Comparing and Contrasting Theories of Emotion, Essay Example

Emotions are generally perceived as primitive reactions that interact with, and influence, with reason, often in unwanted ways. Basic emotions therefore are perceived as instinctual and often in conflict with human evolved intellect. The manner in which this conflict is solved is different for the East and for the West, where different types of societies, with different values and norms of conduct came to regard emotion and its place in the society, and in the life of a person, in very specific ways. One of the most representative Western thinkers of the Antiquity in Aristotle, in whose teachings one can discover a complex view on emotion as subject to the will of the individual. Almost contemporary to him was Confucius, whose teachings on ethics and morality have been analyzed by scholars for 2000 years. In his Analects, Confucius links ethics to emotion sensitivity.  In this, he stands in contrast to Aristotle, for whom virtue is achieved when one learns to control and sometimes, stop certain emotions from arising. Confucius instead, uses emotion as a channel through which ethical behavior may be achieved.  After comparing ideas on emotion of these two ancient thinkers, Aristotle and Confucius, as they are represented in their most representative works, The Analects Rhetoric, and Nicomachean Ethics, the present paper argues that the two thinkers have similar ideas concerning the idea of virtuous leadership as the best form of government. The essential difference between them is in their understanding of the role of emotion in achieving this role.

Aristotelian Theory

Some of the earliest theories of emotion in the Western world developed from the teachings of important Greek scholars. Hippocrates’ development of the humors system may have provided the perfect platform for the study of emotion, due to ancient characteristics associated with each of the substances. Two opposing views arose regarding the concept of emotion, namely the Stoic belief that emotions are damaging due to their confounding of reason, and the Aristotelian perspective of emotion as a necessary prerequisite of virtue. The latter would go on to have a significant impact on the development of the dominant theories of emotion in Western academia.

Aristotle and the Stoics had strong ideas about emotions, ideas which were largely incompatible (Annas, 2000, p.84). The stoics believed that “an emotion…is excessive and disobedient to reason, which is dictating” (p.97).Moreover, they believed that, every emotion is an ‘upset’, therefore thrying not only to control emotion, but also, to escape from the threat of emotion completely.  In Aristotle’s view however, emotions are “all those feelings that so change men as to affect their judgements, and that are also attended by pain and pleasure” (Aristotle, 2000, p.85).  Thus, the Greek philosopher was a supporter of emotions in altering our judgements. However, while Stoicism identified this influence as a corrupting force in the decision making process, Aristotle theorized that emotions were a natural instinct that actually aids in making judgements. This approach accepts the impact that emotions can have on the form and/or intensity of a personal conclusion, but also considers the universality of the condition. Emotions are a human thing that cannot simply be passed over, and are not always easily integrated into consciousness.

Aristotle identified several different emotions such as pity, anger and fear and their opposites (2000, p.85), and theorized on the implications of their impact on the execution of judgements. Pity, for example, is explained in terms of basic emotions that are identified by Aristotle at their basis, namely pain and fear. Thus, according to him, we feel pity whenever we are in the condition of remembering that similar misfortunes have happened to us or ours, or expecting them to happen in future (Aristotle, 2000, p.91). Thus, the first condition implies pain which was felt in the past, and fear for the potential pain that could occur in the future. When this emotion is roused by a perceived injustice, it can result in a decision that acts in opposition to the triggering variable. This theory also posits the ability of emotional influence to override apparent attitudes in virtuous people, though individuals who are agents of deception are unlikely to be significantly impacted by such a feeling. The ideas of Aristotle consequently suggest a relationship between emotional experience and personal values.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explains how virtue develops, and in his account, emotions have a fundamental role (Annas, 2000, p.96). Aristotle says that:

“By doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do, in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and by being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly” (Aristotle, 2000, p. 93).

Thus, in Aristotle’s view, virtue may be educated just like emotions may be educated. This is because, in order to be truly virtuous, and not only to do the right thing by abstaining from the wrong, one has to learn, not only to control his emotions, but also, to educate them, so that he might truly feel in a certain way (Annas, 2000, p. 96).

Aristotle therefore resembled stoics in his belief that reason is able to control emotion. However, unlike stoics, who tried to abstain from all emotions and deny them entirely, Aristotle valued them, and believed that they can be used not only in order to persuade people, but also in order to educate one to feel the right things in the right moments.

Confucianism and Emotion

During roughly the same time period as the Greek philosophers were developing the first Western theories of emotion, Confucianism was helping to birth the concept in Eastern societies. The Confucian classification of emotions was focused primarily on experienced feelings, rather than relying on an encompassing terminology. The distinction between emotion and feelings is a key aspect of this system, acting as a defining feature, as well as providing an explanation for the course of an emotional experience from onset to conclusion. Feelings are the structures that deliver emotions, they are lasting, and they describe the expression of emotions. On the contrary, the emotion is the content of a feeling, is often fleeting and always impermanent, and describe the experience of the expresser, rather than the expression itself. Accordingly, in Confucianism, feelings dominate emotions in both construction and display.

