The Platonic Model Of Emotion

The Platonic philosophy was essentially dualist with an ethereal soul and an earthly body. There are a number of problems with this approach that we consider in detail below in our discussion of the flagship of dualist philosophy—the work of René Descartes.

The first choice facing the dualist philosopher is whether to place emotions in the soul or in the body. Plato chooses the option of the soul. He envisaged the soul as consisting of three parts—reason, desire, and appetite—and at various times linked emotions with all three (although principally with appetite and desire). However, perhaps more important than the exact role of emotions in the arena of the soul, was the Platonic view of them as uncontrollable forces continually in opposition to the powers of reason. For example:

What if a man believes himself wronged? I asked. Is the spirit within him not boiling and angry, fighting for what he believes to be just? Will he not endure hunger and cold and such things and carry on till he wins out? (The Republic: 440)

The driving force behind such boiling and angry spirits was something to be despised and fought against in the Platonic world view and his discussion of such conflict has a distinct contemporary ring:

But when there are two opposite attractions in a man at the same time in reference to the same thing, he must, according to our doctrine, be a double man. (The Republic: 604)

The best way forward, Plato argued, is to:

... keep as quiet as possible in misfortunes, and check all feelings of discontent; because we cannot estimate the amount of good and evil contained in these visitations. (The Republic: 604)

We can see here the seeds of some influential modern ideas: first, that emotions are to be contrasted with that which is rational and reasoned, as de Sousa (e.g., 1987, 2004) argues in a modern version of this proposal:

It has become fashionable to claim that there is not really any opposition between reason and emotion, but that may be nothing but a comforting myth. On the contrary: there is a deadly opposition between emotion and reason. (de Sousa, 2004, p. 68)

Second, that emotions play a central role in psychological conflict and so there must be processes to defend against the power of the emotions (e.g., Freud, 1917). It was these views that emotions should be the slaves of reason, and that reason had its home in a divine soul, that made Plato so popular with the Christian and Islamic scholars who were to dominate Western thought throughout the mediaeval period. As Lyons (1992)

has argued, "A Platonic form was a separated immaterial substance, which being much more like the soul in Christian theology, that it helped make theoretical sense of the Christian eschatology of death, judgement, hell or heaven. A soul was immortal and so perfectly suited to life after death" (p. 297). It was this popularity in part that led to the dominance of the dualist, or what came to be known as the "feeling", theory of emotion up until the late nineteenth century. There are many more things that could be said about Plato's views on emotions. However, we reserve our comments until our discussion of the more fully formulated versions of the dualist approach to which we turn next.

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