The Stoic Traveler

"Wherever I go, it will be well with me."

31 March 2007

One to Rule Them All

Seneca salutem dat Caro Lectori:

Amice, I received your response to my last missive with some delight. Your comment on the role of emotion in decision making is spot on and provides an excellent departure point for tonight's commentary.
You said:
But I must say, when I apply reason, I rationalize an emotional response at least as much as I figure something out from the input.
When I closed my last note, I stated the ultimate conclusion of the discussion: that I am a piece of flesh, some breath, and a Reason to rule all. Now, this statement is alas not my own, but Marcus Aurelius' from his Meditations. When first I read it, I thought that he was referring to a kind of Will to Power, that he meant he had a reason to rule the empire. On closer reading, it became obvious that he was referring to enthroned Reason's government of the body and spirit.
Emotion and passion are things of the body, our animal portions. Our sensation of them originate in the body. Fear, anger, sadness, joy all have some corresponding physical sensation. That is why we speak of them as feelings. It is important that their status as things of the body not diminish their importance. Indeed, as physical beings the things that originate with the body should have a certain pride of place in our makeup.
But should emotion rule?
Perhaps the better question is whether emotion can rule. The idea of rulership, generally understood, requires decision and judgment. Emotions do not decide anything; they inspire and terrify, depress and elate, but they do not decide. Indeed, they often occur at the same time: competing for influence and attention. It falls to a third party to make a choice among the vying forces.
A non-human animal has little need for decision: it has instincts to help keep it safe, senses and habits to govern its behavior with others, and no choice but to listen to its natural impulses.
As a human, I do have choices. Indeed, choice might be the hallmark of my species. I can listen to my emotions only, give in to every passion, every wild desire; and likely I destroy my life in the process. Or, I can listen wholly to my reason: become a machine of logic, weighing pros, cons, and odds in every situation. In that case, too, I destroy my life, though perhaps not as dramatically.
If we sail too close to the shore, we are dashed upon the rocks. If we sail too far out in the fast seas, we are lost to the world. Better, then, to sail a middle course: to use what tools I am given in the best way that I can. Not to rationalize emotions, but understand them and weigh them with the evidence of my senses and come to a decision based on my reasonable understandings of all parties to the conflict.

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