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date: 23 March 2019

Affect and Emotion in Greek Literature

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the way the ancient Greeks conceived of the emotions. Special attention is paid to the differences between classical Greek and modern English conceptions, in line with the view that culture plays a significant role in shaping the way emotions are experienced. The analysis draws on ancient Greek literature, from Homer’sIliadto tragedy, comedy, and lyric poetry, as well as on historical and philosophical works by Aristotle and Xenophon. Also considered are changes in the way the emotions are understood in early Christian and later texts, with occasional reference to Latin adaptations. In particular, the emotions of pity, anger, fear, love, and jealousy are examined in detail.

Keywords: affect, emotion, pity, anger, fear, love, jealousy

I. Introduction

Ancient Greek literature exhibits a wealth of emotions, whether in the behavior of characters in narratives or in the response elicited in the audience or readers. The first word of what is probably the earliest Greek poem to survive—the Iliad—is “wrath”; Aristotle posits as one of the defining characteristics of tragedy the capacity to arouse pity and fear (Poetics 1452a2-3, 1452b32-33; cf. Gorgias Defense of Helen 9, Plato Republic 10, 606B-C, Isocrates Panegyricus 112, 168); orators sought to stir pity in favor of defendants and anger against opponents, while gaining the affection or favor of the judges and deflecting their hatred; fear and confidence were a persistent theme in historical accounts of war; and philosophers offered sophisticated definitions, descriptions, and analyses of the emotions in rhetoric and with regard to attaining tranquility of mind. Even official inscriptions, posted on stone tablets called stelai and notable for their austere style, appeal to emotions, and private letters preserved on papyrus illustrate them as well.1 What is more, there is an extensive vocabulary for emotions in ancient Greek, and individuals given to drawing precise distinctions, such as Prodicus, a well-known sophist from the island of Ceos who appears in Plato’s Protagoras, noted subtle nuances among what may seem to us to be all but synonymous terms. There is thus a wide range of material available for study, and recently there has been an abundance of serious research on emotion in the Greek and Roman worlds.2 Obviously, the present article can examine only a limited number of examples, but before embarking on such a survey there is a particularly thorny question that needs to be addressed, namely: Were the emotions of the ancient Greeks the same as ours?

At first blush, it would seem that emotions are transhistorical, and that what Greeks thought and felt cannot have differed by much, or at all, from the emotions as they are experienced and understood today. In a recent book, Kostas Kalimtzis rejects the view that “the anger studied by the Greeks of the classical period was something wholly or partially different from the anger that we experience as an emotion.”3 On the contrary, Kalimtzis maintains that the anger that Homer described, and that Plato and Aristotle analyzed, “was anger, not of the Athenian or Spartan, but anger qua human” (p. 3). Kalimtzis mentions me as one of the scholars who hold, on the contrary, that the ancient Greek concept of anger was “significantly different from the modern.”4 Kalimtzis is right that I side with those who view the emotions as socially constructed, that is, as conditioned in significant ways by culture, as opposed to those who hold that at least certain basic emotions are innate and hence uniform among all human societies. This is not to say that I see no continuities at all; subtending the emotions are certain instinctive responses that I prefer to call affects, and that are common to all human beings and indeed to certain nonhuman animals as well. But I find it useful to classify these sentiments as proto-emotions rather than as emotions in the full sense of the word. In fact, the Stoics held such a view in antiquity, I believe, distinguishing between pathos (emotion) and propatheia (pre- or proto-emotion), and their theory may well have its roots in Aristotle himself.5 When it comes, however, to the emotions proper, including anger, pity, fear, love and hatred, shame, envy, and other sentiments that Aristotle labeled pathê, there is good reason to suppose that the ancient concepts did not coincide strictly with the modern.

II. Pity

We may take the example of pity as a starting point. Aristotle provides the following definition (Rhetoric 2.8.2, 1385b13-16): “Let pity, then, be a kind of pain in the case of an apparent destructive or painful harm to a person who does not deserve to encounter it, which one might expect oneself, or one of one’s own, to suffer, and this when it seems near.” First of all, we note that for Aristotle, pity is elicited only by undeserved misfortune. This implies that we do not pity those who have brought their suffering on themselves; as Cicero says, “no one is moved by pity at the punishment of a parricide or a traitor” (Tusculan Disputations 4.18; cf. Aristotle Rhetoric 1386b26-29). Second, in order to feel pity, we must be vulnerable to the same kind of misfortune as the one we pity, but, as Aristotle makes clear, not actually be ourselves in the same condition—for in that case, we would no longer expect to encounter harm but, rather, would already be suffering it. That is why, Aristotle affirms, those who have reached the nadir of adversity are not disposed to pity others, contrary to what some modern intuitions suggest. Correspondingly, those who have been prosperous all their lives do not anticipate calamities, and so they too are not given to pity. It is worth observing that, on this conception, an omnipotent deity would be incapable of such an emotion, since he (or she) would be invulnerable to harm. These constraints, which are not specific to Aristotle, are evident in a wide range of Greek literature. Thus, when Aristotle claims that pity is one of the characteristic responses to tragedy, we need to inquire as to just what kind of emotion he had in mind.6

