BMCR 2022.03.46

Writing order and emotion: affect and the structures of power in Greek and Latin authors

, , Writing order and emotion: affect and the structures of power in Greek and Latin authors. Spudasmata, Band 188. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 2020. Pp. xxiv, 33. ISBN 9783487159300 €88,00.

Table of contents

This volume of ten papers derives from workshops held jointly by the Department of Classics at the University of Michigan and the Institut für Altertumskunde at the University of Cologne and includes contributions by graduate students, early-career scholars, and senior academics. The chapters are divided into two sections, each of two parts. The first section (two chapters on philosophical and two on documentary sources) deals with texts ‘that aim at changing contemporary society for the better’ (p. xx), while the second (three chapters on poetry and three on prose) considers emotions in sources that neither theorize emotions nor seek to manage their influence on the legal and social order, but rather ‘offer instructive examples that can help to discuss and clarify the … relation between order and emotion precisely because they look at them from a distance’ (p. xxii).

An introduction surveys the issues that the chapters raise regarding the relation between emotion and various forms of order (political, social, religious, psychological, etc.), before summarizing them in detail. Rejecting ‘the problematic assumption that emotions are by definition opposed to rational behavior’ (p. xv), the authors endorse Martha Nussbaum’s cognitivist approach, relating it to ancient views on the (ir)rationality of emotion.

In the first chapter, David Morphew focuses on the order that the thymoeidic emotions anger and shame, as presented in Plato’s Republic, can bring to other emotions. The bulk of this chapter is dedicated to arguing, by appeal to other dialogues as well as the Republic, that the beliefs about the just and the honourable on which thymoeidic emotions depend originate in the rational part of the soul – the thymos does not generate them by itself. Both in terms of philosophical emotion theory (e.g. the view that emotions are compounds of belief and desire) and in the context of recent accounts of tripartition in ancient philosophy Morphew adopts a familiar approach. For reasons that I have explored elsewhere,[1] I think that the attempt to view the ‘parts of the soul’ as distinct faculties, with a view to establishing what each can ‘really’ do, is misguided. But this is an elegant and well-argued variant of that tendency that those more sympathetic than I am will want to consider carefully.

Jürgen Hammerstaedt’s second chapter addresses fearful emotions in the second-century CE Epicurean inscription of Diogenes of Oenoanda. Much of this informative chapter centres on the restoration of the text and its relation to Epicurean doctrine.

The third chapter, by Eleni Skarsouli, surveys the use of εὐλαβέομαι and φοβέομαι in documentary papyri and literary texts of the fourth century BCE and later, focusing on cases in which the former may be translated as ‘I am afraid’. That the translation works, however, need not make it certain. In Aeneas Tacticus 27.10 (pp. 50-1), εὐλαβούμενοι is as likely to mean ‘cautiously’ as ‘in fear’: deadly violence on the part of a commander ensures that his troops no longer succumb to panic when attacked at night; the men clearly are afraid of the commander, but fear of consequences can also make one cautious (e.g. Arist. HA 623a27–8: the spider avoids being seen by its prey, ὅπως ἂν μὴ φοβούμενα τὰ θηρία εὐλαβῆται). This chapter works with a rather reductive notion of fear as an emotion that while normally ‘negative’ can sometimes be ‘positive’ (cf. Bettenworth, p. 162): the multiple ways in which the terms negative and positive might be applied to emotions (aspects of their valence,[2] such as their evaluation of their objects, their level of arousal, their utility or survival value, their ethical value, etc.)[3] are not considered.

In the final chapter of this section, Martin Avenarius examines the early history of fideicommissum, a mechanism by which ‘the testator imposes on the person charged the task of rendering a certain performance to the beneficiary’ (p. 65) and whose terms did not become legally binding until the reign of Augustus (pp. 66, 87–8). The institution enlists emotion in the service of order in so far as it depends on fides and is supported by a sense of honour and obligation rooted in reciprocity (pp. 70, 83–5). Though external sanctions may play a role, integrity and a sense of obligation are fundamental (pp. 77, 85). This is a relevant chapter, but much of its potential for emotion research goes unexploited. Wider consideration of the entanglement of emotion, values, social institutions, and law would have been welcome,[4] as would, if only by reference to the recent study by Teresa Morgan,[5] a greater sense of the affective aspects of fides, the ways in which it is implicated in concepts of honour and esteem, and the importance of other-understanding in supporting the mechanisms of reciprocity and cooperation that Avenarius invokes.

