What Is Stoic Apatheia?

This short explainer will provide you with a straightforward understanding of what the state of apatheia is in relation to Stoicism and how you can work toward it.

Definition Of Stoic Apatheia

Stoic apatheia is a state of mind in which one is not disturbed by “the passions.” It is a quality that characterizes the sage, the ideal Stoic who lives virtuously and rationally.

The Stoics saw a passion as a disturbing and misleading force in the mind which occurs because of a failure to reason correctly and so used the word to discuss many common emotions such as anger, fear, desire, grief, and excessive joy.

Apatheia does not mean indifference or lack of feeling (as one might assume given the definition of the English word apathy), but rather equanimity and freedom from emotional turmoil.

The Stoics believed that the passions were caused by false judgments about what is good or bad, and that by correcting these judgments, one could achieve apatheia and contentment.

Apatheia also meant eradicating the tendency to react emotionally or egotistically to external events and other things that are outside one’s control. The Stoics taught that only one’s own will can be controlled and that it should be aligned with the rational order of nature. By doing so, one could experience good feelings such as joy and goodwill.

What the Stoics Said

The Stoics had plenty to say about opinions and judgments, and how we might try to change how we form them as a means of progressing toward a state of apatheia.

Seneca, for example, warned against adding extra layers to unavoidable suffering by perpetuating negative opinions about it:

Pain is slight if opinion has added nothing to it;… in thinking it slight, you will make it slight. Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer…. So let us also win the way to victory in all our struggles, — for the reward is… virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time.

Seneca, Letters 78.13–16

Epictetus concurred with the importance that Seneca placed on opinion and judgment:

After all, what is weeping and wailing? A judgment. What is misfortune? A judgment. What are strife, discord, fault-finding, negative criticism, impiety, foolish behavior? All of them are nothing more than judgments, and they judge things that aren’t subject to will as good or bad. But if someone transfers his judgments to things that are subject to his will, I guarantee that he’ll be self-possessed, whatever circumstances he finds himself in.

Epictetus, Discourses 3.3.18–19

Marcus Aurelius, meanwhile, reminds us of another of Epictetus’s teachings that it isn’t external things and events that upset us but rather our judgments about those things:

If something external is causing you distress, it’s not the thing itself that’s troubling you but your judgment about it, and it’s within your power to erase that right now. And if it’s something internal to yourself, is anyone stopping you from looking at it in a more positive way? Likewise, if you’re distressed because you’re failing to do something that strikes you as sound, why not do it rather than indulge in distress?

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8.47

How Can I Achieve Apatheia?

To achieve apatheia, the Stoics would advise that one needs to work to control one’s perceptions and judgments.

Here are some relevant examples of how this can be practiced:

  • Identify the passions that disturb you and examine their causes. Are they based on true or false beliefs? Are they about things that are within or outside your control? Are they helpful or harmful to your well-being?
  • Challenge the false beliefs that generate the passions. Use reason and evidence to correct them. For example, if you are angry because someone insulted you, ask yourself if their opinion really matters to you. If you are afraid of losing something, ask yourself if it is really essential for your happiness.
  • Replace the false beliefs with true ones that align with reality and nature. For example, if you are angry because someone insulted you, remind yourself that their opinion does not define you. If you are afraid of losing something, remind yourself that nothing is permanent and that you can be content with what you have.
  • Focus on what is within your control and let go of what is not. For example, if you are angry because someone insulted you, focus on how you can respond calmly and rationally. If you are afraid of losing something, focus on how you can use it wisely and gratefully while you have it.
  • Cultivate positive emotions that support your rationality and virtue. For example, if you are angry because someone insulted you, cultivate forgiveness and compassion for them. If you are afraid of losing something, cultivate gratitude and generosity for it.
  • Practice mindfulness and self-awareness. Be attentive to your thoughts and feelings and observe them without judgment or attachment. Recognize when they are irrational or extreme and correct them accordingly.
  • Seek guidance from wise people who have achieved apatheia or are on the way to it. Learn from their examples and advice. Read the works of Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus who provided extensive guidance on challenging false beliefs.