We may take as a test case the Greek tragedy that, perhaps more than any other, seems designed to elicit the pity of the audience. The Marxist critic Terry Eagleton, in his book Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, quotes the distinguished Italian philologist Sebastiano Timpanaro for a view similar to that of Kalimtzis: “man as a biological being has remained essentially unchanged from the beginnings of civilization to the present; and those sentiments and representations which are closest to the biological facts of human existence have changed little.”7 Eagleton comments: “However culturalists may wince at this cheek-by-jowl consorting of ‘sentiments and representations’ with ‘biological facts,’ it is surely true that to ask, say, why we feel sympathy for Philoctetes is a pseudo-problem bred by a bogus historicism. We feel sympathy for Philoctetes because he is in agonizing pain from his pus-swollen foot… There is nothing hermeneutically opaque about Philoctetes’ hobbling and bellowing.” Eagleton does allow that classical tragedy may not be wholly transparent to us: “There is, to be sure, a great deal about the art form in which he [Philoctetes] figures which is profoundly obscure to us.” Nevertheless, Eagleton insists that, “as far as his agony goes, we understand Philoctetes in much the same way as we understand the afflictions of those around us. It is not that such a response is ‘unhistorical’; it is rather that human history includes the history of the body, which in respect of physical suffering has probably changed little over the centuries.”

Whatever the case with pain, however, when it comes to pity we have just seen that, at least according to Aristotle, pain per se does not evoke it—only unmerited suffering.8 The distinction is important: pity, as Aristotle conceives it, is not the same thing as raw sympathy for pain, for it requires a moral judgment, which is constitutive of the sentiment itself. One way to get a purchase on how the original audiences may have reacted is to see how characters in the play itself respond to Philoctetes’ plight. When they first see the wretched cave that the hero has inhabited for ten years, the chorus exclaim: “I pity him: no human being to care for him, with no companion in sight, miserable, forever alone, he is afflicted by a savage disease and wanders at the mercy of every need that arises” (169–175). Neoptolemus, the young son of Achilles who has been sent to lure Philoctetes into cooperating with the Greek army that abandoned him in his distress, also feels a deep anguish at the old hero’s condition, and in the end elects to side with him against those who would exploit him. Nevertheless, Neoptolemus himself is irked when Philoctetes stubbornly refuses to go to Troy, even though it is the only way his wound can be cured: “it is not just to pardon or to pity those who are involved in self-willed harm, like you” (1318–1320). 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.9

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. Edmund Burke, for example, affirms that “sympathy must be considered as a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected” (1990: 41)10; and Adam Smith observes: “By the imagination we place ourselves in [the other’s] situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations.”11 Such descriptions of sympathy have little to do with Greek pity, and its origins lie elsewhere. Pity did not imply identification with another, however much this may be the way we expect to be moved by the theater today. As we have noted, pity is evoked when we are not in the situation of the other; as Aristotle says, “people stop pitying when something terrible is happening to them.”

We may see an anticipation of the modern view of sympathy in Gregory of Nyssa’s explication of the fifth beatitude, “Blessed are those who pity, for they shall be pitied” (Matt 5:7): “The obvious meaning of the text summons human beings to be loving and sympathetic to each other because of the unfairness and inequality of human affairs.”12 Gregory defines pity as “a voluntary [hekousios] pain that arises at the misfortunes of others” (On the Beatitudes 44.1252.28–30 Migne), and he goes on to explain: “Pity is a loving shared disposition with those who are suffering under painful circumstances.” Gregory uses the word that I have translated as “shared disposition” (sundiathesis) in his treatise, On the Creation of Man, to describe the natural sympathy among parts of the body or the soul (13.7 = 44.165 Migne).13 Note that Gregory’s definition does not mention whether the suffering of the pitiable is deserved; for him, pity is an elementary sympathy for the plight of others. In addition, the idea of a shared disposition suggests a merging of identities that is characteristic of modern definitions of sympathy, as we have seen, and is quite different from Aristotle’s stipulation that the pitier must be in a different position than the one who is pitied. With Aristotle, then, there is no question of identification Gregory further locates the source of pity in love (agapê), and describes it as an “intensification of a loving disposition mixed together with a feeling of distress.” Only those who are under the influence of love are willing to share in another’s misery. In the hands of the Christian thinker, the classical idea of pity has been transformed into something resembling modern empathy or compassion. This is not to say that Gregory’s conception represents an advance over Aristotle’s; the point is rather that, even in classical antiquity, taken in the large sense to include the rise of Christianity, the emotion of pity underwent changes. It is thus less surprising that there should be differences as well between classical and modern ideas of the emotions.

