Emotions and ethics
February 25, 2003 4:31 PM   Subscribe

"The study of feelings, once the province of psychology, is now spreading to history, literature, and other fields." Scholarship on the emotions is a rich field for historians and philosophers. Martha Nussbaum (previously discussed here) has written on historical views of the relationship between morality and emotion, and delves more deeply into it in her recent book, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Of particular relevance these days may be M.F. Burnyeat's new book, Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity, which focuses on Classical views of anger and its proper place in human action. Many today could learn from Marcus Aurelius: "as grief is a mark of weakness, so is anger, for both have been wounded and have surrendered to the wound." [First link via Ye Olde Phart.]
posted by homunculus (17 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Remarkable post.
posted by four panels at 4:35 PM on February 25, 2003

posted by homunculus at 5:02 PM on February 25, 2003

More on the Stoics: Emotion and Decision in Stoic Psychology.
posted by homunculus at 5:04 PM on February 25, 2003

Here's the Nichomachean Ethics, which contains a great line: "Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy."

Good post, by the way.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 5:09 PM on February 25, 2003

Always nice to know what the writers of antiquity have to say on any given subject, and the posts make for great reading, but since we live in an age where can bring a scientific view to bear, and we have evolution that helps us to understand things, we have here Martha, a wonderful writher and thinker but a philosopher rather than a science person, so the perspective on the subject seems to me a bit incomplete.

The Damasio book, at http://www.data4all.com/list/500/512000/0226308723 is, along with a later book, good on intellect, science, and emotions. Note too that there are a number of books that deal with emotional states from a more contemporary point of view.
posted by Postroad at 5:25 PM on February 25, 2003

> Many today could learn from Marcus Aurelius: "as grief is a
> mark of weakness, so is anger, for both have been
> wounded and have surrendered to the wound."

Hmpf. MA was a Stoic, and if you want to read this as "losing your leg, or your daughter, should have not the slightest effect on you," you've got it about right. Fuller is weak enough to disagree.

PS. that first link is absolutely first rate. Fuller tips hat.
posted by jfuller at 6:05 PM on February 25, 2003

posted by y2karl at 7:08 PM on February 25, 2003

Ahh, karl, you're just jealous that someone else posted such a rich and complete topic ...

*wink and smile*

Really a terrific post. I'm still digging through the links and will be for some time. (no, I'm not really going to reread the Necomachian Ethics...no, you can't make me...never...okay, well maybe...)
posted by Wulfgar! at 8:46 PM on February 25, 2003

nybooks had an approach from the scientific side in a review of steven pinker's the blank slate. also ptypes just started a stoic news blog and a plato.stanford entry on emotion! :D live long and prosper!
posted by kliuless at 9:28 PM on February 25, 2003

Thanks homunculus - this is a grower post, to be archived and enjoyed later. Not to push local product, but perhaps it's significant that António Damásio (brief interview here) has achieved bestseller status with his books on the neurological bases of emotion.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:37 PM on February 25, 2003

Homunculus - A towering post!

(sincerity) I feel cowed by your display of erudition

*shambles off to refrigerator*
posted by troutfishing at 10:02 PM on February 25, 2003

This is beautiful. I'm still reading through it. Thanks homunculus!

Harris' book to me is more a book on Classics and Ideals than it is a work of historical scholarship. This view of the Classical world is through the lens of dramatists like Euripides and philosophers like Aristotle and the Stoics. Their works describe the structured rhetoric of passion, the idealized rules of honor and cannot, in my opinion, provide a sound basis for a conclusion about moral relativism.

'Let anger be defined,' Aristotle wrote for his students of rhetoric, 'as a desire, accompanied by pain, for apparent revenge in response to an apparent insult to oneself or one's own from persons who ought not to insult one.' The qualification 'apparent' caters for the subjectivity of emotion. You take him to have insulted you, and you respond in a way you hope will hurt. It makes no difference whether you are right or wrong in these assessments. You are still angry. You still desire the satisfaction of revenge as requital for the pain you felt. That, according to Aristotle, is what anger is. And he was not alone in thinking this. Other philosophers' definitions of anger use different words to say much the same.

Fair enough. But, I won't interpret agreement among philosophers to stand for the psychology of the everyman or the nobleman.
posted by vacapinta at 10:44 PM on February 25, 2003

Yes, but if Euripedes was winning prizes every year he was competing for them, and Aristotle was widely read by just about every literate person (and taught Alexander the Great), they have to speak to something more than just purely academic conceptions of the objects in question. Cultural norms have to appear from somewhere, and there's little reason to believe they developed in isolation from intellectual discourse, especially since there was no separation between ordinary aristocrats and intellectuals in the ancient world.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:27 PM on February 25, 2003

Damasio has done some groundbreaking work. I see he has a new book on Spinoza. He and Ledoux in particular have brought the study of emotions into neuroscience's orbit. Which makes the ethical and historical studies no less interesting, of course.

A short book on Stoicism I recomend is James Stockdale's Courage Under Fire. Stockdale was a POW in Vietnam and attributes his survival in part to his study of Epictetus. It's an amazing story.

I was intrigued by this from Nussbaum's article: "One society described by anthropologist Jean Briggs (1971), the Utku Eskimos, actually embodies a relatively successful Stoic programme for the elimination of anger, thus prompting us to ask how we should think about our own goals and moral projects." This is the book: Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family. I'll have to add it to my list. So much to read...

jfuller: "losing your leg... should have not the slightest effect on you"

It's just a flesh wound.
posted by homunculus at 11:33 PM on February 25, 2003

Anger goes as noted way back in time. For an illustration of it, comic book style, check out this:
posted by Postroad at 2:23 AM on February 26, 2003

Good post homunculus. Well done.
posted by hama7 at 3:13 AM on February 26, 2003

Here's a strange story:

"Eugene Angelopoulos is a Professor at the National Technical University of Athens. New York University invited him to speak at a conference on Philosophy and Politics last week. But when Professor Angelopoulos arrived at John F. Kennedy airport, he was detained, shackled, and asked if he is anti-American and whether he opposes the war against Iraq."

But Angelopoulos isn't mentioned on the Philosophy as Politics conference schedule. Anyone know more about this?

If the time to purge the philosophers has arrived, I hear hemlock works great.
posted by homunculus at 11:18 AM on February 26, 2003

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