Stoicism and Emotion: An Interview with Professor Margaret Graver

Professor Margaret Graver is one of the best known and respected scholars on Stoicism and ancient philosophy. She is the author of the popular academic text Stoicism and Emotion, in which she disproves the myth of Stoicism as a philosophy advocating being emotionless. Currently, Professor Graver is Aaron Lawrence Professor in Classics at Dartmouth, where she offers a variety of courses on Greek and Roman Philosophy, Plato, Aristotle, and Latin literature. Continuing our series with leading Stoicism scholars like Anthony Long, Nancy Sherman, Brad Inwood, William O. Stephens, and many others, we reached out to Margaret to ask her about her work and learn more about the connections between Stoicism and emotions as well as her recent focus on Seneca. She is also delivering a keynote speech later this month at Stoicon in Toronto, and we got to ask her about her upcoming talk as well. Enjoy!

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You are the author of the popular academic text Stoicism and Emotion. Before we get to that, can you please tell us how did you first discover Stoicism? We read that you picked up a copy of Seneca’s Letters while at Brown. What was your first impression? Who did you read next? Why did it make such an important mark on you to make it a big part of your academic work?

The Letters on Ethics is a very unusual work in that it’s written as a set of personal letters to one individual, but intended to benefit a much wider public. I was mainly struck by how thoughtful Seneca is about the act of reading and how he tries to shape our reading practices to be most beneficial. That’s an interesting move for a work of literature and became the topic of my dissertation in 1996. But I had already started learning about Stoicism in other ways. I read the major treatises of Cicero on Hellenistic philosophy, the Academics and On Ends, with Charles Fornara, and I had a class with Victor Caston on early Stoicism. Those studies were really important for me as an academic, because they gave me access to the actual foundations that Seneca was building on. It’s not until now that I’ve felt ready to bring out an in-depth treatment of Seneca’s philosophy – which is my current project.

Many of our readers are aspiring students of Stoicism and understand that Stoicism and emotions are not contradictory terms. Yet in popular culture ‘Stoic’ still conjures the image of a emotionless cow standing in the rain. How would you explain the relationship between emotions and Stoicism to someone who hasn’t studied the philosophy?

What bothers me about the emotionless cow thing is that it regards Stoicism as being primarily about emotional regulation. Getting clear about the emotions was certainly part of the picture for ancient Stoics, but it’s not the key to their system, not at all. For them, the main thing was to get clear about human nature: what it is to be a rational creature, what is our place in the universe and how we connect to one another. It was their view that both we and our world are products of intelligent design. From that it follows that if there’s a capability that belongs to human nature, there should be a right use for that capability. And the capacity to feel deeply, to be elated or eager or even horrified, is indeed part of our nature. The trick is to get our values right, so that the things we react strongly to are the ones that truly matter for a human being. Once a person learns to care intensely about honesty, courage, and compassion, and only provisionally about their income or their reputation or even how long they live, then the emotions, too, fall into line. But getting there is hard – it could be a lifelong project.

In your annotated translation of Cicero, Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4, you’ve argued that we have one of the best introductions to the Stoic position on the emotions. What particularly impressed you about his description of the philosophy? What are the key aspects that make his points stand out?

The part of the Tusculan Disputations that I worked on is concerned with the emotions and emotional regulation, and Cicero here allows his principal speaker to take the Stoic position, even though Cicero himself is not a Stoic. The book is especially valuable for an understanding of how the Stoic analysis works logically. Cicero lays out what he calls the “causes” of emotional response. These causes turn out to be particular beliefs that fit together in a person’s mind when a triggering event occurred, in what in Stoicism and Emotion I called the “pathetic syllogism.” Cicero is actually our earliest source for Stoic views in this area, and the clearest, and it’s based on important Greek works that survive now only in fragments. So it’s our go-to for learning about the subject.

You have recently worked with A.A. Long on a translation of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics. Why did you embark on the project? What did you want to accomplish with it?

First and foremost, we wanted to give an accurate translation, correcting the many errors that mar the old Loeb edition and many of the more recent abridged editions. Just getting the Latin right is more difficult than most people imagine, even scholars who know the language well, because a word-for-word, clause-for-clause rendering will often fail to convey Seneca’s point. You have to get the emphasis right as well. Then for the more technical concepts, you have to choose the clearest possible equivalent in English and then stick with it every time that word occurs, so that the translation is usable as a study text. Then too, we wanted to capture some of the nuances of Seneca’s style. After all, he is one of the great figures of Roman literature, and it matters whether the Latin is plain and explanatory, or lively and conversational, or more elevated, or, as often, laced with humor. Finally, we needed to devise a format for the notes that would give the background information people need without going on too long, so that everything could still fit into a single volume.

What are your favorite lessons from Seneca, and what might be some aspects to his work that you feel people miss when they discuss his writings?

I wish people would engage more with the real depth of thought that is there in Seneca. Too much of what has been written about him gets lost in external facts about his life. Maybe it’s true that he had a lot of money and that his position in Nero’s palace was not always to his credit—although some of what you read there is of dubious historical merit. But does any of that really matter? The writings themselves have so much to convey about the meaning of friendship, about dealing with difficult people, about the human good. A favorite theme of mine is the nature of joy, how a life of integrity brings with it a joy that can never run out, because it comes from within. Another is about coping with loss. Seneca gives us room to cry at the passing of those we love – he accepts those tears as involuntary, and he doesn’t judge. But he also offers a way forward, by focusing your mind not on your personal loss but on the good that came to you from the relationship. It’s a very humane attitude, and perfectly consistent with Stoic philosophy.

You are giving the keynote presentation at this year’s Stoicon: “The Dispassionate Life.” Can you give us a glimpse at what the presentation is about?

The aims of the talk are, first of all, to probe the notion of a dispassionate life. Several different philosophical schools in antiquity sought to rid their followers of emotional disturbance, but they had quite different conceptions of what it means to live without passions. I think modern Stoics will find those distinctions quite helpful to understand, both for addressing one’s own reservations and for responding to objections from non-Stoics. Second, I want to share some information about ancient techniques for bringing oneself closer to the dispassionate life. Different approaches went with different notions of what it means to be dispassionate – but all of them are interesting, and some of them make a lot of sense even today.


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