III. Anger

Aristotle’s definition of anger runs as follows: “Let anger be a desire, accompanied by pain, for a perceived revenge, on account of a perceived slight on the part of people who are not fit to slight one or one’s own” (Rhetoric 2.2, 1378a31-33). 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. As he puts it, “No one gets angry at someone when it is impossible to achieve revenge, and with those who are far superior in power than themselves people get angry either not at all or less so” (Rhetoric 2.2, 1370b13-15). 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. But let us test Aristotle’s conception against Homer, whose descriptions of anger are presumably not trimmed to fit a specific philosophical thesis (any more, I would say, than Aristotle’s own). At the very beginning of the Iliad (1.7-52), Chryses, a priest of Apollo, approaches the Greek camp to beg Agamemnon to return his daughter, Chryseis, who has been captured in a raid. Chryses offers to pay a huge ransom, but Agamemnon brutally dismisses his appeal, adding a threat lest he return in the future. Chryses skulks away in fear, but prays to Apollo to avenge him; this Apollo does, “angry in his heart” (khôomenos kêr, 44), unleashing the plague that will be the immediate cause of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon and so the motive for the epic as a whole. 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. We see a reflection of this same attitude in Achilles, whose gorge has risen, as he says, because Agamemnon treated him as though he were “a vagabond without honor” (Iliad 1.356, 9.648)—a passage that Aristotle cites in this very connection. 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. Anger is the privilege of power, or as Medea’s nurse expresses it in the prologue to Euripides’ tragedy, “Fierce is the temper of tyrants, and though they start small, because their power is great they curtail their anger with difficulty” (119–121).14

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. This is to ignore Aristotle’s clear statement that anger is a desire for revenge. Indeed, if we dismiss this element, what is left of anger? Today, people are likely to think of anger as a special kind of feeling, what philosophers of the emotions call a “quale,” Latin for “a kind of thing” or (to be honest) “a something or other,” like a hot sensation in the chest, perhaps. But various experiments, as well as self-inspection, have shown that purely physical accounts of the emotions that do not take reasons and intentions into account fail to distinguish one emotion from another (we can get “hot under the collar,” if we take the expression literally, because of fear just as much as anger).15 I do not mean to say that there is nothing in common between Aristotle’s (or Homer’s) idea of anger and ours: an elementary aggressivity in response to negative stimuli such as pain is characteristic of modern anger as much as of ancient Greek orgê (to use Aristotle’s term). But such an instinctive reaction, while it may be an element of anger, is not the emotion itself. The Roman Stoic Seneca, who was undoubtedly following Greek authorities here, puts it clearly: “We must affirm that wild animals, and all creatures apart from human beings, are without anger; for since anger is contrary to reason, it does not arise except where reason has a place. Animals have violence, rabidity, ferocity, aggression, but do not have anger any more than they have licentiousness.” Seneca goes on to observe: “Dumb animals lack human emotions, but they do have certain impulses that are similar to emotions… Thus, their attacks and outbreaks are violent, but they do not have fears and worries, sadness and anger, but rather things that are similar to these” (On Anger 1.3.4-8).

A second remarkable feature of Aristotle’s definition of anger is that it involves a reaction to “a perceived slight.” Here again, we may be inclined to suppose that the limitation of the causes of anger to slights or slurs is unduly narrow. I can feel angry, for example, if I bang my knee against a table, which can hardly be accused of having disparaged me. For Aristotle, as for Seneca, however, this sudden sense of blind fury is not anger in the proper sense of the word; indeed, it would trivialize the sentiment to imagine that Achilles’ response to being demeaned by Agamemnon is comparable to what he would feel upon stubbing his toe. Emotions are embedded in socialized forms of behavior, and are not reducible to mere instinct. This is evident in the third stipulation in Aristotle’s definition of anger, namely, that it arises in response to an insult or belittlement “on the part of people who are not fit to slight one or one’s own.” For Aristotle, anger is inseparable from a sense of hierarchy: slaves do not become irate at their masters for the kind of treatment or language that would be regarded as intolerable among free and equal citizens, for example, as Aristotle himself remarks. It is impossible to detach the ancient Greek idea of anger from considerations of this kind.

