In Good Spirits: Controlling your emotions

This article is part of the weekly series ‘In Good Spirits’. New articles will be published every Saturday.


“Men are not disturbed by things, but by their opinions of things”

– Epictetus


Think about this question for a few seconds: do you see the world around you clearly? Do you actually know what is happening? Or is your judgement often clouded by your emotions? Stoics (fairly sensible, I would say) believe that many emotions indeed hinder us in seeing the world as it is. Even though we ought to follow Nature and act with reason, negative passions lead us astray. They mislead us in taking the wrong path: a path that leads to distress, disappointment and hardship instead of happiness, calmness and flourishing. In this article, we take a look at how negative passions mislead us and how we can overcome them.

Negative passions

If we act rational, then we follow Nature

A central concept of Stoicism is ‘apatheia’, which is usually translated as ‘freedom from passions’. Stoics argue that we should act with reason and, therefore, that we must base our actions on rational judgements rather than emotional responses. If we act rational, then we follow Nature; if we are irrational, then we struggle unfruitfully against the course of Nature. Early Stoics used to compare us with a dog tied behind a riding cart. The dog can try to go his own way and struggle, but the cart will pull it along. Alternatively, the dog can see that he is tied to a cart and make a reasonable judgement: life will be a lot easier if I follow the cart. Trying to divert from the path is not only useless (since the result won’t change) but will also bring distress and unhappiness. Going against the course of Nature is the same: it’s useless, foolish and only brings you trouble. If you are reasonable, you will see this and act rationally.

Then why are we constantly chasing fame and fortune instead of virtue? Because we don’t see the path of Nature. We cannot always judge our surroundings rationally. This is where the concept of apatheia comes in: our passions cloud our view and lead us astray. We want ever more money, because we are greedy. We hurt other people because we are angry, resentful or malicious. We want all things in the world because we have an irrational longing for them. Yet does money make you happy? Is it in the course of Nature that we should hurt others? Do our feelings of longing contribute to our flourishing as a human being? No, no, and no. Greed, anger, resentfulness, maliciousness and longing are all examples of negative passions: passions that mislead us into doing things that are neither benificial to ourselves, nor to others. Instead of bringing us closer to Nature, they lead us away. They prevent us from making rational judgements and acting on the basis of those judgements. Note, by the way, that ‘passion’ (pathos) in the Stoic sense is different from the contemporary notion of passion as being very excited for something. For Stoics, a passion is a feeling that diverts you from the path of reason. Therefore, passions should be avoided and we should strive for apatheia.


Is there a reason to fear spiders? Only if they can hurt you and keep you from living in accordance with Nature.

More specifically, the Stoics identified four main categories of negative passions that must be avoided. These are: pleasure, appetite, distress and fear. Pleasure and distress cause irrational judgement of your present situation, while appetite and fear create unreasonable expectations or worries for the future. Pleasure includes emotions as elation, delight and maliciousness. It makes you think that something that is currently happening is good, while it really is not. For instance, you might be elated at your current income or you might enjoy the evil that befalls your annoying neighbour. Appetite is much the same, but it concerns irrational desires for the future. It includes lust, greed, anger and longing. Distress is basically worry about your current situation, such as jealousy, sadness and depression. Remember, even if you are poor, homeless, and hungry, you can still be happy. Fear, as the final category of negative passions, is worry about the future. It is about fright, timidity and faintheartedness. To worry less and enjoy more (as is our goal in this series), we should avoid all these irrational, negative passions.

Positive passions

A sage only wants what Nature brings him
and doesn’t long for ever more money or fame.

But not all is bad. While negative passions cause you to act wrongfully, Stoicism also recognizes positive passion (eupatheiai). The positive passions don’t mislead you, but allow you to see the world clearly. They actually help you to reach eudaimonia (happiness and flourishing). Positive passions, or good feelings, are corrected versions of negative passions, in light of the Stoic virtues (wisdom, moderation, courage and justice). There are three of them: joy, wish and caution. Joy is the corrected passion of pleasure. Instead of irrational pleasure about the present, a wise person simply enjoys it without exaggerating or clinging to it. He is content as it is. Wish is the better version of appetite: a sage only wants what Nature brings him and doesn’t long for ever more money or fame. Caution is preferred instead of fear. This means that we should try to avoid what hurts us (that is, what keeps us from following Nature), but there is no need for irrational fear.

There are only three categories of positive passions, while there are four negative passions. This is so, because there is no positive, corrected version of distress. According to the Stoics, we should never be sad or depressed about our current situation. We should accept the things as they are and act from them. What is past, is in the past and cannot be changed, so there is no reason to be distressed about it. Therefore, distress is always negative and there is not even a good corrected version.


The main difference between positive and negative passions is the extent to which they are reasonable. Negative passions (pathè) are irrational, such as irrational desire or irrational fear. Positive passions are corrected by reason and virtue. Caution is basically rational fear, and joy is jusitified pleasure. This clarifies that a Stoic sage is not completely void of feelings. He is not the emotionless statue that many people might think he is. No, he just chooses rational feelings over irrational ones. He is perfectly capable of enjoyment, but only if it makes sense to enjoy. He keeps his feelings in accordance with Nature.

Apatheia is not about getting rid of all your emotions.
It is about controlling them with reason.

Which brings us back to the notion of apatheia. Apatheia is not about getting rid of all your emotions. It is about controlling them with reason. If you are depressed, then ask yourself what good it is to be depressed. You will find that it has no benefits, since you cannot change the past and a depression does not help you to change the future. If you find pleasure in the evil that befalls your neighbor, ask yourself what that will bring you. You will find that it doesn’t bring you anything, since you only mock a person that is in fact very similar to you. If you fear that your airplane is going to crash, then confront yourself with the statistics and think about how your fear can prevent the crash. You will find that a limited amount of caution might be benificial, but that there are relatively few plane crashes and that irrational fear doesn’t help you. Negative, irrational passions should be avoided, while positive passions are good. Apatheia is thus not freedom from all emotions, but freedom from negative passions. It means freedom from feelings that keep you from living in accordance with Nature. Don’t let those passions guide you; don’t let them cloud your judgements. Be aware of your negative passions and try to prevent or overcome them.

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  1. Negative, irrational passions (pathè) cloud our judgements and lead us astray. The four main categories of negative passions are pleasure, distress, appetite and fear.
  2. Positive passions (eupatheiai) help us making rational judgements and support us in living in accordance with Nature. The main categories are joy, wish and caution.
  3. The main difference between negative and positive passions is the extent of reason: negative passions are irrational, while positive passions are rational.
  4. To act with reason, we should embrace apatheia: don’t let negative passions guide you.

This is part 4 of the series ‘In Good Spirits’. This is a series of longer posts in which we discover the foundations of Stoicism, so that we may ultimately gain ‘eudaimonia’: a good spirit.

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