The Passions in Roman Thought and Literature

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Did the audience, then, feel indignant with Philoctetes at this point for his obstinacy and withdraw its pity? If so, it would have prepared them for what, to many scholars, has seemed an abrupt turnabout at the end of the play, when Heracles appears as deus ex machina and instructs Philoctetes to rejoin the Greek forces and accomplish the destruction of Troy. Greek pity, then, and modern sympathy, to which Eagleton appeals, are not identical sentiments. Sympathy is a capacity to put oneself in the position of another.

Pity did not imply identification with another, however much this may be the way we expect to be moved by the theater today.


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In the hands of the Christian thinker, the classical idea of pity has been transformed into something resembling modern empathy or compassion. It is thus less surprising that there should be differences as well between classical and modern ideas of the emotions.

Even at a glance, there are some surprising features to this description. First, anger is construed as a desire for revenge; presumably, where revenge is impossible, there would be no place for anger—and this is indeed the conclusion that Aristotle draws.

This may seem to be an undue restriction: I may repress my anger where it is dangerous to reveal it, but surely I feel angry when I am mistreated by someone else. At the very beginning of the Iliad 1. Chryses offers to pay a huge ransom, but Agamemnon brutally dismisses his appeal, adding a threat lest he return in the future. Chryses on his own is incapable of exacting revenge against a powerful king like Agamemnon, and so he merely cowers; but his patron deity can and does, and this is not just the manifestation but also the precondition of his anger.

The implication, which may be opaque to a modern reader, is that if Achilles had in fact been a mere vagabond or a helpless priest, or a weak and risible character like Thersites, we may add , he would not—or rather could not—have been angry at the way Agamemnon treated him. We may wish to argue that the anger that the Greeks felt is the same as ours, it is only the causes or triggering events that differ.

Indeed, if we dismiss this element, what is left of anger? But such an instinctive reaction, while it may be an element of anger, is not the emotion itself. Animals have violence, rabidity, ferocity, aggression, but do not have anger any more than they have licentiousness. I can feel angry, for example, if I bang my knee against a table, which can hardly be accused of having disparaged me.

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Emotions are embedded in socialized forms of behavior, and are not reducible to mere instinct. It is impossible to detach the ancient Greek idea of anger from considerations of this kind. The reason is that fear is a sign that the other person is our superior and thus fit, as Aristotle would see it, to insult us. Nor, says Aristotle, can we be angry with those who fear us, since they are implicitly showing deference to us, whereas anger is aroused by unjustified arrogance. Yet Achilles is in no way appeased, and indeed his rage is so great that he wishes he could not only kill Hector but consume his flesh.

Is Aristotle wrong, then, in affirming that we cannot be angry at those who fear us? Perhaps we too would do well, despite our intuitions, to see two passions at work here rather than just one. This insight may help us to understand why Medea, at the end of the tragedy in which Jason betrayed her, chooses to kill, not Jason, but his children, along with the king of Corinth and his daughter, whom Jason intended to marry: it is not enough to destroy him, the point is to see him suffer.

Among the basic emotions, fear is perhaps the one that seems most instinctive and universal, identical not only across different cultures but even across at least the higher animal species. Do infants have an impression of a future evil, recognizing that it portends harm? It may rather be that they simply flinch when a hand suddenly comes near, as opposed to fearing a beating, for example. To put it another way, fear involves a sense of danger, which requires a capacity for inference not everything we avoid is dangerous, and vice versa.

Fear is distinct from panic or shock: the former may cause one to run away in confusion, the latter to stand still in a kind of paralysis. But there is nothing automatic about how we respond to fear. It is why fear is also a necessary ingredient of courage. Xenophon, in his memoirs of Socrates Memorabilia 3.

You can judge this by what happens on ships: whenever the sailors fear nothing, they are bursting with disorder, but when they fear a storm or enemies, they not only do all that they are commanded but silently await instructions, just like members of a chorus.