Keeping Aristotle’s definition in mind allows us to understand some observations he makes about the emotion that might otherwise seem mysterious, not to say bizarre, for example, that “it is impossible to be afraid of and angry with someone at the same time” (2.3, 1380a33). 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. We can appreciate some of the consequences of Aristotle’s view for the interpretation of the Iliad as a whole. Achilles’ anger at Agamemnon occupies something between two thirds and three quarters of the epic, until Achilles forsakes it after his dearest companion, Patroclus, is slain by Hector; from that moment on, Achilles’ rage is channeled into killing Hector in return for this injury. When the two heroes finally face off in the duel that will conclude the poem, it is clear that Hector is afraid—just before this, he took to his heels at Achilles’ approach, and he still debates with himself whether he might appeal to Achilles’ mercy. 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? There is no simple answer, but perhaps we should mark a difference in Achilles’ response to the pain that Hector has caused him and his rage at Agamemnon. After all, Hector has not actively disparaged or insulted him; it is grief, we might say, that motivates Achilles’ passion rather than insult. Indeed, at the point at which Achilles masters his fury against Agamemnon, despite the ill treatment he received at his hands, and will now pursue Hector instead, the scholia, that is, marginal notes in the manuscripts that preserve the comments of ancient critics, observe: “of the two emotions besetting Achilles’ soul, anger [orgê] and grief [lupê], one wins out… For the emotion involving Patroclus is strongest of all, and so it is necessary to abandon his wrath [mênis] and avenge himself on his enemies” (schol. bT to Iliad 18.112–13). Perhaps we too would do well, despite our intuitions, to see two passions at work here rather than just one.

One final observation concerning Aristotle’s definition of anger or, rather, of orgê: the objective of anger, he says, is “a perceived revenge”; why “perceived?” The answer is that anger, for Aristotle, is not simply a desire to eliminate one’s antagonist; that is rather what hatred aims at. In response to a put-down or diminishment, however, what we desire is that the other feel the same kind of humiliation that we did; as Aristotle puts it, we want the person to “feel in return”—his word is antipathein—what we experienced earlier (2.4, 1382a14-15). 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.

There were several Greek words for “anger,” and Aristotle’s analysis of orgê may not do justice to kholos, which is the primary term in Homeric epic, or to thumos, which the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus, writing almost three hundred years after Aristotle, distinguishes from orgê (justified anger) as blind or irrational fury.16 Further study can illuminate the social context for these and other distinctions, but the close connection between anger and honor or status ought always to be kept in mind.

IV. Fear

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. Aristotle provides what seems like an uncontroversial definition: “Let fear be a kind of pain or disturbance deriving from an impression of a future evil that is destructive or painful; for not all evils are feared, for example whether one will be unjust or slow, but as many as are productive of great pain or destruction, and these if they are not distant but rather seem near so as to impend. For things that are remote are not greatly feared” (Rhetoric 2.5, 1382a21-25). Nevertheless, it is not clear that infants, for example, are capable of experiencing fear in Aristotle’s sense. 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. As Aristotle puts it, “fear makes people deliberative [bouleutikos]” (Rhetoric 2.5, 1382a5), causing them to take stock of their situation and decide on the best course of action. It is why fear is also a necessary ingredient of courage. Xenophon, in his memoirs of Socrates (Memorabilia 3.5.5-6), reports a conversation between Socrates and Pericles (the son of the famous general), in which Socrates remarks: “Confidence [to tharros, which Aristotle defines as the opposite of fear] instills carelessness, negligence, and heedlessness, whereas fear makes people more attentive, more obedient, and more orderly. 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.”

In an essay entitled “A Short History of Shudders,” Douglas Cairns examines the term phrikê and related words.17 As Cairns points out, phrikê “can be the name of an emotion, but its primary significance lies in its reference to a physical symptom that is common to a range of emotional and non-emotional events” (85), namely shuddering or trembling. Cairns cites a passage in Plutarch’s Life of Aratus (32) in which Aratus, as general of the Achaean League, liberates the city of the Pellenians, which had been attacked by a lawless band of Aetolians. While the Aetolians were busy plundering, they received word of Aratus’ attack, which stunned them: Plutarch’s word here is ekplêxis (31.3), of the same root as the English apoplexy, which typically suggests dumbfoundedness. Indeed, Plutarch states that the Aetolians as a whole were not yet fully aware of the danger, so their reaction was not quite fear in Aristotle’s sense. 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. When she suddenly ran out to look upon the tumult below, still wearing the three-crested helmet, her fellow citizens thought she was a superhuman vision, and the sight of her cast phrikê and amazement (thambos) among the Aetolians (32.2). Cairns remarks that phrikê here connotes not just a bodily reaction but serves as “a sign of a more inclusive emotional experience”; that is, the word phrikê does not merely mean that the Aetolians shuddered, “but that they were afraid”—the shudder is a metonymy for fear. 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. As Cairns puts it, “only the most extreme social constructionist would deny that both shivering and feeling afraid are not only cross-cultural but also inter-specific experiences.”

Now, as Cairns himself notes, phrikê and related terms, “even when they are used of emotional reactions rather than of purely physical conditions, do not always seem to refer to fear” (94); they may connote awe, for example (98), and also horror (102). The use of phrikê in this context strikes me as signifying something like dread or alarm, the state of being thunderstruck with a shiver running up the spine (there is something freaky about the things that inspire phrikê). 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. The term that Aristotle subjects to analysis is not phrikê, of course, but rather phobos, and, in any case, given that he treats the emotions in his treatise on rhetoric, it is no surprise that he has in mind situations in which whether or not to feel fear is a subject of discourse and persuasion, unlike the tremors that may seize a person at the sight of an astonishing apparition. 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 (2.86.5), to show them that their fear was unreasonable: “The previous sea battle, Peloponnesians, offers no legitimate grounds for being afraid [to ekphobêsai, verb related to phobos], if indeed any of you fears the impending one” (87.1). The earlier failure was due to poor preparation, bad luck, and inexperience (87.2); however, they have no reason to be fearful of the Athenians’ expert seamanship but should count rather on the Athenians’ fear of their own courage: given their boldness, “fear will stun the Athenians’ minds” (phobos gar mnêmên explêssei), the last word being the verbal form of ekplêxis (87.4). 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.

