Transcript: 335. Sabrina Ebbersmeyer on Emotions in Renaissance Philosophy

An interview with Sabrina Ebbersmeyer about the relation of emotion to reason and the body, and panpsychism, in the Renaissance.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: Let's start where the humanists, I guess, would want us to start, which is with Latin and in particular the Latin terminology that's at stake here. We're going to be talking about the emotions, at least that's what I just said, but the word "emotion" isn't the Latin word. The Latin word is passiones, which sounds like it means passions. So is it really right to say that we're talking about a theory of the emotions here when they talk about passiones?

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer: Well I think that's a good question, although a tricky one of course. The word emotion itself was not really in use during the Renaissance, so that came up later during the 17th century out of the French context, and it was referring to a very specific sort of passion, so to say. Concerning the broad range of the terms - so what is covered by the term passiones and what is covered by the term emotions, I think they don't really fit completely, although basically people were referring to the same mental things, right? So we use today the term emotion to refer to mental states, like being in love, hating someone or being sad, and these were also these kind of states that were investigated during the Renaissance under the term of passions. On the other hand, the modern term emotion is stricter and narrower, so usually we exclude for instance states that we call today maybe moods or feelings. They would not be qualified today as emotions proper, right? But during the Renaissance moods like being melancholic, they were part of this whole debate. But then there's an additional thing concerning concepts, and that is it's true of course that passio and passiones was one of the main ways to translate "pathos," but there were many other Latin terms that were used depending a bit on the philosophical theory that authors refer to. For instance, in the story context, for instance in Cicero, the term pathos is translated with perturbatio, which means has a different association, right? It's something that bothers us, that is troubling for the mind, has a negative connotation, and then there is also the more neutral translation of something like affectus and affectionis, which we found in texts on natural philosophy, where it's more about how we are affected by things that we encounter. So there's a good...

Peter Adamson: Yeah, I guess that the Latin term affectus really captures the Greek pathos quite well, because pathos sounds like it means being affected by something, right? Whereas passiones, well maybe passiones does that too, right? So you're being affected, I mean that's what passiones or passio really means, like maybe it's preserved in an English word like impassable, which means that you can't be affected by anything, not that that's a very common word.

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer: Yeah, I agree. Still also in the development of the terms, I think we associate with the term passio more mental states of suffering, right? That is not usually associated with affectus, but with passio it's the passion of Christ. For instance, the suffering is much more closer.

Peter Adamson: Okay, so let's move on to the next thing that the humanists at least would want us to think about, which is the ancient sources of this. Of course, there's also a medieval discussion of emotions, and we even had an interview about that with Martin Pickave, but I suppose that the Renaissance theories of emotions are actually responding most directly to the ancient ideas about pathos and affectus and so on. So in Cicero, as you mentioned, and other authors, what are the main ideas that they get from antiquity about the emotions?

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer: Well, if we think about the humanists, and especially the early Italian humanists, then I would say that the relation between the passions and rhetoric are the most important background, right? Because we know already from Aristotle, who dealt with the passions in his Rhetoric, that in order to convince people of your opinion or to come to a conclusion concerning a philosophical political deliberation, you have also to engage the emotional side of the people you are talking to. So in the rhetorical tradition, emotions were considered as important, and they were taken seriously, and this of course applies also, and most importantly, to Cicero and his works on rhetoric. And this tradition was taken up by the humanists, and it stands a bit in contrast to, I would say, the majority of the history of philosophy as such, and you are the expert for the entire history. But I would say in most periods, philosophers tend to be rather sceptical about rhetoric, right? Rhetoric is something we don't do as philosophers because we care for the truth, not for unjustified persuasion. And this applies also to the emotions. So many philosophers regarded the emotions with suspicion, saying, 'well, these are parts of our nature that we share maybe with animals,' that is not something that we should care about, which is more rational thought. And so the humanists didn't emphasize these parts, right? They emphasized that we are human beings with a body and that we have emotions and that they have to be addressed. So that's very characteristic in Petrarch, for example, and his thought about the emotions. That's probably the most important thing, I think.

Peter Adamson: So does that mean that the Renaissance thinkers, or at least the humanists, are against this idea that you would often find in the history of philosophy where the goal should be to suppress the emotions and just put reason in charge of rationality as opposed to being carried away by anger or love or whatever?

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer: I think to a certain extent one can say that they admitted that passions belong to our nature, right? So it's not a question to accept them or not accept them because they are there. So the question is rather, what do we do with them? We have to deal with them. And so they would say, you have to accept it and you have to use them for the right purpose. Of course, they still had this ideal that we should live a virtuous life and a virtuous life would not mean necessarily to follow all your whims and your pleasures or your desires that come up, but to lead a virtuous life. But a substantial part of this virtual life is characterized by having the right emotion from the right situation.

