship, particularly in the way that we can learn compassion and self-empathy from our friends when we we cannot achieve this on our own. She has used this in her work with military servicemen who have committed acts that were justified morally by law and rules of war, but that were also devastating from the human perspective. When soldiers feel that they have committed existential wrongdoing then it is friends who are often the counterbalance and nourishing force that bring them back from the brink of self-ruin. 
  • Even Marcus Aurelius realised that we need people in our lives in order to show us qualities that we would hope to embody within ourselves. In fact, he wrote in his journal about the many brilliant qualities he had learned from his family, teachers and friends. 
  • The Stoics wrestle with what it means to “need” something. Do we “need” friends? Well you wouldn’t necessarily desire a friend like you would desire a good meal or a nice car. It’s not about desiring or averting friendship, but rather it’s about a selection of friends without a sticky attachment. We can then lose a friend, should this happen, without anxious aversion. 
  • “We need to train a behaviour, the Stoics say, that isn’t saturated with acquisitiveness and… with a dread of loss ” - Nancy Sherman quote. 
  • It’s better to have health than to not have health, or to have friendship than to not have friendship, we just need to be prepared for possible loss. This is how the Stoics help us. 
  • We can and should have friendship, but by losing our grasping attachment to friends we actually guard ourselves against debilitating anxiety and suffering that so often results from loss. 
    • The Stoics borrow from Aristotle when it comes to emotions. They believe that at the centre of an emotion is a belief, cognition or thought which you ascent to voluntarily. 
    • We have the stimulus and then we have the reaction to that stimulus. Stoics taught that we can control this reaction. 
    • We also have fears and desires for things in the past, present and future. These are emotions that the Stoics believe we should aim to contain within our control as well. 
    • But before all of these responses that are within our control are viewed upon we actually have autonomic responses to the stimulus. For example, if you see your daughter crying then you’re likely to feel yourself tearing up as well. This is an uncontrollable emotional response. These are called “proto” emotions or “Propatheia”. 
    • These porto-emotions are now understood as our “low road” emotions that are deep within us and rarely make their way into our more rational control. Over time they can be redirected with practice, but unless they are harmful to others we really shouldn’t need to focus our efforts on changing them seeing as they simply happen. 
    • The Stimulus: the things that happen. 
    • Involuntary Response: our biological and deeply ingrained first response (e.g. laughter, crying, shivering etc.)
    • Impressions: Our immediate judgements about those things that happen. 
    • Voluntary Response: Our “high road” response to the stimulus, involuntary response, and impression. 
    • Eupatheia is the word for our better and more virtuous responses. These are good emotions. 
    • Stoics talk about various expressions of emotions like good caution, bad caution, good joy, bad joy, good desire, bad desire etc. Many of these have to do with the Stoic sage, understanding that nobody can really achieve the life of a sage thereby making only virtuous decisions. 
    • Ultimately what we’re aiming at is the avoidance of vice and the cultivation of virtue. 
    • So much of our personal growth and directional change finds its roots in emotional regulation and management.
    • Stoics encourage emotional fortitude and a focus only on the process of developing our skills and emotions as opposed to attaching ourselves to the outcome. 
    • “At some point we need to realise that there can be enough failure of outcome that the greatest insulation we have, or protection policies we take out against outcome success still won’t protect us fully.” - Nancy Sherman quote.

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