APATHY (Greek ’απαθεια [apatheia] from ’α- —not, παθος [pathos]—feeling)—emotional insensitivity; in an ethical sense: the banishment of feelings, the repression of feelings or indifference to them, one of the postulated ideals of life, especially in Greek philosophy, which shows the right attitude to take toward the feelings that man experiences. The ideal of apathy is opposed, on the one hand, to positions that demand the subordination of action to feelings, and on the other hand it is opposed to the ideal of metropathy, that is, the mastery of one’s feelings.
APATHY IN ANCIENT THOUGHT. There was already a controversy on how to understand apathy in ancient times. Depending on how feelings (παθος [pathos]) were conceived, apathy was understood in different ways. According to Aristotle, παθος in the broader sense means “desire, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, love, hatred, longing, jealousy, pity—in general anything that is accompanied by pleaure or pain” (E. nic., 1105 b), that is, any feeling (sensory desire). These “desires”, according to Aristotle, “toss us about”, that is, they are a form of passion or passive reception independent of us; apathy in this understanding is the banishment of feelings. Παθος was understood, however, in a narrower sense: as an irrational and unnatural movement in the soul, or again as impulse in excess.” (DLaert VII 1, 110). According to Cicero, Zeno thought that παθος is a movement of the soul in disharmony with common sense and contrary to nature; apathy is thus only the absence of disordered desires or feelings not subject to reason.
Diogenes Laertios (VI 1, 15) relates that the ideal of indifference (απαθεια [apatheia]) came from Antisthenes of Athens; he also associated this ideal with Diogenes, who in his life imitated Socrates’ “ability to master his feelings’ (DLaert VI 1, 2); he also noted the existing view that “the Skeptics hold that insensibility (’απαθει&alpha) is the highest end”, but in his opinion, the Skeptics regard “the highest end as suspension of judgment (’εποχη [epoche])” (ibid, IX, 11, 108). According to Cicero, apathy was for Pyrrho the attitude of the wise man, and he conceived apathy as insensibility: ”Pyrrho says that the wise man does not feel even their existence [of passion] and describes them with the expression ’απαθεια, which means insensibility” (Lucullus, 130, 9–10). Seneca said that the ideal of apthy could be attributed to Stilponos and the Cynics who “see the highest good in insensibility of the spirit” (Moral epistles to Lucullus, IX). The ideal of apathy passed from the Cynic school to the Stoic school. For Zeno, apathy was a complete absence of παθη [pathe], because “passion […] is an irrational and unnatural movement in the soul, or an impulse in excess” (Dlaert VII, 1, 110), and for this reason it should be completely eradicated. Cicero ascribes the same view to Zeno: “according to Zeno’s definition, this disquiet of the soul (passion), which he calls παθος, is a movement of the soul in discord with common sense and contrary to nature” (Tusculanae disputationes, IV 6).
In the Middle Stoa apathy as indifference was rejected. In the Younger Stoa we find a perfected theory of the proper attitude to passions based on a distinction between different types of “passions”.
There was controversy already in ancient times on how to understand the Stoic ideal of apathy. According to Epicurus, Chryssipus stated: “hold your passions under tight control so that they do not become whips lashing you” (Gnomologion, C, 5). His idea, according to Epictetus, was therefore not so much the elimination of feelings as ”resistance to passion”: “he who has a beautifully formed soul also is well resistant to anger, to sadness, to the removal of joys, and to all other passions” (Fragments, 20). Chryssipus presented doctrines “that free […] the soul from the heap of passions”, or “lead to a peace of soul undisturbed by any passion” (Epictetus, Diatribes, I 4). Epictetus’ ideal is also “liberation from passion, sadness, and fear”, and “equilibrium and undistrubed peace of soul” (ibid, IV 3); from him “who wants to become a noble and upright man” “the most important and urgent” matter is the matter of passion: “Passion arises only from the fact that we do not achieve what we desire or we fall into that which we fear. This is the source from which all disturbances and worries, all unhappiness and misfortune, sufferings and complaints, jealousies and hatreds arise, and as a consequence we cannot hear the voice of reason” (ibid, III 2). Epictetus does not demand, however, that one should be “devoid of passion like a stone statue”, but that one should ”preserve his innate and acquired properties, as a god-fearing man, a son, a brother, a father, and a citizen” (ibid.).
Also according to Seneca the Stoic ideal is completely different from the apathy of the Cynics. Since the term ’απαθεια is ambiguous in Greek, the Stoic wise man “scorns all suffering he feels” because they describe suffering as “unable to wound the soul” or “a spirit that is above all its sufferings”. The Stoic wise man overcomes almost all misfortunes but he feels them, while according to the Cynic ideal the wise man does not even feel them.
