Thoughts and Emotions: debunking Human Nature

One of the questions I often get asked as a Philosophy major is “who is your favorite philosopher?” One of my favorite philosophers, as most do, is Aristotle. He was just a prolific writer as well as thinker, laying original concepts that stayed undisputed for many years after his death. Some of his more popular works are “Nicomachean Ethics”, the “Organon”, “Physics”, and “Metaphysics”. I want to focus on one of his original philosophical claim that is found in “Nicomachean Ethics”. In that book, he claims that human beings are animals with a rational principle (I, 13). In other words, human beings are rational animals.

What does this mean?

Aristotle means to say that humans are the only living creatures that have rational capacities, capacities that allow them to think using logical mechanisms which include deduction and induction. Due to our rational concepts, we are considered the highest form of living creatures according to Aristotle’s hierarchy of the soul. In the hierarchy, there are plants that have the lowest kind of soul: a soul that only has vegetative functions. Having a vegetative function essentially means having the capacity to nourish oneself with nutrients obtained from the physical world. One step above the plants are the rest of the animals. Animals possess vegetative functions as well as a sensory function that are distinct from them. This sensory function allows animals to employ their bodily senses—the sense of smell, of sight, of hearing, of tasting, and of touching. These senses are faculties that enable animals to experience the physical world. And then we have us – human beings – that are a notch higher than animals and a two notches than plants. Not only do we have vegetative functions to nourish our body as well as sensory functions to experience the physical world, we also have rational function enabling us to obtain knowledge of the physical world and utilize it for our thinking capacities.

Aristotle’s conception of rationality as the essence of human beings has long been taken as an undisputed philosophical claim for thousands of years. Yet, I will go on to challenge this claim; Aristotle misses a fundamental point about the human essence. Human beings are not only rational animals, they are also emotional animals.

What does it mean to say that human beings are emotional animals?

One thing to clarify, first of all. To say that we are emotional animals does not dismiss that we are rational animals. The claims are mutually inclusive.

Delving more into what it means to say that we are emotional animals is to delve into what emotion really is.

An emotion is, to an extent, the same thing as passion. Passion is a sort of energy that drives to arrive at certain dispositions. These dispositions include, although not limited to, desiring to achieve some objects or a state of being. The objects could be material or immaterial. Emotions can be fundamentally classified into four (although debatable): happiness, sadness, anger, fear. Happiness is an emotion manifesting that a desired material/immaterial object is achieved; sadness, that a desire is failed to be achieved; anger, a desire to control; and fear a desire to avoid. Human emotions can either be raw or processed. For example, an athlete engaged in an intense competition may experience certain emotions that are induced by the present moment, i.e. fear of losing, anger as a result of losing, happiness as a result of winning, and sadness as a result of failing to win. We experience certain emotions that are induced by present moments we go through time after time. Such are raw emotions. Yet, we also experience certain emotions that are deliberately processed. Going back to the example above, an athlete may experience sadness or anger as a result of losing. But it is possible, at the same time, for him to experience happiness—happiness for the opponents. This is possible because of the sharp distinction between “raw” emotions and “processed” emotions; in the case of the athlete, sadness, fear, and anger are considered his “raw emotions” on one hand, and happiness his “processed” emotion. Processed emotions are emotions that are processed by our rational capacities. Because of our rational capacities, we are able to formulate and discuss what we call emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is a broad term that some people have attempted to define. There are some people as well who have written books about it such as Daniel Goleman, Richard A. Boyatzis, Tara Bennett, and many more. Moreover, emotional intelligence had been the focus of study for Hellenistic philosophers such as Epictetus, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, and the like, who formed a system of philosophy called Stoicism. Their whole philosophical enterprise runs under the principle that we are emotional animals, whether they are aware of it or not. Their enterprise was motivated by their concern with emotions. Our characteristic as emotional animals is two-fold: we are emotional animals insofar as we have sensory capacities that are similar with the rest of the non-human beings. Such capacities enable as to experience what I call “raw emotions”. Additionally, we are emotional animals insofar as we have this energy in us. Though inexplicable as it may be, this energy is the driving principle behind our emotions as well as rational capacities. We don’t share this energy with the rest of the animals; we only share this among us human beings. It is this energy that makes it possible for us to be emotionally intelligent. Other animals cannot experience “processed emotions” but only “raw emotions” because they don’t have the rational capacities that we do. They only experience emotions. However, we are capable of choosing our emotions just as we experience them. Though emotions may be contradictory—such as a happiness and sadness—it is possible for us to experience them at the same time because we can process them.

Aristotle was only partially right when he claimed that we are rational animals. He only had half of the whole picture. The other half is that we are emotional animals. Perhaps when he made the claim, he was conceptually imprisoned by his great predecessors in Socrates and Plato who held the view that the human soul is a hierarchy that contains passion, spirit, and rationality, whereby rationality must go above the two and spirit above passion.

The danger with this view is that it looks at passion as the “bad guy” that must be kept in check. Eastern philosophy also holds a similar view. As a result, some of of eastern cultures have accustomed to suppress their emotions. In fact, this characteristic is much evident in some eastern cultures such as  that of Chinese. To hold this view is fair; sometimes we’re better off with suppressing our emotions lest they get the best of us. However, it may be limiting at the same time. It is limiting because it prevents us from looking at passion as “the hero”, i.e. that which drives us to do something for the better. I am not completely dismissing the view established by the “Big Three” of Philosophy. My only issue is that the view is painted wrong. The view has to be painted in a way that shows the mysterious interplay between rationality and emotion.

We can never figure out why our rationality and emotion can lead us to create and destroy; love and hate; make peace and wage war, build communities and destroy our own; help and kill one another; all at the same time.

Such is the mystery of the human person. The only thing that can explain so is believing that there is a Spirit that is not of us but could be in us, a Spirit that leads us to do what we ought to do and not do.


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