Stoicism and the Blues

 Originally posted Nov 5, 2011 on

Today I have got out of all trouble, or rather I have cast out all trouble, for it was not outside, but within and in my opinions.

-Marcus Aurelius

I had a rough couple of days this week. I've dealt with depression on and off (mostly on) since about the age of twelve. A few days ago, it came back full force. And yes, I know that technically depression needs to stick around for a couple weeks to be a medical depression, but it's so much easier to package the full continuum into a single term. Anyway, what a great test of my stoicism!

Stoicism demands that I have a clear understanding of what I control and what I do not. I've mentioned before that Stoics consider even my own body as outside my complete control. That principle isn't very hard to apply to aches in my joints, but things get murkier when it comes to my emotional states. Where do emotions fall on the control spectrum? They're so closely related to the all important stoic will. Epictetus listed the things in my control as: opinion, pursuit, desire, and aversion. There's definitely an emotional component to such terms as pursuit, desire, and aversion. So how should I treat my emotional state during depression?

My emotions are indifferent when they are not coupled with my opinions. This is completely my own thought, I can't back it up with Stoic quotes and such (maybe I'll be able to in the future). Still, look at this Aurelius quote: Today I have got out of all trouble, or rather I have cast out all trouble, for it was not outside, but within and in my opinions. Opinions come up a lot in Stoicism. This makes sense, opinions are formed by all the aspects of our mind that Stoics find important, like the will and reason. So the question becomes, where do my emotions meet my opinions?

I believe that my depression arrives prior to my negative thoughts. By which I mean, my brain becomes chemically imbalanced and it makes happy thoughts oh so hard to generate while stressful thoughts flow like water on a downhill slope. As such, my emotional state would be indifferent, neither virtue nor vice. My emotions are simply part of the environment I find myself in. On the other hand, if I  couple my emotions with my opinions, I am moved towards desire or aversion. In that case, my emotions become part of a process that is either virtuous or not.

If this is a workable concept in Stoicism, then treating my depression as an indifferent should led to tranquility. I'm happy to report it did. Not instantly, but my depression lasted days, not weeks. It worked like this: One day I wake up and basically feel muted. The world is sepia, with all the emotional color drained out of it. Half a day later, I start the standard process of building my thoughts on a scaffolding of depressed emotions, leading to an even darker place. Thankfully, I have developed a habit of reviewing Stoic quotes and the like. I begin questioning the nature of my depression. I decide that my emotional state is outside my control. As such, I refuse to predicate my approach to the world on my present emotional state. I fulfill all my duties, listen to and accept good advice from my wife, surround myself with good friends, and basically continue life without paying attention to my dull internal world. Within 48-hours, my chemical imbalance corrects itself. This is record time.

So that's what Stoicism did for me lately. I'm curious if other practicing Stoics have a different view of emotions and, if so, you'd be willing to share your wisdom. I'm always looking for a more stoic approach to Stoicism.