"...a strange and wonderful exhibition" - The New York Times

published 5.15.2017

Off Center, Vol 3, No 3: Alexander Nehamas On Emotions

Off Center, Vol 3, No 3: Alexander Nehamas On Emotions

Monday, May 15, 2017

Photo by Denise Applewhite

In this issue of Off Center, we take the theme of the Onassis Cultural Center New York's current exhibition, A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece, 700 BC – 200 AD, and explore it through the lens of philosophy. How did the ancient Greeks make sense of their emotions? How has that understanding evolved throughout the centuries? What might it mean for a philosopher to foreground emotion in his or her work?

To answer these and other questions we talked with Alexander Nehamas, Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Literature at Princeton University, and author of, among other books, Nietzsche: Life as LiteratureThe Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to FoucaultOnly a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art; and On Friendship

The following is based on a live conversation. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Let’s start in ancient Greece––­with Plato, about whom you’ve thought a great deal. What did he have to say about emotions?

For Plato, and generally the ancients, emotion was not necessarily a separate part of the psyche, the soul. We think that reason and emotion are distinct and often opposed. They aren’t. Plato in particular divides the human personality–the soul, the psyche–into three parts: reason, ambition or the urge to excel, and appetite–which contains sex, food, all the very basic functions of a human person. But the issue here is that each one of those three parts has its own emotions. For example, reason has the emotion of love–for truth, for knowledge, for what Plato calls “the Forms.” Ambition brings with it competitiveness–envy in a good sense of trying to outdo your opponents, not by putting them down but by doing better than they do. And of course the appetitive part of the soul has its own emotions, too–the passions.

The main issue with Plato, and with most Greek philosophy after Plato, is that the emotions–though not the emotions of reason, which are fine as they are–but of the other two parts of the psyche need to be controlled, and they need to be controlled by reason. There is a big difference, I think, between the Greek way of looking at emotions and the Christian way of looking at emotions. Christianity’s attitude toward the emotions is more suspicious: it is more concerned with denying what we might call our “earthly” emotions (which include both ambition and appetite) rather than with controlling them. It urges us to distance ourselves from them as much as possible. For the Greeks, it’s not a matter of denying but of controlling them.

The Greeks concede that those emotions are part of who we really are but they don’t want them to take over the rest of ourselves. Christianity, which draws a sharper distinction between the soul and the body–soul versus flesh, as we might put it–does not consider that the passions, especially our “lower” ones, really belong to us to our soul, which is what we really are. They belong to the body, which is a separate entity from the soul. What survives death is just the soul, and we are better off the less we are tied to our human shell. Now, this is not very different from Plato–in a way, Plato is a great predecessor of Christianity. In fact, Nietzsche called Christianity “Platonism for the people.” But Plato emphasizes the need for a balance, a harmony, between our various aspects, whereas in Christianity the emphasis is on purity–the effort to disencumber ourselves as much as possible and be as close to a pure soul as we can. 

Given the dichotomy you just described, what do you make of the ecstatic tradition in Christianity?

Christianity is a very complex institution, and beyond fundamental dogma, it’s impossible to find a single view common to all its many branches. Of course, there is a mystical side of Christianity, but it is not its most central aspect. What is a central aspect of Christianity is the notion of sin. What do you do with sins? You forgive them. And what is it to forgive a sin? To forgive a sin is to say that it’s as if it never happened; once forgiven, the sin is no longer part of who you are. So, once again, you expel what is wrong from yourself, and still remain who you really are—your immortal soul; but, as far as I know, this notion of forgiveness is completely absent from Greek thought.

This Christian idea––that a sin disappears once you’ve confessed it––is interesting to think about in relation to Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence.” Could you perhaps define that concept, which is so central to Nietzsche’s thought, and then connect it to what you just said about Christianity?