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In this pass, there occurred a strange event: a tall and beautiful Pellenian woman, on whom one of the enemy had placed his helmet as a way of marking her out as his, was sitting in a shrine of Artemis. Cairns suggests that the elementary biological quality of shudders, which are something all human beings and some other animals can experience, tells against the view that the emotions are socially determined: if their shivering is just what fear is, then the fear of the Aetolians is no different from what we understand fear to be.

The Aetolians are not inclined at this moment to be deliberative, in the way Aristotle says people tend to be when they are afraid, for example when they are considering whether to wage war against a powerful enemy. But that is just the point: where we tend to think of fear as an internal feeling that runs the gamut from panic to what we might call rational concern, the Greeks were more inclined to keep the ideas distinct.

The historians regularly report the harangues of generals to their troops, in which they seek to stimulate their courage and moderate their fear. For example, when the Peloponnesian generals perceived that their men were afraid of encountering the Athenians in a naval battle after having suffered an earlier defeat, they sought, according to Thucydides 2.

The earlier failure was due to poor preparation, bad luck, and inexperience The generals conclude by reminding the men of their superiority in numbers, which is reason to sail forth confidently tharsountes , that is, the opposite disposition to fear. What matters is to attune ourselves to the emotional landscape of the Greeks, which had different contours from our own. Similarly, should an ancient Greek come alive today, she or he might wonder at our notion of anxiety, not because the Greeks were insusceptible to, or had never experienced, such an objectless dread—we can retrospectively find instances of it in Greek literature—but because it was not a standard item in their emotional lexicon.

We may consider, finally, the emotions of love and jealousy in Greek literature, where again we will find sentiments not wholly foreign to us but differently articulated, or, in the case of jealousy, at best only incipiently recognized as a passion until—if I am right—the period of Roman domination. The Greek vocabulary distinguished between two sentiments that English speakers and speakers of ancient Latin tend to subsume under the single category of love.

To be sure, we recognize a distinction between the love that parents have for their children or friends for one another, on the one hand, and erotic passion, which characteristically though not inevitably involves sexual desire, on the other. As in a great many societies in which marriages are typically arranged by parents, albeit with due consideration of the wishes of their children, conjugal love was expected to evolve after the wedding and was desirable for the well-being and stability of the household.

But do non-human animals fall in love? The close connection between beauty and erotic desire is evident when proper account is taken of a subtlety in the Greek vocabulary. The literary genres in which men are subject to erotic desire are lyric or elegy, and, rather later, the novel, where the hero and heroine are both young and fall mutually in love. In a famous poem 16 , Sappho writes:. Helen had been wooed by the foremost youths of Greece, each of whom threatened violence if denied the prize.

Agamemnon calls this a clever notion 67 , but Tyndareus did not let the matter rest there. One poem that has been read as illustrating jealousy is Sappho 31 I quote it in the free translation by William Carlos Williams, :. That several excellent scholars have misinterpreted the point of the poem indicates if I am right how difficult it is not to project our own emotional sensibilities onto an ancient text. The emphasis is not on subjective feeling but on the disposition toward the other, manifested where possible in action.

What is more, love is selfless and seeks nothing in return: there is no mention of reciprocity. Gow and Page. Argentarius is being deliberately contrary, in terms of classical expectations. Rather, one can recognize true passion when it is inspired by a homely girl, which of course is the exceptional case. Finally, by transferring the madness that typically characterizes erotic passion as in Sappho 31, quoted previously to love for an unattractive girl, Argentarius intimates that anyone who falls for such a type is truly crazy.

Roman Passions

The emotional repertoire of the ancient Greeks does not map precisely onto that of modern English—which, like ancient Greek itself, contains several registers and local variations. Of course, it is not wholly foreign, and rests on a set of affective capabilities, such as empathy, aggressivity, cowering, and attachment, that are common to all human beings.


