Where We’re Going and Where We Started

Sketch of the Ultimate Conclusion

It’s going to take some time to get there, so let me go ahead and tell you where I’m taking you. Pretty much any ethical theory you care to mention thinks of the emotions in one of two ways: the emotions are completely mental phenomena, by which I mean things like the sort of reasoning that goes on when you do algebra or when you’re playing a strategy game; Or they are purely physiological phenomena, nothing more than than the feeling of nausea you might get when going on a roller coaster, or the warmth in your chest you might feel when you’re watching a romantic film and the lovers finally get together, and nothing to do with “reasoning”. Lately, and I mean in the last 10-20 years or so, there have been some thinkers who’ve tried to explain how emotions really are mental and physiological phenomena. That’s the right idea, but unfortunately, we’ll see that nearly all these efforts really are little more than the same old cars with retreads, satellite radio and a new coat of paint. (I promise to defend that when we get to contemporary theories).

The thesis I’m going to take so long setting up maintains that emotions are properly understood by a “pluralistic’ theory that acknowledges them as both physiological phenomena and intimately involved in our decision making in moral situations. This is so in large part because research in neurophysiology and evolutionary psychology and biology show that any theory of the emotions that’s going to agree with the findings and provide insight into emotions’ role in ethics must accept (1) that there are two levels of emotions, (2) that ‘cognition’ and ‘emotion’ are intricately intertwined, and (3), that there is constant duplex communication, two-way feedback, between the ‘body’ and the ‘mind’. Such a theory can be derived out of the psychological and ethical theories of Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius and research from psychology, neurophysiology and evolutionary biology.

In the Beginning

Homer’s Iliad offers one of the best and most thorough depictions of the emotions in ancient literature that we can get our hands on. It is all the more important because Homer is at the core of the Greek culture that later spawned Western philosophy, and the work of Plato, Aristotle and even Lucretius on the workings of the mind, body and emotions grew out of Homer’s baseline. I’ll explain how.

Homer’s depiction of the people who lived during the time of the war for Helen of Troy (@1200 B.C.), people I call Iladics, gives us a picture of cognition that has reasoning thoroughly embedded in emotion and a picture of mind that is completely physical. I call this account the visceral theory because all the action is thought to go on in the viscera. The visceral theory holds that reasoning and emotion are physiologically largely undifferentiated (indistinguishable) responses to intense fleeting desires. To put it more clearly, the emotions, like all mental activity, are nothing but certain physiological changes and the behavior they cause. But as I say, in Homer it is as if there is really no difference between a person who is emoting and one who is thinking – there’s no distinction between “cold” or detached thought and “hot’ or emotion-laden mental activity.

The Homeric concept of mind holds that the work we take to be done by the brain was done by the lungs and a combination of breath and blood they called thymos, which was held to be found in the lungs. This idea of the chest, especially the lungs, being the center of a person, and the thymos as being in some sense you, your living essence, was present in some sense through even Roman times. I don’t know if you find that as fascinating as I do, but I think you’ve got to agree that it means that on this theory the basic, baseline conception of the mind is that it is a physical thing and not a ghost or spirit of some kind. And there’s more evidence for this when we look at the words they used to describe mind and mental activity.

Consider that while for us “to know” something (e.g. that I’m wearing gray slacks, or that Conan is funnier than Jay) means something like acquiring more or less abstract justification (evidence or reasons) for something we experience or for a claim we believe, for an Iladic person, knowing something was described by R.B. Onians as coming to a “stable and active feeling or sentiment”. It’s almost like when Stephen Colbert claims he “knows with his gut” and is therefore very assertive about his beliefs. And if such a person knows Conan is funnier than Jay, they might want to beat Jay senseless for getting back the Tonight Show.

When you read the Iliad with this in mind, its hard not to see how practically any time one of the people in the book perceives something, they automatically have an emotion about it and immediately are compelled to act. I guess in this way they are like your average 3 year old – but they are adults; kings and generals, even. Of course some things make this emotion and compulsion to act stronger than other things, but its very often overwhelming and long-lasting. Here’s a couple of brief passages describing what I mean:

“The man is raving – with all the murderous fury in his heart. He lacks the sense to see a day behind, a day ahead…”

A classic depiction of Achilles on the rampage

“Achilles – he’s made his own proud spirit so wild in his chest, so savage, not a thought for his comrades’ love…”

It stands out even more when you look at literature from Greeks of the classical age. They exhibit a much greater detachment from the things they experience. Like us they clearly have the ability to think “in cold blood” and without immediately lashing out physically. Basically, since the time of the Iladic people, humanity has learned to make distinctions between different aspects of mental activity. Now consider the flip side of actively knowing something – forgetting.

When Iladic people forgot something, it wasn’t just that they stopped being immediately aware of something, they completely and immediately lost the feeling and compulsion to act. For example

“…a second grief this harsh will never touch my heart while I am still among the living…But now let us consent to the feasting that I loathe”

“Achilles placed the lock in his dear comrade’s hands and stirred in the men again a deep desire to grieve. And now the sunlight would have set upon their tears if Achilles had not turned to Agamemnon so quickly: ‘Atrides – you are the first the armies will obey. Even of sorrow men can have their fill.’”

Its as if everything to you felt like an emergency, as if everything as as intense and important as finding yourself at the scene of a horrible accident. You see what is happening and constantly feel compelled to run in and get involved, but then suddenly you want to buy some donuts, so you stop what you were doing and just walk away, wondering whether the crullers were going to be fresh when you get to the store. I guess it makes sense that the word Homer used for ‘to forget’ literally means ‘to let escape breath which can be breathed in our breathed out’.

Now I’ve forgotten a lot of stuff in my time, but that’s not how it is with me. I’ll pick up here in the next installment.


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