BMCR 2006.12.11

The Secret History of Emotion

, The secret history of emotion : from Aristotle's Rhetoric to modern brain science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 1 online resource (x, 194 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780226309934 $35.00.

To produce the appropriate impression of what this book is one must stress its subtitle — “From Aristotle’s ‘Rhetoric’ to Modern Brain Science”. Generally the book does not concern the realm of classics: the passages pertinent to the classicists are mainly the first two chapters. Greek is transliterated.

In the Introduction, A New Rhetoric of Passions (pp. 1-20), G. distinguishes between “passions” (referring to the past) and “emotion” (used of the present time). He builds up a dichotomy between the (neuro)biology perspective (Descartes – Damasio – LeDoux) and the (psycho)social view of emotion (Aristotle, the Stoics, Hobbes, Hume, Perfect).

The first chapter (Early Modern Emotion and the Economy of Scarcity, 21-50) opens with setting out Descartes’ view on emotion and identifying its contemporary equivalent, J. LeDoux. After quotations from Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” (1378a21-26 and 1384a22-36) G. presents those who continued on the lines adopted by Aristotle: first of all Hobbes.

The second chapter (Apathy in the Shadow Economy of Emotion, 51-84) begins with a quotation from Seneca’s “On Anger”. G. discusses seventeenth century, mainly German, works on emotions and argues that the Stoic approach is to be contrasted with the Aristotelian one. He devotes six pages to Aristotle, discussing fragments from his “De anima”, “Politics”, “Physics”, and “Nicomachean Ethics”. G. goes on to a critique of R. Sorabji’s and M. Nussbaum’s books. The chapter ends with a discussion of Hobbes’ distinction between interior and exterior life and how it works.

In the third chapter (“Virtues of Passivity in the English Civil War”, 85-111), G. discusses the dyads of passions/action and feminine/masculine and the Aristotle’s distinction between mover and moved. By way of description of feminine passivity, G. cites a passage from Pseudo-Aristotle’s Problems (6.26) (cf. 97-99).

The fourth chapter (The Politics of Pride in David Hume and David Simple, pp. 113-156) is an analysis of pride and humility. G. turns to the Greek categories of logos – pathos – ethos and to Cicero’s “De oratore” and Quintilian’s “Institutio oratoria”.

In the last chapter (Thinking and Feeling without a Brain: William Perfect and Adam Smith’s Compassion, pp. 157-179), presenting clinical case descriptions (taken especially from Williams Perfect’s “Annals of Insanity”), G. makes reference to Stoic moral therapy and to Galen’s humoral pathology.

For the classicist reader the special strength of the book may appear in G.’s remarks on the real sense of the Greek and Latin meaning of “suffer” (“need not be an unpleasant experience”) and on the “Ciceronian Stoic understanding of emotion as perturbationes animi“. They allow us to identify the historical turning point at which emotions were rendered negative, since this system of understanding portrays emotions as “a deviation from reason and an illness of the soul”, whereas in reality “passions and their evaluation vary dramatically from one practical situation to the next” (52).

The most characteristic feature of G.’s work is, alas, the recurrent dichotomisation, pitching the rhetorical or social view against the biological and neurological perspective. Finally the book displays shortcomings similar to those of the positions against which G. argues.