28. Baroque Period Writers on Emotion

Although traditional Music History texts generally fail to make this clear, beginning with the late Renaissance there was a rapidly growing interest in leaving behind the old Church dogma about defining Music as mathematics and instead advancing toward the true goal of music, as a special language for the communication of emotions and feeling. Of course there were still a few philosophers who tried to continue the Church’s perspective. One was Baltasar Gracian (1601– 1658), who though he usually reflects the old Church dogma that the emotions were the gateway to sin, but he also found a practical value,

Art would be deficient if it merely taught you to conceal the limits of your talent. It must also teach you to disguise the impetus of your emotions … Discovering someone’s emotions is like opening a breach in the fortress of his talent.1

One of the most famous philosophers of the Baroque Period was René Descartes (1596–1650), who, when it came to the emotions, had views which to us today seem very peculiar. Following his inclination to describe the body as a machine, he offers the organ as a metaphor for the basic body mechanism which results in the perception of the emotions.

You can think of our machine’s heart and arteries, which push the animal spirits into the cavities of its brain, as being like the bellows of an organ, which push air into the wind-chests; and you can think of external objects, which stimulate certain nerves and cause spirits contained in the cavities to pass into some of the pores, as being like the fingers of the organist, which press certain keys and cause the air to pass from the wind-chests into certain pipes. Now the harmony of an organ does not depend on the externally visible arrangement of the pipes or on the shape of the wind-chests or other parts. The functions we are concerned with here does not depend at all on the external shape of the visible parts which anatomists distinguish in the substance of the brain, or on the shape of the brain’s cavities, but solely on three factors: the spirits which come from the heart, the pores of the brain through which they pass, and the way in which the spirits are distributed in these pores.2

The “animal spirits” which he refers to here and other places he defines as,

The parts of the blood which penetrate as far as the brain serve not only to nourish and sustain its substance, but also and primarily to produce in it a certain very fine wind, or rather a very lively and pure flame, which is called the animal spirits.3

Descartes, limited by his concept as the body being mechanical, was forced to find physical descriptions to describe the emotions. Here we present only one example of his lengthy geography on the definition of Love. There are few of his Romantic Era contemporaries who would share this description of Love.

[My observations] have led me to conclude that when the understanding thinks of some object of love, this thought forms an impression in the brain which directs the animal spirits through the nerves of the sixth pair to the muscles surrounding the intestines and stomach, where they act in such a way that the alimentary juices (which are changing into new blood) flow rapidly to the heart without stopping in the liver. Driven there with greater force than the blood from other parts of the body, these juices enter the heart in greater abundance and produce a stronger heat there because they are coarser than the blood which has already been rarefied many times as it passes again and again through the heart. As a result the spirits sent by the heart to the brain have parts which are coarser and more agitated than usual; and as they strengthen the impression formed by the first thought of the loved object, these spirits compel the soul to dwell upon this thought. This is what the passion of love consists in.4

Descriptions of the aristocracy in Baroque France picture the emotions as being rather superficial. Following the funeral of the Dauphine, the court immediately resumed its “card-playing, hunting in the afternoon, music at night.”

If this were a matter of strength of character one might perhaps appreciate it and admire them for it, but that is not the reason, for as long as they see the sad spectacle they cry, but as soon as they leave the room they laugh again and forget all about it.5

During the Baroque in England one encounters the rabid Puritan movement, which tended to take a very severe view on the question of the emotions. Rev. Joseph Hall (1574–1656), in a discussion on the difference between anger and madness, offers this portrait of anger,

Raging madness is a short madness; what else argues the shaking of the hands and lips; paleness or redness or swelling of the face; glaring of the eyes; stammering of the tongue; stamping with the feet; unsteady motions of the whole body; rash actions … distracted and wild speeches? And madness is nothing but continued rage.6

Later he concludes “he is a rare man that has not some kind of madness reigning in him,” and includes under “anger,” melancholy, pride, false devotion, ambition or covetousness, anger, laughing madness of extreme mirth, drunken madness, outrageous lust, curiosity and profaneness and atheism.