I do not mean to suggest that the Greek language drew hard and fast distinctions in their vocabulary for fear or any other emotion, nor again that the Greeks’ ideas about fear were in some deep sense foreign to us. We understand how the Aetolians must have felt at the sight of a woman who seemed to be a goddess (Plutarch tells us that the episode had no place in Aratus’ own memoirs, and so smacks of legend), and also how learning of their numerical superiority might diminish the anxiety of the Peloponnesians on the eve of a sea battle against the highly professional Athenian fleet. So, too, we recognize the nature of Achilles’ rage when he is publicly “disrespected,” and how this differs from the pain that drives him to avenge the death of his beloved Patroclus. 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.

V. Love and Jealousy

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.18 The curious absence of jealousy would seem to call into question the idea that this passion is innate in human beings (or at least in males), and, as some authorities argue, a result of evolutionary selection, although an underlying affect of erotic possessiveness may be common to ancient Greek and modern cultures.

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. Classical Greek, however, employed two separate words for the two forms: philia, representing the most general kind of affection, and erôs, which signified the feeling that we would identify as “being in love.” Thus, while English indicates a clear association between the two ideas, Greek did not, and one could plausibly inquire what the relationship might be between erôs and philia.19 Sometimes erôs is described as an intense form of philia, but the contrast may be drawn in other ways, for example in respect to duration or cause: philosophers tended to treat philia as aroused by a person’s good qualities, whereas erôs was assumed to respond primarily to beauty, and hence transient, given that human beauty fades. 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.

Erôs is a passion that raises the question of innateness versus cultural construction in an intriguing way—if indeed it qualifies as an emotion at all, rather than an appetite or desire, that is, what in philosophically technical Greek would be labeled epithumia as opposed to pathos. If erôs signifies nothing more than sexual attraction, then indeed many animals experience it. But do non-human animals fall in love? Do they habitually exaggerate the qualities of their beloveds, imagining, as ancient satirists were fond of observing, that their defects are really assets, so that “small” becomes “petite” and “overweight” becomes “Junoesque?” Indeed, do animals have a sense of beauty at all?20

The close connection between beauty and erotic desire is evident when proper account is taken of a subtlety in the Greek vocabulary. There are two words, one an adjective, the other a noun, that have a common root and look much the same: the adjective is kalós (accent on the second syllable), and the noun is kállos. Whereas the adjective has a wide range of meanings, including “noble,” “virtuous,” and “fine,” the noun is much more restricted and generally denotes visual appeal, very often in an erotic context (for analogous variations in English, compare “seemly” vs. “seemingly,” or “emerging” vs. “emergency”).21 One consequence of this distinction is that the adjective, kalós, may be applied to heroic achievements or heroes themselves, whereas the noun, kállos, is more typically ascribed to women or, in line with classical Greek perceptions, boys: attributing “prettiness” to an adult male may sound demeaning, as it would have done in English until recently. In the Iliad, Paris, with whom Helen eloped, is characterized as having “beauty” (the noun); so too is Helen herself, naturally enough, and among males Ganymede, the boy of whom Zeus became enamored and brought to Olympus to serve as his cupbearer. Kállos is not ascribed to Ajax or Hector or other such mighty warriors, who are not treated as sexual objects (the contrast between adult males vs. women and boys becomes still sharper in the classical and later periods). If Homeric heroes are not love objects, neither are they subjects of erôs: passionate love strips people of their senses, it dominates them, and real men (unlike Paris) master others, they are not themselves overcome. 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.

Awareness of the special sense of the noun kállos and its relation to passion sheds light on various texts. It is a double-edged compliment that Xenophon pays to the notorious Alcibiades, for example, when he affirms that he “was pursued by many dignified women on account of his beauty [kállos]” (Memorabilia 1.2.24). In a famous poem (16), Sappho writes:

  • Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers,
  • others call a fleet the most beautiful of
  • sights the dark earth offers, but I say it’s what-
  • ever you love best.
  • And it’s easy to make this understood by
  • everyone, for she who surpassed all human
  • kind in beauty, Helen, abandoning her
  • husband—that best of
  • men—went sailing off to the shores of Troy and
  • never spent a thought on her child or loving
  • parents: when the goddess seduced her wits and
  • left her to wander,
  • she forgot them all, she could not remember
  • anything but longing, and lightly straying
  • aside, lost her way. But that reminds me
  • now: Anactória,
  • she’s not here, and I’d rather see her lovely
  • step, her sparkling glance and her face than gaze on
  • all the troops in Lydia in their chariots and
  • glittering armor.22

