From Vol. 4, Issue 9, September 2022
Dealing with regrets
“Regret and remorse aren’t good in themselves, but they may be a sign that there’s more work to do.”
Lately, I have had a surprising number of people asking me about Stoicism and how Stoics view one particular set of emotions. They are regret or remorse. I don’t know what drives this sudden interest. It might in fact be entirely a fluke. But these questions have provoked a bit of thought on my part, which I’ll share with you here.
Regret and remorse
The ancient Stoics developed a consistent, systematic, and sophisticated approach to the human emotions. Considered from the vantage point of the present, of course, their classification of the emotions does contain some gaps. Remorse and regret are among the emotions that they don’t examine in detail, or even really name as such. Other ancient Greek writers do use terms we can translate as remorse or regret. Usually these begin with the prefix “meta,” for instance metanoein, metanoia, or metameleia, all of which have to do with a change in perspective, an awareness that one did or chose the wrong thing. We see these terms occasionally in philosophers prior to the Stoics, like Plato and Aristotle, and used more so later on.
The Stoics could have included regret or remorse among the emotions they placed within the category of pain or grief (lupń), as we find in a text attributed to the Aristotelian Andronicus of Rhodes, that uses the basic Stoic classification, where metameleia is defined as pain over transgressions done by oneself. The entire emotional category of pain for the Stoics involves not just negative feelings but also an irrational “contraction” of the mind, and a judgment that some evil or bad thing is present. Interestingly, in the case of regret or remorse, the evil present isn’t the bad or foolish thing one did, which occurred in the past, and strictly speaking remains there. There might well be effects or consequences that are the present fruit of one’s decisions and priorities, actions or omissions, thoughts or attitudes in that past, and those might provoke remorse or regret. But even more than that, it is the person themself who maintains something of that bad past within their present, carrying it forward in their memory into the future.
One standard bit of Stoic advice you see about these feelings of regret or remorse derives in part from viewing these emotions as basically bad for the person feeling them, and in part from consideration of the “three times,” i.e., past, present, and future. A Stoic would wish not to experience these negative emotions, any more than they would want to suffer from anger, anxiety, or envy. Ideally, what would protect the Stoic from feeling regret or remorse would be not lapsing into moral mistakes, failures, or misdeeds. But who is fortunate enough to live a life like that?
Feeling bad is not useful
Assuming one has done some things wrong, recognizes them as such, feels bad over them, and wishes one had chosen or done better, and therefore feels remorse or regret, the question that then arises is what one does with it. How should one deal with or make use of the situation in which one now finds and feels oneself? You’ll see a number of people in the present picking up on a point Seneca, among others, makes numerous times. Strictly speaking, neither the past nor the future exist, only the present moment. The inference they draw is that it is foolish and unproductive to allow oneself to dwell upon the bad things one did in the past. There’s nothing one can do about them. So feeling bad doesn’t accomplish anything useful. One can just learn from one’s mistakes, and then try to do better in the present.
A sign there’s work to do
For some who feel regret or remorse over the past, this advice – to realize these emotions don’t serve any purpose and reference a past we can do nothing about – perhaps isn’t as useful as the advice-givers think. Attempting to banish or repress negative emotions isn’t authentically Stoic. Instead it might prove better to linger with one’s emotions, carefully analyzing what impressions, assumptions, and judgments are entwined with the affects one feels, then questioning and unravelling those interconnections. Regret and remorse aren’t good in themselves, but they may be a sign that there’s more work to do.
Greg Sadler of ReasonIO is an educator and the editor of Stoicism Today (ModernStoicism.com).