The correct reaction to a sin is repentance, which means both that you’re sorry for what you did and that you’ll try never to do it again. Repentance brings forgiveness in its train, and forgiveness means that the sin no longer, so to speak, counts against you, since it has been removed from the tally of your life.

Nietzsche has a very different view. The eternal recurrence is one of his more obscure theories, especially if we assume, as most people used to do, that it is a theory about the universe. That is, it was assumed that Nietzsche, almost like a physicist, was claiming that the whole history of the universe as we know it so far has already occurred infinitely many times in the past and will again occur infinitely many times in the future: everything that is happening now has already happened, and it will happen again, forever.

But that’s not really what Nietzsche thinks. His view is that if you were to live again you would have to have exactly the same life you already had–otherwise you wouldn’t be the same person—and that would also require the history of the universe to repeat itself. This is not physics but a psychological thought experiment. The question is whether or not you would want to live the same life, just as you have lived it so far because that is the only life that you will ever have. You can’t think that you would keep some of the things you did and exclude others (as most of us might want to). You can’t, that is, detach any part of what you’ve done from who you are. While a forgiven sin would no longer be part of your life if you were to live again (or if, forgiven, you were in Paradise), Nietzsche believes that everything you have done is essential to the person that you are. That means that there is no way to forgive something in the sense that we were talking about before–in the sense of erasing it, so to speak, from your history.

For Nietzsche, there is no way of detaching any of my actions from who I am. Forgiveness is impossible. What is possible is to live in such a way that the “bad” thing you did––there is no room for sin here–­–helps you to create a life that you are willing to affirm in its totality. That is for Nietzsche what would justify both the original error and your life as a whole. In other words, there is no genuine second chance.

Does an example come to mind of a life lived in that way?

Nietzsche himself was, we all know, very sickly. He said he had no more than one good day out of every three. But in his autobiography, Ecce Homo, he seems to say that that because he had those headaches, because he had so little time, he learned how to write in short spurts. Unable to devote the long stretches of time that another philosopher might spend working on a long treatise, he learned to write short passages very fast. 

What does that mean? That Nietzsche’s aphoristic style, for which he is very famous–he’s one of the great German authors–is part and parcel of what he was able to accomplish given his health, which we would normally consider an unfortunate occurrence.   

But is it unfortunate?  Without his horrible migraines, his weak eyes, and who knows what else, would Nietzsche have written as he did?  And if he didn’t, what would he have done?  Who knows?  These aspects of his life are so important to making him who he is that we can’t begin to guess who he would then have been. And so he asks, if I were to live again, would I want my life to include those terrible headaches? He answers, Yes; I would want them to happen again just as they did because without them I wouldn’t have produced my works in the first place. And if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be who I am. And so he affirms everything in his life, both “the good” and “the bad,” which were both necessary for his accomplishing what he did.

Does this philosophical outlook have any precedent in ancient Greece? 

Some ancients—Heraclitus, Empedocles, and the Stoics—thought that the history of the universe repeated itself indefinitely. And although Nietzsche read and was influenced by them (Heraclitus, in particular), he re-interpreted this idea about the universe into an idea about human life. But I don’t find his version of the recurrence already in the ancients.

Nietzsche believed that any value or meaning our lives might have is given to them by us—life has no meaning or value on its own.  The question he asked in all his works is how to give your life a meaning, a purpose if world history, the world itself, does not provide you with values of its own, objective values independent of human beings. And the only mark that you have been successful is the desire to do it all over again exactly as it already happened. In other words, to want what (if you were in fact to live again) did happen to you to happen again, without disowning any aspect of yourself. Nietzsche doesn’t think that any particular event is by itself either good or evil—that is part of the reason he doesn’t believe in sin. Its value depends on the contribution it makes to the whole life to which it belongs. If your whole life is something that you want to do again, then you would also want to do again all the “bad” things that you did–because, since they made the life you accept possible, they are not really bad. They may well be painful–for example, if Nietzsche were to live again, he’d still have his headaches, and those headaches would still hurt terribly but he would still want to have them again, because otherwise he also wouldn’t have his writing.