The book’s second section opens brightly with a chapter by Ruth Scodel. Drawing on empirical research in political science, Scodel argues that the appeasement of the Erinyes’ anger in Aeschylus’ Eumenides presents an object lesson on how to deal with losing a vote. The trial of Orestes (as many have observed) does not resolve the issues regarding the justice or otherwise of his matricide, but demonstrates the ability of a state’s legitimate institutions to end disputes without violence, provided that even the losers respect their authority. Scodel’s contemporary parallel is the US Supreme Court’s verdict on the outcome of the Gore versus Bush election in 2000. Her paper seems first to have been delivered at an event in 2016 and appeared in this volume in 2020; it is impossible when reading it not to reflect on what happened in Washington on January 6, 2021.

Ruth Caston’s chapter focuses on pity and empathy in Terence. One point that emerges very strongly is the prominence of appeals to and performances/professions of pity (misericordia) within the family (pp. 118–19, 122), and so one misses a reference to Aristotle’s view, emphasized by David Konstan,[6] that, since one’s family members’ troubles are one’s own, they fall under the category of τὸ δεινόν rather than τὸ ἐλεεινόν (Rhetoric 1386a18–25). At least with pity, however, one is dealing with a concept that has Classical analogues and is explicitly thematized by Classical writers. With ‘empathy’ things are rather different. That concept’s history is not only short but (as Rob Boddice puts it) ‘remarkably unstable’.[7] Caston acknowledges this (p. 109), but in reviewing ‘Terence’s references to empathy’ (p. 123) gives the impression that it can be regarded as a distinct phenomenon that existed long before it came to be labelled in twentieth-century English. She seems, however, to conflate forms of other-understanding that many contemporary scholars would prefer to keep apart: the ‘perspective-taking’ for which she cites Noël Carroll, for example (p, 124), comes in more than one form and is not to be assimilated to empathy as feeling what other people feel.[8] When Davos at Phormio 43-50 imagines Geta’s future predicament (pp. 123–4) he clearly sympathizes with him (calling him miser, 44), but this does not seem to entail that he feels Davos’ pain as though he was in his shoes (Caston’s definition of empathy, p. 109), nor does it seem to me that in constructing this scenario Davos is taking steps that ‘resemble simulation theory’ (p. 124).[9] Whether or not it is possible to understand another person’s mental states via a process of simulation that is explicit, sub-personal, or both,[10] Davos seems to me to be doing something much simpler and more familiar, namely constructing an imaginative narrative in which, given his knowledge of Davos’ past experiences and his character, he can predict how Davos will be affected. The normal narrative relationships between cause, effect, context, and character are enough. That said, Caston’s chapter does engage extensively with contemporary currents in psychology and philosophy of mind and makes a series of telling points about the links between other-understanding and pro-social behaviour in Terence.

Tim Leiendecker’s chapter on Juno’s dolor at Ovid, Fasti 5.221–60 makes a significant point in recognizing that ‘a character’s state of emotion has to be derived from the narrative as a whole instead of being defined by a single term’ (p. 155). In that process, too, genre and intertextuality play an important role. These observations allow Leiendecker to discern both invidia and ira in Juno’s dolor. Without drawing on theories of emotion, this chapter explores well how literary narrative can exploit emotions’ event- or script-like structure and how attention to such structures and their contexts can help us understand others’ emotions.

The symbiosis between emotions as events and literary narrative is to the fore also in Anja Bettenworth’s chapter on fear (including notions such as sollicitudo and cura) as a ‘narrative device’ in Curtius Rufus. Alexander’s anxieties regarding the loyalty of his associates reflect the development of his character, but it is the reactions of his peers to his emotions that really mark the structure of the narrative in its account of Alexander’s decline: first Alexander’s associates are afraid for him; later, they are afraid of him. Again, the many interesting points that emerge from this discussion could have been more emphatically related to significant topics in emotion research and in cognitive narratology.