The poem (which is more lacunose than the translation indicates) has given rise to various interpretations, among them the idea that it represents a “transvaluation of all values” (Umwertung aller Werte, in Nietzsche’s phrase).23 I wish to call attention rather to a small detail of vocabulary: in the phrase “the most beautiful of sights,” the Greek word rendered as “most beautiful” (line 2) is kálliston, which is the superlative of the adjective kalós; the meaning, then, is more like “finest,” “most excellent.” When it comes to Helen’s beauty, however, the word in the text is kállos, the noun, and while we are not told what it was that excited Helen’s passion, it was undoubtedly Paris’ own beauty: that is the standard cause of erotic love, and the word for “love” in line 4 is eramai, the verb corresponding to erôs. This is significant, because it affects the logic of Sappho’s claim: she is not making an argument (if I may use that word of a poem) about what is most beautiful, as translators generally take it; she is maintaining rather that people regard various things as excellent, but those who are in love (a passion inspired by beauty in particular) regard the object of their love as best or of most worth. This is why Helen preferred to follow handsome Paris and abandon her outstanding husband—the adjective here is panaristos, “best of all” (LSJ)—who ought to have inspired Helen’s respect and affection (that is, philia). Sappho herself is similarly attracted to Anactoria’s erôs-inspiring gait (the adjective is erasmios, formed from erôs) and “bright flashing of her face”—a more literal rendering of the Greek, and relevant because brilliance is closely associated with beauty in Greek texts.

We may observe a different evaluation of Helen’s passion in a passage toward the beginning of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. In the iambic trimeter portion of the prologue, Agamemnon recounts the story of Helen’s betrothal, which gave rise to the Trojan War. Helen had been wooed by the foremost youths of Greece, each of whom threatened violence if denied the prize. Helen’s father, Tyndareus, was at a loss until it occurred to him to have the suitors swear an oath to defend whoever should gain Helen as his wife. Agamemnon calls this a clever notion (67), but Tyndareus did not let the matter rest there. Rather, for reasons not indicated in the text, he gave his daughter permission to choose a suitor as “the lovely breezes of Aphrodite might sway her” (68–69). She selected Menelaus, but thereafter Paris arrived from Troy, resplendent in his “barbarian extravagance” (74), and carried Helen off (the word exanarpasas suggests “abducted”), each passionate for the other (erôn erôsan, 75). Andreas Markantonatos agrees with Agamemnon that the oath is a “brilliant idea”; what is more, he heartily approves of Tyndareus for leaving the decision up to Helen: “he is shrewd enough to relinquish the right to choose his daughter’s husband so as to divest the final judgement of any political overtones that would incite the passionately squabbling suitors to anger and resentment.”24 Markantonatos thus sees this Euripidean “innovation”—for there is no evidence for assigning the choice to Helen prior to this play—as another sign of Tyndareos’ astute statesmanship. Yet allowing one’s daughter to choose a husband on the basis of erotic desire is surely an extraordinary abdication of paternal responsibility, and Tyndareus’ permissiveness leads directly to Helen’s elopement with Paris and hence the war. For despite the possible hint at abduction in the word exanarpasas, the exceptional phrase erôn erôsan (“each feeling erôs for the other”) makes it clear that Helen abandoned her husband out of desire for Paris.25 Helen is thus acting on the same motive by which she chose to marry Menelaus, that is, “the breezes of Aphrodite.”

Menelaus is stung by Helen’s betrayal—the word oistrêsas (77) evokes the oistros or gadfly—but does he feel jealousy? Later in the play, he calls Helen an “evil thing” (488) and is ready to disband the army and forget about recovering his wife rather than alienate his brother (495). Certainly, there is no suggestion of jealousy as a motive for the war in the Iliad, any more than Odysseus is jealous of the young men who have been suing for his wife’s hand. One poem that has been read as illustrating jealousy is Sappho 31 (I quote it in the free translation by William Carlos Williams, 1958):

  • That man is peer of the gods, who
  • face to face sits listening
  • to your sweet speech and lovely
  • laughter.
  • It is this that rouses a tumult
  • in my breast. At mere sight of you
  • my voice falters, my tongue
  • is broken.
  • Straightway, a delicate fire runs in
  • my limbs; my eyes
  • are blinded and my ears thunder.
  • Sweat pours out: a trembling hunts
  • me down. I grow
  • paler than grass and lack little
  • of dying.26

In fact, however, the symptoms described are conventionally those of erôs rather than jealousy. The man sitting next to Sappho’s beloved is like a god not because he has displaced Sappho in the woman’s affections, but precisely because he can converse intimately with her and not be stricken as Sappho is—sure proof that he, unlike Sappho, is not in love. 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.

