Tuesday, January 08, 2008


It's nice when you are reading something ancient and come across a passage which strikes a very particular and direct chord. I'm reading Margaret Graver's new book, Stoicism and emotion (Chicago, 2007) and enjoying it a lot. I was also very pleased to read a passage from Galen which she discusses near the beginning of chapter 3. She is interested in the sense that the Stoics can give to the idea that emotions are 'up to us', that is are ultimately dependent on ourselves and we can be held responsible for them. This is a hot topic for some ancient philosophers, closely related to the famous discussions over the possibility of akrasia -- 'weakness of will' or 'incontinence' -- the possibility that I might be overcome by anger, or pleasure, or erotic passion, or some such and end up acting contrary to my better judgement. The Stoics' general psychological picture would appear to rule out this sort of phenomenon. So it is interesting to hear Chrysippus saying something like this:

“οὕτω γὰρ ἐξιστάμεθα καὶ ἔξω γινόμεθα ἑαυτῶν καὶ τελέως ἀποτυφλούμεθα ἐν τοῖς σφαλλομένοις, ὥστε ἔστιν ὅτε σπόγγον ἔχοντες ἢ ἔριον ἐν ταῖς χερσὶ τοῦτο διαράμενοι βάλλομεν ὡς δή τι περανοῦντες δι’ αὐτῶν. εἰ δ’ ἐτυγχάνομεν μάχαιραν ἔχοντες ἢ ἄλλο τι, τούτῳ ἂν ἐχρησάμεθα παραπλησίως.” καὶ ἐφεξῆς “πολλάκις δὲ κατὰ τὴν τοιαύτην τυφλότητα τὰς κλεῖς δάκνομεν καὶ τὰς θύρας τύπτομεν οὐ ταχὺ αὐτῶν ἀνοιγομένων πρός τε τοὺς λίθους ἐὰν προσπταίσωμεν, τιμωρητικῶς προσφερόμεθα καταγνύντες καὶ ῥιπτοῦντες αὐτοὺς εἴς τινας τόπους καὶ ἐπιλέγοντες καθ’ ἕκαστα τούτων ἀτοπώτατα.”

Chrysippus, in Galen PHP 4.6.43-5 De Lacy
Here is Graver's translation:

For in disappointment we are 'outside of' or 'beside' ourselves and, in a word, blinded, so that sometimes, if we have a sponge or a bit of wool in our hands, we pick it up and throw it, as if that would achieve something. And if we happened to be holding a dagger, or some other weapon, we would do the same with that... And often, through the same blindness, we bite keys and beat at doors when they do not open quickly, and if we stumble on a stone we take revenge on it by breaking it or throwing it somewhere, and we say very odd things on such occasions.

This is cited by Galen as part of his general discussion of Platonic vs. Stoic psychology and that is obviously a worthy and interesting discussion in its own right. The passage made me smile, though, because intense rage at inanimate objects is something to which I am, unfortunately, personally prone.
Now, I am quite prepared to believe that this failing is 'up to me' in the sense relevant to my being subject to moral evaluation for it. But there it is. I could probably do with some well-aimed psychological therapy at the hands of some Epictetus or Socrates. (Then again, they would probably annoy me even more...) And I do know that it has landed me in some hot water. For instance, I once was coming into the house from the garden and carelessly as I opened the door allowed it to bump into and push over my little girl, who had been in the house trying to spy me through the cat flap. In the heat and emotion (embarrassment, anger, self-criticism) that followed, I somehow decided that the right thing to do was to kick the offending back door very hard. I managed, however, to put my foot right through the cat flap, smashing it. So the whole thing was made much worse and I had to spend the rest of the afternoon finding and fitting a replacement.

Well, I'm not sure whose analysis of these situations is right, Chrysippus' or Plato's. But I'm sure that they happen. And it shows that you don't need to go digging around high literature like Homer or Attic tragedy to find illuminating and complicated psychological examples.

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