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But attention to the differences in the way the Greeks divided up the emotional territory opens a window on how they felt, and enriches our experience of the literature they bequeathed us. Blondell, Ruby. Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Find this resource:. Braund, Susanna and Glenn W.

Most, eds. Ancient Anger: Perspectives from Homer to Galen. Alessandro Schiesaro deals with Senecan tragedy. In a good introduction the editors acknowledge see p. As Aeneas' anger is dealt with at beginning, middle, and end of this volume, we will save it for last, and take the other essays in order. Douglas in Cicero the Philosopher , ed. Powell, Oxford neither essay, nor the book, is in the bibliography: this too is a book which came out rather slowly, originating as it did in a conference in would have changed Erskine's essay considerably if they had had time to influence it.

Cicero's relation to the Epicureans, especially, is dealt with far more creatively by White. Again, Marcus Wilson's "The subjugation of grief in Seneca's Epistles " offers an interesting analysis of the rhetoric and techniques of Epp.

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Wilson can recognize that 63 is a genuine therapeutic consolatio, but is surprised that Seneca acknowledges himself here full of grief on his own, philosophical adviser though he claims to be, and elsewhere in the Epistles calls himself "a patient in the same ward as you" Even more surprising to him is the idea that Seneca should address Marullus so aggressively in 99, beginning solacia expectas? To call this "paradoxical" in a consolatio 49 misses the point. It's obvious from Plutarch's How to know a Flatterer from a Friend that the ancient philosophical "therapist," who loved to use medical analogies for his practises, had both flattery and violent blame in his diatribic pharmacopeia, according as he conceived himself to be talking to a tender soul or one manly enough to take straight talk -- and the second kind is an implied compliment, not an insult: the addressee is portrayed for the reading public as a person of the kind to say "Give it to me straight, Doc.

I can take it. This is wholly unnecessary. Philodemus, in his peri Parrhesias On Frank Speaking , which if not so fragmentary would be a classic reference-text on this subject, explicitly recommends both the technique of Ep. We now have a fine summary in Clarence Glad's Paul and Philodemus: Adaptability in early Christian Psychagogy , Brill for the two kinds of therapy, see chapter 3 passim and a translation by a team headed by David Konstan and Diskin Clay has just come out Philodemus on Frank Criticism , Atlanta, Scholars' Press, ; but full use has not been made here even of Martha Nussbaum's essay on "Therapeutic Arguments," which does appear in the bibliography, while the essays of M.

Gigante on which it depends, and which are crucial, do not appear at all. Susanna Braund's lively essay on anger in Juvenal 13, though it mainly expands on the well-established view that the poem is a mock-consolatio in which the arguments usually used to console grief are transferred with comic and satiric effect to console a rich old miser Calvinus for being cheated out of ten thousand sesterces he will hardly miss, carries on this line of thought with many new insights and to excellent effect.

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In establishing that the long concluding picture, in which Calvinus is consoled with the thought of the torments such an evil person as the one who cheated him is sure to endure even in this life, is a satire on Calvinus' childish desire for vengeance, she perhaps doesn't emphasize enough that the speaker's own purpose, of which he himself seems to be in full control, is in itself perfectly moral and humane: to make the childish old man refrain, by pouring out all these exaggerated ampullae about the torments the guilty person will automatically endure, from any efforts at vengeance on his own.

We needn't suppose the persona is always a mere scarecrow! If I had not read other more detailed and more impressive pieces on Senecan tragedy by Alessandro Schiesaro than the brief and rather too general essay on "The Passions in Seneca Tragedy" in this volume, I would be less interested by it. It is a clear enough brief statement of his view, not an uncommon one in Senecan criticism indeed one could say that even the heros ktistes of modern Senecan criticism, Reitzenstein, shared it that the tragedies make the villains too attractive, their foils too feeble, to be compatible with Stoicism; instead, as opposed to the philosophical works, they really express an existential despair about the taming of evil passions by philosophy.

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CLAS 102 - Fall 2018

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