Stoicism and arousal: so you think you can’t control your emotions, eh?

Figs In Winter
Oct 22 · 6 min read
Testosterone, an hormone involved in sexual arousal and a number of other emotional states

A central tenet of Stoic psychology (which happens to be supported by modern research) is that emotions are, in part, a matter of cognition. Specifically, the Stoics developed the following model for how to arrive at good decisions and actions, despite an initially problematic emotional reaction to a situation:

Impression > Assent > Impulse to Action

The above are technical terms, and should not be understood according to their modern English meanings. Margaret Graver, in her Stoicism and Emotion, provides the following definitions:

An “impression” (Gr. phantasia) is an alteration of the mind through which something seems to be present or to be the case. In having an impression, the mind registers some state of affairs prior to forming an opinion about it one way or another.

An “assent” is what converts thought into belief. It is also referred to as ‘judgment’ (krisis), or ‘forming an opinion’ (doxazein). Assent is defined in intentional terms: it is that event in which one either accepts an impression as true or rejects it as false.

An “impulse” (hormai) is a tendency to action, generated by the assent that one has given to an impression.

For instance, I may have the impression (convened to me by internal sensations) that I am thirsty. If I assent to such an impression, I may then develop an impulse to act: I get up, go to the refrigerator, and get myself a beer.

Why is this not just important, but crucial, to Stoic practice? Because it means we have a way to control, or at least argue with, our emotions. Impressions simply come to us, by way of sensorial inputs (from the outside) or thoughts floating by (from the inside). There is no controlling them. But assent, as Epictetus puts it, is “up to us” (Enchiridion 1.1). And since assent is the gateway to impulse (again, in the Stoic sense of the word), this means that our actions are also up to us, no matter how much our judgment may be influenced by external circumstances, including other people’s opinions.

Take again my example above: even though there is no denying my impression that I am thirsty, I can decide not to assent to it, and therefore not to generate the action, for instance because I’m in the middle of doing some writing, and I’m afraid that I may lose my concentration. I’m first going to finish the paragraph, then I will get up and walk to the refrigerator.

All of the above should be rather uncontroversial, and yet we hear all the time phrases like “I couldn’t help act that way,” or “I can’t help my feelings.” Actually, you can. Though the second type of control requires a bit more effort (and explanation) than the first.

Let’s start with actions, which are simpler to handle. Everything you do is literally, entirely, up to you. No matter what the external circumstances. Here is how Epictetus articulates the thought, with his characteristic bluntness:

“‘But the tyrant will chain –’ What will he chain? Your leg. ‘He will chop off –’ What? Your head. What he will never chain or chop off is your integrity.” (Discourses I, 18.17)

Even in the extreme cases Epictetus describes — a tyrant putting you in chain, or threatening to kill you — you are free to decide how to act. If you abide to what the tyrant wants in order to avoid prison or save your life, that’s fine, it’s a decision that most of us would make. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that you had no other option. You could have accepted prison, or faced execution. Other people have. Which is why Epictetus also says:

“Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.” (Discourses I, 2.33)

Okay, so maybe we really do have complete control of our actions, but surely not of our emotions? Well, not on the spot, necessarily, but with training, yes. It’s not just Stoicism that argues this way, but cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the best evidence-based types of modern psychotherapy.

Every time I mention this, though, I’m met with a rather skeptical look, as if I had clearly swallowed the Epictetean kool-aid and was therefore deserving of pity. But think about it, there is at least one very obvious, and very commonly experienced, type of emotive reaction that is very much under our control, so much so that even people with little training can turn it on and off at will: sexual arousal.

Human beings, both males and females, can be aroused by a variety of stimuli, including visual (obviously), tactual (also obviously), olfactory (a perfume or natural skin smell), and auditory (an evocative piece of music) ones. But sexual arousal can also be triggered entirely voluntarily, by simply thinking about an erotically charged situation. Under such circumstances, we experience the very same physiological reactions, including the triggering of the proper hormones, that we would if we were in the midst of an actual sexual encounter. Heck, even roughly the same neural pathways are going to be triggered.

Let’s be clear on what this means: we can conjure a particular emotive state entirely in our mind, by an act of will.

Ah, but that’s easy, say you. The real difficulty is not in generating an emotional reaction at will, it’s in turning it off. Really? In fact, if you are sexually aroused and you think that’s not the right moment (or person), for whatever reason, you can very easily snap out of it. Not only by exposing yourself to a different set of visual, tactual, olfactory, or auditory stimuli, but more simply by thinking about something else, preferably something entirely disconnected from the very idea of sex. Your testosterone, cortisol, and estradiol levels will go right back to normal, and you will bring yourself out of that emotional state.

In fact, taking a mental or physical break from your emotional reactions is precisely what Seneca advises us to do with respect to one of the most destructive emotions: anger. As he puts it:

“No one will postpone his anger: yet delay is the best remedy for it, because it allows its first glow to subside, and gives time for the cloud which darkens the mind either to disperse or at any rate to become less dense.” (On Anger, III.12)

We can do this either by disengaging physically from the situation (take leave and go for a walk) or mentally (distract your mind, count to 20).

The broader point is that what we call emotions are not uncontrollable and overwhelming. They spring from the way we think (“I ought to be angry at this,” “I can’t help finding this person sexually arousing,” “what just happened to me is an unheard of tragedy,” and so forth). They come about in part because of our core beliefs concerning how the world does and ought to work. Such beliefs can (and ought to) be challenged, when the emotion is going to be disruptive to our lives.

That challenge is made possible by the fact that emotions have propositional content (along the parenthetical statements in the previous paragraph), and by the fact that we can slow them down by way of simple tricks, in order to gain some time and challenge our “impressions,” just like Epictetus says:

“So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’” (Enchiridion 1.5)

Let’s practice challenging our impressions and refining our sense of judgment, in pursuit of a better life. And above all, let’s not hide behind excuses like “I can’t help feeling this way.” Yes you can. And, depending on circumstances, you ought to.

Figs In Winter

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A site devoted to Stoicism and other practical philosophizing, by Massimo Pigliucci, the City College of New York. stoicbutnotasage.net

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