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Aristotle on Emotions and Ethical Health


College of Arts and Sciences
Cagayan State University

I once asked my wife what is her greatest fear, and her response was the fear of
death. Who will take care of the children if I die, she asked. In my heart, I know that I
share her fear.

Is being afraid, or is fear, irrational?

Naussbaum, through her fictional character Nikidion, tried to show in her work,
The Therapy of Desires, that one aspect of Man’s character is being “emotional”.1 From
this, she proceeded with a remarkable discussion on the Aristotelian analysis of emotion
which includes fear, pity, love, grief and anger.

This paper explores Naussbaum’s exploration of Aristotelian account of Human

emotion in the context of Filipino psyche, specifically focusing on her discussion of fear.

According to Naussbaum, Aristotle, like any other major Greek thinkers agrees
that emotions are forms of intentional awareness, a subclass of orexis ( “reaching out”),
which are directed at or about an object, in which the object figures as it seen from the
creature’s point of view.2

To give an adequate account of fear, for instance, we should be able to mention

the object of our fear, what it is about and for. And when we do this, according to
The Therapy of Desires: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. 1994. New Jersey: Princeton
University Press. Chapter 3.
Naussbaum, p. 80.

Naussbaum, we characterize the object as it is “individually” seen by us who experience
the emotion, whether our view is correct or not: my fear depends upon the way I view the
object of my fear, not really on the way the object really is. And because emotions, like
fear, depends on how we see things or objects (of our emotion), this leads to the second
point of agreement among Greek thinkers, that they (emotions) have a very intimate
relationship with beliefs that are requisites for their occurrence.3

Aristotle says that the object of a person’s fear must be an evil that seems capable
of causing great pain and destruction, one that seems to be impending, and one that the
person seems powerless to prevent.

Thus, he notes, we don’t typically have throughout life an active fear of death,
even though we know we shall die. Since death seems to be far away; nor do we fear
becoming stupid or unjust, presumable because we think this is within our power to
prevent. In general, Aristotle continues, since fear is with the expectation that one will
suffer some destructive affect, it is evident that nobody is afraid who thinks that he can
suffer nothing.4 In short, fear is peculiarly human experience with a rich intentional
awareness of its object, resting on beliefs and judgments of many sorts, both general and

Now, is fear rational or appropriate? The answer leads to the third point of
agreement among Greek thinkers: depending on the character of the beliefs that are the
basis or grounds, emotions like fear may appropriately assessed as rational or
irrational, true or false, appropriate or not. Fear of a mouse, for instance, is not
appropriate and something so absurd that, according to Aristotle, is pathological.

But there are things in the world that it is right to fear them, there are occasions
when one must fear and it is noble for one to have some fear. Aristotle lists the following

It means that emotions can be modified by a modification of beliefs, see Naussbaum p. 80.
Naussbaum, p. 86

examples of appropriate objects of fear: disgrace, assault or the killing of one’s children
or wife, and, above all, one’s own death. 5

This shows that there are things in the world which are right to care about:
family, friends, one’s own life and health that sometimes could be damaged by events
not under our control.

The good person, rather than being a fearless person is one who will have
appropriate rather than inappropriate fears – and not deferred by them from doing what is
required and noble.

The Aristotelian account of fear applies to how Filipinos, in fact, perceive and
experience fear. Filipinos greatly fear the possible death of a beloved family member, a
friend, they fear losing their honor and fortune – and of course losing their own life and
health. Most Filipinos attribute the cause of their fear and its objects to powerful and
unseen forces around them which they believe to be beyond their comprehension and
power to control.

The Filipino recognition of the existence of such awesome forces explains why
they generally fear the supernatural and the unknown. From this fear evolves some
peculiar Filipino practices which are known in sociological and anthropological texts as

One example is the Ybanag practice of turning of one’s plate (in a counter-
clockwise fashion) when a family member needs to take leave during meal time (most
especially when he or she needs to travel long distances). 6 This practice is one of the sets
Ibid., p.94
I am not aware if there’s already a study about Ybanag’s cultural (superstitious) practices. But if I recall it
rightly, the food represents divine grace that is being received during meal time. Leaving while others are
still receiving it is interpreted as refusing the grace that is being given to the family and insulting the
divine giver of grace. Bad luck, in the form of road accidents, is therefore a form of punishment. Now,
turning of plates opposes bad luck as it symbolizes the turning of time, or going back in time, as if the
grace is not yet being received by the family.

of “pamahiin” which they call “tupplaw”. “Tupplaw” is another “pamahiin” directed at
stopping or avoiding bad luck, in this case, a terrible tragedy that might befall to the
person who is leaving. 7

The fear of death and other misfortunes also lead Filipinos to use of anting-anting
(charms), agimat (amulets) or orasyon (spells, or sorts of magical prayers), and as the
experience of the Spanish missionaries during the evangelization era shows, fear has
brought the Filipinos to the loving embrace of Catholicism. Whether the aforementioned
practices are rational or irrational, I am not willing to decide it here. Although, what I’m
sure, as far as Aristotle’s account of fear is concerned, is this: the basis of these practices
or their objects, are legitimate, rational, and appropriate. That is, they all rest on
appropriate fear of things beyond their power to control.

Amidst the appropriate fear of the Filipinos about death and dying, about losing
of one’s honor and fortune, the Filipinos are not deferred by fear from living and facing
the challenges and joys of their human existence. Aside from doing “tupplaw” and its
variations, aside for wearing amulets and lucky charms, aside from praying orasyon, and
so on, there is something in the Filipino character that makes him stand firmly on his
ground even though how fearful he might be.

Filipino sociologists and psychologists attribute such firmness in spirit to the

Filipino’s “lakas ng loob”, “bahala na” and pakikibaka” or “pakikipagsapalaran”.8
“Lakas ng Loob”, as expressed in the Filipino attitudes of “Bahala Na” and
“Pakikipagsapalaran” – is not fearlessness, but determination, it is not fatalism, but
acting and at the same time hoping for the best amidst uncertainty.

He is afraid, all right, but his fear does not, for it cannot, paralyzed him from
moving on. Because he knows he is not alone, “Pakikibaka”, he fights together with his
family, friends, and his community. When he says “bahala na” it means that he is aware

We can see in the case that “Tupplaw” is a means for allowing exemptions in the rigidly observed
“pamahiin” of the Ybanags of not allowing family members or friends to leave during meal time.
Van Heugten, Lina V., “Mga Katangiang Pilipino”, p.10

of the great difficulty that lies ahead of him – but he moves on to wrestle the enormous
and the unbeatable.

Though most of the time he loses, that fact that he faced it, and is willing to face
it again and again, in some way, therefore, he always emerges as the winner – for he
wins something in his fight in the never ending struggle against what we all call life: that
is, the valuable insight that whether you like it or not, for better of for worst, one needs
to face his fear and fight.