27. Early Voices try to Explain Emotion

The work of getting anybody to cheerfully undertake the monotony and drudgery of teaching must be effected not by pay merely, but by a skillfully worked-up appeal to the emotions as well.

Pliny the Younger (61–113 AD) [Letter to Pompeius Saturnimus]

The philosophers of the ancient world were nearly unanimous in arguing that Reason must govern a man’s actions and it was fairly easy for most of them to assume that the brain was the seat of Reason. Not having our advantage in knowing that we have, in fact, two quite different hemispheres of the brain, they were generally at a loss to explain where, if Reason was in the brain, the seat of the emotions was. Thus we often read of the emotions being housed in either the soul or the heart.

Since, by their understanding, Reason occupied the brain, it seemed to follow logically that the emotions must be something of a lesser order. This appeared to be confirmed by ordinary experience, for one could observe that lower animals had some form of emotions, but not Reason. No matter how much they minimized the emotions, their logic was always stopped by something else commonly observed in man and that was the fact that the emotions could, on occasion, completely shut down Reason. Everyone had experienced this to some degree with respect to Love. Aristotle, like many others, knew Reason could not compete with love, especially sexual love, “For no one,” he says, “could think of anything while absorbed in this.”1 The same conclusion is found in the writings of John of Salisbury (first half, twelfth century), “It is impossible to surrender oneself to the lusts of the flesh and at the same time to dedicate oneself to philosophy.”2

While Aristotle shared the frustrations of early philosophers in trying to explain the emotions, in one respect he understood a fundamental truth about them, that they are universal. We know today that the basic emotions are universal and genetic to all men. Aristotle expresses this in a very famous passage3 in which he also points out that the spoken and written word is only a symbol of something more fundamental.

Words spoken are symbols or signs of affections or impressions of the soul; written words are the symbols of words spoken. As writing, so also is speech not the same for all races of men. But the affections themselves, of which these words are primarily signs, are the same for the whole of mankind.

Another early common observation about the emotions had to do with oratory. Many writers point out that if the orator will engage the emotions of his listeners he will win them over, regardless of whether the actual content of his speech is true or not. Plutarch (46–119 AD) believed this was the very purpose of Rhetoric.4

Rhetoric, or the art of speaking, is … the government of the souls of men, and that her chief business is to address the affections and passions, which are as it were the strings and keys to the soul, and require a skillful and careful touch to be played on as they should be.

Aristides Quintilianus, who lived sometime between the first and fourth century AD, in his treatise, De Musica,5 assigns the emotions to the soul, where he divides them into male and female qualities. This same duality he finds in nature as well, in plants, minerals, and spices, expressed through their qualities of color or texture and their opposites.

Passions arise in the soul out of its affinity with the male or the female or with both. Thus the female is seriously lacking in restraint, and with it the appetitive part [of the soul] is in accord, while the male is violent and energetic, and the spirited part [of the soul] resembles it. In the female—both the female type of soul and the female branch of humanity — griefs and pleasures are rife, anger and recklessness in the male. Couplings of these passions also arise of griefs with pleasures and of anger with recklessness, of recklessness with pleasure and grief, of anger with both, and indeed of each with any one or more of the others. One could find a thousand different varieties of these emotions if one studied them in all their complexity.

Aristides also concluded that each person has his own unique emotional makeup and that this affects perception. The objects of our perception have their own emotional characteristics. Thus when the soul encounters an object, through perception, it “obtains an impression” of the object and compares it to the emotions of itself. By this he means first comparing it to the male and female natures.

We distinguish as belonging to the female those colors and shapes that are vivid and decorative, and to the male those that are subdued and conducive to mental reflection. Secondly, among the objects of hearing, we associate sounds that are smooth and gentle with the female, rougher ones with its opposite. To avoid mentioning everything individually, one may assert that it is quite generally true, in all cases, that those objects of perception which naturally invite us to pleasure and to the gentle relaxation of the mind are to be adjudged female, those that stimulate us to thought and arouse activity are to be assigned to the province of the male.

Most early philosophers were not so complacent with regard to the emotions. Cicero (106– 43 BC), for example, warns that the emotions, which he divides into four basic classes, were something to be avoided!

