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Dossier : Émotions

Dossier : Émotions


David Konstan

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1On the 9th and 10th of December 2005, there took place at the University of Crete in Rethymno a conference on the subject «Emotions over Time: Ancient Pathê-Modern Sentiments, A Comparative Approach», organized by Anastasia Serghidou of the University of Crete and myself. The object of the conference was to examine whether, and how, emotions in classical antiquity might differ from the emotions as we feel, describe, or understand them today. Participants were invited to consider the reception of ancient emotions by classical and/or modern authors, with a view to illuminating, through an interdisciplinary and comparative conversation, the specificity of classical inventories of emotions and the way they differ from modern definitions of feelings and their practice. Among other things, the conferees sought to interrogate the rhetorical and public aspect of the pathê, as understood by Aristotle, as opposed to the inner, more private conception of feelings prevalent today. Also examined were representations of emotional states and their significance in historiography, philosophy, drama and literature, and the way they have been formulated by historians and literary critics.

  • 1 See, for example, James Averill, «A Constructivist View of Emotion», in Robert Plutchik and Harry (...)

2The conference was conceived as a contribution to an ongoing debate over whether the emotions — or at least certain so-called basic or canonical emotions — are cross-cultural constants, the same in all societies irrespective of their cultural traditions and economic development, or vary from one society to another, and even within a society according to class or gender. The latter position, commonly labeled «social constructionist», regards emotions, like other human values and concepts, as products of a given social system — hence, «constructed»1. The former position, on the contrary, sees the emotions as «hard-wired» in human beings and hence independent of local culture: the emotions, on this view, are innate and universal, a consequence of early humanoid evolution and shared even by members of other species, such as primates and other advanced mammals.

  • 2 Charles Darwin (orig. 1872), The Expression of the Emotion in Man and Animals, Londres, 1998, p. 2 (...)
  • 3 Paul Ekman, «Expression and the Nature of Emotion», in Klaus Schererand Paul Ekman (ed.), Approach (...)

3The debate in its modern form looks back to Charles Darwin’s last book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872. Thus, Darwin maintained that «With all the races of man the expression of good spirits appears to be the same, and is easily recognized»2, and he identified a wide range of other emotions that he saw as common to all peoples, and indeed to dogs and other animals as well. In recent years, the figure who has most vigorously defended this universalist thesis is Paul Ekman, in a number of volumes that include an updated edition of Darwin’s original book3. Ekman and others have sought support for their position in the results of neuroscience, which purports to identify the centers or pathways in the brain that correspond to the basic emotions. The opposite view, that culture plays a decisive role in the formation of the emotions, has found support in various quarters, such as anthropology, history, and social psychology.

  • 4 Cf. Richard Sorabji, Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation, Oxfo (...)

4Classicists have only recently begun to add their voices to the discussion, as they have begun to inquire into the nature of emotions in ancient Greece and Rome, and raised the possibility that they were not identical to the way emotions are conceived today4. Since classical literature is unusually rich in providing descriptions and definitions of the emotions, whether in philosophical analyses or treatises on rhetoric, and also narratives of emotions in action, as it were, in tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, and the novel, it would appear that classical philology is in a position to contribute importantly to the comparative or historical investigation of the emotions. And indeed this is the case, for several reasons.

5First and foremost, classical conceptions of the emotions are characterized by a highly cognitive element. That is, the emotions are not understood as unreflective or automatic responses to stimuli, with little or no rational element involved; on the contrary, the emotions, or pathê, involve reasoning or logos essentially, as part of their very nature. The modern contrast between reason and passion was in many ways foreign to ancient habits of thought, and this not only in its more intellectual expression in the analyses of philosophers.

  • 5 Aristotle, Rhetoric 2.2, 1378a30.
  • 6, s.v.

6Let us take the case of anger. Aristotle provides a definition of this passion, and illustrates the conditions under which it is elicited. His definition runs: «let orgê be a desire, accompanied by pain, for a perceived revenge, on account of a perceived slight on the part of people who are not fit to slight one or one’s own»5. We may note how different Aristotle’s definition is from the one found in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary of English, which runs: «a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism»6. The dictionary goes on to distinguish among various related words in English and notes that anger, «the most general term, names the reaction but in itself conveys nothing about intensity or justification or manifestation of the emotional state». Yet Aristotle points specifically to the cause of the response, namely a slight or insult on the part of someone not in a position to belittle you. For Aristotle, anger is not simply a feeling, but a response to a complex social interaction.

  • 7 Aristotle, Rhetoric 2.1, 1378a21.

