Emotions, philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N016-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 22, 2021, from

2. Plato to the Stoics

The emotions as such do not form one of the aspects of Plato’s tripartite soul. What we call emotion seems divided not only between spirit and appetite but, considering Plato’s discussion of eros as the love of the Good in The Symposium, the emotions are involved in reason as well (see Plato §12). Aristotle, by contrast, did seem to have a view of emotion as such, and in his Rhetoric (Bk. II, Ch. 1) he defines emotion ‘as that which leads one’s condition to become so transformed that his judgment is affected, and which is accompanied by pleasure and pains. Examples of emotion include anger, fear, pity, and the like, as well as the opposites of these’.

Aristotle discussed certain emotions at length, notably anger which he describes in remarkably modern terms. In the Rhetoric he defines anger as ‘a distressed desire for conspicuous vengeance in return for a conspicuous and unjustifiable contempt of one’s person or friends’. He adds that ‘anger is always directed towards someone in particular, for example Cleon, and not towards all of humanity’, and mentions if only in passing the physical distress that virtually always accompanies such emotion. The key to his analysis, however, is the notion of a ‘slight’ as the cause of anger, which may be an instance of ‘scorn, spite or insolence’. Aristotle makes allowances for only imagined slights (in other words, unwarranted anger is nevertheless anger), and he gives a central place to the desire for revenge, thus introducing a behavioural component at the heart of the emotion.

Aristotle’s view of emotion developed in the context of broader ethical concerns. Anger is of interest to him because it is a natural reaction to offence as well as a moral force, which can be cultivated and provoked by reason and rhetoric. There are circumstances in which it is appropriate to get angry, those in which it is not, and only a certain intensity of anger is justified. Here, as elsewhere, Aristotle defines virtue as ‘the mean between the extremes’. So too, courage is not fearlessness nor ‘overcoming’ fear so much as it is having just the right amount of fear, to be neither foolhardy nor a coward. But what is particularly instructive in Aristotle’s accounts of emotion is the fact that the split between rationality and emotion is not much in evidence. The emotions are an essential part of the rational life (see Aristotle §29).

In Roman times, we find a similar conjunction of ethics and emotion in the philosophy of the Stoics. But whereas Aristotle took emotion as essential to the good life, the Stoics analysed emotions as conceptual errors, conducive to misery. Seneca and Chrysippus, for example, developed a theory of the emotions as judgments, judgments about the world and one’s place in it. The Stoics saw the world, however, as out of control and beyond any reasonable expectations, and so they viewed the emotions, which imposed such expectations on the world, as misguided judgments about life and our place in the world. The emotions, consequently, make us miserable and frustrated. The alternative was ‘psychic indifference’ or apatheia. The Stoics believed in a ‘higher’ reason, but – like the Buddhists thousands of miles away – they believed that the best life could be achieved only by realizing the pointlessness of emotional attachments and involvement (see Stoicism).

Citing this article:
Solomon, Robert C.. Plato to the Stoics. Emotions, philosophy of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N016-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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