The emotions of the mind, which harass and embitter the life of the foolish (the Greek term for these is pathos, and I might have rendered this literally and styled them “diseases,” but the word ‘disease’ would not suit all instances; for example, no one speaks of pity, nor yet anger, as a disease though the Greeks term these pathos. Let us then accept the term “emotion,” the very sound of which seems to denote something vicious, and these emotions are not excited by any natural influence. The list of the emotions is divided into four classes, with numerous subdivisions, namely sorrow, fear, lust, and that mental emotion which the Stoics call by a name that also denotes a bodily feeling, hedone, “pleasure,” but which I prefer to style “delight,” meaning the sensuous elation of the mind when in a state of exultation, these emotions, I say, are not excited by any influence of nature; they are all of them mere fancies and frivolous opinions. Therefore the Wise Man will always be free from them.6

And again, in his treatise On Duties,7 he emphasizes that any display of emotions suggests that we are not in control of ourselves. It is also important to note here the implication that Cicero understood on some level the bicameral nature of our mind, or as he puts it, thought versus passion. This concern reminds us of a famous description of Rousseau during the time of the French Revolution: “He made madmen of people who would otherwise only have been fools.”

The movements of our souls are of two kinds: some involve thought, others involve passion. Thought is mostly expended in seeking out the truth, passion urges men to action. Therefore we must take care to expend thought on the best objects and to make clear that our passions are obedient to our intellect .… Whenever passionate feelings disturb our activities, we are, of course, not acting with self-control and those around us cannot approve what we do.

In another place8 Cicero recommends a careful study the emotions in the face of others, suggesting that emotions are universal and genetic.

Just as in lyre playing the ears of musicians perceive even the smallest details, so we should acquire the habit of making important deductions from trivial details if we want to become sharp and untiring critics. From the stare, from the raising or lowering of the eyebrows, from sadness, from joviality, from a laugh, from a spoken phrase, from a significant silence, from a raised voice, from its lowering, from other similar indications we shall begin to judge quickly which of these actions is in tune, which of them clashes with moral duty and nature.

The Roman philosopher, Quintilian (30–96 AD), divides emotions into two classes, as did Aristides, but now with important new labels, “pathos” and “ethos.” He begins by attempting to convey the meaning of these Greek terms to his Latin readers.

Emotions however, as we learn from ancient authorities, fall into two classes; the one is called pathos by the Greeks and is rightly and correctly expressed in Latin by “adfectus” (emotion): the other is called ethos, a word for which in my opinion Latin has no equivalent: it is however rendered by mores (morals) and consequently the branch of philosophy known as ethics is styled moral philosophy by us. But close consideration of the nature of the subject leads me to think that in this connection it is not so much morals in general that is meant as certain peculiar aspects; for the term morals includes every attitude of the mind. The more cautious writers have preferred to give the sense of the term rather than to translate it into Latin. They therefore explain pathos as describing the more violent emotions and ethos as designating those which are calm and gentle: in the one case the passions are violent, in the other subdued, the former command and disturb, the latter persuade and induce a feeling of goodwill.9

He agrees with some authors who maintain that while the ethos is continuous, pathos is more momentary in character. On the other hand, pathos and ethos are sometimes of the same nature, differing only in degree,

Love for instance comes under the head of pathos, affection of ethos; sometimes however they differ, a distinction which is important for the peroration, since ethos is generally employed to calm the storm aroused by pathos.

Quintilian now goes into greater detail with respect to the profession of the orator-lawyer. We find particularly interesting his argument that the orator employs pathos, or emotion, when he wishes to create empathy in the listener. But how does the orator do this? Quintilian now tells us that he will reveal to us “secret principles of this art.” What follows is a precursor of Stanislavsky’s “method acting,” through which one learns to re-experience the emotions one has to convey from the stage. Among the performing arts only musicians are spared such processes, for in music the emotions expressed are the real ones. Nevertheless, Quintilian’s discussion should remind musicians that true emotional communication must be founded on genuine emotions.

