BMCR 2021.10.16

Emotions in Plato

, , Emotions in Plato. Brill's Plato studies series, volume 4. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020. Pp. vi, 396. ISBN 9789004429437 €140,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The Editors’ Introduction to this collection of essays, the first one entirely dedicated to emotions in Plato’s philosophy, opens with the words “There is no such thing as a concept of emotion in Plato” (p. 1). In his Afterword, David Konstan reasserts this assessment, arguing that Aristotle, not Plato, was the first to be credited with a theory of emotions. “So why bother?” the reader may ask. “Why should we be interested in Plato’s treatment of a subject not identified as such by Plato himself?” The answer is that, as the collection under review amply demonstrates, Plato still has enough to say about what we today identify as emotions to justify a book-length study.

The contributors do not operate with a mutually agreed upon definition of what should be identified as “emotion” in Plato. This leads to a certain degree of discrepancy. The most obvious candidate is, of course, pathos, and some contributors do not go any further than that. Yet, as Konstan reminds us, it was only with Aristotle that the Greek word pathos came to be used “specifically of the class of things that look to us like emotions” (p. 377).[1] That is to say, pathos in Plato may well cover what we would not identify as “emotion” today and, vice versa, not everything we identify as an “emotion” would be covered by the word pathos in Plato. Several contributors explicitly refer to this problem. Thus, Karine Tordo-Rombaut points out that, although the Greek pathos and our “emotion” may overlap, the former connotes passivity whereas the latter “stresses the idea of motion rather than the idea of passivity” (p. 170; cf. also Stefano Maso, pp. 83-84). The solution she proposes is that, since Plato’s dialogues regularly deal with what we would identify as “emotion,” they do address the topic of emotions, which is represented by its kinds. This is also the approach most other contributors adopt.

Another caveat concerns the lack of differentiation between Plato’s theorizing about emotions and his representation of emotions in the portrayal of the dialogues’ characters. It is true of course that the latter is addressed only rarely throughout the volume. Still, the absence of a proper clarification may well create the impression that the readers are invited to take it for granted that the characters’ emotions are meant to conform to Plato’s theoretical views or moreover to illustrate them. If it is assumed here that this is indeed the case, the point is important enough to be put explicitly before the readers.

The volume includes seventeen chapters, Introduction and Afterword, and is divided into three parts: (1) For a Taxonomy of Plato’s Emotions, (2) Plato’s Emotions between Rationality and Irrationality, and (3) The Ethical and Political Value of Plato’s Emotions. Side-by-side with case studies focusing on anger (Marta Jimenez), fear (Myrthe L. Bartels, Julia Pfefferkorn), shame (Chiara Militello, Pfefferkorn, Simon Scott), love (Carla Francalanci, Maso, Scott), pity (Rachana Kamtekar), envy (Luc Brisson, Beatriz Rossi), all of them identified as pathē by Aristotle, some less obvious candidates are also being addressed and thoroughly analysed. The latter include philosophical wonder (Laura Candiotto &Vasilis Politis); imaginative perception (Pia Campeggiani); risk as a condition for courage and love (Maso); bodily drives, such as an aversion to pain or an urge to drink, and their involvement in the formation of emotions (Freya Möbus, Lidia Palumbo & Anna Motta); the citizens’ affective relationship to the polis and its members (Frisbee C. C. Sheffield). Other papers offer overarching discussions of emotions and their psycho-physiological setting either in individual dialogues (Renaut on the Timaeus) or in the Platonic corpus as a whole (Tordo-Rombaut on a dialectic relationship between the emotions). At the same time, whether one’s viewpoint is general or particular, there is an unmistakable unity of approach: the issue of rationality and irrationality of emotions, constantly recurring as it does in each one of the volume’s three parts, is undoubtedly the central focus of the entire collection. As far as I can see, the in-depth treatment it receives here is also the book’s main contribution to scholarship.

Understandably, the problem of the partition of the soul and how it is to be interpreted looms large. The tripartite model of the Republic and the Phaedrus, with the Republic’s explicit division of the soul into three parts—the rational (to logistikon), the spirited (to thumoeidēs) and the appetitive (to epithumētikon), is repeatedly addressed, and the role of thumos as the seat of emotions and a mediator between the appetitive and the rational part is paid due attention. No less frequently discussed is the bipartite model that is operative within the rest of the Platonic corpus,[2] which ostensibly places the rational and the irrational part in opposition to each other. But even if the bipartite model is the only one taken into account, it still allows the non-rational part of the soul to be further divided into thumos and epithumia, thus turning the bipartite model into a reduced version of the tripartite one (Brisson, p. 209). The overarching consensus that underlies such an approach to the relationship between the rational and the irrational in Plato is aptly summarized by Scott: “For Plato, all emotions have cognitive content” (p. 279; cf. Candiotto & Renaut, p. 5: “The cognitive approach … could still equally apply in a dualist framework”). Moreover, one should arrive at the same conclusion even when the framework of partition is not taken into account at all. The contributors are unanimous that the emotions in Plato should be approached as complex phenomena participating in both the rational and the irrational.

