BMCR 2006.07.69

The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature

, The emotions of the Ancient Greeks : studies in Aristotle and classical literature. Robson classical lectures. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xvi, 422 pages).. ISBN 9781442674370 $85.00.

It is no accident that David Konstan has been working on the emotions in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds roughly over the same three decades that have produced “emotion studies” across disciplines including psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science, history, philosophy, literary studies and rhetoric, as well as classics: Konstan has been a seminal contributor to the broader, cross-disciplinary field of study. The publication of The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks, which was initially conceived for the 2001 University of Toronto Robson Classical Lectures, thus provides Konstan with a unique opportunity to synthesize a career of insights on the topic while expertly engaging controversies that compose the now mature field of emotion studies. Konstan takes full advantage of these opportunities; the book is a triumph.

A generous 37 page introduction maps the field of emotion studies and situates Konstan’s position with respect to the polarity that currently defines the field. The scientific psychology of Paul Ekman and David Buss — each of which develops differently the tradition of Charles Darwin’s last book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) — is set by Konstan against the cognitive approach represented in varying degrees by Richard Lazarus, Robert Solomon, William Fortenbaugh, and Martha Nussbaum, among others. Basic to the distinction between these two camps is the scientific interest in cross-cultural markers of emotion supposedly traceable to a biological mandate (e.g. the universally recognizable expression of terror when confronted by a snake) versus the cognitivist interest in an irreducible connection between emotion and judgment. Since an emotion such as angry indignation depends on the angry subject’s judgment of what counts as an offense, and since what counts as an offense depends on the people involved and the circumstances that prevail, cognitivists emphasize the culturally specific dynamics of anger and other emotions. Despite some important deviations I will address below, Konstan substantially aligns himself with the cognitivist camp, and like fellow classicists Nussbaum, Fortenbaugh, and Richard Sorabji, Konstan links his cognitive approach to Aristotle’s treatise on rhetoric, especially book two (27).

One outstanding virtue of The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks is its structure, which examines chapter by chapter most of the emotions that Aristotle analyzes in his Rhetoric, including anger, satisfaction, shame, envy and indignation, fear, gratitude, love, hatred, pity, jealousy, and grief. This deceptively simple structure proves ingenious because it provides the book a justifiable coherence without limiting the author to naïve explication. “Where possible,” Konstan promises, Aristotle provides the “point of departure” for each chapter (xi), but this coherence is not absolute; for instance Konstan postpones chapters on love and hatred since their status as emotions is problematic according to Aristotle’s definition. Nevertheless Aristotle’s systematic achievements in combination with his contemporary relevance make his treatise an ideal starting place. Each of Konstan’s chapters can then productively interrogate Aristotle’s internal consistency, asking for instance why hatred is an emotion for Aristotle though it is not accompanied by pain (192), and likewise each chapter can productively engage the canon of Aristotle interpretation, sometimes suggesting a revision, as in the two cases I will address below: gratitude and jealousy. Finally, the structure of The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks allows Konstan to move laterally from each of Aristotle’s emotions into the work of Aristotle’s philosophical contemporaries and into contemporary works of literature (roughly eighth to third centuries BC which together provide Konstan with a rich field of evidence from which he can then draw warranted conclusions both about Aristotle’s theory, and about the broader function of emotions in ancient Greece.

Methodologically, Konstan consistently deploys a philological phenomenology of the passions. Philology is crucial for Konstan because his book is designed to track the ways in which “the Greek emotions fail wholly to coincide with their nearest cogeners in modern English” (xi). Otherwise put, emotions are conditioned by the social world in which they operate, and, according to Konstan, the philologist has the job of revealing their lineaments (76). Against George Kennedy, Rhys Roberts, and Edward Meredith Cope for example, who translate Aristotle’s kharis in terms such as “kindness” that imply spontaneous munificence, Konstan argues that the Aristotle’s true subject is kharin ekhein, which means “to feel gratitude,” and which better conforms to Aristotle’s precondition that any pathos must be a response or reaction to some stimulus or event (158). This philological point is then bolstered by collateral evidence drawn from a variety of sources besides Aristotle’s Rhetoric, including Philodemus and Lysias, at the same time that it is enriched by an engagement with modern theorist of the emotion from Georg Simmel to Aafke Komter (164). Konstan typically works in this fashion: when he concludes that “we must, then, revise the standard list of basic emotions that Aristotle treats in the Rhetoric,” he does so credibly.

