Aristotle on music and emotions
Mira Chaparro, Juan Pablo
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This research aims to offer an original reconstruction of Aristotle’s psychology of music that explains his views on the relation between instrumental music and emotions. I argue that, contrary to the relevant scholarship, for Aristotle instrumental music cannot convey emotions to the listener. What instrumental music does, I claim, is to cause an objectless mood or disposition (διάθεσις) that “prepares the way” (προοδοποιεῖν) for the emotions. Most interpreters of Politics VIII (1340a12-29) argue that for Aristotle a piece of instrumental music would be able to represent emotions and the listener would be moved to the same emotion by a sort of sympathetic contagion. However, this interpretation is inconsistent with Aristotle’s account of emotions. For Aristotle a necessary condition for the emotions is that those experiencing them “judge” (κρίνειν) a situation based on their beliefs. If it is accepted that there is such a thing as an emotional contagion through music, then the cognitive theory of emotion presented by Aristotle is at risk since no such a judgment would be required. The thesis is presented in three chapters. In chapter one the cognitive elements that give rise to emotions are analysed. The nature of the term παθή is explored as well as the difference between its use as a ‘general affection’ and its use as the mental process that we now call ‘emotion.’ In this latter sense the emotions are mental states directed to an object on which a judgment is made and that are accompanied by pain or pleasure. The nature of the emotional judgment is investigated and the possibility of its existence in non-rational animals is explored. It is concluded that, even if we accept emotions in animals, intentionality and predication of an object are necessary conditions for the existence of emotions. In the second chapter, I discuss two instances where it seems Aristotle makes an exception to the judgment as necessary condition for the emotions. First, emotions aroused by the perception of signs of emotions, like the mere voice of the orator (Rhet. 1408a16-26) and the spectacle in the theatre (Poet. 1453b1-10) and second, emotions aroused by bodily changes (De an. 403a25). I argue that in Aristotle’s view in both cases the factors at work (voice, sight, bodily condition) only facilitate the arousal of emotions, but the actual arousal requires an additional narrative context that supplies grounds for the judgment that in turn gives rise to the emotion in question. In the first case the orator’s voice and the theatre’s spectacle work just as a condiment (ἥδυσμα) that helps to intensify (συναπεργάζεσθαι) the object of judgment (Pol. 1340b17; Poet. 1449b25; 1450b16; Rhet. 1386a31). Our emotional response has as its object their story, not the elements that decorate it. In the second case, the bodily changes are the material constituents of emotions; facilitate the generation of emotions: hotness around the heart, for example, makes the subject prone to anger; but the emotion of anger appears only after a particular situation is evaluated by the mind. In the third chapter, I turn to the specific case of music. From an exegesis of Pol. 1340a12-29, I argue that the emotions ostensibly transmitted by music (μουσική) to the listener are due to the lyrics of the songs (μέλη), not to the instrumental music itself. Therefore the question about the nature of the emotional effect of pure instrumental music remains open. My answer to this question is based on the analysis of the causal mechanism by means of which instrumental music affects the listener. Aristotle’s physiology reveals the physical impact of sound on the sense of hearing, and from there to the heart, the first sensorium. Bodily changes in the organ create an objectless disposition (διάθεσις) in the listener by relaxing or agitating his body, without providing any content for the mind besides the perception of the sound. Exciting or relaxing the heart by means of music would leave the listener in the disposition of readiness to react emotionally, but the emotion would appear only once an intentional object, i.e., the content of the emotion, is presented and evaluated by the mind. Finally, I show the relevance of my interpretation of these dispositions to understanding the role of emotions in the education of character in the Politics. Aristotle proposes to use only a certain type of music in his educational curriculum, not one too relaxed or too tense, but a middle between them that puts the students in a stable and noble disposition that would, in turn, lead them to be guided by reason instead of their emotions.