Peter Adamson: So that would actually be a little bit more like Aristotle than Plato, perhaps, because Aristotle does seem to give you the idea that part of what it is to be virtuous is to feel the right kind of emotion on the right occasion, to the right extent. And they would agree with that?

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer: I think they would, actually. We can see this very explicitly in Leonardo Bruni, who was an important humanist who took up Aristotle precisely. And at that point, as I well see, Aristotle also says that you have to have emotions actually to be humans. And it would be completely irrational and even inhuman not to have emotions in the right place, right? So if family members are hurt or people you care for or other values are violated, you think are important for society, then you have to respond also emotionally. Otherwise, you can't even be a proper member of society. So that's the thing they took up. And it's true, of course, that you refer this back to Aristotle. And that's also what Leonardo Bruni says. But the humanists also kind of place their reading of Aristotle in opposition to the Aristotle of what they call the scholastics, right? They go back to the proper Aristotle, who also cared about the emotions which the scholastics, they would say, neglected.

Peter Adamson: And one other thing about this, just in relation to what you mentioned about rhetoric, is the idea there that we just need to make a study of the emotions so that we're better at manipulating people when we persuade them, or is the idea that rhetoric used properly would actually induce the right kind of emotions in the listener so that they have a more sort of ethical approach to rhetoric? And the idea would be just as in myself, I'm trying to have the right emotions in the right situation, et cetera. So as a rhetorician, I should be trying to induce that kind of emotion in other people?

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer: Yeah, I think we would not really find a humanist saying, well, it's just about us manipulating people to follow what we think is the best thing. That's why I think that they really shared ideals. So they shared ideals about virtuous life and what they called humanitas. So what is it to be a human being, right? What should we live up to? And this idea of what a human being could live up to that relates, of course, to virtuous behavior being just, being prudent. And these things should be then supported by emotional responses.

Peter Adamson: Okay, so one reason that we do have emotions, I take it, is that we have bodies, right? So emotions seem to be very strongly anchored in the body. If you think about something like losing your temper, it's a psychological event, but it's also a physical event. And that's very obvious. Do the Renaissance theories of emotions tend to emphasize that? Do they tend to, for example, locate emotions in the body as opposed to in the immaterial soul, if we have one?

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer: If we have a look at later stages of the Renaissance, I think the latter part applies, namely that the Renaissance authors were very much interested in the physiological aspects of emotions. And that's not so much within the humanistic tradition where these came up, but that's more related to the medical traditions that were also taken up during the Renaissance and the interest in investigating the soul of the human being more based on actual observations about how humans behave rather than coming up with normative concepts about what the human soul is supposed to be. So with these medical approaches, we see a very strong emphasis on the physiological aspects. And one early example is, of course, already in Marsilio Ficino in his work, De Vita Libertis, where he is a physician writing about a work-related disease for intellectuals, so to say, melancholy, that we all suffer every now and then as intellectuals - and there's a whole theory behind why this is so. But the basic idea is that we don't care enough for our bodily constitution during study. And then we have to recompensate things that we lack, so to say. So we have to drink white wine, for instance, or eat honey, all things that keep up our spirits, an important concept in this concept.

Peter Adamson: Okay, so that's good advice for all of the academics out there who are listening. You can drink white wine to avoid melancholy. And I guess this is also true of then other authors who are even more prominently associated with medicine like Cardano or Campanella, people like that. Who else would we be thinking about here?

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer: Yeah, most prominently also in Telesio and in Fracastoro. And in Telesio, we find an entire theory about the passions and how they are related to our bodily constitution and how the affections of the surrounding world have an impact about the way we feel.

Peter Adamson: Do they go so far as to say that really the emotions don't have that much to do with your soul and they're really bodily events? Maybe one way of thinking about this would be: how should we compare an emotional reaction in a non-human animal to an emotional reaction in a human? So like if a lion gets angry and I get angry, is that exactly the same kind of thing? Or is it different in me because I have reason and I have an immaterial soul?

