BMCR 2005.06.01

Emotions in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy

, Emotions in ancient and medieval philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004. x, 341 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0199266387 $74.00.

It is a great merit of Simo Knuuttila’s book that it surveys philosophical theories of emotion from Plato all the way to the fourteenth century in the Latin-speaking west, concluding with a brief mention of Batholemeus Arnoldi de Usingen and Jodocus Trutfetter, and the Margarita philosophica of Gregor Reisch. I had never heard of these last thinkers either (to my dismay, since they were, I am informed, the teachers of Luther), but we now have a convenient two-page summary of their views on emotion and an idea of where to find the relevant texts. No other book known to me provides such comprehensive and detailed coverage — Richard Sorabji’s excellent Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation (Oxford, 2000) goes only to the Christianity of late antiquity — and extending the treatment of emotion beyond the classical world into the Middle Ages and down to the eve of the Reformation is highly desirable, since both the continuities and the discontinuities are remarkable.

K. divides his book into four large chapters. The first covers ancient philosophy, including Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, neo-Platonism, Galen, and the fourth-century treatise by Nemesius of Emesa. Nemesius was instrumental in transmitting earlier ideas to mediaeval thinkers but, as a bishop, might well have been included in the following chapter on “Emotions and the Ancient Pursuit of Perfection.” This latter chapter treats Clement and Origen, the Cappadocian fathers, the monastic or ascetic tradition represented by Evagrius and John Cassian, and Saint Augustine, with a separate section on “religious feelings” that includes, among other figures, Dionysius the Areopagite. The third chapter runs from Abelard to Aquinas, and pays special attention to the crucial issue of “pre-passions” or “first movements,” first mentioned by Philo and Seneca and understood by Seneca as instinctive responses to stimuli not requiring judgment or assent; thus, they are outside the control even of the sage, but do not contradict the ideal of apatheia because they are not genuine emotions or pathê. The chapter also introduces the question of volition and its relation to emotion. Finally, the fourth chapter deals with fourteenth-century thinkers, and pursues further the issue of volition. There is no conclusion or final summary of the overall trajectory of the argument.

The drawback to the book lies, in my judgment, in its handbook quality: so many thinkers, especially Christian thinkers, are reviewed, with each variation on their predecessors’ views duly itemized, that it is difficult to obtain a clear sense of where the important shifts in perspective occur. The tone is flat and descriptive, as befits a manual, rather than analytic. Of Aquinas, for example, K. writes: “The acts of the irascible power are thus divided into five kinds of emotions by combining the classification of their objects into future good and future evil with the classification of the directions of reactions (to and from) and by adding anger as a special case” (244). But there is no comment on whether this is a plausible arrangement, or why it might have been important. Here and there, K. ventures a judgment as to the unsatisfactoriness of one or another position. To take Aquinas again, K. observes:

“In treating the emotions as movements, Aquinas chose a position which was criticized by Albert the Great. The latter argued that emotions are primarily qualities, not movements. One obvious problem of the movement terminology is that of the stages of natural processes (inclination, movement, rest) the first precedes a temporal process and the third follows it. Only the middle part seems to be a movement. Aquinas was aware of the objection…. Aquinas’ comments on the nature of emotional passions as movements remained somewhat sketchy — he apparently thought that the problems associated with the details of his conception were less important than its systematic weight” (248-29).

One is left hungering for a deeper exploration of what is at stake in ascribing so great a role to movement, although K. does point to Aquinas’ predilection for relating desire and aversion to the primary physical motions of up and down and the doctrine of natural places (246-50). Or again: “While Clement and Origen found the Stoic view of emotions as judgements congenial, they did not offer any detailed theory of how emotional judgements are influenced by the emotional part of the soul, simply assuming that it makes people prone to form emotional judgements. Their views show some similarities to Posidonius’ theory of the emotions” (124). I would have liked K. to tease out the implications of this position and how it differs from classical theories. Judicious summaries of scholarly debates are offered where appropriate, but the emphasis is on the source texts, which are frequently cited or recapitulated.

K.’s subject is not the way in which the individual emotions, such as anger, shame, or envy, were understood by classical and mediaeval philosophers, except insofar as they fall under one or another larger category in a given thinker’s system, e.g., the four great genera of pleasure, distress, fear and desire in the case of the Stoics, or the irascible versus the concupiscible emotions in the mediaeval treatments. That the Greek orgê or the Latin ira might at one or another time have had different connotations than the modern English term “anger” is left moot. K.’s focus is rather the place of the emotions in the various theories of the soul and its capacities. As K. puts it, “this is primarily a study of the philosophical theories of emotions, not of the history of emotions themselves” (3). K. is well aware that “Some of the emotions dealt with by the Desert Fathers are not common in our days” (3), but he does not examine the implications of the different extensions of the term “emotion” (or its ostensible Greek and Latin equivalents).

Let me take as an illustration a passage from the Life of Antony, written by the Alexandrian bishop Athanasius. According to Athanasius, Antony admonished the faithful to imagine that each day is their last; if we do so, he says,

“we will not sin, nor will we crave anything, nor bear a grudge against anyone, nor will we lay up treasures on earth, but as people who anticipate dying each day we shall be free of possessions, and we shall forgive all things to all people. The desire for a woman, or another sordid pleasure, we shall not merely control — rather, we shall turn from it as something transitory, forever doing battle and looking toward the day of judgement” (as cited by K., 138).

