“REASON OVER EMOTION: THE BELIEF AS APPLIED TO DUTY IN THE ANCIENT WORLD”
From time immemorial people have dwelt on whether it is the mind or the heart that rules a person’s actions. The mind refers to reason or logic whereas the heart represents the seat of all human emotion. A human being is part of a species that comes somewhere between animals and higher beings. It is for this reason that we exhibit both the ability to act in a savage manner and the ability to philosophize on the mysteries of the universe. For example, it is we humans that on the one hand commit unspeakable atrocities on our fellow beings and on the other are able to invent supercomputers with the ability to ‘think’ for themselves. Although I’ve used dark examples to describe what the heart can make us do, I’m not saying that it is capable of evil alone. In fact, many emotions are very positive, including love.
Our history has unquestionably been one of constant struggle. And I believe that history is the name we give to the trials and tribulations of a particular people in a particular era. And the reason for this struggle has been an inherent ability to act in both good and bad ways. In fact, life is a struggle. A struggle between good and evil, love and hate, black and white and yin and yang. Even within us there exists a constant struggle, the struggle to decide what course of action to take to tackle life’s obstacles. So life as I see it boils down to a great testing ground for our souls in which everything is embroiled in a great tussle. And in this universal tussle we have to discover the very reason of our existence and the roles we are meant to play in the greater scheme of things. This is our goal and everything that we do constitutes our duty. Now it is up to the individual to decide whether to use emotions or reason to fulfil his/her destiny.
As I have stated before, this is a question that has troubled people from the beginning of time. This is clearly brought out in the classical literature of the Ancient World. To illustrate my point I will be looking at three main works and their attitudes to this eternal question.
I’ll start off with the ‘Bhagavad Gita’. Basically, Indian philosophy can be divided into three broad groups based on time period: Prelogical, Logical and Ultralogical. Prelogical refers to the amalgamation of pre-Aryan and Aryan philosophies from the coming of the Aryan race to India until the 2nd Century AD. The Logical era lasted from the the 2nd Century to the coming of Islam in India, and the Ultralogical era is said to begin from the advent of Islam to British rule and deals with Muslim philosophy. The ‘Bhagavad Gita’ was written in the prelogical age.
In this age of Brahminism, the human soul was believed to spend its time on earth in search of ‘moksha’ (eternal salvation). There were three paths to moksha, namely ‘karma’ (action), ‘bhakti’ (devotion) and ‘gyana’ (knowledge). It should be noted here that the bhakti path is the only one where emotions are allowed to enter the struggle for moksha, and that Krishna’s discourses to Arjuna largely dwells upon karma and the separation of personal feelings from the duty to be performed. This is not an easy task for Arjuna, as he is forced to fight and kill his own relatives, but he does it anyway. This shows how powerful the sense of reason over emotion was at this time in India.
The closest parallel to this belief in emotionless service to duty in the Western world is German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s words “duty for duty’s sake”. The feeling of selfless devotion to duty is also one that inspired Mahatma Gandhi in his freedom movement. In Gandhi’s view, the unity of existence (truth) can be realized through the practice of ‘Ahimsa’ (nonviolence). Ahimsa requires rendering oneself to ‘naught’ and reaching the furthest limits of humility. Therefore, emotion doesn’t come into the picture for the pursuit of the greater goals in life.
The belief in reason over emotion was at its zenith in the Western world during the time of the Roman Empire. Its roots lay in the Greek Stoics, a school of philosophy that preached taking life’s ups and downs within one’s stride for the attainment of one’s goals in life. This originally Greek idea became extremely popular in Ancient Rome and formed the basis of the Roman way of life. Virgil, arguably Rome’s finest author and poet, paints his protagonist Aeneas in the ‘Aeneid’ as the classical stoic. Aeneas’ devotion to his duty, the founding of Rome, is so great that he doesn’t care for his own feelings and pursues his foretold destiny in an almost mechanical manner.
