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Monday, January 31, 2011

Fear Factor

In Chapter 5 Aristotle gives us a definition of fear as “Fear may be defined as a pain or disturbance due to a mental picture of some destructive or painful evil in the future.” (1382) This definition however seems limiting and far too rational for such an unpalatable feeling. Do we not also fear the reliving of certain memories, fear talking about what has happened to us in the past, or expressing certain things to people? One might say well that’s because it will bring you pain in the present, but is it pain in the destructive sense Aristotle is speaking of? Do we not also fear things that may bring us pleasure? What about people who fear public speaking? They know that if they do well that it will bring them a reward, it is not as if the act itself is painful but just the potential reaction of certain people.

Aristotle also continues on to say that we fear things “only if they appear not remote but so near as to be imminent.” (1382) This might make sense in the abstract but what about the fear of nuclear weapons, a terrorist biochemical attack, or China invading? Are these not real fears with particular objects that exist in people’s minds although they are remote? But perhaps Aristotle’s point is not that the thing we fear itself is imminent that makes us fear it, but rather the ability for it to be felt as such. Then again Aristotle continues to say “Of those we have wronged, and of our enemies or rivals, it is not the passionate and outspoken whom we have to fear, but the quiet, dissembling, unscrupulous; since we never know when they are upon us, we can never be sure they are at a safe distance.” [1382b] The element of not knowing whether something is to be feared or not is able to provoke fear itself. Is this fear? It has some elements of particularity in reference to a certain person and a certain act they might do, what makes it frightful is the uncertainty surrounding whether or not it will occur. Perhaps this is just an example of anxiety rather than fear? But where do we draw the line?

This inability to distinguish where certain feelings begin and others end points to a larger criticism I have of Aristotle in Book II. He posits emotions such as fear and confidence and friendliness and enmity etc.. as directly opposing one another. But not just are the emotions antithetical to one another such as anger and calm, he claims that they are mutually exclusive. I would contend that there is no such thing as being within a pure state of an emotion. Or that emotions are even a state as such. Rather they are always mixed, always flowing into and out of one another. The OED’s definition of emotion includes ‘a moving out or migration.’ Emotions are not something which are possessed one second and dispensed with another but occur as processual encounters and with varying intensities.

Aristotle writes [in reference to fear ] “People do not believe this when they are, or think they are, in the midst of great prosperity” [1383a] Yet when people are feeling pleasure from their prosperity do they not also develop a sense of paranoia and fear that someone will try to take them down a notch? Sometimes we want to feel angry at a person, not because they represent a real threat to us but because we gain a sense of pleasure out of it. Yet Aristotle writes of anger as necessarily painful. It seems difficult to reconcile these inconsistencies.

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At January 31, 2011 at 7:34 AM , Blogger Su said...

I agree that it's not possible to only have one emotion at a time-- we have such complexity of our brains, of chemical reactions in the body, and of stimuli that it's no wonder that there are multiple emotions going on all the time. I hope that Aristotle was breaking emotions down for the state of simplicity in his explanations, rather than trying to give hard-and-fast truths about opposite emotions being mutually exclusive.

You make a good point about fear; truthfully, it seems like it's the more remote things that people are more afraid of. For instance, the ratio of kids killed in car accidents every year to kids who are kidnapped is crazy-high; cars kill more children than strangers. And yet if you ask the average parent, they'll tell you they're more afraid of their kid being kidnapped than of they dying in a car crash. On a personal level, I think that's because you at least feel some measure of control over your own car, while you can't do anything about a predator. Anyway, the point is that we find a way to be afraid of things that are far-off, sometimes even more so than things that are near.

At February 1, 2011 at 12:03 AM , Blogger RVL said...

You're right on about fear. It's interesting that we often fear things that may result in a reward or pleasure, but maybe it's more than that. I would think that every individual's fear is rooted from different moments in a person's life that have transformed into memories, which have then transformed into phobias. Fear is our protection from the past, not necessarily something evil or painful that is waiting in the future, like Aristotle suggested. I think fear is an interior thing, derived from our insecurities and guilty conscious.

At February 1, 2011 at 1:14 AM , Blogger Sean G said...

I would agree with your argument that there is probably no such thing as a pure state of emotion. The mind and human behaviors are simply too complex to be focused entirely upon a single way of thinking or feeling at once, even if we often tend to try and ignore any conflicting feelings. I do believe however that what Aristotle is arguing here still holds water from a practical point. Some emotions in certain situations are particularly dominant over others, and fear in particular often generates creates a very strong grip on people. In these cases for the practical rhetor (read: Someone who has read Aristotle) the emotional context can then be diagnosed, properly understood and acted upon.

At February 1, 2011 at 10:57 AM , Blogger Blake said...

Very interesting thoughts about fear. The reliving of certain memories does seem to exist outside of his definition. I especially like where you say the following:

"Emotions are not something which are possessed one second and dispensed with another but occur as processual encounters and with varying intensities."

This validates the idea that emotion is an underlying consistent variable and does not come and go in the changing of circumstance.

At February 2, 2011 at 9:26 PM , Blogger Eric Yoon said...

One point on what you said near the end about anger: it's true that Aristotle write that anger is accompanied by pain, but he also emphasizes that anger "must always be attended by a certain pleasure - that which arises from the expectation of revenge" (1378). I do agree that Aristotle's definitions of emotions are somewhat too rigid, but I also agree with what Sean said about Aristotle's definitions having a practical application.

At February 7, 2011 at 7:23 PM , Blogger Samantha said...

I had the same questions regarding Aristotle’s definition of fear. I too feel it is an inadequate and limiting definition. How would Aristotle explain the fear associated with scary movies, spiders, commitment, and public speaking (like you’ve mentioned)? We are all very aware of the fact that these things cannot endanger or harm us, yet these things are commonly feared. Maybe we are having trouble with Aristotle’s definition of fear because he has not discussed other emotions closely related to fear as you have mentioned like anxiety or paranoia. Emotions are so much more complex than Aristotle realizes. I also agree with your argument that there is no such thing as being within a pure state of an emotion. I’m sure we’ve all experienced that rush of emotions when we get hit with a lot of information at once and don’t even have the time to figure out how we really feel about everything.


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