Emotions Throughout History

Emotions have been described and defined throughout history. Various passions were analyzed within certain dialogues of Plato and in Aristotle’s “Rhetoric,” as well as in Greek discussions of virtue and vice. All through the ages man has been trying to analyze and understand emotions.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) recommended “The Poets and Writers of Histories” as “the best doctors of this knowledge; where we find painted forth with great life, how affections are kindled and incited; how enwrapped one within the other; and how they fight and encounter one with another; and other like particularities.”

Meanings Change Over Time

The following words – “passion,” “affection,” or “affect” and “emotion” have been traditionally used to convey the same psychological meaning. Of these “affection” and “affect” have ceased to be current, although we do find them in Freud. In the modern era, the word “passion” simply means an intense emotion.

The psychological reality to which they all refer is one that every human being has experienced in moments of great excitement, especially during intense rage or fear. “The fact that in almost every affection, appetite, hope or fear, our body suffers… the blood appears to course hither and thither. In anger the eyes are fiery and the pupils contract; in modesty the cheeks are suffused with blushes; in fear, and under a sense of infamy and shame, the face is pale” as written by Harvey: “On the Circulation of the Blood.”

Some emotions are much more violent than others., This leads William James (1842-1910) to distinguish what he calls the “coarser emotions, a strong, organic reverberation” from the “subtler emotions” in which the “organic reverberation is less intense.”

The Chicken or the Egg

That the emotions are organic disturbances, upsetting the normal course of the body’s functioning, is sometimes thought to be a modern discovery, connected the the James Lange theory that the emotional experience is nothing but the “feeling of.. bodily changes” which “directly follow the perception of an exciting fact.” This explanation of emotion seems to be the exact opposite of “common sense,” which says, “we meet a being, are frightened, and run.” According to James, “this order or sequence is incorrect,” and the more rational statement is that we feel… frightened because we tremble. In other words, we don’t run away because we’re afraid, but we’re afraid because we run away.

This fact about emotions was known throughout antiquity and the middle ages. Aristotle, for example, held that the mere awareness of an object does not induce flight unless “the heart is moved.” Aquinas also described at some length the bodily changes which take place during anger and fear.

Instinct Dictates Bodily Functions

Much is written about the bodily changes that occur with such emotions as anger and fear, that serve the purpose of increasing efficiency during combat or flight (fight or flight), For example, the increased sugar content in the blood, and a greater supply of blood to the arms and legs. The basic emotions are thought to be connected with instinctive patterns of behavior by which we and animals struggle to survive.

The actions we call “instinctive,” James writes, “are expressions or manifestations of the emotions” or, as other writers have suggested, an emotion, whether in outward expression or inner experience, is the main expression of an instinct in operation.

The ancients also recognized the relationship between instinct and emotion, although in different terms, as in Aristotle’s analysis of the various “interior senses.”

Like desire, emotion is neither knowledge nor action, but something in between. The various passions are usually aroused by objects perceved, imagined, or remembered. Once aroused they in turn originate impulses to act in certain ways. For example, fear arises with perception of threatened danger. The thing feared is somehow recognized as capable of inflicting injury and pain. The thing feared is also something from which one naturally tends to flee in order to avoid harm. Once the danger is known and until it is avoided by flight, the feeling of fear pervades the whole experience.

The emotion itself seems to be the actual feeling, not the memory or the act itself. But emotion is not simply an awareness of a certain bodily condition. It also involves the felt impulse to do something about the object of passion.

What Freud Brings to the Discussion

The ancient distinction between knowledge and opinion seems to be in agreement with the insight that emotions can control the course of thinking. But at the same time it denies that all thinking is necessarily dominated by the passions. The sort of thinking which is free from emotional bias may result in knowledge, but the sort of thinking which is directed and determined by the passions must result in opinion. The former is reasoning; the latter what Freud calls “rationalization” or sometimes “wishful thinking.”

Beause they can be ordered when they get out of order, the emotions raise problems for both medicine and morality. Medically, emotional disorders call for diagnosis and therapy. Morally, they call for criticism and correction.

This report is not a diagnosis. We hope this information can guide you toward improving your life.

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