Where do you see emotions fitting into this picture?

It is not suffering itself that we mind, according to Nietzsche. If the suffering has a purpose, if it has a meaning, we are perfectly willing to undergo it. It’s meaningless suffering that destroys us–suffering for no purpose at all. He believes that suffering of one sort or another is inevitable for most people, perhaps for everybody. And the question is not how to detach and stop the suffering––the Christian attitude, in other words––but how to use it, how it can help accomplish something worthwhile. And, in a way, if you think of suffering in the Greek sense of “pathos,” of passion, then emotions are very seriously involved with it.

In other words, you can’t disown any part of you, including the parts that the parts that cause you anxiety, sorrow, guilt, and regret. You can’t discard them like unwanted baggage: they are with you to stay.  Therefore, you have to use them in such a way that one day they are redeemed by something they helped you accomplish. Of course, not everyone is successful. In fact, Nietzsche believes that only very few people can affirm the eternal recurrence: most of us can’t eliminate regret from our life. And for such people, Nietzsche is very dismissive.  He calls them “the herd” and says that they might as well turn to Christianity, and hope for a different, better life.

To what extent can art help us affirm the eternal recurrence in our own lives?

Well, it depends–some art can do that for some people. Other people turn to their religion, others to their family or their work. We have different ways of facing and dealing with emotional crises.  Personally, though, I think of art as one of the great contributors to our well-being, in part because we often discern the suffering that caused artists to produce their work. Seeing how suffering can become a spur to creation rather than a brake on one’s life is extremely important, and art is about as good at showing you this as any other human activity.

I suppose another exemplary artist in this respect is Montaigne, who lost so many of his children…

In addition to his skeptical streak, Montaigne had a stoical streak as well, but he did not deal with adversity like a practicing Stoic. He didn’t, like the emperor Marcus Aurelius, remind himself as he was saying good night to his son that the boy might not be alive tomorrow—a morbid thought, in my opinion.  The Stoics aimed not to get too attached to anything over which human beings have no control, for example, the life of one’s child.  For that reason, Marcus needed to distance himself from his son’s lie, so that didn’t grieve unduly if, or when, the boy died.

There is a bit of that in Montaigne, but Montaigne also wanted to count everything about him, warts and all, as part of his life.  Do you know where this comes out in a most wonderful way? It comes out in the fact that although he revised his Essays extensively, he never (except in some insignificant instances) deleted anything he had written previously.  His corrections are all additions, and he tells us so. 

Why does he only add to his words? A famous instance occurs in his essay “Of friendship,” in which he tries to describe his friendship with Étienne de La Boétie. In the first two editions, he writes, “If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed.” And then, in revising, he adds: “except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.” You see, he doesn’t deny, he doesn’t expel his previous view–he just uses it to create another. And he does this because he does not want to disown any part of himself. I think this is a wonderful way to make the point–only by adding. And very often, these additions change the meaning of the original and, whatever its original quality, employ it for a worthwhile goal.

Very much in the same way that as we pass through new stages in life, we can look back and perceive things differently than we previously had. Our early experiences haven’t changed, but they can now be interpreted as part of a longer, more complicated story.

It’s not just the interpretation that changes, it’s a more radical change: the event changes as well. We generally think that an event has a clear beginning and a clear end, so that once something occurs, it is over and done with.  But what counts as a single event is always up for interpretation. So although in the beginning the event is the impossibility of saying why Montaigne loved his friend, in the end it is the impossibility of saying anything except that he loved him “because it was he, because it was I.”  And although what that means is far from clear, the point is that he used his earlier statement—and making a statement is an action—to construct something new.  And that something new couldn’t have occurred unless its first part had been already asserted.

Another writer I wanted to ask you about is Proust. You have described him as a central figure in your life. And I wonder, given that our subject is emotions, to what extent you conceive of that relationship as an emotional one?

