One of the definitive precepts of Stoicism, is the elevation of the rational mind over the emotions. The ancient Hebraic Stoics derived this concept from Genesis 2:7:
And YHWH Elohim formed (YETZER) man of the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath (NISH’MAT) of life;
and man became a living soul (NEFESH).
The Wisdom of Ben Sira says of this verse:
It was He who created man in the beginning.
And He left him in the power of his own freewill (Heb: YETZER).
If you will, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water:
Stretch out your hand for whichever you wish.
The Talmud takes note of the fact that the word YETZER in Gen. 2:17 is spealled with to YODS (Y’s):
R. Nahman b. R. Hisda expounded:
What is meant by the text, Then the Lord God
formed [va-yetzer] man? [The word va-yetzer] (Gen. 2:7)
is written with two yods, to show that God created
two inclinations, one good (tov) and the other evil (ra).
It has been taught: R. Jose the Galilean says,
The righteous are swayed by their good inclination, as it says,
My heart is slain within me. (Ps. 109:22)
The wicked are swayed by their evil inclination, as it says,
Transgression speaks to the wicked,
methinks, there is no fear of God before his eyes. (Ps. 36:1)
Average people are swayed by both
inclinations, as it says, Because He stands at
the right hand of the needy, to save him from them
that judge his soul. (Ps. 109:31)
Raba said: People such as we are of the average.
Philo of Alexandria also saw a dichotomy in Genesis 2:7, between what he called “body” or “flesh” and what he called “soul” or “mind” with the mind being a fragment of the divine:
… There are two several parts of which we consist, the soul and the body; now the body is made of earth, but the soul consists of air, being a fragment of the Divinity, for “God breathed into man’s face the breath of life, and man became a living Soul.”(Gen. 2:7) It is therefore quite consistent with reason to say that the body which was fashioned out of the earth has nourishment which the earth gives forth akin to the matter of which it is composed; but the soul, inasmuch as it is a portion of the ethereal nature, is supported by nourishment which is ethereal and divine, for it is nourished on knowledge, and not on meat or drink, which the body requires. (Allegorical Interpretation, III, 161)
He does well here to attribute the flow of blood to the mass of flesh, combining two things appropriate to one another; but the essence of the mind he has not made to depend on any created thing, but has represented it as breathed into man by God from above. For, says Moses, “The Creator of the universe breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living Soul,” (Gen. 2:7) who also, it is recorded, was fashioned after the image of the Creator. (Who is the Heir of Divine Things? 56)
For among created things, the heaven is holy in the world, in accordance with which body, the imperishable and indestructible natures revolve; and in man the mind is holy, being a sort of fragment of the Deity, and especially according to the statement of Moses, who says, “God breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living Soul.”(Gen. 2:7). (On Dreams 1, 34)
In the ancient Hebraic Stoic work, 4Maccabees (also known as On the Supremacy of Reason) we read concerning this verse:
21 Now when Elohim fashioned man, he planted in him emotions and inclinations,
22 but at the same time he enthroned the mind among the senses as a sacred governor over them all.
23 To the mind he gave the Torah; and one who lives subject to this will rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous.
And as Philo of Alexandria concluded:
“For these passions are the causes of all good and of all evil; of good when they submit to the authority of dominant reason, and of evil when they break out of bounds and scorn all government and restraint.”
(Life of Moses 1; VI, 26)
The neshoma that was breathed into man, is the rational mind. It is a spark of the Logos, the rational mind that permeates the Universe. Hebraic Stoicism teaches us that our rational mind, should be in control over our emotions.
Hebraic Stoics saw in Genesis 2:7, that man had within him a spark of the Logos that permeates the Universe and two inclinations. They saw the Yetzer Tov (good inclination) to be the result of the rational mind in control over the emotions, and the Yetzer Ra (evil inclination) to be the result of the emotions unrestrained and out of the control of the rational mind.
To apply a modern metaphor, the ancient Hebraic Stoics taught that the emotions should be in the passenger’s seat, and the rational mind should be in the driver’s seat.
As Ben Zoma taught “Who is strong? He who controls his inclinations.” (m.Avot 4:1) citing as his proof text, from Proverbs: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty: and he that rules his spirit, than he that takes a city.” (Proverbs 16:32 HRV)
In my next blog, I will discuss the ancient Hebraic Stoic understanding of the seven basic emotions, the two root emotions, and how understanding emotions is a major key to subjecting them to the control of the rational mind.