More Radical Extirpation or Removal of Emotions

Because emotions are valued as modes of attention, motivation, communication, and knowledge, we tend to put up with their messiness while at the same time attempting their reform. But there are venerable traditions in which moderating emotions through transformation and education is viewed as an inadequate therapy and an inadequate way of training moral character and agency. The Stoic view, which influenced later Kantian views and bears rough similarities to certain Eastern traditions, argues that the surges and delusions of emotion warrant their extirpation. Investment in objects and events we cannot control is the source of our suffering, and modification of our beliefs about these values is the source of our cure. In Stoic theory, virtue comes to be rooted in reason alone, for it is reason alone that is most appropriate to our nature and under our true dominion.

The attraction of the Stoic view rests in its powerful description of the anguish of the engaged emotional life. Many emotions (though not all) lead to attachment, but objects of attachment are never perfectly stable. Abandonment, separation, failure, and loss are the constant costs of love, effort, and friendship. The more tightly we cling to our investments, the more dependent we become upon what is uncontrolled and outside our own mastery. Self-reproach and persecution are often responses to lack of control. In our relations with others, the same clinginess of emotions can lead to stepping beyond what is appropriate, just as it can lead to exclusionary preferences and partialities. Provincialism can grow out of stubborn preference for what is familiar and comfortable according to class lines or other restrictive values.

This is a reasonable portrait of some moments of the life lived through emotion. Detachment and watchful awareness directed toward the emotions are important therapeutic stances in such a life. In addition, detachment and watchful awareness should be directed toward reason itself and its own tendencies toward egoism and imperious control. This is clearly at odds with Stoic practice though more in line with Eastern practices such as Buddhism. But it is difficult to see how a thoroughgoing rejection of the emotions can be compatible with what is a human life. Emotions, for all their selectivity, intensity, and stirring, enable us, through those very vulnerabilities, to attend, see, know, and experience in a way that pure cognition cannot. Some of that way of knowing and being known anguishes beyond words. Poetry and literature can only begin to express the reality. But even if at times unruled by reason's measure, emotion must not, on that account, be an outlawed feature of human life. Nor must it be an outlawed feature of morality. How we care for others, and what we notice and reveal, depends greatly on the subtlety, fineness, and often deep truth of our emotional readings of the world.

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