We have a natural tendency to view emotions as being in opposition to rationality. If we describe someone as behaving emotionally, we usually mean that they are acting irrationally. We use terms such as being ‘overcome by emotion’, where a belief or event leaves us feeling so passionately about it that we can feel as though we are not in control of our feelings or actions. An emotion viewed in this way, can be described as a passion, suggesting that it is an uncontrollable and involuntary occurrence. Aristotle believed that emotions can be controlled to a certain extent.
To him, passion meant passive. The commonsensical view of emotions is to view them as involuntary occurrences and as such they are passive, they are something which happen to us, not something we do. Reason, or thinking on the other hand is something that we do and is therefore, commonly viewed as active. Aristotle believed that emotions can be controlled to a certain extent. He held that emotions listen to reason. A person can either be reasoned out of an emotion, like anger or self-pity, or can reason themselves out of it, by deciding to cheer themselves up when they’re feeling sad etc.
Aristotle felt that emotions are due to beliefs. If you believe that someone has wronged you, then you feel angry. If the belief is changed, then the emotion can be changed. So, if you decide, after more careful consideration of the facts, that in fact, the person has not caused you any harm, then you will stop feeling angry. The Stoics, such as Seneca, on the other hand, disagree with Aristotle. Seneca held the Stoic view that emotions should be almost entirely eradicated. He believed that emotions are reasoned judgements and that most emotions are mistaken judgements.
For example, the initial judgement of danger one might make when seeing a spider, causes bodily feelings such as sweaty palms, palpitations and a shaky feeling. Seneca concedes that this initial reaction cannot be controlled, but for him, this initial judgement is unreasoned and is therefore, not the emotion. It is the reasoning which comes after the initial judgement, such as recognition that the spider is a poisonous one and this realisation causing the belief that extreme fear would be an appropriate reaction, that is the emotion.
Seneca made this distinction because he believed that most emotions are based on a misjudgement and more careful reasoning, such as discovering that the spider is not in fact poisonous and reasoning that there’s no need to feel fear, can in fact correct the emotion. He went so far as to suggest that if we do not control them, then our emotions can control our reason. As he puts it, ‘Once the intellect has been stirred up and shaken out, it becomes the servant of the force which impels it. ‘1 Seneca and the Stoics believed that it is possible to exercise direct and complete control over our emotions.
They can claim this because they assert that an emotion is a reasoned judgement and our reason is under our control. If this is true, then it means that emotions are not passive at all, they are under our direct control and cannot be described as passions. In contrast to Seneca, William James holds that it is impossible to have an emotion without feeling bodily changes and therefore, the set of bodily feelings/changes one has when one is scared is the emotion of fear itself. James believes that the commonsensical view of an emotion being the cause of bodily feelings, such as happiness causing a smile or a laugh is wrong.
Instead, he asserts that the smile or laugh is the emotion itself; that being aware of these feelings is to be experiencing an emotion, i. e. when I find myself laughing, I am having the emotion of being happy. It is not having the emotion of being happy that causes me to laugh in James’s view. James says that the correct way to put it is ‘that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful,.. ‘2
For James, the internal changes of fear, such as palpitations or sweating, perhaps followed by involuntary expressive behaviour such as crying or shaking and resultant voluntary actions such as hugging the nearest person to you for comfort, is the emotion itself. As he explains: ‘What kind of an emotion of fear would be left if the feeling neither of quickened heart-beats nor of shallow breathing, neither of trembling lips nor of visceral stirrings, were present, it is quite impossible for me to think. ‘3 At first, it seems natural to believe that if emotions are bodily feelings, then we cannot control them.
It seems unlikely, for example, that we could control the internal changes such as sweating when feeling nervous, or control the involuntary act of crying when sad. This seems to suggest that emotions are passive, involuntary responses and as such are beyond our control and can be described as passions. However, James believes that we can control our emotions to a certain extent. He includes voluntary actions as part of the bodily feelings which constitute an emotion, such as slapping someone when you’re feeling angry with them.
That is something which you choose to do, and something which James says is part of an emotion. These types of bodily changes are under our control. We can decide not to hug someone, or not to hit someone. If we decide not to hit someone, we have then indirectly controlled the emotion of anger. This in turn should change the rest of the bodily feelings of anger, i. e. when we make the decision not to hit someone we are angry with, we have in fact made a conscious decision not to feel anger and so, perhaps the heart rate will slow down and the colour may die down in our face.
According to James, we have prevented the emotion of anger manifesting itself by controlling the voluntary action involved in experiencing the emotion of anger. Therefore, emotions are not wholly involuntary and it feels less comfortable to suggest that they are passive. To round up, Aristotle believed that emotions can be controlled to a certain extent, because emotions listen to reason. The Stoics, such as Seneca, insisted that emotions can be completely controlled, because they are reasoned judgements and we can be held responsible for our judgements as they are total reason and nothing more.
William James asserted that emotions are not judgements and so disagreed with Seneca and the Stoics. Instead he suggested that in fact, emotions are a set of bodily feelings, some of which are under our control, thereby signifying that emotions can be indirectly controlled. He agreed with Aristotle that we can reason ourselves out of an emotion sometimes. To call an emotion a passion is to suggest that it is in opposition to reason. A passion seems not to be reasonable, it seems to be uncontrollable, or it can be viewed as passive and involuntary.
As we have seen, none of the views above suggest that emotions are entirely passive. Some of them assert the complete opposite, that emotions are entirely controllable. It seems that emotions are controllable events to a certain extent at least and as such cannot be viewed as things which just happen to us, or as things out of our control. This is all very well and good, but what about emotions which apparently don’t listen to reason? Irrational fears for example.
Although phobias are overdeveloped fears, it may only mean that more reasoned judgement over a longer length of time is required in order to dislodge it, it does not necessarily mean that it cannot be controlled ever. Therefore, I believe that even this kind of strong, overdeveloped emotion can potentially be controlled, providing further evidence that emotions are not passive and so cannot be described as passions. This example can be accommodated by all of the accounts above. Aristotle would not be surprised that I had managed to reason myself out of my emotion of fear upon seeing a spider.
Seneca would believe that emotions are reasoned judgements and that it is correct not to feel fear in that situation, as it would be a misjudgement if I did. William James would assert that because I have chosen not run out of the room or jump up on the chair every time I see a spider on the floor, and have instead decided to take a deep breath and get as close as possible, I have managed to control the emotion of fear, because I have controlled the bodily changes which are the emotion. From my own personal experience and observation, I have come to the conclusion that we can exercise some control over our emotions.
We can counteract them by absorbing further evidence of the case and re-judging the situation accordingly, thereby perhaps making us feel differently about it. We can decide not to react in a certain way and this may dissipate our emotion. We can counteract an emotion such as sadness, by playing our favourite music and cheering ourselves up, perhaps going so far as to turn sadness into happiness. If, as Seneca suggests, an initial reaction of panic or fear etc, does not constitute an emotion, then perhaps all emotions are under our direct control.
Alternatively, if an emotion is a set of bodily feelings, then some of these bodily feelings at least are under our control. If emotions listen to reason and I suggest that they do, then it is possible to reason yourself or someone else out of having an emotion. To describe an emotion as a passion is to suggest that it is passive and involuntary and therefore, uncontrollable and in contrast to reason. However, as we have seen, emotions are controllable at least to a certain extent and as such are not passive. Therefore, an emotion is not a passion in this sense.