“Jealousy” (nearest Greek relative zelotupia) represents the other important moment of Konstan’s philological revisionism. As opposed to certain classicists and some evolutionary psychologists who elevate jealousy to the status of a biological necessity (222), Konstan argues that the very concept may have been lacking for ancient Greeks in the classical period (220). Indeed Konstan argues that he can “identify the moment at which a notion resembling romantic jealousy entered classical literature” (220), namely when Horace draws upon Catullus, Sappho, and Terence to create “a model case of a three-party passion that comes very close to what a later epoch would come to think of as erotic jealousy” (243). But Konstan’s revisionist moments are judiciously chosen and carefully treated, so when he concludes that “one ought perhaps to modify the entries in modern Greek-English dictionaries” (232), we must take him seriously.

Throughout the book Konstan carefully constructs sentences that clarify the phenomenology of emotion in a manner useful to anyone working on the topic. In his discussion of hatred, for instance, Konstan produces this elegant paragraph which I will quote in full: “Aristotle mentions spite and slander as causes of hostility, and these may be taken as the contrary of amiability. In turn, an odious person — the kind we hate — is plausibly the opposite of one who is lovable because virtuous. If this is so, then the type of people we hate, according to Aristotle, are those with vicious characters, that is, marked by vices instead of virtues. Hatred, then, involves a moral evaluation as much as loving does” (190). On his way to an important point about how Aristotle classifies the hated in terms of moral characteristics (rather than race, gender, age and so forth), Konstan orchestrates his terminology with the care of a philosopher like Husserl.

I should also mention that Konstan’s philological and phenomenological care sometimes produce too many examples for easy reading and the occasional reduction designed to make a point. In his analysis of Sophocles’ Philoctetes for instance, we get this mechanical explanation: “What induces shame in Neoptolemus is the act of entrapping Philoctetes through deceit or treachery. The act, in turn, is taken to reveal a flaw in character, in accord with Aristotle’s analysis of the sentiment …” (108). “In turn” and “in accord with” don’t do full justice to the nuances of this situation. But more often Konstan’s Aristotelian analysis brings out new subtleties in the literature he treats (e.g. 144 on Thucydides), providing thereby a new model for the interpretation of literature.

Finally I can imagine Konstan marking more clearly his divergence from the cognitivists such as Nussbaum, Sorabji, and Solomon, who sometimes reduce emotions to judgments (20). Throughout the book Konstan builds a strong case for the social analysis of emotion — most obviously in his analysis of envy and social hierarchy (122-126). But this social analysis isn’t clearly theorized in the introduction as a distinct approach. Considering, however, that Konstan’s social analysis of emotion is consistent and persuasive throughout the book, his missed opportunity in the introduction doesn’t diminish the book’s cumulative impact.

To summarize just three outstanding virtues of The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks : (1) it revises our understanding of specific emotions, most notably gratitude and jealousy; (2) it develops a new apparatus for interpreting both classical and nonclassical literature by way of emotional analysis; and (3) it serves as a basic reference work on the topic. Anyone interested in the general topic or in a specific emotion such as jealousy can read the appropriate chapters and follow the extensive footnotes and bibliography to relevant material in classical studies and beyond. Indeed I think this book is now the single best historical and theoretical introduction to the topic coming out of classical studies, replacing Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought at the top of the list. I certainly hope that the University of Toronto Press markets this book so it reaches the broad audience it addresses, and deserves.