Emotional Contagion (Iliad VIII)

On the day recounted in Book VIII of the Iliad,

  • on earth, the Achaeans are twice driven behind their new walls;
    • during the first rout,
      • Odysseus does not hear when Diomedes urges him to come to the aid of Nestor;
      • Hector thinks he will be able to burn the Achaean ships and kill all the men;
      • Agamemnon prays for mere survival;
    • the second time, Hector calls for fires to be lit, lest the Greeks try to escape in the night;
  • in heaven, Zeus
    • weighs out a heavier fate for the Achaeans;
    • declares that it shall be so until Achilles is roused by the death of Patroclus;
    • warns Hera and Athena not to interfere (though they try to anyway).

I wrote a fuller summary in 2017. Because I was reading it, I also talked about Huysmans, Against Nature, and the belief of the main character that the prose poem could

contain within its small compass, like beef essence, the power of a novel, while eliminating its tedious analyses and superfluous descriptions.

Now I shall find reason to bring up Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, Thoreau, and Freud, and especially William James and Collingwood on the subject of emotion.

Morning sun, obscured by overcast skies, still shines on waters in turmoil in the Bosphorus Strait
Waters of the Bosphorus, Sarıyer, Istanbul
Wednesday morning, January 11, 2023

In the first of two remarkable images in Book VIII of the Iliad, aiming at Hector, Teucer has hit Gorgythion in the breast with an arrow (lines 306–8).

He bent drooping his head to one side, as a garden poppy
bends beneath the weight of its yield and the rains of springtime;
so his head bent slack to one side beneath the helm’s weight.

The second image helps make the Iliad the first science-fiction story, for featuring

  • twenty wheeled tripods that will go where they are wanted, without being pushed—Hephaestus will be constructing them in Book XVIII (lines 373–7) when Thetis comes to order a new shield for Achilles;
  • the gates of heaven, which open just when Hera and Athena want to drive through, both in Book V (lines 748–52) and now in Book VIII (line 392–6).

A third image may not seem so remarkable. Hector chases Achaeans the way a hunting hound chases a boar or a lion. William James has a theory, apparently shared with Carl Lange, that the quarry is afraid because it is fleeing, or even that the fear is nothing other than its physical manifestations. I shall come back to this.

Meanwhile, Homer’s verses describing the gates of heaven are the same in either case:

Hera laid the lash swiftly on the horses; and moving
of themselves groaned the gates of the sky that the Hours guarded,
those Hours to whose charge is given the huge sky and Olympos,
to open up the dense darkness or again to close it.
Through the way between they held the speed of their goaded horses.

Ἥρη δὲ μάστιγι θοῶς ἐπεμαίετ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἵππους:
αὐτόμαται δὲ πύλαι μύκον οὐρανοῦ ἃς ἔχον Ὧραι,
τῇς ἐπιτέτραπται μέγας οὐρανὸς Οὔλυμπός τε
ἠμὲν ἀνακλῖναι πυκινὸν νέφος ἠδ᾽ ἐπιθεῖναι.
τῇ ῥα δι᾽ αὐτάων κεντρηνεκέας ἔχον ἵππους.

You might think the Hours open the gates, but that’s not what the text says. The gates are automatic, as are the tripods of Hephaestus.

I overlooked those tripods when I assembled the post called “Automatia.” I did note how Menelaus too was “automatic” when, uninvited, he attended a meeting in Book II called by his big brother. Something is automatic in the original sense (as I noted also in the last post, on Book VII), if it has a mind of its own. The sense broadens to include things that seem as if they had a mind of their own.

  • Because the annual flooding of the Nile is automatic, the Egyptians have a comparatively easy life, as Herodotus (II.14) tells us:

    the river rises of itself (ὁ ποταμὸς αὐτόματος ἐπελθὼν), waters the fields, and then sinks back again; then each man sows his field and sends swine into it to tread down the seed, and waits for the harvest; then he has the swine thresh his grain, and so garners it.

    This passage may be a counterexample for the suggestion last time that pigs were first domesticated only for meat.

  • The death of an old man is automatic, as Socrates points out, in the Apology (38c), to the compatriots that voted for his death:

    Now if you had waited a little while, what you desire would have come to you of its own accord (ἀπὸ τοῦ αὐτομάτου); for you see how old I am, how far advanced in life and how near death.

