Aristotle on Emotion
A Manual For Politicians and Influential Speakers
Intro to this Excerpt of Aristotle’s Rhetoric:
The Overall Idea
Emotion follows clear patterns. Emotions are triggered by certain patterns of events. What makes one person angry will not make another person angry; but the things that make one person angry make him angry because he sees them in the same way that another person sees the things that make him angry.
As a writer, you want to have at least a basic idea of the triggers for different emotions, for two reasons. First, you want your characters to be emotionally full, interesting people. That means you need to be able to convincingly show them switching emotions as their circumstances change.
Second, of course, you want to be able to arouse your readers’ emotions.
The classic text on triggering emotions is Aristotle’s Rhetoric, which is a handbook for citizens, statesmen, and politicians — which were all the same thing — of the world’s first democracy.
I’m only presenting the bit that deals with emotions, which is the in the second part (called a “book”), and it isn’t all of the second part. So this isn’t all of the Rhetoric.
The book also talks about arguing out raising and spending money, choosing to go to war, defending or accusing someone in a trial — which, as an Athenian citizen in Aristotle’s day, you might be called on to do — how to put the screws to someone by demanding that they swear an oath; how to get out of being asked to swear an oath yourself — and all that good stuff.
It’s really a fun book. Better than The Prince, in my opinion.
Aristotle talks about triggering emotions because, as a politician, it’s your job to turn people’s emotions on or off as needed. Sometimes you’ll need to make people angry, because they won’t do what you want if they’re not angry. Sometimes you’ll need to make them calm. So he goes through and systematically talks about the emotions you’ll need, and gives you little recipes for triggering or untriggering them.
Aristotle is talking to politicians, so there are emotions he doesn’t talk about. And, he’s talking about manipulating honorable men’s emotions. It doesn’t always apply directly to women, or to men who are raised under different cultural expectations.
There’s another book, if you’re interested in this kind of thing, called The Secret Language of Feelings, by Cal Banyan. It’s written for hypnotherapists, but it’s non-technical. In fact, I feel it’s too non-technical, and I personally like Aristotle’s treatment better. But Banyan’s is absolutely worth a look.
IMPORTANT NOTE ON ARISTOTLE: Aristotle was a great and important thinker who tried to systematically work through and put down what was known to be true in every area of knowledge. His facts are often spotty, the science that was available to him was deeply flawed, and the metaphysics he used — the logic that he thought the Universe operates by — is long discarded.
So think of Aristotle as the Wikipedia of the ancient world: in equal measures comprehensive and unreliable, generally pretty fascinating, in need of some editing, and a good way to waste time.
With all his faults, it’s often impressive just how right he got things. And I’d put an ancient Greek politician against one of ours any day.
Here’s Aristotle on Emotion: