Aristotle on reason and emotion

Kassidy asked:

Aristotle argues that reason should rule our soul (i.e. our mind). In other words, our ability to reason should monitor our emotional responses and keep the pursuit of satisfying our desires in check. Is he essentially right?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is a typical instructor’s question. I imagine that your instructor already has in mind the kinds of answers they are likely to receive, for or against the proposition that ‘reason should rule our soul’. But I think it is selling Aristotle short and I’ll explain why.

The question asks us to consider a person whose emotional responses are ‘monitored by reason’ at all times. That’s not a particularly inviting prospect. But then comes the qualifying word, ‘essentially’. This is supposed to make the pill easier to swallow. So we’re not talking about a person who is uptight and over-controlled — or controlling — but rather a man (or woman, although Aristotle doesn’t really consider women as a species) who has the practical wisdom or sophrosune (usually translated by our rather pallid word ‘temperance’) to reflect on his or her actions and emotional responses, interrogate them, seeking all the time to improve one’s performance as a rational agent.

Isn’t this what we should do? Well, again the thought comes that you wouldn’t really like such an individual, someone who ultimately sees himself or herself as pursuing the path of self-perfection as an actor on the stage of human life. There seems something fundamentally dishonest about such a person. Every action, every line of dialogue is honed and refined by rational reflection. To what purpose? You might well ask.

‘I love you.’ — Is that the best you can do? coming out with a cliched line like that?! Come on, use your imagination. Press the the Escape button and try that level of the game again. — And when our ‘rational man’ (or woman) has finally found the right line, it’s beautiful. Pure poetry. Except that, knowing the whole story, you don’t believe it. There can be something pure and honest about a cliche that you simply blurt out, overcome by the emotion of the moment.

However, I still think that this is a parody of Aristotle. It’s true that the Greek philosophers were into sophrosune in a big way. Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Symposium gives an almost comic (well, actually, it is comic) rendition of a man who sometimes has to struggle to keep himself in check when he sees a beautiful boy. Again, that’s a nice touch, isn’t it? Then the punch line: the emotion Socrates feels is channelled (or, as Freud would say, ‘sublimated’) in a more intellectual level towards ‘love of the Forms’, or ‘Platonic love’ as you and I know it. How insipid is that.

I think Aristotle saw something that Plato with his more rigid picture of a ‘divided soul’ missed. Aristotle posed the question what distinguishes human beings as a species from other animals, and his answer was: the capacity for reason. It must therefore, he reasoned, be this capacity which is central to what is ‘good’ for human beings, or what makes for a ‘good life’.

Reason isn’t just something you do in your study. It enters into every aspect of human life. Sport, for example (another thing the Greeks were into in a big way). I’ve never watched kangaroos ‘boxing’, but I object to the use of the same word as the word we use for that noble sport. Boxing is an art and a science. A man ‘boxing’ with a kangaroo is a disgusting spectacle and a parody.

The capacity for judgement is involved at every stage in boxing: in preparation, training for strength, suppleness and stamina, rehearsing punches and combinations as well as reflection on tactics and strategy; or making necessary adjustments to during a fight, which is always unpredictable; or afterwards, in post mortem analysis, whichever way the result went. Two mindless thugs laying into one another isn’t ‘boxing’. It is what it is. And, yes, it is necessary that when you box, you get hurt. Boxing without pain (calling up the courage and mental resources to ride the blows and strike back) would be fist fencing.

We don’t go through life monitoring ourselves. There is a higher game. In game theory, the most rational move isn’t always the best choice, because it’s easier for your opponent to predict than a more random move. In human relationships, you have to learn how to lose control, when that is the appropriate thing to do. Sometimes it is not. Rational reflection shows that we must get over, if we can, our tendency to over-intellectualize things, and learn to value the emotional responses of the moment, while at the same time not going so far overboard on the emotional thing that we end up doing something that we should not have done, causing another person unnecessary hurt. All of this is encompassed in Aristotle’s notion of ‘practical reason’.

‘At all times, remember what it is that makes you a human being,’ would be Aristotle’s recipe for living. That’s pretty difficult advice to challenge, in my view.

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