Well, as I said at the beginning, emotion and thought are not all that distinct. By reading, by interacting with an artist that you admire, as I admire Proust, you hone your thinking and your emotions and your practical attitudes, all at the same time (there is even a book by Alain de Botton called How Proust Can Change Your Life). Now, I don’t know how Proust has changed my life, because I don’t know what my life would have been if it hadn’t been for Proust. But for me, Proust’s novel is a kind of world in which I can sink. I don’t quite know what the right verb is–sink may be too negative… But, if I were to tell my life, he would have a very central role in it.


Immerse myself in it, exactly. Here, too, what I find so satisfying both emotionally and intellectually in Proust is the fact that nothing gets disowned. What is the book about? It is the story of a young man who plans to become an author, though as long as he is actively trying to become an author and find the meaning of things so that he can reveal them, he doesn’t succeed. So he keeps trying this way and that and at the same time he goes into society, he makes friends, has affairs, watches the people around him, all the time trying to write but never quite being able to do so. And one day, for various reasons that we don’t have to go into now, he realizes that he is about to start writing his book, which is going to be about the life he has lived so far. And, of course, the life he has lived is what he has been describing all along. So, the book he is about to begin writing is in fact the book we have been reading all the time! It will include everything we have read already read, without exception.  So here is the eternal recurrence again!

And so, for me, Proust’s novel is a model of what an ideal life would be like–a life that includes a tremendous amount of suffering and self-doubt; of jealousy, malice, and disappointments; of pleasure and happiness—every single episode of which will become material for the book (which we have already read). So nothing that happens to him is “bad” because, without them, there would be no book. And so Montaigne, Nietzsche and Proust–the authors I really admire–provide me with different ways of seeing how you can make your life into something you would want to have had. This is, for me, the highest affirmation of a life that you could possibly have: to feel that, if you had to, you would do it all over again. And, as I said before, you can’t easily distinguish between emotion and thought, between desire and decision: they are all involved at the same time.

Emotion and thought may be inextricably linked, but don’t we still latch onto the assumption that they aren’t?

For a variety of reasons, we have been assuming that emotions are completely independent of ourselves, something that happens to us—a passion, over which we have no control. But all emotions have intellectual components as well. And we can control them ­–not easily and not immediately, but over time they can be made stronger or weaker, and made harmonious with the rest of our personality. To that extent, I think that the ancient Greeks had a much more reasonable view of how to think of and employ them.

Returning to this question of the eternal recurrence, is there a way to apply it more generously than Nietzsche would have?

As I said, Nietzsche separates people into the strong on the one hand and the weak ones––or “the herd”––on the other. He believes that a few people are capable of giving meaning to their life—through great accomplishments that reveal new aspects of what human beings can do—while everyone else is incapable of achieving anything original of their own. I think that this is a mistake. Instead of this deep division, I think we have a continuum of “strength.”  Here, I wish he had paid more attention to his own model of life: the arts.  For in the arts we have just such a continuum of ability, descending from the great artists all the way down to the art that you see sold in motels, by the yard—all of that is art (and, like everything else in the world, most of it is of inferior quality).  It is not so obvious that, as Nietzsche thought, most people are condemned to lead horrible, meaningless lives that only lies could make bearable.

In any context, there will be people who are extraordinarily capable at working within and negotiating with that context; also, people who are not quite as good; others,  who are even less capable, and so on. That seems to me a much more reasonable—if you want, a more democratic—way of adapting Nietzsche’s philosophy to the real world.

So is one of your goals, as a philosopher who writes about Nietzsche, to broaden the scope of whom he might be addressing?

Yes. I think that he can speak to more people than he thinks he can speak to–he thought that only very, very few people could ever understand him, and that’s not necessarily true. It’s not that everybody will understand or admire Nietzsche, but not everybody understands and admires every philosopher anyway: some of Nietzsche can be adapted to a more socially sensitive approach to the world. And I think that to draw a sharp distinction, as Nietzsche does, between “nobles” and “slaves"––rather than recognizing a continuum of abilities––is much too simple. So we can give it up, and see whether a Nietzschean view might apply positively to a larger number of people.