Among the English writers at this time there was a pronounced interest in the emotional state of melancholy. We are disappointed that the well-known medical authority, William Harvey, in his Lectures on the Whole of Anatomy of 1616 found only pseudo-science to report. He mentions that physicians differ regarding the “melancholy juice”‘” and suggests melancholics lack pleasant disposition and talent and wonders if its origin were related to the splen-stone.”7

Robert Burton (1577–1640), author of The Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, associates a transitory form of melancholy with mortality itself, for every man experiences it on some occasion, but it comes and goes with,

every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind, any manner of care, discontent, or thought, which causes anguish, dullness, heaviness and vexation of spirit, any ways opposite to pleasure, mirth, joy, delight, causing forwardness in us, or a dislike. In which equivocal and improper sense, we call him melancholy, that is dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill-disposed, solitary, any way moved, or displeased. And from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free … Melancholy in this sense is the character of Mortality.8

William Shenstone (1714–1763) offered a more positive view, finding some benefit even in melancholy,

While we labor to subdue our passions, we should take care not to extinguish them. Subduing our passions, is disengaging ourselves from the world; to which, however, whilst we reside in it, we must always bear relation; and we may detach ourselves to such a degree as to pass an useless and insipid life, which we were not meant to do.9

Nevertheless, for those readers who are interested in suppressing melancholy, I offer the recipe given by the famous Francis Bacon, who recommended making a “wine against adverse melancholy, preserving the senses and the reason.” This involves roots of bugloss, misted with wine containing three ounces of refined gold.10

David Hume (1711–1776), in attempting to analyze the operation of the emotions, begins with his division of human understanding into impressions (or sensation) and ideas (or reflections). Impressions he subdivides into original, which are the senses, and secondary, which are the passions. The latter Hume further subdivides into calm and violent. But every emotion or passion has its own range of intensity.

Of the first kind is the sense of beauty and deformity in action, composition, and external objects. Of the second are the passions of love and hatred, grief and joy, pride and humility. This division is far from being exact. The raptures of poetry and music frequently rise to the greatest height; while those other impressions, properly called passions, may decay into so soft an emotion, as to become, in a manner, imperceptible. But as in general the passions are more violent than the emotions arising from beauty and deformity.11

The great Francis Bacon (1561–1626), in Book Eight of his Natural History, discusses the physical effects of the passions on the body. Here he includes fear, joy, anger, light displeasure, shame, wonder, laughing, lust, grief and pain. Of the latter two, for example, he observes,

Grief and pain cause sighing, sobbing, groaning, screaming and roaring, tears, distorting of the face, grinding of the teeth, sweating. Sighing is caused by the drawing in of a greater quantity of breath to refresh the heart that labors; like a great draught when one is thirsty. Sobbing is the same thing stronger … Tears are caused by a contraction of the spirits of the brain; which contraction by consequence astringeth the moisture of the brain, and thereby sends tears into the eyes.12

In Bacon’s History of Life and Death,13 he discusses individual emotions from the perspective of their physical influence on the body. Among his more interesting contentions, we find,

Great joys attenuate and diffuse the spirits, and shorten life; ordinary cheerfulness strengthens the spirits …
Sensual impressions of joys are bad …
Joy suppressed and sparingly communicated comforts the spirits more than joy indulged and published.
Grief and sadness, if devoid of fear, and not too keen, rather prolong life … Great fears shorten life.
Suppressed anger is a kind of vexation, and makes the spirit to prey upon the juices of the body.
Envy is the worst of passions, and preys on the spirits …
A light shame hurts not, because it slightly contracts the spirits and then diffuses them …
Love, if not unfortunate, and too deeply wounding, is a kind of joy …
Hope is of all the affections the most useful, and contributes most to prolong life.

Bacon correctly observes that the motions of the face “disclose the present humor and state of the mind and will.”14 For this reason, in another place he recommends that one maintain a “steadfast countenance, not wavering, etc., in conversation.”15

Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) appears to us to be the first philosopher to begin to understand the emotions in a way that corresponds with what we know today from clinical research. In a single sentence he correctly states that the emotions are part of the mind and that they are basic to human nature.

