Let’s begin with some big ideas. History is full of ideas about emotions—what they are, where they came from, how they ought to be expressed and controlled. These ideas helped form the religions and philosophies that are still with us today. In many cases, ideas about feelings had an impact that shaped history. But before we get to the chapters about ancient India, the New Testament era, and the ideas of saints and prophets, I’m going to start at the beginning—or at least the beginning we know about, which gave rise to some of the first ideas about emotions on record. It means that, as often is the case, we need to travel back to ancient Greece.
Plato and Socrates
Roughly 399 years before Jesus was born, a twentysomething man lay ill in bed.
His stocky physique was well known in Athens; it had helped him become a wrestler of quite some fame. He may even have competed at an Olympics. Most of us know him by his nickname, Broad—or, to use the ancient Greek version, Plato.
Plato was not just physically daunting; he was also an intellectual giant. Later in life, he founded a school so important that its name—the Academy—is still used to this day to describe seats of learning. In his Academy, Plato wrote works of philosophy. But he didn’t write long prose. He wrote a series of debates that came to be known as dialogues. In all but one of these, the main speaker was his old tutor, Socrates, whom he loved dearly.
It’s hard to overestimate how important these dialogues were. More than two millennia later, the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead described all the philosophy that came after them as “a series of footnotes to Plato.”
But without the events of that deeply emotional day when Plato lay sick in bed in 399 BCE
, and those that led up to them, he might have just been another of the hundreds of great thinkers who have been lost to time. Because on the same day that Plato was nursing his illness, Plato’s teacher, Socrates, was being executed. Plato’s feelings about that were, well, complicated.
The Greeks called emotions pathē, meaning “experience” or “suffering.” Whether it was one or the other depended on which pathē you were experiencing (or suffering). Plato believed that pathē were disturbances in our souls, ripples caused by external events or sensations that knock you off balance and disturb your calm. But to Plato, souls were more than just the bit of us that isn’t flesh.
Souls were important to Plato because they were the human part of an idea that was central to his philosophy. He didn’t think that the world we see around us is all there is. He thought that everything, from humans to trees to chairs, was just an imperfect version of what he called the wise cosmos (kósmos noetós), better known as forms. He believed we are all born with an inherent knowledge of these perfect forms. That’s why we can recognize that two different objects—say, a tavern stool and a throne—are both fundamentally chairs. Both map onto a remembered form of a perfect chair. Plato likened our experience of reality to the experience of people who live in a cave seeing shadows cast on a wall by events outside. What we think is real is just a shadow. In Plato’s view, our souls are the reality—our perfect form dancing in the sunlight at the cave entrance. Our bodies are just the shadows they cast. When we feel pathē, it’s the result of something perturbing our souls, causing sensations in our bodies and making the shadows twist unexpectedly. What confused Plato was how on earth people could feel two different emotions at once. How could someone feel both terrified and brave at the same time, desiring to fight while wanting to flee, for example, like soldiers in a battle? The answer he arrived at was that we have more than one part to our souls.
He reasoned that because animals have souls but can’t think in complex ways, there must be one type of soul for animals and another type for humans and gods. The god soul was pure reason and couldn’t be perturbed by pathē
directly. He called this soul the lógos
Lógos is a hard word to translate. It means “thought” or “word,” or perhaps the ability to form words into thoughts. Most important, it has a divine element. A useful illustration of this concept appears in John 1:1, in the New Testament. Originally written in Greek, it says (in the King James Version), “In the beginning was the Word [lógos], and the Word [lógos] was with God, and the Word [lógos] was God.” If you’ve ever wondered how God could be described as a word, you may (understandably) be taking this passage a bit too literally. God, here, is really being described as a thought, a soul of pure reason, an ability to know things. That was Plato’s lógos—a type of soul that can reason, know, understand.
Plato called the soul that animals have the epithumêtikon,
a word that means “desiring” or “appetitive.”
When this soul is perturbed by pathē,
it creates the basic drives that get you through day-to-day life—pleasure, pain, the desire for food and sex, the wish to avoid harmful things, and so on. Because humans are part animal, but obviously capable of more complex reasoning, knowledge, and understanding,
Plato thought we must have both the rational lógos
and the irrational epithumêtikon
But there must be another part of our souls, too, thought Plato. Humans can feel what is good and bad and act accordingly without having to think about it. Pure logic doesn’t do that, nor do our animal appetites, so there must be a third part of the soul. He called this third part of the soul thumoeides,
—the “spirited soul.” Thymos
translates as “anger,” and it’s in this part of the soul where you find the feelings that get stuff done. Like the epithumêtikon,
can be disturbed directly by pathē
. When the thymos
is perturbed, it creates anger, obviously. But that sort of perturbation can also cause the pathē
of “hope,” which gets you to do things because you think they might be possible, even if they’re difficult. It can create the suffering of “fear,” which helps you escape from dangerous situations you were unable to avoid. Or it can induce the experience or suffering of “courage,” which gets you to do things even when you’re frightened. But—and Plato thought this was very important—the goals the spirited soul aims toward are not necessarily for the greater good. These pathē,
like the animal soul, make you want to automatically seek pleasure or avoid pain without any thought. This reason-free drive toward pleasure is called boulesis
is not virtuous, because sometimes doing the right thing is painful and doing evil things can give you pleasure.
To be truly virtuous, you need to strive for a type of good that comes from the lógos—eros. Eros isn’t about personal pleasure but the greater good. To act virtuously, you can’t just let your pathē guide you. You have to learn to think about what’s really best—to evaluate, to judge. You have to stop and think, “Is this really the right thing to do?” You can’t just do it because it gives you nice feelings. The right thing to do might even make you feel bad, taking you away from boulesis. But it’s still the right thing to do. That is eros. The distinction between boulesis and eros is a vital component of the emotional regime Plato constructed for his readers and followers. It even applied when someone they loved was about to be executed. Plato used the story of Socrates’s death as an example of the power of eros in the face of boulesis. But to get to that story we need to understand why Socrates was put to death in the first place.
The Trial of Socrates
Socrates was convicted of impiety and corruption of the young, and although that’s not really why many Athenians wanted him dead, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t guilty. He was certainly guilty of corrupting the young. Socrates’s tactic, which has come to be known as the Socratic method, involved asking young men questions about their beliefs. Sometimes his questioning challenged the authorities, widely held notions of justice, and even the gods themselves. As Socrates’s interlocutors answered, he would ask them more questions, encouraging them to further challenge themselves and refine their ideas. Eventually, the Socratic method would often result in these men convincing themselves that Socrates was right about everything, including his impious ideas.
At the time, Athens had just begun to recover from a century of war and oppression. After a long war with the Persians followed by a bitter civil war with Sparta—during which Socrates became a respected and decorated soldier—the Spartans suspended Athens’s famous democracy and installed the Thirty Tyrants in its place. But the Athenians, frustrated by their newly imposed government, soon rebelled. It took them less than a year to boot the Thirty Tyrants out and arrest the people suspected of helping them.
Socrates was one of those arrested. His biggest offense wasn’t the impiety or the corruption of the young: it was the matter of whom, exactly, he had been corrupting—many of them were powerful, influential, and deeply hated people. They included Alcibiades, a prominent military general who continually flip-flopped between the Athenian
and Spartan armies, depending on which best advantaged him. Socrates’s audience also included members of the Thirty Tyrants and the families who supported them. One such person was Critias, one of the most powerful of the Thirty.
Another was the son of Critias’s niece Perictione: a young wrestler called Plato.
That Socrates’s arrest was politically motivated there is no doubt, but he was also guilty of the charges brought against him. Upon being found guilty, Socrates asked that instead of a death sentence the authorities provide him with free meals for the rest of his life in return for his services to the city. That went down about as well as you might imagine, and he was sentenced to death by poison.
The Death of Socrates
The death sentence was carried out when Socrates voluntarily drank a vial of hemlock. According to Plato’s account—which he claims to have gotten from another of Socrates’s students, Phaedo, who was actually there—when the people who were with Socrates saw him drink the poison, they started crying. Socrates got annoyed, asking, “What is this … you strange fellows. It is mainly for this reason that I sent the women away, to avoid such unseemliness, for I am told one should die in good omened silence. So keep quiet and control yourselves.”
Their sorrow was born of grief and a need to find a way to change a painful situation. But Plato believed that, as men—and it was exclusively men—they should control themselves. He thought it was fine for women to weep, beat their chests, and tear their tunics. But not men. Their crying was selfish. It was about their selfish aversion to emotional pain and what they wished
was good, not what was
After this scolding, the men in the room immediately stopped crying. To resist tears at the death of their friend must have meant investing vast amounts of emotional labor. Still, they felt ashamed of their behavior and realized that they cried not for Socrates—Socrates, it
seemed, was content—but rather for their “misfortune in being deprived of such a comrade.”
In other words, their crying wasn’t virtuous
. It was selfish and therefore ran against the emotional regime that Socrates and Plato prescribed.
There’s another part of Plato’s account of Socrates’s death that perfectly demonstrates his belief about keeping pathē
in check for the greater good.
According to Plato, Socrates was offered the chance to escape.
Running away would have felt like the right thing to do. His spirited soul would have been all for it—not dying is undoubtedly good on a personal level. However, he had been tried and found guilty, and that was that. Cheating the law would be wrong, unvirtuous. Plato’s Socrates believed that to give in to his feelings would be to turn away from justice, an act that would take him away from eros
and toward boulesis
. That would not do in Plato’s emotional regime.
According to Plato, Socrates’s final words were, “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; make this offering to him and do not forget.”
There’s been a great deal of debate over what this means. Asclepius was the god of healing; surely Socrates didn’t think he would be healed of a dose of fatal poison. Some think Socrates was babbling incoherently as the poison took hold.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought he was saying that “life is an illness,” and he was glad to be cured of it.
Some think that Socrates was thinking of his young friend Plato, who, let’s remember, was supposedly laid up sick in bed.
We will probably never know for sure. But I think that perhaps Socrates was thanking Asclepius for healing the city he loved so much. Maybe he knew his execution would act as an emotional release, a cathar...