"Apathy" or apatheia (Greek απάθεια, "absence of feeling"), is a philosophical term originally used by the Stoics to signify a condition of being totally free from the pathe, emotions and passions such as pain, fear, desire, and pleasure. The concept of apathy was developed in response to a problem widely debated by ancient Greek philosophers, of how a human being can achieve true happiness. Apatheia represented a state of tranquility and peace of mind, achieved by becoming indifferent to pleasure or pain and conforming to the inevitable course of events, which was governed by divine will.
Later Stoics, recognizing that complete indifference to all passions and desires would be almost impossible to achieve, modified the concept to distinguish certain virtuous desires. This concept was developed in Rome and adapted by early Christians, whose ideal was to rise above earthly desires. The modern use of the word "apathy" usually refers to a psychological state in which an individual feels no interest in the surrounding world.
The word "apathy" derives etymologically from the Greek απάθεια (apatheia, "absence of feeling"), a term used by the Stoics to signify a condition of being totally free from the pathe, emotions and passions such as pain, fear, desire, and pleasure. The concept of apatheia was developed in response to a problem widely debated by ancient Greek philosophers, of how a human being can achieve true happiness. Apatheia represented a state of tranquility and peace of mind, achieved by becoming indifferent to pleasure or pain and conforming to the inevitable course of events, which was governed by divine will.
Origins of the doctrine can be detected in the attitude of the Cynics (second half of the fourth century B.C.E.), who deliberately subjected themselves to a life of hardship and rejected as valueless anything which did not contribute to virtue. Zeno of Citium (333-264 B.C.E.), who studied under the cynic Crates of Thebes and founded the Stoic school, explicitly taught that a life of tranquility could be achieved by conquering the passions and emotions and conforming to divine will, which governed the universe.
Early Stoics taught that the passions and emotions were to be eliminated entirely. Human events which appeared to be tragic or distressing could be seen as leading to some good if the ultimate purposes of divine will were known. Resisting divine will was useless and only resulted in loss of peace of mind. A wise and virtuous man was one who willingly cooperated with divine will and calmly accepted the course of events. Later Stoics responded to the challenge that they were insensitive to human nature by distinguishing between good and bad, or desirable and undesirable "pathe."
The Greek Stoic philosopher Panaetius (c.185-109 B.C.E.) rejected the doctrine of apatheia and replaced it with the more Aristotelian ideal of moderation and self-control, suggesting that some of the "goods" in this world might be valuable and worth pursuing for their own sake. Panaetius visited Rome and influenced Publius Scipio Aemilianus, the conqueror of Carthage, who was at the head of a group of prominent Romans known today as the Scipionic Circle. His modified Stoicism became the dominant philosophy in Rome and later influenced the early Christians.
Apatheia and Christianity
The concept of apatheia was reappropriated by the early Christians, who adopted the term to express a contempt for all earthly concerns. The word was used by a number of devout writers, including Clemens Alexandrinus (d. 216 C.E.), who hoped to attract philosophers who aspired after virtue to Christianity. He expressed the concept in his exhortations to shake off "the chains of flesh" and rise above "earthly things." St. Augustine showed sympathy towards the Stoic doctrine of apatheia. The denial of passions and desires in order to conform to a greater divine will became an essential aspect of the Christian way of life and an element of monastic asceticism.
Buddhism and Daoism
The concept of apatheia resembles the key Buddhist and Daoist principle of realizing oneness with the Tao (Way) through wu-wei, or "non-doing." Wu-wei refers to spontaneous and effortless behavior that arises from a sense of unity with life, environment, and with others. It is not inertia, laziness, or passivity. Rather, it is the intuitive experience of acting appropriately at any particular moment and relinquishing any effort to control or conquer the environment. Chuang Tzu refers to this type of existence in the world as flowing, or as "purposeless wandering," characterized by "detachment, forgetfulness of results, and abandonment of all hope of profit."
Buddhism teaches that unhappiness and suffering are the result of attachment to, or desire for, the things of this world, and that they can be eliminated through following the Eightfold Path. This understanding is contained in the Four Noble Truths:
- Dukkha: All worldly life is unsatisfactory, disjointed, containing suffering.
- Samudaya: There is a cause of suffering, which is attachment or desire (tanha) rooted in ignorance.
- Nirodha: There is an end of suffering, which is Nirvana.
- Magga: There is a path that leads out of suffering, known as the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Buddhist state of enlightenment, in which a person is free of all earthly attachment, can be compared to the Stoic ideal of apatheia.
Concept of Apathy in Modern Thought
In a sense related to the modern psychological understanding, the concept of apathy became more prominent during the First World War, in which the appalling conditions of the Western Front led to apathy, or a lack of emotion and desire, and shellshock amongst millions of soldiers. Apathy came to be regarded as a psychological response to despair and disgust with the condition of the world. Certain writers and philosophers of the twentieth century, such as Albert Camus (The Stranger), developed the concept of inactivity in the face of events.
The Stoic concept of apatheia is widely promoted by motivational psychologists such as Dale Carnegie, who offer it as a means of dealing with anger and frustration, and going beyond these emotions to accomplish a higher purpose.
Apathy is a psychological term for a state of indifference—where an individual is unresponsive or "indifferent" to aspects of emotional, social, or physical life. Clinical apathy is considered to be at an elevated level, while a moderate level might be considered depression, and an extreme level could be diagnosed as a dissociative identity disorder. The physical aspect of apathy associated with physical deterioration, muscle loss, and lack of energy is called lethargy—which has many pathological causes as well.
Apathy can be object-specific—toward a person, activity, or environment. It is a common reaction to stress, where it manifests as "learned helplessness" and is commonly associated with clinical depression. It can also reflect a non-pathological lack of interest in things one does not consider important.
Certain drugs are known to cause symptoms associated with or leading to apathy.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Hadot, Pierre. 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, Blackwell. ISBN 0631180338
- Honderich, Ted. 1995. The Oxford companion to philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198661320 ISBN 9780198661320
- Noss, David S. and John Boyer Noss. 1990. A history of the world's religions. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 0023884800 ISBN 9780023884801
- Strange, Steven K., and Jack Zupko. 2004. Stoicism: traditions and transformations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521827094 ISBN 9780521827096
- Wenley, R. M. 1963. Stoicism and its influence, by R.M. Wenley. New York: Cooper Square Publishers.
All links retrieved October 31, 2021.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry:
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry:
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Paideia Project Online.
- Project Gutenberg.
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