The Nature of human actions cannot be sufficiently understood without considering the affections and passions; or those modifications or actions of the mind consequent upon the apprehension of certain objects or events, in which the mind generally conceives good or evil.16

The great question for all earlier philosophers was, how does one control such passions? Hutcheson’s solution is moral philosophy, rather than some abstract concept of “Reason,” as the policeman of our passions. He finds five classifications of “what excites our emotions other than self-interest.” For example, emotions can be awakened by moral sense or a sense of honor, inspired by others or by the public, etc. He also notes that the issue is not that we must control the emotion itself, but our opinions formed from it.

Alexander Pope (1688–1744) left a nice maxim on this subject,

The world is a thing we must of necessity either laugh at or be angry at; if we laugh at it, they say we are proud; if we are angry at it, they say we are ill-natured.17

Anthony Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713), a student of Locke, concluded that the emotions are in large part genetic by nature. Nevertheless, he believed that the various emotions have a certain inequality in their strength among individual men. It is interesting that he uses music, which is the very expression of emotions, as a metaphor to describe his views on this subject.

Upon the whole, it may be said properly to be the same with the affections or passions in an animal constitution as with the strings of a musical instrument. If these, though in ever so just proportion one to another, are strained beyond a certain degree, it is more than the instrument will bear: the lute or lyre is abused, and its effect lost. On the other hand, if while some of the strings are duly strained, others are not wound up to their due proportion, then is the instrument still in disorder, and its part ill performed. The several species of creatures are like different sorts of instruments; and even in the same species of creatures (as in the same sort of instrument) one is not entirely like the other, nor will the same strings fit each. The same degree of strength which winds up one, and fits the several strings to a just harmony and consort, may in another burst both the strings and instrument itself. Thus men who have the liveliest sense, and are the easiest affected with pain or pleasure, have need of the strongest influence or force of other affections, such as tenderness, love, sociableness, compassion, in order to preserve a right balance within, and to maintain them in their duty, and in the just performance of their part, whilst others, who are of a cooler blood, or lower key, need not the same allay or counterpart, nor are made by Nature to feel those tender and endearing affections in so exquisite a degree.18

Finally, some interesting observations. William Shenstone was not quite sure that pure friendship was possible between the sexes.

There is no word in the Latin language, that signifies a female friend. ‘Amica,’ means a mistress; and perhaps there is no friendship between the sexes wholly disunited from a degree of love.19

Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), in writing about preaching to Englishmen, offers another consideration on how specific emotions can vary with individuals by way of introducing the subject of geography,

But I do not see how this talent of moving the passions, can be of any great use towards directing Christian men in the conduct of their lives, at least in these Northern climates; where, I am confident, the strongest eloquence of that kind will leave few impressions upon any of our spirits, deep enough to last till the next Morning, or rather to the next meal.20

As a final illustration of those interested in individual associations with the emotions we must mention John Locke (1632–1704). In his famous treatise on education he contends that crying “is a fault that should not be tolerated in children. If it can’t be stopped by a look, or a positive command … blows must.”21

A great deal of additional information on this subject can be found in my eight volumes on the Aesthetics of Music.


  1. A Pocket Mirror for Heroes, trans. Maurer, 7 ↩︎
  2. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Cambridge Universiy Press, 166 ↩︎
  3. Ibid., 129 ↩︎
  4. Ibid., ciiff ↩︎
  5. Quoted in A Woman’s Life in the Court of the Sun King, trans. Forster, 69 ↩︎
  6. The Works of Joseph Hall, D.D., ed. Wynter, VII, 541ff ↩︎
  7. The Works of William Harvey, ed. Robert Willis (Reprinted New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1965), 93ff. ↩︎
  8. The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Dell, 125 ↩︎
  9. Men and Manners, 53 ↩︎
  10. Works of Bacon, Cambridge University Press, VII, 424 ↩︎
  11. A Treatise of Human Nature, II, I, 1 ↩︎
  12. The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. Spedding, VIII, section 714 ↩︎
  13. Ibid., X, 98ff ↩︎
  14. Ibid., VI, 238 ↩︎
  15. Ibid., XIII, 309 ↩︎
  16. An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions, I, i ↩︎
  17. The Works of Alexander Pope, X, 553 ↩︎
  18. Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, Concerning Virtue or Merit, II, iii ↩︎
  19. Op cit., 01 ↩︎
  20. The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, Blackwell, IX, 69 ↩︎
  21. “Thoughts Concerning Education,” in The Works of John Locke, 102ff ↩︎