Notes on Aristotle

According to Aristotle, people don’t enter the state of mind called “anger” without a reason, and they become angry at someone, even if they’re not sure who that person is. (Maybe you get out to your car and see that someone has put a dent in the door.) To experience anger, he says, you have to believe that someone has intentionally done something to you or a friend (not just “man” in general) that wasn’t justified—and, he says, it has to be accompanied by “a certain pleasure” which arises from “the expectation of revenge.” (As in: “I’ll get you, my pretty.”) The belief that you’ll be able to get someone back is a pleasant one, says Aristotle.

Note that he doesn’t consider what might make a slave or a woman angry. Nor does he contemplate the character of young or old women, or women in their prime. Etc.  He’s concerned only with male citizens. We’ll want to keep that in mind.

Note also Aristotle’s distinction between anger and hatred: anger is always directed at an individual, whereas hatred might also be directed at whole classes of people—liars, tattle tales, thieves, as he says, but also, as we see so often today, against certain ethnicities or races or sexual orientations, etc. According to him:

  • Anger can be cured by time, but hatred can’t (9).
  • Anger is accompanied by pain, but hatred isn’t.
  • The angry one wants the offender to pay, which means the offender is worthy of one’s anger. An angry man wants the offender to feel what he has felt. So at some level, the angry man believes the offender is redeemable. The hater, on the other hand, wants the offender to “cease to exist.” A hater won’t be satisfied by seeing the offender pay or suffer but wants this offender gone. Extinguished.

For each emotion, Aristotle indicates what one must believe to feel it. To feel fear, for example, you’ve got to believe

  1. that the object of your fear is an evil that you can’t prevent
  2. that is on its way right now (it’s not far off)
  3. and that is capable of causing you great pain and destruction

These beliefs are the necessary conditions for fear, he says. And the fear is increased if you believe the damage will be irreparable and that no help is on the way. Your fear will dissolve if you believe you’ve already suffered all you can suffer and there is nothing left to lose. In every case, according to Aristotle, a belief is involved: someone’s sudden appearance may startle you, but it doesn’t escalate to fear unless you believe this person will hurt you. It doesn’t matter if your belief is wrong; it only matters that you do indeed believe it. Change the belief or judgement about the situation, and you’ll change the level of the distress.

He defines pity as pain at an evil suffered by one who doesn’t deserve it, someone much like oneself or a loved one. Three conditions for pity:

  1. Pitier must believe the suffering person is undeserving (they can’t have asked for it)
  2. Pitier must believe the suffering person is vulnerable to this evil, too (coulda been me)
  3. Pitier must believe the suffering is significant and not trivial (can’t be about a broken finger nail)

If you believe you are invulnerable to this sort of suffering involved, Aristotle says you won’t feel pity. And if you’re panicked or scared to death, you also won’t feel pity—no time for that.

Aristotle’s list of significant impediments that might be pitiable include: death, bodily assault, old age, illness, lack of food, friendlessness, separation from friends, deformity (also translated as “ugliness,” which impedes friendship 🙂 ), weakness, having a disability, being disappointed, …etc.

So Aristotle discerns between different emotions by reference to their characteristic beliefs. There’d be no way to describe the difference between fear, pity, or grief without noting that it is pain at the thought of certain future events believed to be impending: “someone’s going to hurt me” (fear); “you will suffer b/c someone hurt you” (pity); and “I’ll have to go on without you” (grief). There is pain in each of these situations, but what differentiates them is the belief about the location of the pain.