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer: Yeah, very tricky question. Very interesting. I think one very elaborate and differentiated answer was provided again by Telesio, this Renaissance natural philosopher, one of the so-called novatores, Descartes talks about. And Telesio is of the opinion that we share a lot of our bodily constitutions with animals, right? They have the same blood circulations or some of them, right? We talk about developed animals and a nervous system and a heart and a brain and everything. So he says, 'well, given all these similarities between human beings and animals, it would be odd to suppose that their way of perceiving, for instance, would be different.' So if they see something and they have the same kind of eye that we have, then we can also think that their way of perceiving would be similar to ours. And the same applies to the emotions. So fear is more or less the same when I feel it and an animal feels it, in Telesio's perspective, because as I said, we share the same bodily constitutions that are required for these kinds of emotions. But then he is of the opinion that there are some emotions that are very specific for humans and they are different. So even though emotions share what he thinks is kind of a soul, he also attributes to animals a kind of memory. And memory is, for instance, important for feeling fear. If you have experienced something harmful, then you see it again and you experience or you respond with fear. That is similar. So animals have the same kind of memory in the sense we have. But what animals lack, according to Telesio, is a vision of the future. So that's typical for us to think about future events that might occur. And he thinks, 'well, animals are not really able to do this.' And that's why they don't form certain emotions that we form.

Peter Adamson: So that would be something like hope, maybe? Would that be an emotion that's directed towards the future? Or maybe a fear that's about, you know, like I might not get a raise from my boss, or maybe a loved one will die. So animals don't fear that their loved ones will die. Something else that you've written about that I think relates to this is the idea of what's called panpsychism. So this is going to sound a little bit weird, but maybe you can convince us that it's not that weird. So basically, the view here is that it's not only human bodies and animal bodies that are alive, but actually, in some sense, there's a vital principle that runs throughout the entire cosmos. And this is an idea that listeners might remember goes all the way back to Plato and also the Stoics. So in Plato's Timaeus, there's a world soul that animates the entire cosmos. And we find this in some Renaissance thinkers as well. And you've argued that this has something to do with the emotions. So can you kind of explain the panpsychist context of this and what it has to do with this theory of the emotions?

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer: Yeah. So the term itself, panpsychism, refers to the idea that soul is everywhere in nature, right? So that's a generic term. And I used it also and applied it here to positions that don't have to be labeled in the sense panpsychistic because they did not attribute soul to every tiny natural thing. But for instance, as in Telesio, sensation, right? So he would not go so far as to say there is a soul everywhere, but he would say there is sensation everywhere in the soul.

Peter Adamson: Even in stones, or?

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer: Yeah, in everything in nature, right? And that is because of his first principles of nature. So he thinks there are three principles in nature, two active principles, heat and cold, and the passive principles - matter and they interact and generate everything. And in order so that things are generated and not destructed immediately, everything in nature, which is constituted out of these constituents, has a sense to perceive what is harmful or what is beneficial for itself. So in a very basic rudimental way, it's actually everywhere in nature and all natural things. So in this way, we as human beings do not really stand out as that completely different and eccentric part of the cosmos that is different from all the rest, but rather as an integral part as something that belongs to a complex structure. So of course, this sensational quality is not everywhere the same. Our sensation is much more elaborated than the sensation of a plant or of a stone for that matter. But still, it's the same kind of having a certain sensibility to react to what is harmful or what is beneficial for ourselves. So in that way, the human being becomes an integral part. And it is precisely in this approach to nature that the passions gain a completely different outlook. So the passions are not something that is a threat to rational thought, for instance, or stands in opposition to thinking rational about the world. But it's rather something that helps us to deal in a rational way with the world. It's the way we respond to things that affect us. And the big principle behind this, I mentioned it already, is self-preservation. So according to Telesio, every being in the created world strives for self-preservation and the emotions help us there a great deal.

Peter Adamson: But it seems pretty obvious that also there are emotions that are counterproductive. So actually, we've so far been giving a pretty positive picture of the emotions in Renaissance philosophy. It's surprisingly positive, right? So they help integrate you in the world. They can be felt appropriately, so they don't all have to be crushed by reason and so on. But obviously, sometimes you do get carried away with your emotions. You lose your temper or you conceive a passion for another person, which is maybe not such a good idea. So do they have advice for people who are having emotional reactions that are inappropriate?

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer: I can't really now think about any moral advice. So that would go to some moral - the question would be going, I understood it in that way. But in Telesio, for instance, he takes a naturalistic approach to the passions, right? They are a natural phenomenon. So we look at it in that way. And of course, then if we look at it in that way and ask to what extent a certain passion is beneficial or harmful for the self-preservation of the species, not of the species of the individual, then of course, there can be passions that are harmful. That's true, of course. What should we do then? Then we should think again. So that's what Telesio is suggesting. So what is it? So we perceive things, we think about the things we perceive, then we feel the impact of this thought or these sensations, and then we act accordingly. And so in the ideal world, this process would always lead to the self-preservation of the individual. But of course, it can happen that we haven't thought it through, for instance, right? And that we choose to follow rather the inclinations of a fulfillment of a desire, which is at hand rather than to go for the long-term aim. That's the classic. But then he thinks, 'well, that still we as human beings have this ability to think about the future and we should do this.' So we should use all our capacities.