Five of the 43 pages of Walter Ameling’s penultimate chapter discuss acclamations as a product of strong emotion in the Historia Augusta; the rest expound the author’s view that the allegedly verbatim record of the senate’s acclamations following the death of Commodus (Comm. 18–19) is probably inauthentic. The chapter concludes that acclamations in general constitute an example of the formalization and ritualization of emotion in political communication.

Similar issues arise in the final chapter, Peter Orth’s account of order and emotion in the Carolingian letters of Alcuin and Einhart. These are genuine letters, but they follow literary models and observe a number of rhetorical conventions. This cries out for an account of the relation between stylized representations of emotion that follow the conventions of their various generic contexts and what Rüdiger Schnell calls ‘actual’ emotions.[11] For Schnell, there need be no such relation. One can answer him, but in order to do that, one first has to acknowledge the challenge.

Although all contributors to this volume (including the graduate students) display great learning on the topics they discuss and the disciplines to which they contribute, this failure to take up the challenges posed by emotion research in the Humanities and other disciplines is the book’s central weakness. It is strange that none of a largely Germanophone cast of contributors acknowledges the attack on the historical study of emotion in Schnell’s massive 2015 volume. In a volume on emotion and order there are no references to the Stearnses on emotionology or to William Reddy on emotional regimes, much less to Monique Scheer’s Bourdieusian account of emotions as social practice or to Arlie Hochschild’s notion of emotional labour and the feeling rules that constrain it.[12] The real problems involved in researching emotion in past cultures and other languages (and the ways of overcoming them) are largely ignored. Historical, literary, and philological studies have huge contributions to make to emotion research, but the relevant questions will tend to suggest themselves only if one knows the relevant research contexts.


[1] See Cairns, ‘Psyche, Thymos, and Metaphor in Homer and Plato’, Les Études Platoniciennes 11 (2014), online. Cf. ‘The Tripartite Soul as Metaphor’, in P. Destrée and R. G. Edmonds (eds), Plato and the Power of Images (Leiden, 2017), 219–38.

[2] Itself a contested notion: G. Colombetti, ‘Appraising Valence’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 12. 8–10 (2005), 103–26.

[3] See P. Giacomoni, S. Dellantonio, and N. Valentini, ‘The Structural Ambivalence of Emotional Valence: An Introduction’, in Giacomoni, Dellantonio, and Valentini. (eds), The Dark Side: Philosophical Reflections on the “Negative Emotions” (Chaim, 2021), 1–4.

[4] See e.g. J. Deigh, Emotions, Values, and the Law (New York 2008); T. A. Maroney, ‘A Field Evolves: Introduction to the Special Section on Law and Emotion’, Emotion Review 8 (2016), 3–7.

[5] T. Morgan, Roman Faith and Christian Faith: Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and Early Churches (Oxford, 2015).

[6] D. Konstan, Pity Transformed (London, 2001), 50–64. I have argued that evidence from Archaic and Classical Greek sources undermines both Aristotle’s and Konstan’s generalizations on that point: ‘Pity in the Classical World’, Hermathena 176 (2004), 59-74.

[7] R. Boddice, The History of Emotions (Manchester): Manchester University Press, 2018) 56. For that history in detail, see S. Lanzoni, Empathy: A History (New Haven, 2018).

[8] N. Carroll, ‘Between Audience and Characters in Popular Fiction’, in A. Coplan and P. Goldie (eds), Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives (Oxford, 2011), 162–83.

[9] For which Caston cites A. I. Goldman, Simulating Minds: The Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience of Mindreading (Oxford, 2006),

[10] For a negative answer to this question, see S. Gallagher, Action and Interaction (Oxford, 2020), esp. Part II.

[11] R. Schnell, Haben Gefühle eine Geschichte? Aporien einer History of emotions (Göttingen, 2015), e.g. 692–715. Orth does cite an earlier work by Schnell on p. 247, but without going into detail.

[12] P. N. and C. Z. Stearns, ‘Emotionology: Clarifying the history of emotions and emotional standards’, American Historical Review 90 (1985), 813–36; W. M. Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge, 2001); M. Scheer, ‘Are emotions a kind of practice (and is that what makes them have a history)? A Bourdieuian approach to understanding emotion’, History and Theory 51.2 (2012), 193–220; A. R. Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley, 1983).