Is there another aspect of your intellectual life that relates to emotions, and that you might want to discuss?

Yes. One of the things that characterizes academic philosophy today is by and large a desire to address problems as a scientist might address them. What does that imply? It implies that one writes so as to suppress the personality of the writer. You don’t really care who wrote a scientific article or why. All you care about are the ideas–the problems the article raises, and the solutions it offers: the problem is detached from the author.

I think that is a perfectly fine approach in some areas of philosophy, but not in all. There are philosophical areas—with beginnings in ancient Greece, which by and large thought of philosophy not primarily as a theoretical discipline but as a way of life. And if you think of philosophy as a way of life—an activity that occurs not just in your study, distinct from everything else you do, but also in every aspect of your life, then your writing is going to be very different than the writing I was just describing. It will have to be the kind of writing that expresses a personality: yours.

The philosophers I admire tend to be those who for some reason or another have generally been thought of as literary rather than philosophical authors.  The reason is that they all write in a thick, personal, unforgettable style, making their problems part and parcel of the life they lived: Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, perhaps Pascal and Michel Foucault, even Wittgenstein, not to mention Plato (who, as always, belongs to both approaches). You will never confuse Nietzsche’s writing with Montaigne’s. But if you pick up a philosophical journal today, you will be surprised by the uniformity of style among its articles. The idea here is to address problems that are independent of who it is who raises them—questions and problems that everyone can address in the same manner.   That is as it should be—in the right areas.  But the philosophy I am interested in is an effort to establish a way of living—if not for everybody else, then at least for myself. In such an effort, what matters are not simply various problems and but how you in particular, as opposed to the person next to you, addresses them, how you come to terms with them and the sort of life to which their solutions lead you. In such an enterprise, emotion is absolutely central because what is being expressed in your writing is your whole self—thinking, feeling, desiring, imagining, wishing, strengths and weaknesses. You are not separating one part of yourself––your intellectual interests––and forgetting about the rest.

So, for me, philosophy can be a more personal engagement with life than it may be for many of my colleagues. I am not saying that my colleagues are wrong–I am not saying that there is no such thing as a more detached, more scientific philosophy: of course there is.  In fact, I would say that part of philosophy has always been scientific—that is, some philosophy has always been at least primitive science. Philosophers ask questions until there begins to appear a practicable way to answer them, at which point the scientists take over, many of them people who were considered philosophers up to that point.  Natural philosophy, for example, gave way to physics and chemistry. Logic gave way to computer science, philosophy of mind to psychology, philosophy of language to linguistics.  But there is another aspect of philosophy that thinks of itself as an effort to find out what a good life is. Such an effort requires a different approach–more personal, more involved, more confessional, if you want.

And the philosophers you just described––those whose personalities are intrinsically connected to their prose styles––are also those we still read long after their death. We remain interested in them as individuals, just as we remain interested in great poets, or in great painters.

Yes. That is another difference between that sort of philosophy and the kind that aspires to be scientific.  In the sciences, once a theory has been formulated, you don’t need to go back to its origins.  Although everyone concedes that Newton was a great scientist, no physicist needs to read his works any longer (although of course one might). Just so, if you are interested in a logical issue, the best place to look is not in Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica but to the most recent discussion of that particular issue. And yet you can’t paint without going back Rembrandt himself any more than, if you are thinking about philosophy and life, you can do philosophy without Plato or Kant, Montaigne or Nietzsche—all the great philosophers connected their views with the kind of life someone who accepted them might live. It is time to recapture and revive the Greek approach to philosophy as an activity of the whole person, an effort to find out how one is to live in a world that, in itself, pays no heed to our own human needs, interests, desires, and dreams.