Peter Adamson: That actually sounds very Stoic to me, because the Stoics have this idea that there are impressions that strike you from the outside. And if you're a non-human animal, then you'll just instinctively react to the impression and follow the impression. So for example, animals will just eat food whenever they're hungry, right? Whereas if you're a human, since reason is in play, you have to assent to the impression. For example, you might be hungry, food might be put in front of you, but you might not eat it because it's not polite yet to eat it. You have to wait till everyone gets their meal before you can start, something like that. So is he influenced by the Stoics in formulating that theory, or is it just a kind of coincidence that the two things look rather similar?

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer: No, definitely. So there's a huge part of Stoicism in Telesio's thought. There's also some literature about this that goes into details. And that's not so weird if we think about that. He was also influenced by medical authors and the entire medical tradition, where Stoic thought was already very much present, right? So he just kind of used it in order to, yeah, that's also what he's doing all the time to counter Aristotelian natural philosophy.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, it seems to me that this question of what kind of therapy to take towards the emotions really is a good example of why it matters, whether the emotions are more on the body side or more on the soul side. Because like that thing you mentioned before about drinking white wine to avoid melancholy, that's not advice for having a better way of thinking. So what Telesio says, think about the future, don't think about your present needs. That's very different from saying 'drink white wine.' So it seems like there's these sort of two levels on which we can engage with our own emotions. One level where we just try to modify our bodies to change the reactions that are taking place there. And another level where we try to deal with it at the level of soul, or a belief.

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer: Yeah, that's true and fair to say. And I would say that during the Renaissance, philosophers tend to emphasize the noncognitive therapeutic advice. In opposition, for instance, to the 17th century, if we look at Descartes or Spinoza, then we find a lot of theoretical advice that is based on changing the way we think, right? So you have to change your judgments about things and then you will also change the emotion and also your body will in the end maybe change and you won't feel any longer strong emotions in a certain way. Of course, these cognitive aspects are also present during the Renaissance, but I would say the emphasis is put on the noncognitive therapies, which are more medical, right? Change of diet. They have to eat other things if you don't want to be sad or unhappy or unhappy in love or whatever. You have to change place or you do physical exercise. Often sometimes the reverse, or others recommend sexual intercourse, or you have to deal with your own body in order to change the emotions and then also in order to change your beliefs concerning these emotions.

Peter Adamson: And then it becomes more intellectualist and top down in the 17th century in the Enlightenment. That's really interesting. One last question, and this is kind of anticipating a topic that I'll be looking at in greater depth later in this series, but I thought we couldn't talk about the emotions without talking about love because the Renaissance thinkers and especially, I guess, the Platonists like Ficino are famous for being really interested in this because there's Platonic dialogues about love and so on. So can you just as a kind of preview for us sketch out a little bit about what they say about love in the Italian Renaissance?

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer: Yeah, first thing is I think it's very, very interesting to see that it's during this period, so 15th and 16th century, especially in Italy, there was a great enthusiasm for love, right? And this is not just for love in the theoretical realm or love in the realm of poetry as we had it also before, but in the philosophical realm. And that is of course caused by the reception of Plato's theory of love. And I think what is so important and fascinating about Plato's theory of love that was, you know, to a large extent not known during the Middle Ages, is that it kind of combines the sexual and physical attraction to another human being, to our metaphysical and intellectual aspirations to know the truth, right? So there seem to be two ends of a huge spectrum of our intellectual engagement. And Plato kind of managed to bring these together. And this idea was so attractive for Renaissance philosophers and we find it very elaborately expanded in Ficino, for instance, but also in Leone Ebreo, a Jewish thinker of the Renaissance, and most prominently also in Giordano Bruno.

Peter Adamson: Right. So maybe that's even an example of what you were just talking about a second ago, because love, as you say, sort of runs the spectrum from bodily reactions all the way up to something like wisdom, right? So you could have love for God, for example. And so I can see why they'd be attracted to the topic if they have this really, sort of, physically embodied understanding of emotions. What would be a better example of that than love?

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer: That's true. And I think it's also interesting to say that that brings us back to the beginning when we talked about the concept of emotion. So if we look about how the emotion of love is treated today in contemporary research on emotions, then it's more or less the personal love between two people and their respective beliefs they share. But in the Renaissance, the concept of love was much broader, right? So it's not just about the interpersonal relationship. It's about an emotion we feel to the entire world, and that binds us together with the entire world. It's understood as the so-called cupola mundi, the bond that brings together all things in the cosmos. So love is much more than just an interpersonal thing, although it's also an interpersonal thing. But it has this metaphysical dimension. And in this way, the entire debate of the emotions in the Renaissance was broader than what we treat today when we talk about emotions. 


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