Scientists at Cambridge University have made the astonishing discovery that repressing your emotions might have something to be said for it. The ancients turned their analytical minds to that, and much else, long ago. In the seventh century BC the ancient Greeks invented natural philosophy, arguing about the physical world in rational terms, excluding gods. Socrates then got them wondering how best to lead one’s life: why not reason about its problems, including emotional ones?
For example, Plato (d. 348 BC) argued that emotions such as distress, fear and anger, but most of all insatiable pleasure — “the greatest spur to evil — were destructive forces: reasoned reflection was required to control them. Epictetus (d. AD 135) urged us to “repress our desires wholly and completely” and say to ourselves: “From now on, the material I must work on is my own mind, just as the carpenter does on wood and the cobbler on leather.” All very cerebral.
Epicurus (d. 270 BC) was more practical. To the horror of most philosophers, he realized that, in such a poverty-stricken, unpredictable world, pleasure was the only reason for living. But that was impossible for anyone wracked by anxiety about divine intervention. So, he urged, men should believe that the universe was constructed out of atoms (a theory invented in fifth century bc Athens), as the gods were too: they did not stage-manage anyone’s life, let alone afterlife, or even control the universe. And what was there to fear about death? That was merely the removal of sense-perception.
Next, one must fully understand that a craving for the unattainable guarantees a life of pain. So repress it. Aim for self-sufficiency. Restrict your life mostly to the simple necessities, available to everyone (plus the occasional treat); throw in good sense, fairness and honesty; add mutually supportive friendships for help in times of need and the joys of good company — and farewell mental anxiety, welcome peace of mind (ataraxia).
Easier said than done, perhaps, as one thinker, Plutarch, acknowledged — but that’s life.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2023 World edition.