Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.07.55

John T. Fitzgerald, Passions and Moral Progress in Greco-Roman Thought.   London/New York:  Routledge, 2007.  Pp. 416.  ISBN 978-0-415-28069-3.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by V. Henry T. Nguyen, Loyola Marymount University (
Word count: 2219 words

Table of Contents

This book contains a collection of essays by fourteen scholars on the topic of the pathê (passions) and prokopê (moral progress) in ancient Greco-Roman thought. It contributes to the recent and growing interest in research on the history of emotions, which has produced copious studies across many disciplines--including history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, political science, psychology, classics, and religion. The book has its origins in the work of the Hellenistic Moral Philosophy and Early Christianity Section, a program unit of the Society of Biblical Literature comprising scholars of ancient history, ancient philosophy, Hellenistic Judaism, and the New Testament. As a result, the volume covers philosophy, literature, and religion. It thus offers a more multi-disciplinary approach than many recent studies on the emotions, as well as one that is focused on the topic of moral advancement.

John T. Fitzgerald leads off the book with a helpful introduction to the subject of the passions and moral progress. He begins by giving a brief history of research and then shifts his attention to a major difficulty in understanding the ancient conceptions of the emotions: the translation of the standard abstract Greek term for emotion (pathos). In addition to looking at the different ways the Latin writers conceived of the pathê, Fitzgerald assesses the three common English translations of pathos: emotion, affection, and passion. He also traces the development of ancient Greek and Latin views on the emotions and specific emotions, showing that the emotions were a major concern of the philosophers in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Fitzgerald then turns his focus to the less well-studied topic of moral progress (prokopê). After a brief survey of its role in the ancient texts on myth and mythology, he sets out the importance of this topic for Hellenistic and Roman moralists, and, in particular, for the Stoics.

William W. Fortenbaugh starts off Part I ("Philosophy") with "Aristotle and Theophrastus on the Emotions," an analysis of Aristotle's oft-cited "definition" of the emotions in Rhetoric 2.1 (1378a 19-22). Fortenbaugh shows that some of Aristotle's subsequent discussions of particular emotions (especially hate and kindness) do not manifest the affection of one's judgment and subsequent pain or pleasure we would expect given the "definition." He suggests that Aristotle in fact avoids a general definition of the emotions and instead stresses their similarity. Fortenbaugh also considers Theophrastus' treatise on faultfinding, rage, and anger to affirm the link between bodily changes and emotional responses in the Aristotelian theory, and to point out that the emotions exhibit differences in degrees ("the more and less"). Finally, he considers how emotions relate to good character and moral virtues.

In the next chapter, "The Problem of the Passions in Cynicism," David E. Aune explores the conception of the emotions in the more problematic Cynic tradition. Aune makes four general points about Cynicism: (1) the notion of freedom (eleutheria) is at the heart of the tradition; (2) the Cynics emphasize behavior and lifestyle rather than theory and doctrine; (3) Cynicism is not a formal Hellenistic philosophical "school," like Stoicism and Epicureanism; and (4) the Cynic tradition has a discontinuous history. He then turns his attention to the pathê in the surviving textual evidence from Cynics, which shows that the Stoic doctrine of the extirpation of the passions is poorly attested in the early Cynics, and that the evidence for the later Cynics often stresses an antithesis between ponos (hardship) and hêdonê (pleasure).

Johan C. Thom, in "The Passions in Neopythagorean Writings," explores the understanding of passions in four types of Neopythagorean writings: the pseudepigraphic Pythagorean treatises, letters, and sayings collections, and the biographical traditions about Pythagoras. Thom points out that of the four types, only the first elucidates the passions in a systematic and theoretical fashion. The authors of these treatises assume that all moral action is linked with and affected by the passions; they also favor the Aristotelian notion of metriopatheia (moderation of passions) and oppose the Stoic doctrine of apatheia (extirpation of emotions). Thom then surveys the remaining three types of text, which are concerned with the practical and moral implications of the passions and the appropriate ways to handle them.

