Aristotle on the Pathe

Aristotle offers the first systematic account of emotional psychology ever provided, and thinkers today still routinely turn to it to tease out their own reflections on emotion, affect, and mood.

According to Aristotle, the pathē (emotions) operate at the conjunction of physiology and psychology: an outside factor stimulates an internal reaction that is not simply physical but also cognitive.

In general the ancient Greeks believed emotions are not blind animal forces but intelligent and discriminating responses. They are therefore both responsive to cognitive modification (emotions can change when your beliefs change), and they can modify what you believe: that is, when you experience an emotion such as anger, pity, or fear, you enter a new state of mind in which you see things differently, and you reason from different presumptions or grounds.

From this perspective, to have articulatable emotions (fear, anger, pity, compassion), one must first have certain beliefs. What sparks emotion is not the truth of a situation but your beliefs about it—even if your beliefs are wrong. A rhetor who wants to excite or calm the emotions of an audience must first understand this, according to Aristotle; it’s the key to understanding the reasons for which people experience particular emotions.


In groups of 3-4 to discuss key issues in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Book II:

  • what most interested or surprised you?
  • What would you most like to explore or analyze or think through?

Report out