The prime essential for stirring the emotions of others is, in my opinion, first to feel those emotions oneself. It is sometimes positively ridiculous to counterfeit grief, anger and indignation, if we content ourselves with accommodating our words and looks and make no attempt to adapt our own feelings to the emotions to be expressed. What other reason is there for the eloquence with which mourners express their grief, or for the fluency which anger lends even to the uneducated, save the fact that their minds are stirred to power by the depth and sincerity of their feelings? Consequently, if we wish to give our words the appearance of sincerity, we must assimilate ourselves to the emotions of those who are genuinely so affected, and our eloquence must spring from the same feeling that we desire to produce in the mind of the judge. Will he grieve who can find no trace of grief in the words with which I seek to move him to grief? Will he be angry, if the orator who seeks to kindle his anger shows no sign of laboring under the emotion which he demands from his audience? Will he shed tears if the pleader’s eyes are dry? It is utterly impossible … Accordingly, the first essential is that those feelings should prevail with us that we wish to prevail with the judge, and that we should be moved ourselves before we attempt to move others. But how are we to generate these emotions in ourselves, since emotion is not in our own power? I will try to explain as best I may. There are certain experiences which the Greeks call avradias, and the Romans visions, whereby things absent are presented to our imagination with such extreme vividness that they seem actually to be before our very eyes. It is the man who is really sensitive to such impressions who will have the greatest power over the emotions … It is a power which all may readily acquire if they will.

One early philosopher, Longinus (first century AD), in discussing oratory mentions some types of what he calls “false emotion.” These include such categories as exaggeration, puerility (childish) and parenthyrsus (empty, or no emotion).10

One of the most striking discussions of emotions by an early writer is by the famous medical authority, Galen (second century AD). The ancient writers often give the chief purpose of music as its ability to soothe the emotions. If Galen’s descriptions here of a passionate man were typical, then perhaps we can understand how important to society this purpose of music would have been to the ancients.

Whenever a man becomes violently angry over little things and bites and kicks his servants, you are sure that this man is in a state of passion.

I watched a man eagerly trying to open a door. When things did not work out as he would have them, I saw him bite the key, kick the door, blaspheme, glare wildly like a madman, and all but foam at the mouth like a wild boar.11

St. Augustine (fourth century) believed there were four classes of emotions, desire, joy, fear and sorrow, each of which could be divided into subordinate species. Indeed, he observed, “Yet are the hairs of [a man’s] head easier to count than are his feelings.”12

Augustine had some doubts over the relative power of Reason and the emotions, but he finally concluded, “I feel that the power of the mind must be greater than desire for the very reason that it is only right and just that it should hold sway over desire.”13

The concern of these early writers that Reason must be strong enough to control the emotions is one we may appreciate when reading an anecdote by Guido of Arezzo of the eleventh century:

A man was roused by the sound of the cithara [harp] to such lust that, in his madness, he sought to break into the bedchamber of a girl, but, when the cithara player quickly changed the mode, was brought to feel remorse for his libidinousness and to retreat abashed.14

We know today that the right hemisphere of the brain supplies emotional context to the speech of the left hemisphere. Bartholomew Anglicus (thirteenth century) remarks on the effect on the listener of this emotional coloring.

Now it is known by these foresaid things, how profitable is a merry voice and sweet. And contrariwise is of an unordinate voice and horrible, that gladdeth not, neither comforteth; but is noyful and discomforteth and grieveth the ears and the wit.

Roger Bacon (b. ca. 1214) quoted Seneca to the effect that to achieve the most lofty speech the emotional context had to go beyond that recognized as “sane.”

“The mind cannot reach the realms of the sublime while it remains sane. It must leave the beaten track, dash forth, take the bit in the teeth, and carry the rider where he would have feared to mount himself.15

One medieval philosopher who wrote extensively on the emotions was Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274). First he organizes the emotions in a series of pairs:

We are now in a position to arrange all of the emotions in the order of their actual occurrence. First come love and hatred; second, desire and aversion; third, hope and despair; fourth, fear and courage; fifth, anger; sixth and last, joy or sadness, which come after all the emotions. From what we have said it is clear that, within these pairs, love has precedence over hatred, desire over aversion, fear over courage, and joy over sadness.16

He is not sure where exactly the emotions are located in the body, but assumes they are related to the intellect, on the basis that the Scriptures also mention love and joy with respect to God and the angels.17 His speculation leads to some weird-science, including his belief that the physical changes for an emotion such as anger, is caused by the “overheating of the blood around the heart”18 and his conclusion that astrology affected our emotions.

