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Should You Be Upset? Cicero on the Desirability of Emotion



Katharina Volk It is probably fair to say that people these days are more than usually upset. The Covid pandemic, political divisions, and financial insecurity have exacerbated everyday mental strains caused by personal and interpersonal problems, with the result that experts are warning of a global mental health crisis. Fear, anger, grief, anxiety, and depression are on the rise.

But should you be upset? Is it right to give in to negative feelings? If you were, say, a distressed Roman of the mid-1st century BC and turned to the therapy available to you, that is, the Hellenistic schools of philosophy, the answer you’d receive would be a resounding “No!” Both Epicureanism and Stoicism counseled their adherents on how to get rid of emotions, especially negative ones. The Epicureans promoted an ideal ataraxia, “freedom from mental disturbance,” and the Stoics went so far as to claim that the truly wise person would be characterized by complete apatheia or “freedom from emotions”, since the latter were based on false beliefs unworthy of a rational person. One person turning to this “therapy of the self” (to use a famous phrase of Michel Foucault) was Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC), who in 45 BC found himself at what was perhaps the low point of his life. He had participated in the Civil War (49–45 BC) on the losing side and now was living powerless under Caesar’s dictatorship, with the Republic all but in ruins and many of his friends in exile. He had gone through a messy divorce and an equally messy brief remarriage, and, to cap it all, his beloved daughter Tullia had died in childbirth. Cicero had every reason to be upset, and his method of coping was to take refuge in what he himself called the saving harbor of philosophy.[1]

Cicero’s philosophical self-therapy took two forms: already philosophically well-trained, he attempted to apply philosophical precepts to his own life (something we can follow especially in his letters), but in addition he set out to compose his own philosophical works. In an unparalleled writing spree from 46 to 44, Cicero penned his great philosophical corpus, which was to have a profound influence on the development of western philosophy and which, among other things, has preserved for us precious knowledge about the Epicurean and Stoic schools, whose original works have largely been lost. Cicero considers the question of the emotions in great detail in his perhaps most therapeutic book, Tusculan Disputations of summer 45, where he works through a list of mental disturbances to arrive at what any philosophically informed person would have known was a foregone conclusion: the wise person will not be affected by any “sickness of the mind” (aegritudo animi) whatever the circumstances. In fact (and here Cicero adopts a Stoic maxim that must have been a great comfort in his own situation), it is virtue and virtue alone that is sufficient for happiness. No need to be upset. So far, so expected.

It is thus surprising when little over a year later, we find Cicero taking a different approach to the emotions in his Laelius de amicitia (Laelius on Friendship). In this short work – one of Cicero’s most popular in the Middle Ages and early modern period – the main speaker Gaius Laelius shares his thoughts on friendship with his two sons-in-law. The dramatic date is 129 BC, and Laelius has just lost his best friend, the younger Scipio Africanus (De amicitia is thus a sequel to De re publica (On the Republic), a dialogue with some of the same characters set earlier in the same year). Even though, as the sons-in-law love to point out, Laelius has the reputation of being a “wise man” and even carries the cognomen sapiens, he doesn’t hold with the Stoic stiff upper lip. As he himself admits unapologetically, he is moved by longing for his dead friend (§10), and his theory of friendship is highly emotive, arguing that friendship (amicitia) arises out of spontaneous love (amor) for a person of excellent qualities.

Close to the mid-point of the dialogue, Laelius sets out to refute some “bizarre opinions” allegedly held by men “who in Greece are considered wise” (§45).[2] Some of these people think that one should not enter friendships that are too close because of the emotional involvement they entail: “one person shouldn’t be upset on behalf of others; everyone has more than enough trouble of his own; it is inconvenient to get too involved in the affairs of others.” This attitude, so Laelius says, rests on the belief that the key to a happy life (ad beate vivendum, a very philosophical phrase) is securitas, that is, literally, the “absence of worry” (cura). The people Laelius describes do not really sound like Greek philosophers but more like every-day committophobes, and their securitas seems little more than the avoidance of botheration. In what follows, however, Laelius takes the case of these lukewarm friends as an opportunity to inveigh against Stoic ideas of apatheia, of which securitas is one possible Latin translation. “That’s a great kind of wisdom!” he exclaims:

For what is that securitas of theirs? It sure sounds appealing, but in reality is objectionable in many ways. For it is not possible to undertake or complete any honorable deed or action without caring (ne sollicitus sis). If we run away from worry, we must run away from virtue. (§47)

Laelius puts Stoic doctrine on its head: the Stoic sage is supposed to be both virtuous and free from emotions – but virtue, Laelius maintains, is fueled by emotion: It is necessary for virtue to care, and to reject and hate what is contrary to itself; for example, kindness hates malice, temperance hates licentiousness, and courage hates cowardice. And therefore you see that it is just people who are most upset at injustice, brave people at lack of courage, restrained people at outrage. (§47)

