One of the central insights of Stoicism is the idea that all human grief is ulti-mately traceable to the
—the emotions or passions—impulses [
]that are excessive, violent, irrational, and in some sense even contrary to nature,or in a popular metaphor, illnesses that have to be cured.
Rejecting Aristotle’sprogram of moderating the passions so that they are experienced in the propermeasure, the Stoics famously insisted that they must be extirpated or eliminatedaltogether. Hence their ideal of
: the calm, unshakable equanimity thatcomes from the absence of violent and irrational emotions. It should be notedthat, on the Stoics account, the passions—the most basic of which are delight(
), sorrow (
), appetite (
), and fear(
)—are not simply upheavals of some blind, unconscious animalinstinct, but rather have an irreducibly cognitive element. That is, as ways of interpreting and evaluating the world, they all involve beliefs—albeit mistaken,incoherent, or inadequately rational beliefs—about the worth of things, aboutwhat is really good and really bad.
So the way to extirpate the passions—andthus sorrow—is systematically to disabuse oneself of these mistaken beliefs andacquire an increasingly coherent and rational understanding of what really mat-ters and what does not.Simply put, for the Stoics, the only thing that is good is virtue and the onlything that is bad is vice. This is because they are the only things that are really“up to us” [
] that is, a function of our free rational choice. Everythingelse is simply “indifferent” [
]: for example, our parents, friends, chil-dren (or lack thereof), honor, political status, whether we are rich or poor, beau-tiful or plain, strong or weak, healthy or sick, even whether we live or die. Thesethings are not ultimately within our control; they are what the Stoics call “exter-nal things.” If we predicate our happiness on them, we are inevitably setting our-selves up for sorrow, a passion that goes against the very grain of our nature,and that stands in opposition to the proper function and aim of human life: hap-piness. All external things are a function of fate, or, put differently, the designof nature, conceived of as thoroughgoingly rational, necessitarian, providential,and divine.
From the perspective of the part (i.e., the individual human beingin the grip of misleading, violent, irrational passions, desperately trying toacquire and hold onto contingent, perishable things while avoiding inevitablemisfortunes), it may seem that these occurrences are genuine evils. But from theperspective of the whole (i.e., the perspective of divine, providential nature),everything is as it should be and as it must be. The cosmopolitan ideal of Stoicismis to attain this universal standpoint and to afﬁrm all existence as it is, ratherthan how we think it should be from the limited perspective of the individualhuman being.It may seem strange to speak of something as energetic as afﬁrmation whenthe Stoic ideal is
: we typically envision the Stoic sage as beyonddelight, sorrow, desire, and fear. But the absence of violent passions does not
and Nietzsche on Banishing Sorrow