[The heavenly bodies] may make impressions on our own body, and when the body is affected movements of the passions arise; either because such impressions make us liable to certain passions; for instance the bilious are prone to anger.19

Aquinas is ambiguous on the question of whether the emotions have a moral quality, but he believed that Reason must control the emotions and that this control separates man from the animals. But he was also aware that the emotions can “blind reason completely,”

as happens when vehement rage of concupiscence makes a man beside himself or out of his mind; this may come also from some physical disorder. Passion, remember, goes with physiological change. In this condition men become like the beasts, driven of necessity by passion; they are without the motion of reason, and, consequently, of will.20

With the arrival of the Renaissance there was a new impetus for philosophers to comment on the emotions of the works of the ancient writers who contributed to the new Humanistic movement. The French poet, Machaut (b. 1300) in his Voir Dit describes the requirements necessary to fine Poetry, Reason, Rhetoric and Music. But there is another requirement for composition which was clearly of the greatest importance to Machaut. The composer’s work must come from the most genuine, heart-felt feelings. In a letter to Peronnelle, he explains, “There is nothing so just and true as experience … He who does not create out of real feeling, counterfeits his words and songs.” And we have a glimpse of what ‘real feeling’ meant to Machaut in another poem,

Then, like one accustomed to sighing, I uttered a lament and sigh from the depths of my heart, accompanied by weeping and washed in tears; and with great effort I turned toward her my flushed, pale, sad, sorrowful, and weeping face, full of suffering. But I said nothing to her because I was unable to speak; instead, I gazed fixedly at her.21

John Gower (1330–1408) comments on the great capacity of the face to express the emotions one feels; a number of earlier philosophers incorrectly attributed this to the eyes alone,

The face expresses the state of one’s mind and displays the wrath of a heart strongly aroused. For in the event that one express himself silently, no index of the mind can be more reliable than the face.22

The Spanish poet, Fernando de Rojas (1477–1541), understood correctly that the basic emotions are universal, as we read in his most famous poem,

Examine, then, your inner self, inspect your feelings well,
And by your heart you’ll judge how others’ passions surely go.23

As late Renaissance music was moving away from the old Church mathematics basis toward a new emphasis on emotions and creating a new enthusiasm for music in the public, those philosophers who still represented the Church became stronger in their representation of Church doctrine. One was the greatest French writer of the sixteenth century, Michel Montaigne (1533–1592), who left a number of interesting observations on the perception of the emotions during the Renaissance. First, with a little pseudo-science, he suggests that the strong emotions of the gentleman, in contrast to the common man, somehow weaken him physically.

Experience shows that gross, uncouth men make more desirable and vigorous sexual partners; lying with a mule-driver is often more welcome than lying with a gentleman. How can we explain that except by assuming that emotions within the gentleman’s soul undermine the strength of his body, break it down and exhaust it, just as they exhaust and harm the soul itself?24

Montaigne, who often supported the positions of the Church, was well aware of the Church’s demand that Reason must rule the emotions. Montaigne leaves the impression that he could easily do this,

With very little effort I stop the first movements of my emotions, giving up whatever begins to weigh on me before it bears me off. If you do not stop the start, you will never stop the race. If you cannot slam the door against your emotions you will never chase them out once they have got in.25

In a broader view of the emotions of pleasure, Montaigne warns,

Most pleasures, tickle and embrace us only to throttle us, like those thieves whom the Egyptians call Philistae. If a hangover came before we got drunk we would see that we never drank to excess: but pleasure, to deceive us, walks in front and hides her train.26

Erasmus, who always could be found near the views of the Church, begins with the Church dogma,

First of all, it’s admitted that all the emotions belong to Folly, and this is what marks the wise man off from the fool; he is ruled by reason, the fool by his emotions.27

He finds two general categories of emotions. After stating that Reason must play the role of king, he names some emotions as nobles to the king-Reason, including love of parents, kindness towards friends and compassion for the afflicted. Those, however, which are sensuous in nature he places in quite a different category.

As for those passions of the soul that are furthest removed from the dictates of Reason and are debased to the lowliness of beasts, consider these to be like the lowest dregs of the masses. Of this kind are lust, debauchery, envy, and similar disorders of the mind, which should all without exception be consigned to forced labor like vile and wicked slaves, so that, if they are able, they may produce the work and services required of them by their master, or, if not, at least not cause any harm.28

In another place he describes physical love in much stronger terms,

These are obscene, bestial pleasures, altogether unworthy of man, which make wild animals of us; they are impure as well, containing more bitterness than sweetness.29

Here, as was the case with a great many early Churchmen, Erasmus places most of the blame on women,

The hateful vices of the female sex, how few good, modest women there are to be found, how few men who do not regret that they entered upon wedlock. [The writer] will expose to view these all too common experiences, that wives are quarrelsome, impudent, shameless, and … drive husbands to their death.30

In a letter to a young man, Erasmus advises,

Above all, avoid all strong emotion, excessive joy, unrestrained laughter, too much walking, excessive study, and anger especially.31