Confucius’s Analects do not contain theoretical ideas on emotion, and do not even contain the word as such. However, his references to emotion terms abound in the text of the Analects and allow one to understand Confucius’ understanding of emotion as deeply connected to an ethical life. Thus, people who live a moral life must love their fellow men out of a sense of duty (2012, p.61). Also, emotions must be controlled, and a balance must be maintained, so that they do not control the individual, or make him lose his sense of morality. This is explicit in the following saying:

“In the Kuan Chu, there is joy without wantonness, and sorrow without self-injury” (Confucius, Book III,  20).

Another important idea is that one must be compassionate, in order to recognize and judge other men:

“It is only a benevolent man who is capable of liking and disliking other men” (Confucius, Book IV, 3).

The above saying suggests that a compassionate man is able to judge objectively and to identify likeable and unlikeable individuals. Ethics thus establishes who should be liked and who should be not, and therefore ethics must be the governmental concept beneath emotion.

One may also notice however, that Confucius considered emotions such as love, shame, or enthusiasm, to be essential in developing virtue. Confucius thus uses native emotion, instead of trying to subject it to reason, or to deny it entirely. For him emotion is self-implied, it is there, but only the benevolent one is able to use emotion correctly, such as to love of others, and even to hate, when hate is the correct attitude.

Comparison and Contrast

The most apparent similarity between Confucius and Aristotle is based in the foundation of both approaches, providing an immediate basis for relating the two. Aristotle proposed that emotions are feelings which affect judgement, and at the basis of emotion are two fundamental feelings, pain and pleasure. Confucius does not clearly state what emotion is, but identify several emotions and links them to an ethical behavior. Another important commonality between these approaches is the identification of feelings being linked with virtuousness, while admitting the inherent faults associated with being human. Aristotle was clear in his evaluation of virtue as a prime motivator of feeling, and thus emotion, and related expression. Confucian theory also presents the goodness of people as a natural source of feelings, while sinfulness may present a corrupting factor. The Aristotelian approach similarly holds that deception and malicious intent may damage the process.

The two theories of emotion are essentially different. Whereas Aristotle favors a rational approach to ethics and justice, Confucius creates favors an understanding of the same ideas based on emotional sensitivity. In fact, Confucius argues in favor of equilibrium between reason and emotion, none of which can be demonstrated to be more important than the other.

The Eastern theory is less rigid, allowing for multiple routes of emotional expression based on several contributing factors to the development of feelings resulting in either natural emotions, or moral emotions. In an alternate system, Aristotle proposed that all feelings were the result of virtue in every person with this quality, and regarded all emotional influences to be natural components of the human condition. This conflict may be solely based in language, and an apparent division in the understanding of morals and values individual, or synonymous entities.

A common theme that has become prevalent in recent decades throughout many fields of research is the focus on uncovering sociocultural factors that have been neglected in the past. The resulting surge in cross-cultural studies has allowed for an increased understanding of the differences that are found between the many systems that are found in comparable groups. Applying this approach to the study of Aristotelian and Confucian theories of emotions could help to clarify the underlying reasons for the differences discussed above.

A well-known variation between cultures is the focus on individualism in the West, as opposed to the importance of group relationships in the East. Research could be undertaken to reveal the role of this ideological conflict in the observation of differences between emotional theories. It may be postulated that the desire for definition in Western society is reflective of a need to define one’s self as an individual. An experiment designed to evaluate the relationship of individualistic tendencies to understanding of feelings and emotion across both cultures would provide evidence regarding the influence of this predominately Western trait.

Emotions are a universal trait of humankind. Some groups approach this reality by concocting methods to minimize the impact of what they perceive as a threat to reason, as is found in Stoicism. Others may address the presence of feelings and emotions by trying to understand the mechanisms that underlie each concept, as has been demonstrated by great minds like Aristotle and Confucius. The research and theorizing that occurred (and continues to occur) in parallel cultures has revealed a large amount of agreement in developed emotional explanations. These Greek and Chinese thinkers agreed that values were fundamental to the formation of the feelings that cause emotions.

Differences between the Aristotelian and Confucian approaches to emotion were also apparent, but further investigation may reveal that some of these conflicts are actually illusions caused by the mixing of languages. There are many other candidate variables related to a sociocultural perspective (like individualism vs. collectivism) that may be important parts of future analyses. Research can contribute much more to this topic by comparing culturally linked aspects of emotional theories and determining where comparisons and contrasts may be convoluted by a history of failing to consider cultural influences in both Western and Eastern theories of emotion.



Confucius. 2012.The Analects. (D.C. Law trans.). Simon and Brown.

Aristotle. Rhetoric. In J. Annas. Voices of ancient philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.