This is aptly brought out in Aeneas’ treatment of Dido, the queen of Carthage, which for most people today would constitute as being heartless. Dido’s love for Aeneas is extremely powerful and within him Aeneas knows that he loves Dido as well. But if Aeneas lets his emotions come to the surface, he knows his destiny will never be fulfilled, so he doesn’t reciprocate Dido’s feelings towards him. The result of this tragic love story is Dido’s death and the heroic completion of Aeneas’ destiny. But we must not brand Virgil as being biased in his obvious preference for stoicism and devotion to duty. Even though ‘pietas’ (duty) prevails at the end of the ‘Aeneid’, Virgil lets us know that Aeneas goes through great pain and suffering. Therefore throughout the ‘Aeneid’ Virgil explains the problems of suffering and the misery of the human situation. So what Virgil is trying to tell us is that choosing reason over emotion is a very difficult choice and that we have to be prepared to take it within our stride if we are to fulfill our role in this life.
To understand the level of devotion to duty for the Ancient Roman we have to understand the basic idea of stoicism. People have a tendency to brush off stoics as heartless and unpractical people and their argument is summed up by Jacques Brunshwig in his book ‘Papers in Hellenistic Philosophy’: “since interaction is exclusively the property of bodies, the stoics cannot alter these incorporeals to act upon bodies or be acted upon by them. How then do they play any part in the world?” But saying that stoics achieve their goals in life by denying these external influences and desires can refute this, so emotion is definitely not necessary to play out the real duty in life.
Stoics believe that one desires what one does not have, one desires to be what one is not and one desires things to be as they are not. Therefore desires lead to emotions which in turn cause wrongdoing and so one should keep focus of one’s goals and purpose in life so as not to go astray. An example of this viewpoint is Socrates’ reply to Diotima’s question in ‘Symposium’, “someone who wants good things, what is it that he wants?” Socrates’ reply is the classical stoic’s, “that they should eventually be his”. This is why Aeneas must rebuke Dido’s advances towards him, since love is a desire that would destroy his destiny, which is to found Rome.
The best example of a stoic’s views on reason taking precedence over emotion is the renowned Greek philosopher Chrysippus. Chrysippus believed the following: “The sage or good man is the criterion of rationality since he alone has the ‘right reason’. The soul admits of different degrees of tension, and any man whose logos is not consistently at the right degree of tension falls short of perfect rationality. So his disposition is not rational. He has an unusual logos. Passion is not other than logos, nor is there dissension between two things, but a turning of the one logos to both aspects; this escapes notice because of the suddenness and swiftness of change.” Therefore the stoics laid great emphasis upon the need to resist emotions.
The last work that I shall look at is Dante Alighieri’s medieval masterpiece, ‘La Divina Comedia’. In ‘The Inferno’, Dante’s journey through Hell, he uses the afore-mentioned Virgil as his guide. The explanation for this is that Virgil is an exponent of classical reason. Reason is a part of the simpler faiths that Dante yearns for in his own tumultuous life.
But the Medieval period marks the turning point for stoicism, and Dante is one of the original believers in emotion being the main force in life. This is why Dante has Virgil leave at the mountain of Purgatory before his entry into Heaven. This has been explained due to Virgil being a pagan, but Dante is trying to tell us something here. Dante believes that reason is the foundation and basis for Divine achievement but at a certain point emotion has to take precedence, and emotion alone will take one closer to God. This can be compared to the brahministic path of bhakti (devotion) to moksha (eternal salvation).
Near the end of ‘Purgatorio’, the second book of Dante’s trilogy, Virgil says the following to Dante: “Love is the seed in you of every virtue, and of all acts deserving punishment.” Therefore the journey through Hell and Purgatory is an education of desire for Dante, as he needs to be shown that everything arises from the same “seed”. In my view, these lines encapsulate perfectly what I’m trying to explain. Since all good and evil arise from the same source, we as individuals have to make the critical choice between reason and emotion to tackle the universal struggles and to conquer our fate by controlling this “seed”.
All things considered, I believe that there should be a very fine balance between reason and emotion. Too much reason will make us more like machines and we’ll miss out on the simple joys of life. And too much emotion will make us slaves to our desires, since our bodies will be free to do what they please without the mind keeping them in check. But at the same time I feel that that people in today’s world are leaning too far to the emotional side, and this is why there is so much evil in today’s world. We need more discipline, but not so much discipline as to make us fascists. Equilibrium is the key. We are not animals and neither are we higher beings; we are human. And so we have to use both of these paths to overcome the great test of character that we call life, and in doing so find our role in the scheme of things, for every living and nonliving entity in the universe plays some part or the other in the Divine Masterplan.