Aristotle defines non-erotic love (philia, verb philein) as “wishing for someone the things that he deems good, for the sake of that person and not oneself, and the accomplishment of these things to the best of one’s ability” (Rhetoric 2.4, 1380b35-36). 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. Friendship, as Aristotle makes clear, exists when two people love each other, and each is aware of the other’s sentiment; but each one’s love is altruistic rather than self-interested. Aristotle’s account is no doubt idealized, capturing the essential nature of love rather than the compromised forms in which it exists in real life, but it provides, I think, a good indication of what Greeks thought love to be. Aristotle illustrates the primacy of love over being loved with reference to maternal affection: “For some [mothers] give out their own children to be raised, and they love [philousi] and know them, but they do not seek to be loved in return [antiphileisthai], if both [loving and being loved] are not possible; but it seems to them to suffice if they see them [i.e., their children] doing well, and they love them even if they, as a result of their ignorance, provide in return none of the things that are due a mother” (Nicomachean Ethics 8.8, 1159a28-33).

Greek also has a term that denotes the affection between parents and children in particular, namely storgê. The standard Greek-English lexicon (LSJ) notes that the word is rarely used of sexual love, citing three epigrams of Meleager for this usage (AP 5.165, 190 and 7.476). So, too, the verb stergô, defined as “love, feel affection,” most frequently refers to “the mutual love of parents and children” (LSJ). When stergô occurs in an erotic context, one can always detect special overtones.27 We may take as an example an epigram by Marcus Argentarius (AP 5.89), who composed during the reign of Augustus: “This is not erôs, if one wishes to have a girl who has a beautiful appearance, persuaded by judicious eyes; but when one has seen an ill-favored girl and then is gadfly driven [ostrôi, Gow and Page; iois, ‘by arrows,’ mss.] and cherishes [stergei] her, aflame from within his mad breast. This is erôs, this is fire. Beauty delights all alike who know how to judge appearance” (trans. Gow and Page). Argentarius is being deliberately contrary, in terms of classical expectations. He knows perfectly well that erôs is aroused by beauty, but says that this is banal, since everyone responds that way. Rather, one can recognize true passion when it is inspired by a homely girl, which of course is the exceptional case. But the paradoxical nature of Argentarius’ argument remains evident. First, he has it that this authentic erôs occurs at the first sight, and so is in fact based on nothing but physical appearance. Then he designates the sentiment precisely as storgê, that is, familial affection, which denatures the erotic charge. 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.

VI. Conclusion

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. 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.

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Cairns, Douglas L. Aidôs: The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1993.Find this resource:

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Caston, Ruth. The Elegiac Passion: Jealousy in Roman Love Elegy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Chaniotis, Angelos, ed. Unveiling Emotions: Sources and Methods for the Study of Emotions in the Greek World. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2012.Find this resource:

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Drobner, Hubertus R. and Albert Viciano, eds. Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Beatitudes. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2000.Find this resource:

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Notes:

(1) See the articles collected in Angelos Chaniotis, Unveiling Emotions: Sources and Methods for the Study of Emotions in the Greek World (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2012), and Angelos Chaniotis and Pierre Ducrey, eds., Unveiling Emotions II: Emotions in Greece and Rome: Texts, Images, Material Culture (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2014), with substantial bibliographies.

(2) To cite but a few: Douglas L. Cairns, Aidôs: The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1993); Richard Sorabji, Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); William V. Harris, Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); David Konstan, Pity Transformed (London: Duckworth, 2001); Martha C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); William W. Fortenbaugh, Aristotle on Emotion, 2nd ed. (London: Duckworth, 2002; 1st ed. 1975); David Konstan and N. Keith Rutter, eds., Envy, Spite, and Jealousy: The Rivalrous Emotions in Ancient Greece (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003); Susanna Braund and Glenn W. Most, eds., Ancient Anger: Perspectives from Homer to Galen = Yale Classical Studies 32 (2004); Simo Knuuttila, Emotions in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004); Robert A. Kaster, Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); David Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006); Margaret R. Graver, Stoicism and Emotion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); Ruth Caston, The Elegiac Passion: Jealousy in Roman Love Elegy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Martin Hinterberger, Phthonos: Mißgunst, Neid und Eifersucht in der byzantinischen Literatur (Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2013); Ed Sanders, Envy and Jealousy in Classical Athens: A Socio-Psychological Approach (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

(3) Kostas Kalimtzis, Taming Anger: The Hellenic Approach to the Limitations of Reason (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), 2.

(5) On propatheiai, see Margaret R. Graver, “Philo of Alexandria and the Origins of the Stoic Προπάθειαι,” Phronesis 44 (1999): 300–325; Graver, Stoicism, pp. 85–108.

(6) For fuller discussion, see Konstan, Pity.

