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.