7The definition of anger provided by the Merriam-Webster dictionary corresponds neatly to the meanings given for the term «emotion» itself: «the affective aspect of consciousness»; «a state of feeling»; «a psychic and physical reaction (as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling and physiologically involving changes that prepare the body for immediate vigorous action». The emphasis on «feeling», «affective aspect» and «psychic reaction» is notable: all these terms point to an ostensibly internal state of the subject, with no reference to the external cause of the sentiment. Aristotle’s picture of orgê, in turn, conforms nicely to the definition he provides of emotion in general, or rather, to use his own term of pathos: «Let the emotions be all those things on account of which people change their minds and differ in regard to their judgments, and upon which attend pain and pleasure, for example anger, pity, fear, and all other such things and their opposites»7. There is no reference to feeling here, or to action readiness or physiological states, not to mention facial expressions specific to each emotion; the sole criteria, according to Aristotle, by which something is classified as an emotion are that (1) it must affect or alter one’s judgment or discrimination and (2) it must be accompanied by pleasure and pain. Stripping the idea of anger down to a mere feeling, in accord with the definition given in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is not so much to identify what is basic about the nature of emotion but rather to deprive orgê entirely of what is required for it to qualify as an emotion, or more strictly a pathos, as Aristotle conceives of it.

8If anger or orgê was understood as a response to a belittlement, which affected one’s social standing, then it could be appeased if, for example, it was later discovered that the apparent insult was unintentional or otherwise excusable. But this is not a means of appeasing anger to which one could expect a non-human animal to respond, since such creatures lacked, according to Greek ways of thinking, the faculty of logos (though animals had highly developed perceptual capacities which could do a lot of the work that we associate with rationality). As a result — and this appears extraordinary to our way of thinking — animals were not imagined as experiencing anger, at least not in the full sense of the term orgê. The case is similar with even so apparently elementary an emotion as fear: for if fear is, as Aristotle and others defined it, a response to the impression of something harmful, then one cannot simply conclude that a creature that withdraws or cowers at a threatening object is motivated by fear. For this may be nothing more than a reflex, the way one closes one’s eyes at bright sunlight. It is the pain of the impression that produces the reaction, not an awareness that some future event can produce harm. Aristotle affirms, indeed, that fear makes people deliberative, hardly a claim that one thinks of in connection with cringing animals. The distinction is not a mere sophism. Socrates can plausibly attempt to dissuade the jury from considering death an evil, thereby explaining and justifying his apparent lack of fear at the prospect of being condemned to death; but try convincing a mouse that is cornered by a cat to deliberate over whether death is really an evil. The example sounds absurd, perhaps, but in contemplating classical ideas of the emotions, it is crucial to keep in mind how central they are to practices of rhetoric and persuasion: it is in Aristotle’s Rhetoric that we find his deepest treatment of the pathê, not in his treatise on the soul. So too, in the Latin tradition, one looks to Cicero and Quintilian for the most detailed accounts of the passions.

  • 8 See David Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literatu (...)

9Some emotion terms in one language may not have exact equivalents in another. Take pity, for example: it features prominently in every ancient Greek or Latin inventory of the emotions, and yet it is rare to the point of vanishing in modern accounts, perhaps because pity is regarded as tinged with scorn, or else because it is more a kind of duty or quality of character than an emotion proper. So too, confidence — Aristotle’s tharros — is not usually deemed an emotion, much less a basic one, in modern treatments. In turn, disgust plays a highly prominent role in modern theories (it is one of Ekman’s five basic emotions, for example), but is rare or non-existent in ancient ones. Over a concept such as jealousy, there is room for debate on whether any ancient Greek term quite corresponds to the modern sense8.

  • 9 Richard S. Lazarus, «Relational Meaning and Discrete Emotions», in Klaus R. Scherers, Angela Schor (...)

10If the ancients really did have a cognitive conception of the emotions, or at least one that took reasoning to be a fundamental component of the emotional process, then they can be enlisted on the side of the social constructionists, at least to the degree that such reasoning is normally premised on values that may vary from one society to another. Some experimental psychologists, particularly those associated with the so-called «appraisal» theory of the emotions, have recognized the connection: thus, Richard Lazarus, one of the founders of modern appraisal theory, has written that «those who favor a cognitive-mediational approach must also recognize that Aristotle’s Rhetoric more than two thousand years ago applied this kind of approach to a number of emotions in terms that seem remarkably modern»9. In fact, it is just such new approaches to the emotions that have helped reveal what is distinctive and important about Aristotle’s treatment, along with those of Plato, the Epicureans, and the Stoics; and this perception has in large measure stimulated the recent surge of interest in classical theories. It may be hoped that this is not an entirely one-way street, for as classicists discover the richness of ancient conceptions, they stand to contribute something to the modern debate over the nature of the emotions, and more particularly whether they can be said to vary from one society to another, and if so, to what extent and in which respects. The dialogue has in fact barely begun and much more can be expected in the near future.

