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  • The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature
  • Elizabeth Belfiore
David Konstan . The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature. The Robson Classical Lectures. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. Pp. xvi, 422. $85.00. ISBN 978-0-802-09103-1.

Konstan argues convincingly that human emotions are not universal con-stants, as many modern scientists believe, but culturally conditioned responses, and that they contain important cognitive elements (ch. 1). Greek emotions, then, do not necessarily correspond to modern concepts, but must be understood within the context of a highly competitive society, within which social status and the opinions of others were all-important. Many of them work "to maintain an equilibrium of goods or honour in a society where everyone is trying to get ahead" (259). Konstan bases his study on Aristotle's close analysis of the emotions in book 2 of the Rhetoric, a guide to the art of persuasion in the agonistic proceedings of the law courts. According to Aristotle's highly cognitive view, the emotions are those things "on account of which people change and differ in regard to their judgments." They are not "static expressions resulting from impersonal stimuli," but "elements in complex sets of interpersonal exchanges, in which individuals are conscious of the motives of others and ready to respond in kind" (27–28). In spite of his apparently narrow focus on one work, Konstan shows, by means of numerous examples from Greek literature, that Aristotle in many respects accurately represents the views of his contemporaries.

Konstan's interpretation of Greek emotions as dependent on judgments made within a competitive social context helps to explain many of the puzzling features of Aristotle's own account and of the representation of emotions in Greek literature. For example, in chapter 2, Konstan focuses on some oddities in Aristotle's definition of anger that are frequently overlooked. Aristotle holds "that anger entails, or is reducible to, a desire for revenge; that this desire is provoked by a slight—and only a slight; and that some people, but only some, are not fit to slight another." All of this means, Konstan argues, that anger is not merely "an instinctive response to a hostile gesture," but "involves an appraisal of social roles" (43). Konstan uses Aristotle's account [End Page 106] of anger to arrive at insightful interpretations of anger in Greek literature. He claims, for example, that Achilles' reaction to Agamemnon, who slights him, differs significantly from his response to Hektor, who does not slight but instead causes Achilles a pain so great that it replaces the anger he feels toward Agamemnon (48–55).

Konstan also provides an illuminating interpretation of πραότηϛ not as "calmness," but as the "satisfaction" resulting from the appeasement of anger (ch. 3). He argues that "this was the emotion that pleaders chiefly sought to arouse against opponents, just as they solicited the pity of the jurors for themselves and their clients" (86). He also argues convincingly that "fear is simply the response to danger, above all in the form of an enemy in a position to do harm" (136). To fear a more powerful enemy, as Hektor fears Achilles, is not cowardice, but a failure to take realities into account (138). Konstan provocatively claims that romantic jealousy in the modern sense may not have been known at all in the classical period (220), but was perhaps invented by Horace (243). If this is indeed the case, it will radically change our views about much of Greek literature.

Less convincing is Konstan's account of grief. This emotion, he argues, is not discussed by Aristotle in part because it differs significantly from other emotions. Grief "involves no judgment of intentions, no reckoning of relative power, no reference to desert or to social status," and little or no impulse to act in response (247). As Konstan himself notes, however, mourning has ritualized aspects that are governed by social norms. And there is ample evidence, for example, in the funeral regulations of Solon, that these rituals were, contrary to Konstan's statement, "governed by considerations of competitive standing" (252–53). Indeed, funeral rites, from the earliest prehistoric...


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