In "'Be Angry and Sin Not': Philodemus versus the Stoics on Natural Bites and Natural Emotions," David Armstrong argues against the tendency to regard Epicurus and the Epicureans' views on the emotions as a milder sort of Stoicism. Armstrong surveys Philodemus' works On Frank Criticism, On Anger, and On Death to show that the Epicureans regarded the feelings of many real emotions as "natural," and that these emotions were not considered harmful but often valuable for achieving a virtuous life. In his survey, Armstrong takes Philodemus' imagery of "bites" to refer not to the Stoic notion of "pre-emotions," but to the emotions themselves. In an appendix, Armstrong contends that the opponents in Philodemus' On Anger were Epicureans who also took anger to be "natural."

Edgar M. Krentz's "πάθη and ἀπάθεια in Early Roman Empire Stoics" surveys the conception of the passions, as they relate to ethics, in two Roman writers from the first century CE: Arius Didymus and Epictetus. It should be pointed out that Krentz identifies Arius Didymus himself as a Stoic (p. 122), although the evidence does not indicate conclusively that he was one. The text Krentz is discussing comes from Arius' doxagraphical work containing views ascribed to specific Stoics from the third to first centuries BCE. Krentz's point, then, is probably to show how Epictetus and the early Stoics (as seen in Arius' work) have the same perspective on the emotions. He starts off by analyzing Arius, whose doxography of Stoic ethics is our most comprehensive source from the period and preserves an extensive examination of the Stoics' four basic emotions of appetite, fear, pain, and pleasure. Krentz also pieces together details in Epictetus' discourses for his perception of the emotions. He explains that these two sources set out the common Stoic view that emotions, especially the four emotions mentioned above, are contrary to the individual's identity as a rational being and should thus be eradicated.

In his essay, "Plutarch on Moral Progress," Richard A. Wright probes Plutarch's work Progress in Virtue for his understanding of moral advancement. Wright demonstrates that, contrary to the Stoic view of moral progress, Plutarch is aligned with the common sense view that regards observable indicators as essential for one's moral advancement in a life of virtue. (These indicators include certain kinds of discourse, the sort of dreams one has, and one's success in imitating exemplars.) By controlling the passions, one is able to use them as aids for achieving progress toward virtue.

Part II ("Philosophy and Literature") begins with S. Georgia Nugent's "Passions and Progress in Ovid's Metamorphoses." In order to identify the relationship between emotion and moral progress in the poem, Nugent considers six tales of tragic passions. She establishes that in each of these tales, the female leading character is unable to make moral progress or (except somewhat in the case of Iphis) to control her passions through a manipulation of language. Moreover, this physical impasse is followed by a moment of crisis in which the protagonists end up committing an act of murder. Nugent concludes not only that their disordered passions hinder their own moral progress, but also that they jeopardize another essential aspect of human progress -- the chronological succession of generations.

In "The Passions in Galen and the Novels of Chariton and Xenophon," Loveday C.A. Alexander compares the theme of passions in Galen's On the Passions of the Soul and the two early Greek novels by Chariton and Xenophon. Alexander suggests four points of commonality and continuity between Galen and the novelists: (1) Galen's narrative presentation of the passions provides a helpful key for grasping the characterization of the novels; (2) both contain dramatic depictions of uncontrolled passion, which function as a sort of "aversion therapy"; (3) both provide an objective realization of the effects of the passions, which results in a particular blurring of the boundaries between pathos (emotion) and ethos (character); (4) both highlight certain characters, especially the narrator and addressee (or interlocutor), as moral subjects who have the capacity for moral choice. In addition, Alexander points out one chief point of contrast: the novelists portray the philosopher as unable to resist and overcome the onslaught of love.

Part III ("Philosophy and Religion") opens with David Winston's "Philo of Alexandria on the Rational and Irrational Emotions." Winston argues that, while Philo's theory of the passions was influenced by Posidonius' Platonized version of the Stoic view, he only appealed to Posidonius selectively. He shows that Philo remains very much aligned with the orthodox Stoic theory, and he even employs some of its technical terminology. Winston also discusses Philo's depiction of Moses as a "supersage," and Philo's recognition of the usefulness of the passions. Finally, Winston suggests that for Philo the conflicts of the passions are overcome by the most powerful emotion of all -- the intellectual love of God.

David Charles Aune's "Passions in the Pauline Epistles: The Current State of Research" is the first of three chapters on the passions and moral progress in the apostle Paul. Aune starts by surveying twentieth-century Pauline scholarship, which denied any link between Paul and the Hellenistic philosophers' treatment of the passions. Aune then indicates how the tide has turned in recent Pauline scholarship on this issue, by examining five areas of contemporary scholarly interest in the passions in Paul's writings: (1) Paul's rhetorical use of emotional appeal (pathos); (2) Paul's descriptions of suffering and emotional endurance; (3) Paul's treatment of grief, anxiety, and anger in his communities; (4) Paul's negative assessment of sexual passions and desires; and (5) Paul and philosophical self-mastery.

In "The Logic of Action in Paul: How does he Differ from the Moral Philosophers on Spiritual and Moral Progression and Regression?" Troels Engberg-Pedersen compares the Pauline logic of moral progress with the logic of the active, "self-determining self" which was a major feature of ancient Greco-Roman philosophy. Engberg-Pedersen shows how the two logics are remarkably similar (though with some differences). In order to demonstrate this, he focuses on: (1) demons and the self-determining self that underlines exhortation; (2) God's agency and human agency; (3) God's agency and human "self-reliance"; and (4) conversion and progression/regression.

James Ware, in his essay "Moral Progress and Divine Power in Seneca and Paul," compares these motifs in the two authors. Ware's rationale for choosing Seneca is that he has the strongest emphasis of the Roman Stoics on divine empowerment and provides the closest parallel to Paul's understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in the process of sanctification. In order to emphasize the similarities of Paul and Seneca's understandings of the divine, Ware speculates that Seneca not only identifies the divine with the rational soul, but regards the rational soul as "a fragment of the divine" that dwells within the human body. In fact, he describes Seneca as conceiving god "in something approaching quasi-personal terms" (p. 271). However, Seneca's conception of the divine is very complicated, and Ware's explanations of it are not always tenable. He is able, nevertheless, to provide insights into Paul and Seneca's stress on the role of the divine in moral progress. In addition to their similarities, Ware highlights several differences in their frame of thought -- the fundamental difference being that Seneca conceives of God as a power in the world which is analogous to the individual's rational soul, while Paul conceives God as a transcendent power outside the world whose spirit is endowed to believers. Ware also points out the profound differences in both of their anthropology and ethics.

In the book's final chapter "Moral Pathology: Passions, Progress, and Protreptic in Clement of Alexandria," L. Michael White explores Clement's Who is the Rich Man that will be Saved?, which is an allegorical work on the Jesus logion of Mark 10.25. By situating Clement's speech as part of a Christian symposium for the elites associated with his school, White shows that it is not merely about wealth versus poverty, but about self-control and the proper attitude towards the passions. In his analysis, White underscores Clement's role as a moral guide and doctor of the soul, by examining three related aspects of his moral exhortation: the pathology of the soul and its cure, moral progress as psychagogy (direction of the soul), and the pharmacology of logos.

This multi-disciplinary book is a significant contribution to recent research on the emotions and moral progress. It provides a useful bibliography and helpful abstracts at the beginning of each essay. Overall, the book is well produced, despite a few small quibbles: the Greek font is unattractive; the presentation of Greek words is inconsistent (some authors cite the Greek, some give transliterations, some do both); and the use of endnotes rather than footnotes is disconcerting. This study also would have benefited from a concluding chapter spotlighting the essays' individual and collective contribution to the field of study, and indicating some avenues of further research. And, since the essays explore a wide range of literary sources, it is unfortunate that the chapters on "religion" do not explore the subject in the New Testament beyond the figure of Paul. Nevertheless, this volume is a welcome contribution to the growing field of research on the passions and moral progress in Greco-Roman thought.

Read Latest
Index for 2008
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:33:02, Friday, 03 April 2009