Martha Nussbaum and Thomas Aquinas on the Emotions

By Leget, Carlo | Theological Studies, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Martha Nussbaum and Thomas Aquinas on the Emotions

Leget, Carlo, Theological Studies

In her book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Martha Nussbaum presents a well argued philosophical theory of emotions. (1) The book offers extensive and noteworthy discussions with various ancient and contemporary theories of emotions in order to show the relevance of emotions for moral philosophy. Given, however, Nussbaum's historical interest and the Aristotelian and Stoic traditions she draws upon, it is surprising that in her study hardly any attention is paid to the work of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas's account not only belonged to the very same intellectual tradition upon which Nussbaum builds; he also composed the most extensive treatise on emotions in his day, one that has had a considerable influence on later Western thought. (2)

Whatever Aquinas's contribution to Nussbaum's theory of emotion might have been, in this article the main focus of interest lies in the opposite direction. The thought of Aquinas, and not in the least his attention to the impact of emotions in moral action, is still of major importance for contemporary moral theology. (3) Since the 13th century however things have changed. (4) Just as Aquinas developed his account of emotions in dialogue with the best sources available in his day, so should we in our time. (5) Nussbaum's discussion with a wide variety of contemporary authors on psychology and human (and animal) behavior provides a valuable resource for evaluating Aquinas's account.

Given the extensive corpus of writings from both Aquinas and Nussbaum, my exploration remains limited but representative. (6) First, I introduce Nussbaum's theory of emotion by giving an overview of the content of her book, often in her own words. Thus a framework for the discussion of details is designed and elements needed for the second section of my study are highlighted. My second part is devoted to the question how Nussbaum's neo-Stoic account might shed light on the problems and perspectives of using Aquinas's theory of emotion today. (7)


Nussbaum's book consists of three parts. In the first part, in which little is written about normative questions, she develops her own cognitive view on emotions. In the second and third part, she focuses on compassion (part 2) and love (part 3) in order to deal with three problems that are posed by her account and that might lead toward a rejection of the role emotions can play in normative judgments. These three problems concern (a) the vulnerability that is revealed by emotions, compromising the dignity of human agency; (b) the partial and unbalanced viewpoint of emotions as they develop in connection with particular attachments in early childhood; and (c) the ambivalence of emotions toward their objects, stemming from the morally subversive combination of love and resentment.

Part 1: Need and Recognition

Nussbaum develops her theory of emotion in a few stages. In the first chapter she presents its general structure, which in turn is refined and reshaped during the next four chapters. In her view, emotions "involve judgments about important things, judgments in which, appraising an external object as salient for our own well-being, we acknowledge our own neediness and incompleteness before parts of the world that we do not fully control." (8) Beginning with an autobiographical story of loss and grief and developing her view in discussion with accounts that consider emotions as unthinking bodily energies, she makes clear that emotions always imply an object, are intentional by nature, embody certain beliefs about the object, and are concerned with value. Emotions eventually tell about a person's flourishing, and are as such "eudaimonistic" (in the sense of ancient Greek, hence the spelling) by nature. They look at the world from the subject's own viewpoint.

Nussbaum calls her view neo-Stoic, because she modifies the Stoic account of emotions as evaluative judgments in a number of ways that differ from her ancient Greek predecessors. …

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