According to Seneca, “a very great number of emotions” arises in us “without our knowledge and consent” (De ira, II, I) and they are “impossible to overcome and avoid” (ibid., II, II, 1). Seneca thus makes a distinction between “passions” and “affections that arise under the influence of lively mental images of objects, if only we experience them”. They become passion “only when we succumb to them and allow them to carry us off after them” (ibid, II, III 3). He calls the former “affections of the body” and so defines anger as an affection “which is broken away from under the power of the reason, and which carries the reason away after it. Thus the first stronger affection, called forth by the mental image of an injury, […] is not anger [&hellip]. Only the violent disturbance that follows which not only takes into consideration the mental image of injury, but furthermore considers it to be fitting, is anger, the excited state of the spirit which with deliberation and will aspires to revenge.” Seneca distinguishes, as it were, three stages of passion: the first movement is not voluntary, “it is as like the hatching of passion […]. The second happens with the consent of the will, not yet hardened in obstinacy, […] the third movement can no longer be restrained, but especially dominates the reason. We are unable to avoid the first instinctive reaction by reason […]. The reason cannot prevent such instinctive reactions […]. The second movement, however, which comes from deliberation, may be suppressed by deliberation” (ibid, II, IV 1). In its last stage, anger can be removed from the soul, for “there are no things too difficult or painful for the human spirit to conquer, and which constant training cannot make familiar, nor are there passions too wild and powerful to be tamed by discipline” (De ira, II, XII 3–4). This is opposed to the view that “anger cannot be eradicated”. It should not be diminished but “eradicated in its entirety, because it does not help us with anything (ibid, II, XIII 3). At times, Seneca described his own attitude toward emotions more extensively, especially concerning anger: we should try to “uproot anger from the soul, or at least to rule it and restrain its outbursts” (ibid, III, I, while he stated that “not to experience any sadness [is] inhuman rigidity. The best middle measure between maternal tenderness and reason is to feel pity and at the same time to keep it under control” (Epistle to Helvia, XVI I); “some shocks […] cannot […] be avoided by anyone’s fortitude: man’s nature reminds him that he is temporary” (Moral epistles to Lucullius, LVII).
According to Cicero, παθη could rather be called “disturbances of the soul, rather than ailments”, and so “when in accordance with reason the soul is moved gently and with dignity, we call this joy, but when the soul rejoices vainly and without measure, we may call this exaggerated or excessive pleasure, which they define as an irrational ecstasy of the soul”.
Diogenes Laertius says that the wise man—as the Stoics thought—is unaffected [’απαθης] in a different sense than the evil man who also may be unaffected. A “hard and unyielding man” may also be unaffected. Therefore the wise man is not characterized only by the fact that he does not give in to emotions. In his presentation of the views of the Stoics, he says that they distinguish three kinds of satisfaction (’ευπαθεια [eupathia]): joy, foresight, and will. They present joy as contrary to pleasure and regard joy as rational excitement. They present foresight or prudence as contrary to fear, because it is the rational avoidance of danger; the wise man can never be ruled by fear but is always resistant. They regard the will, which is a desire directed by reason, as contrary to lust. Just as they derive other passions from the first passions, so they derive feelings, or good emotional states, from them. So Aristotle criticized the definition of virtue as a “states of impassivity or tranquillity” (E. nic., 1104 b). He regarded the Stoic definition of virtue as wrong, because they do not consider “the right (or wrong) manner” or “the right (or wrong) time, and other qualifications”. The Stagyrite proposed holding to due measure in the feelings: “in feelings and in actions excess and deficiency are errors, while the mean amount is praised, and constitutes success” (ibid., 1106 b); but "not every action or emotion admits the observance of a due mean. Indeed, the very names of some directly imply evil, for instance, joy at the misfortune of others, shamelessness, and envy [&hellip] all these and similar actions and feelings are blamed as being bad in themselves; it is not the excess or deficiency of them that we blame” (ibid., 1107 a). Seneca criticized the position of the Peripatetics in the controversy “whether it is better to have measured passions or to have none”. In his opinion “our followers want to avoid them completely, while the Peripatetics wish only to temper them. Personally I do not understand how any sort of moderate illness is of any benefit” (Moral epistles to Lucullus, CXVI 1). With regard to all passion, “as much as we can, let us leave the slippery path, for we stand not too strongly even on firm ground”.
APATHY IN EARLY CHRISTIAN THOUGHT. Philo of Alexandria and the Fathers of the eastern Church took up the concept and ideal of apathy from ancient thought, especially from the Stoic school. If for the Stoics, παθη are an obstacle to happiness (’ευδαιμο