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Long: Aristotle on Emotion, Intellect, and Reason

Very good piece by Roderick Long on Aristotle’s view that Reason is constituted of emotion and intellect working together, as both morality and practicality require.

D. H. Lawrence once wrote:

“My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle. What do I care about knowledge? All I want is to answer to my blood, direct, without fribbling intervention of mind or moral, or what not.” (Quoted in Brand Blanshard, Reason and Analysis (La Salle: Open Court, 1962), p. 47.)

At the other extreme, the Roman philosopher Seneca argued that we should never make a decision on the basis of anger—or any other emotion, for that matter. In his treatise On Anger, Seneca maintained that if anger leads us to make the decision we would have made anyway on the basis of cool reason, then anger is superfluous; and if anger leads us to make a different decision from the one we would have made on the basis of cool reason, then anger is pernicious.

This disagreement between Lawrence and Seneca conceals an underlying agreement: both writers are assuming an opposition between reason and emotion. The idea of such a bifurcation is challenged by Aristotle. For Aristotle, emotions are part of reason; the rational part of the soul is further divided into the intellectual or commanding part, and the emotional or responsive part. Both parts are rational; and both parts are needed to give us a proper sensitivity to the moral nuances of the situations that confront us. Hence the wise person will be both intellectually rational and emotionally rational. Emotional people whose intellectual side is weak tend to be reluctant to accept reasonable constraints on their behavior; they are too aggressive and self-assertive for civilized society—too “Celtic,” Aristotle thinks. They answer directly to their blood, without fribbling intervention of mind or moral, and much hewing and smiting ensues. But intellectual people whose emotional side is weak are often too willing to accept unreasonable constraints on their behavior; they lack the thumos, the spirited self-assertiveness, to stand up for themselves, and so are likely to sacrifice nobility for expediency, ending up as the passive subjects of a dictatorship like the ancient Persian Empire. According to Aristotle, feeling less anger than the situation calls for is as much a failure of moral perception as feeling more. Only a full development of both the intellectual and the emotional aspects of our reason can yield an integrated personality fit for freedom and social cooperation. (Aristotle notoriously tries to turn all this into a justification for enslaving Celts and Persians; but let us graciously focus our attention on the Maestro’s smart moments, not his dumb ones.)

To see what Aristotle is getting at (in his smart moments), recall the scene in the movie Witness where some Amish farmers, among whom Harrison Ford’s character is hiding out, are being harassed and humiliated by local bullies. The bullies are well aware that the Amish, being pacifists, will not use violence even in self-defense; as one Amish farmer explains to Harrison Ford, “it is our way”—to which Ford responds, “well, it’s not my way,” steps out of the wagon, and gives the bullies a taste of their own medicine, to the immense satisfaction of the audience.

This scene appeals to our emotions; it inclines us toward a rejection of pacifism. Seneca would object that scenes like this are manipulative and dangerous, insofar as they work on our emotional responses rather than offering us a rational argument. But Aristotle might well disagree. No one, he insists, becomes wise or virtuous through rational arguments alone; people’s emotional and affective responses need to be trained and habituated as well. Scenes like the one in Witness may serve to educate our sentiments and hone our capacity for moral judgment, by making salient the ethically relevant features of the situation and prompting a salutary exercise of thumos.

If Aristotle is right, then Seneca is wrong; emotional responses can facilitate our moral perceptions rather than either displacing or merely echoing them. But that does not mean that Lawrence is right; Aristotle is not advising us to place blind trust in our gut reactions. Emotions can be mistaken, just as intellect can; as Aristotle puts it, emotions are often like overeager servants, rushing off to carry out our orders without first making sure they’ve grasped them properly.

–From Dr. Long’s article “Thinking Our Anger,” at


  1. Sam Duncan says:

    Aristotle was right. Another thing I may well have read in Wired, but it could easily have been one of Dr. Sacks’s cases: people whose brains are damaged so their emotional responses become impaired have difficulty making decisions. Any decisions, even very mundane things that most of us wouldn’t even consider to be “decisions”, per se: shall I eat a chip, or cut off a lump of fish, or cram both on to my fork?; or my knife?; is it cold enough to put a scarf on?

    We do what makes us happy, although that happiness may derive from the knowledge that our choice is logical and rational (or, alternatively, the belief that it’s noble and self-sacrificing).

  2. RAB says:

    We Celts say fuck Aristotle and the Squaw on the Hippopotamus he rode in on. ;-)

  3. RAB says:

    Oh bugger! that’s Pythagoras. Still it’s all Greek to us Celts.

  4. Julie near Chicago says:

    RAB, and you other keltoi, as Long remarked, there were times when “the Maestro” was dumb…. ;)

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