As a defense against the emotions Erasmus recommends scholarly studies, which “do not change us from men into wild animals, but from men into gods.”32

Henry Agrippa (1486–1536), in his early De occulta philosophia, reflects the ancient Church view that Pleasure is the source of most evil. He ties the general subject of the emotions to this idea, maintaining that depraved appetites arise from four passions: oblectation, effusion, vaunting and loftiness, and envy, with,

these four passions arising from a depraved appetite of pleasure, the grief or perplexity of produces many contrary passions, as horror, sadness, fear, and sorrow.33

In total he finds eleven basic emotions, existing in contrary pairs, except for the last. These are, love, hatred; desire, horror; joy, grief; hope, despair; boldness, fear; and anger.34

Although some of the early Reformation leaders were much more severe than Luther in all aspects of the Christian life, Zwingli, was one of these, who nevertheless recognized that some pleasures must be allowed.

I am so far from condemning joy in moderation that I think he who takes it away from the pious will have to restore it with interest.35

During the Renaissance English philosophers were particularly interested in melancholy. In view of this, we note an interesting passage in Shakespeare which finds categories of this single emotion.

I have neither the scholar’s melancholy, which is emulation; nor the musician’s, which is fantastical; nor the courtier’s, which is proud; nor the soldier’s, which is ambitious; nor the lawyer’s, which is politic; nor the lady’s, which is nice; nor the lover’s, which is all these. But it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.36

Of particular interest to us is Shakespeare’s use of the metaphor of out of tune music for a character’s emotional unbalance, a device earlier writers also employed. In The Comedy of Errors, a character speaks of “my feeble key of untuned cares.”37 and in Much Ado About Nothing, Hero asks Beatrice, “Do you speak in the sick tune?”38

In Hamlet, Ophelia uses the same metaphor,

And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh.39


  1. Ethica Nicomachea, 1152b.18 ↩︎
  2. The Metalogiton ↩︎
  3. On Interpretation, I ↩︎
  4. Life of Pericles ↩︎
  5. in Greek Musical Writings, trans. Barker, II, 457ff ↩︎
  6. De Finibus, III, x, 35 ↩︎
  7. De Officiis, 131ff ↩︎
  8. Tusculan Disputations, I, 146 ↩︎
  9. The Education of an Orator, trans. Butler, VI, ii, 8 ↩︎
  10. On the Sublime, trans. Roberts. III, 1ff ↩︎
  11. On the Passions and Errors of the Soul, trans. Harkins, 29, 38 ↩︎
  12. The Confessions, Book IV ↩︎
  13. The Free Choice of Will, trans. Russell, x ↩︎
  14. in Hucbald, Guido and John on Music, trans. Babb, 160 ↩︎
  15. The Opus Majus, trans. Burke, II, 786. The Seneca passage is found in De Tranquillitate Animi, XVII ↩︎
  16. Summa Theologiae, XIX, 55 ↩︎
  17. Ibid., 13 ↩︎
  18. Ibid., XIX, 13 ↩︎
  19. Summa Contra Gentiles, LXXXV ↩︎
  20. Summa Theologine, XXXV, 23 and XVII, 91 ↩︎
  21. Remede de Fortune, trans. Wimsatt and Kibler, 2154 ↩︎
  22. The Voice of One Crying, trans. Stockton, The Major Latin Works of Gower, IV, iii ↩︎
  23. La Celestina, trans. Cohen, 565 ↩︎
  24. Essays, trans. Screech, II, xii, 547, 34 ↩︎
  25. Ibid., III, x, 1150 ↩︎
  26. Ibid., I, xxxix, 275 ↩︎
  27. Praise of Folly, in Complete Works, XXVII, 104 ↩︎
  28. Enchiridion, Handbook of the Christian Soldier, Ibid., LXVI, 42 ↩︎
  29. On the Writing of Letters, Ibid., XXV, 36 ↩︎
  30. Ibid.,XXV, 147 ↩︎
  31. Ibid., V, 390 ↩︎
  32. Ibid., XXV, 36 ↩︎
  33. De occulta philosophis, ed. Tyson, I, lvi ↩︎
  34. Ibid., I, lvii ↩︎
  35. Complete Works, ed. Jackson, 71 ↩︎
  36. As You Like It, IV, I, 10ff ↩︎
  37. V, I, 315 ↩︎
  38. II, iv, 35 ↩︎
  39. III, i, 155ff ↩︎