Far from being mutually exclusive, the rational and the irrational are equally indispensable for the integration of the self. “The multipartite model, far from denying the soul’s unity, is meant to give an account of its endeavor towards unity” (Tordo-Rombaut, p. 175; cf. Möbus, p. 79, on aversion to pain as not threatening “the psychic harmony of the knowledgeable soul”). Rather than aspiring to eliminate the emotions, Plato wants them to be controlled by reason and to be repressed or transformed as a result. Thus, Jimenez writes about anger: “although Plato rejects retaliatory anger, he reserves a significant positive role for a transformed version of anger both in our intellectual development and in our moral formation. …  As a result of this transformation, anger becomes crucial for self-betterment and for social transformation” (p. 305). The problem of self-control is indeed the primary context in which the topic of emotions is evoked in Plato’s dialogues (Tordo-Rombaut, p. 169). Accordingly, “emotions are clear manifestations of how the rational human agent controls (or not) his own life” (Renaut, p. 118; cf. Maso, p. 85; Brisson, pp. 209-210).

Emotions in Plato is a rich and illuminating book, which will probably make not a few readers change their view of Plato’s attitude to emotions. The volume is beautifully produced and carefully copy-edited. My only complaint concerns the Indices. Although the volume is generously provided with no less than three—Index of Modern Authors, Index of Relevant Passages, and Index of Subjects—an Index of Ancient Authors is conspicuous by its absence. This is an unfortunate omission, for the reader who is interested, for example, in locating references to Aristotle beyond those relating to his works (there are many such general references throughout the volume) will be at a loss, and the same is true for such other highly relevant topics as, for example, “Socrates” or “the Stoics,” among others.

Authors and Titles

Laura Candiotto and Olivier Renaut, Introduction: Why Plato Comes First
1. Laura Candiotto and Vasilis Politis, Epistemic Wonder and the Beginning of the Enquiry: Plato’s Theaetetus (155d2-4) and Its Wider Significance
2. Pia Campeggiani, The Feel of the Real: Perceptual Encounters in Plato’s Critique of Poetry
3. Freya Möbus, Why Do Itches Itch? Bodily Pain in the Socratic Theory of Motivation
4. Stefano Maso, Emotions in Context: “Risk” as Condition for Emotion
5. Olivier Renaut, Emotions and Rationality in the Timaeus (Ti. 42a-b, 69c-72e)
6. Lidia Palumbo and Anna Motta, On the Desire for Drink in Plato and the Platonist Tradition
7. Myrthe L. Bartels, Plato’s Seasick Statesman: On (Not) Being Overwhelmed by Fear in Plato’s Laws
8. Karine Tordo-Rombaut, The Dialogue Between the Emotions in the Platonic Corpus
9. Carla Francalanci, Love, Speech and Charm in Plato’s Charmides: Reading the Dialogue through Emotions
10. Luc Brisson, The Notion of Φθόνος in Plato
11. Beatriz Bossi, On Mild Envy and Self-deceit
12. Chiara Militello, Αἰσχύνη and λογιστικόν in Plato’s Republic
13. Julia Pfefferkorn, Shame and Virtue in Plato’s Laws: Two Kinds of Fear and the Drunken Puppet
14. Simon Scott, Loving and Living Well: the Importance of Shame in Plato’s Phaedrus
15. Marta Jimenez, Plato on the Role of Anger in Our Intellectual and Moral Development
16. Rachana Kamtekar, Platonic Pity, or Why Compassion is Not a Platonic Virtue
17. Frisbee C. C. Sheffield, Love and the City: Eros and Philia in Plato’s Laws
David Konstan, Afterword: The Invention of Emotion?


[1] The Timaeus seems to be a special case, in that here emotions and sense-perceptions form a common genus which is called pathēma; see Olivier Renaut, p. 118.

[2] Pfefferkorn’s contribution stands apart, in that the author argues (convincingly, in my opinion) that in the Laws Plato still operates with the tripartite model of the soul.