But, as Laelius hastens to point out, the good and virtuous person will find occasion not only to be distressed, but also to be pleased: “It is the sign of a well-constituted mind to rejoice at good things and feel pain at the opposite.” (§47) Openly contradicting what Cicero himself had concluded in the Tusculans, Laelius thus maintains that the wise person will experience mental distress (cadit in sapientem animi dolor, §48) – and that to believe otherwise would be to rob the wise of their humanitas. A person without emotions would not be human: “If you take away the affects of the mind, what difference is there – I don’t even mean between a human and an animal, but between a human and a log or rock or something of this kind?” Virtue isn’t “hard or made of iron” (a clear dig at the Stoics) but “soft and pliable”, experiencing both joy and distress. With this, Laelius brings the discussion back to friendship: “And therefore the anxiety we often have to experience on behalf of our friend is not strong enough to (make us wish to) remove friendship from life, just as we don’t reject the virtues because they bring us a certain amount of worry and inconvenience.”

Laelius thus proposes a path to the happy and virtuous life that crucially involves the emotions. It is only because we do get upset at bad things that we are motivated to do anything about them; at the same time, being open to emotions also means experiencing joy at the good things in life, including, crucially, our friends. Caring for anything or anyone thus carries the risk of having to experience cura, but this is the price we have to pay for not being logs or rocks. Why did Cicero change his mind, moving from the emotionally unassailable wise man of the Tusculans to the more humane but also more vulnerable good friend of De amicitia? (Of course, it is the character Laelius who puts forth the ideas in the latter dialogue, not Cicero in his own persona, but it is still fair to assume that the views promoted in the work are the author’s own.) When it came to philosophy, Cicero was not dogmatic. Rather than adhering, say, to Stoic doctrine, he was a follower of the so-called New Academy, a version of Platonic philosophy that espoused the original skepticism of Socrates (469–399 BC).

An Academic Skeptic like Cicero would examine an array of philosophical positions and tentatively espouse the one that appeared to him “probable” or “similar to the truth” (not “true”, since truth can never be ascertained). However, he was free to change his mind at any time if he came to think that another view was more convincing after all. As Cicero himself puts it in Tusculans: “I live from day to day. Whatever strikes my mind as probable, that I proclaim.”[3] It was thus perfectly in keeping with his Academic approach for Cicero to give up on the Stoic ideal of apatheia and espouse a view he now considered more similar to the truth. But do we have any idea why he would have done so?

Cicero wrote De amicitia in the early fall of 44 BC, and much had happened at Rome since the composition of Tusculans in the summer of the previous year. Julius Caesar had been assassinated on the Ides (15th) of March, much to Cicero’s acclaim; however, instead of returning to the orderly, Senate-controlled Republican system, politics at Rome became extremely factionalized, with new strongmen rising and another civil war on the horizon. Under Caesar’s rule, Cicero had had no opportunity for actively participating in the political process and no wish to do so; after Caesar’s death, he was initially hesitant, but just around the time of writing De amicitia, he threw himself back into the fray: alarmed by the accumulation of power in the hands of Mark Antony (a man Cicero had always mistrusted and disliked), he embarked on his famous Philippics, invective speeches against Antony intended to steer Roman politics in the direction Cicero thought right. When writing Tusculans, we may surmise that Cicero was looking inward: isolated from public life, he was concerned with his own mental wellbeing and with freeing himself from the painful emotions his own and his country’s recent experiences had brought about. The self-sufficiency of the wise man who has only his virtue to rely on and is not distressed whatever the circumstances would have been very appealing. By the time of De amicitia, however, political action was once again possible, and it seems to have been exactly Cicero’s worry about the present situation and his anger at Antony that motivated his reentry into politics. “For it is not possible to undertake or complete any honorable deed or action without caring” – and Cicero cared a lot.

So should you be upset? The ever-skeptical Cicero does not provide a clear answer and perhaps never satisfactorily answered the question for himself. One way of reading his works, and his life, is that if you cannot do anything about what upsets you, you should attempt to free yourself from such negative emotions, which have no bearing on your own self and moral worth. If, by contrast, there is an opportunity for changing the distressing situation, then you should embrace the pain you feel and let it motivate you to virtuous action. And do not forget that there is a positive side to not being a log or rock: after all, the “well-constituted mind” feels not only upset at bad things but also rejoices at good ones. That, according to Laelius, is what it means to be human. Katharina Volk is Professor of Classics at Columbia University, New York, and has published widely on Latin literature and Roman intellectual history. Together with James Zetzel, she is currently preparing a commentary on Cicero’s Laelius de amicitia for the “green and yellow” series at Cambridge University Press.

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