11The conference at Rethymno featured sixteen talks, covering the topics «Philosophical Perspectives», «Emotions in Theory and Reception», «Cultural Readings» (with an emphasis on drama), and «Emotions in the City-State». The essays in this issue represent a selection of the papers in the conference, extensively revised for publication, and they have a special coherence of their own. Thus, David Bouvier, in an essay that takes as its point of departure the controversy over the universality of the emotions, examines how tears and the shivering associated with fright function in the poetry of Homer and in Platonic philosophy; he observes that, whereas tears were a sign of masculinity in Homeric epic, for Plato they have become rather evidence of a feminine temperament, and thus something to be avoided and repressed — hence his banishment of Homer from his ideal republic. Emotion did not remain the same even over the course of ancient Greek history. Douglas Cairns, in turn, looks at the way the eyes and their gaze are conceived in relation to different emotions, such as love and envy. He inquires in particular whether the Greek tendency to regard vision as having a tangible effect on the viewer influenced their thinking about certain kind of looks and visual impressions, and so rendered their conception of emotional transactions subtly different from our own, if not regularly or universally, at least in some contexts. Geneviève Hoffmann inquires into the nature of grief and mourning in connection with the funeral cenotaph or «empty bed». She observes a distinction in the significance of this symbol according to gender: in the Athenian funeral service for fallen soldiers, the empty coffin was a tribute to the heroism of the fallen warriors, whereas in tragedy it is associated with women’s misfortunes. Grief itself is thus gendered, and takes its meaning from its social context. Seth Schein, in turn, examines hatred in Greek tragedy, and more specifically in the dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles, where, he finds, this emotion assumes quite different forms: for Aeschylus, hatred is an inseparable element of social institutions, whereas grief in Sophocles’ plays dramatizes the outsized passions of his more-than-human heroes. In both cases, we may note, hatred has a function that differs considerably from the modern view of this ostensibly negative and antisocial emotion. Cristina Viano investigates the views of Plato and Aristotle on crimes of passion: how can a crime committed under the influence of anger or rage be excused? Indeed, the two philosophers differed radically on this question, in accord with their views of anger and emotion generally: whereas for Plato anger was a disease of the soul that needed to be healed, Aristotle saw anger as a legitimate response to an insult or slight, and characterized men who were incapable of anger as servile in disposition. Finally, Anastasia Serghidou examines the way in which emotions are a function of social life, and how the tragic mask serves to express values via immediate sensory experience.

12The papers in the collection that follows are not cut to a single pattern, nor do they necessarily come down on the same side of the divide between social constructionism and the cross-cultural uniformity of the emotions. They reveal rather the richness of ancient conceptions and emotional practices, and what they have to teach scholars, both classicists and others, about the emotions then and now. It is hoped that they will in turn stimulate further discussion on this fascinating and timely topic.


1 See, for example, James Averill, «A Constructivist View of Emotion», in Robert Plutchik and Harry Kellerman (ed.), Theories of Emotion, New York, 1980, p. 305-340; Catherine A. Lutz, Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and their Challenge to Western Theory, Chicago, 1988; J. M. Barbalet, Emotion, Social Theory and Social Structure: A Macrosociological Approach. Cambridge, 1998; Anna Wierzbicka, Emotions across Language and Cultures: Diversity and Universals, Cambridge, 1999; Klaus R. Scherer, Angela Schorrs and Tom Johnstone, Appraisal Processes in Emotion: Theory, Methods, Research, Oxford, 2001; William M. Reddy «Historical Research on the Self and Emotions», Emotion Review 1, 2009, p. 302-315.

2 Charles Darwin (orig. 1872), The Expression of the Emotion in Man and Animals, Londres, 1998, p. 211.

3 Paul Ekman, «Expression and the Nature of Emotion», in Klaus Schererand Paul Ekman (ed.), Approaches to Emotion, Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum, 1984, p. 319-343.

4 Cf. Richard Sorabji, Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation, Oxford, 2000; Robert Kaster, Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome, New York, 2005; David Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature, Toronto, 2006.

5 Aristotle, Rhetoric 2.2, 1378a30.

6, s.v.

7 Aristotle, Rhetoric 2.1, 1378a21.

8 See David Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature, Toronto, 2006, p. 219-243.

9 Richard S. Lazarus, «Relational Meaning and Discrete Emotions», in Klaus R. Scherers, Angela Schorr and Tom Johnstone (ed.), Appraisal Processes in Emotion: Theory, Methods, Research, Oxford, 2001, p. 40; cf. Alexander Laban Hinton, Biocultural Approaches to the Emotions, Cambridge, 1999, p. 6.


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