K. remarks of this passage: “The types of vicious passion mentioned here and their remedies are typical of fourth-century Christian instructions. It is assumed that when people are emotionally attached to earthly things and regard them as beneficial for themselves, they are helped by fear of eternal punishment and desire of eternal reward” (139). No doubt — but are the attitudes that Antony condemns properly described as emotions, in the sense that classical philosophers, or more particularly Aristotle, understood that term? Greed (“laying up treasures”) is not included among the emotions that Aristotle analyzes in the Rhetoric, nor are other cravings, such as “the desire for a woman.” It is not just that the ascetic anchorites have a more extreme attitude toward the passions; it is that what counts as a passion for them is different from classical conceptions, inasmuch as classical philosophy in general drew a clear distinction between three categories that tend to get lumped together in some Christian analyses, namely emotions, appetites, and the sensations (K. tends to call them “feelings”) of pleasure and pain.

K. is of course aware of these distinctions; of Plato’s tripartite soul, he notes that “one might ask how certain more complicated emotions … might be located” (12), not to mention the erôs that characterizes the rational mind (is it an emotion? an appetite? something else entirely?). The problem is in part that Plato may not have distinguished emotions from other psychic phenomena; K. reviews the arguments of Fortenbaugh and Nussbaum on the issue of just when emotion as a distinct category emerged and attempts to trace a development in Plato’s own views, culminating in the Philebus. All the relevant passages are duly discussed, but K. arrives at no very clear picture of Plato’s conception, no doubt because the emotions as such were not Plato’s principal concern in the dialogue.

Aristotle defines a pathos in the Rhetoric as “all those things on account of which people change and differ in regard to their judgments, and upon which attend pain and pleasure” (2.1, 1378a20-23). K. treats this as a “componential” or “compositional” account (37), in the sense that it involves both judgments and sensations. K. suggests further that “An emotion involves an affect which is the felt aspect of an evaluation” (38); this is a possible interpretation, but requires more argument — how does one feel an evaluation? Now, the Stoics are supposed to have differed from Aristotle’s view precisely in that they defended a strictly intellectual account of emotions, without a component of feeling (“the Stoic theory was not compositional,” 54). Did they then hold that there was no felt aspect to an evaluative judgment? They may have, but they do not raise the issue in just this form. What is more, I am not sure I understand K.’s point that, according to Aristotle, emotions are not easily suppressed, since “emotional evaluations can be supported by deep-rooted feelings which are not under immediate rational control” (43). It is true that Aristotle says that virtues are about pleasures and pains, but what is the mechanism by which these sensations affect the judgments on which emotions depend?

There is no doubt that mediaeval Christian thinkers were deeply indebted to classical discussions of the soul and its faculties, and K. sets out the lines of descent clearly, including the role of Avicenna and other Arab scholars in transmitting ancient views. Perhaps the greatest question concerning the continuity of the ancient and mediaeval traditions, however, derives from the Christian focus on sin. From this perspective, appetites are like any other impulse, whether pleasures and pains or love for our fellow creatures, that distract a person from the love of God. Thus, K. writes of Augustine: “Augustine’s description of the different philosophical theories of the emotions is not very satisfactory… Augustine’s own view is compatible with the Platonic distinction between an emotional and a rational part of the soul, but he is more interested in conceptualizing emotional matters by means of the concept of will, which was also central in his theology of sin” (160). K. observes that the role of the will is new in Augustine, although he adds: “The tasks of the will are not, however, very different from that given to the dominant part of the soul by later Platonists” (168). But the connection with sin invites a radically new approach to the whole question of the emotions, which may not lend itself so easily to a chronological survey.

Augustine introduces specifically Christian affects, such as love of God, that pertain to the highest part of the soul. K. explains that “The feelings which are immediately associated with these attitudes differ from the movements which Augustine calls passions,” and he adds that, besides these religious emotions, “Christians can have non-standard mystical experiences and feelings” (161). Here again, I found myself wondering whether, despite some terminological overlap, we are really in the same world as classical theories of the emotions, even if there are reminiscences here and there of Plotinus.

K. reproduces a rather chilling passage from John Cassian’s Institutes (4.27.2-3, cited on p. 148), which encapsulates the different attitudes toward the emotions among Christian ascetics and even the most austere of the pagan thinkers. It concerns a certain Patermutus, who, contrary to custom, entered a monastery together with his eight-year-old son. “In order to find out more clearly whether he made more of his feeling for his kindred and of his own heart’s love or of obedience and mortification in Christ…, the little boy was purposely neglected… He was also exposed to the blows and slaps of different persons…, such that whenever [his father] saw his cheeks they were streaked with the dirty traces of tears.” K. relates how the superior “one day pretended that he was annoyed with the crying child and told the father to throw him into the river,” which the father duly did, not knowing that a monk had been assigned to rescue the boy. Cassian continues: “The man’s faith and devotion were so acceptable to God that they were immediately confirmed by divine testimony,” to wit, a revelation to the superior that Patermutus had “performed the deed of the patriarch Abraham.” K. comments: “One may wonder that no attention is paid to the abuse of the child by the monks or to the divine approval of the father’s attempt to kill an innocent child ‘out of love for Christ'” (148). Indeed, one may, and also at the arrogance of the monks who assumed the role of God in putting Patermutus to this test. But one may wonder as well whether the concerns of these monks were with emotions in the modern sense of the term at all, or with something quite different. Where K. narrates the more or less continuous history of an idea, I am inclined to look for ruptures and incongruities, caused by the radically new context in which discussions of the nature of the soul and its powers were carried on.

K. has done an immense amount of research, covering an extraordinarily wide variety of sources, and while his book is addressed to those who already know what “akratic” and “passible” mean, it will be a fine resource for any who wish to see how ideas of the soul, and the place of emotions and other faculties and powers in it, evolved from classical antiquity to the high Middle Ages. It is the work of a scholar very much at home in the mediaeval scholastic tradition, who brings to the task a deep understanding of the kinds of reasoning in which these thinkers were engaged. K.’s book will be an excellent starting point for any future investigations of the history of the emotions.