(7) Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Oxford: Blackwell’s, 2003), xii–xiv, citing Sebastiano Timpanaro, On Materialism, trans. Lawrence Garner (London: Verso, 1975), 52; Timpanaro’s book was originally published in Italian in 1970.

(8) Felix Budelmann, “Bringing Together Nature and Culture: On the Uses and Limits of Cognitive Science for the Study of Performance Reception,” in Edith Hall and Stephe Harrop, eds., Theorising Performance: Greek Drama, Cultural History and Critical Practice (London: Duckworth, 2010), 108–122, citing this same passage in Eagleton’s book, remarks (111): “As Eagleton says, pain is a universal phenomenon. The biochemistry of pain is fundamentally the same in everybody and will have been the same for over a hundred thousand years… Yet this is not the whole story.” Budelmann notes the varied ways in which Philoctetes’ pain has been staged over the centuries, and concludes (112): “The way Sophocles makes him [Philoctetes] express his pain is influenced by cultural contexts. Philoctetes’ description of his suffering reflects Greek notions of the self and of bodily sensations insofar as pain is described as an outside agent attacking the body… As a consequence of the interplay of nature and culture, Sophocles’ experience and conception of pain are different from mine.”

(9) Further discussion in David Konstan and Stavroula Kiritsi, “From Pity to Sympathy: Tragic Emotions across the Ages”, The Athens Dialogues E-Journal 1 (2010), accessible at http://athensdialogues.chs.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/WebObjects/athensdialogues.woa/wa/dist?dis=46.

(10) Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 4.

(11) Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. E.G. West. (Indianopolis: Hackett Press, 1976 [orig. 1759; 6th ed. 1790]), 9 = I.1.i.2; cf. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1906 [orig. 1739–1740]), 317.

(12) Drobner, Hubertus R. and Albert Viciano, eds., Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Beatitudes (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2000).

(13) 44.1252.28-3 Migne. The word sundiathesis is not in LSJ; Hall, in Drobner and Viciano, Gregory of Nyssa, renders the term as “self-identification.”

(14) For further discussion, see Konstan, Emotions, 41–76.

(15) Whether the several emotions have a distinct feeling is the subject of considerable debate. Some theorists consider feeling to be one part of a set of components that define any given emotion; see Klaus R. Scherer, “Component Models of Emotion Can Inform the Quest for Emotional Competence,” in G. Matthews, M. Zeidner, and R.D. Roberts, eds., The Science of Emotional Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns (Oxford University Press, New York, 2007), 101–126.

(16) See Giovanni Indelli, “The Vocabulary of Anger in Philodemus’ De Ira and Vergil’s Aeneid,” in David Armstrong, Jeffrey Fish, Patricia A. Johnston, and Marilyn B. Skinner, eds., Vergil, Philodemus, and the Augustans (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 103–110.

(17) Douglas Cairns, “A Short History of Shudders,” in Chaniotis and Ducrey, Unveiling Emotions II, 77–99.

(18) See Konstan, Emotions, 219–243; for a critique of Konstan’s view, see Sanders, Envy and Jealousy, 130–168.

(19) For further discussion, see David Konstan, “Love and Cognition: The View from Ancient Greece—and Beyond,” Acta Neuropsychologica 8 (2010): 1–8.

(20) See David Konstan, “Between Appetite and Emotion, or Why Can’t Animals Have Erôs?,” in Ed Sanders, Nick Lowe, Chiara Thumiger, and Christopher Carey, eds., Eros in Ancient Greece (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) 13–25.

(21) For the distinction between the noun and adjective, and its implications, see David Konstan, Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

(22) Trans. Jim Powell, The Poetry of Sappho (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) 6–7.

(23) For a survey of views and analysis of Sappho’s reasoning in the poem, see Harold Zellner, “Sappho’s Alleged Proof of Aesthetic Relativity,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 47 (2007): 257–270; for the “transvaluation of all values,” see Garry Wills, “The Sapphic Umwertung aller Werte,” American Journal of Psychology 88 (1967): 434–42.

(24) Andreas Markantonatos, “Leadership in Action: Wise Policy and Firm Resolve in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis,” in Andreas Markantonatos and Bernhard Zimmermann, eds., Crisis on Stage: Tragedy and Comedy in Late Fifth-Century Athens (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011 = Trends in Classics Supplementary Volume 13), 189–218; quotations from pp. 197, 201.

(25) For the double representation of Helen’s motives, see the excellent discussion in Ruby Blondell, Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), esp. 1–26.

(26) Cited from the web page entitled “Sappho: Poem of Jealousy,” which provides 32 translations of this poem; available at http://www.bopsecrets.org/gateway/passages/sappho.htm; accessed 27 February 2015.

(27) Discussion in David Konstan, “Στοργή in Greek Amatory Epigrams,” in Francisco Cortés Gabaudan and Julián Méndez Dosuna, eds., Dic mihi, musa, uirum: Homenaje al Profesor Antonio López Eire (Salamanca: University of Salamanca Press, 2010) 363–369.