  • For Aristotle, anything that happens by chance is automatic.

I looked at Aristotle in “Automatia.” He takes up the automatic, τὸ αὐτόματον, in Physics Β6. Luck (ἡ τύχη) is only one kind of it. If a falling tripod lands on its feet, this has happened automatically. We don’t say the tripod is lucky; however, the event is lucky for us, if we wanted it to happen.

Nonetheless, I would say, even though τὸ αὐτόματον opens the gates of heaven, the goddesses who want to drive through are not lucky that the gates open, any more than we are lucky today, when shop doors open automatically as we approach. The devices have been contrived to do what is wanted, with no further action from those who want it.

In short, the word “automatic” can be applied to something for opposite reasons:

  • because it is unpredictable;
  • because it is predictable.

I looked at Freud’s general observation:

Many scholars who do research work in languages have maintained that in the oldest languages opposites—such as strong, weak; light, dark; big, little—were expressed by the same root word.

By analogy,

An element in a manifest dream, capable of having an opposite, may therefore represent itself as well as its opposite, or may do both simultaneously.

For example, a number of things together, such as compartments on a train, can represent one thing, such as the unique spouse that monogamy permits. The many can stand for their opposite, the one. That’s what Freud says.

For Socrates in Book VII of the Republic, the ambiguity of number is a reason why the guardians of the city should study arithmetic. As I understand the argument starting in 523e, for any pair of opposites, such as big and small, thick and thin, or soft and hard, we cannot perceive one member of the pair without at the same time perceiving the other. This leads the soul to distinguish two elements of its one perception. Glaucon ultimately admits (525a–b, in Bloom’s translation),

For we see the same thing at the same time as both one and as an unlimited multitude (ἅμα γὰρ ταὐτὸν ὡς ἕν τε ὁρῶμεν καὶ ὡς ἄπειρα τὸ πλῆθος).”

“If this is the case with the one,” I said, “won’t it be the same for all number?”

“Of course.”

“And, further, the arts of calculation and number are both wholly concerned with number.”

“Quite so.”

“Then it looks as if they lead toward truth.”

Thus the philosopher must learn arithmetic, “because he must rise up out of becoming and take hold of being or else never become skilled at calculating.” Moreover, the guardian is not only a philosopher, but also a warrior: he is one man, who is also two, in seeming violation of the principle of justice, whereby each of us has just one job to do. The warrior must learn “the arts of calculation and number,” “for the sake of his dispositions for the army.”

Book VIII of the Iliad would seem to show what else the warrior needs or at least has to deal with: passion.

I’ll go with Collingwood’s understanding in The New Leviathan (1942), mentioned when I last took up Book I of the Iliad: passion is our response to confrontation.

Confrontation is what Thoreau lived for, by the account of the chapter of Walden that is indeed called “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life …

Resignation is how the Achaeans respond, once they see that their burden of fate is the heavier, weighed against the Trojans’, on the day recounted in Book VIII of the Iliad (lines 68–77):

But when the sun god stood bestriding the middle heaven,
then the father balanced his golden scales, and in them
he set two fateful portions of death, which lays men prostrate,
for Trojans, breakers of horses, and bronze-armored Achaians,
and balanced it by the middle. The Achaians’ death-day was heaviest.
There the fates of the Achaians settled down toward the bountiful
earth, while those of the Trojans were lifted into the wide sky;
and he himself crashed a great stroke from Ida, and a kindling
flash shot over the people of the Achaians; seeing it
they were stunned, and pale terror took hold of all of them.

Everybody flees except Nestor, and he wants to flee too, but his horse has been shot by Paris.

Thoreau had the Iliad with him by Walden Pond, but does not write much about it, except to say (in the chapter of Walden called “Reading”) that he did not have much time for it:

I kept Homer’s Iliad on my table through the summer, though I looked at his page only now and then. Incessant labor with my hands, at first, for I had my house to finish and my beans to hoe at the same time, made more study impossible. Yet I sustained myself by the prospect of such reading in future.

That future prospect is why many of us have books on our shelves that we have not yet read. Apparently tsundoko is a Japanese word for collecting those books, or for the books themselves. Thoreau continues in his next paragraph with a sort of warning about reading books like the Iliad:

The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have.

It so happens that Thoreau’s next paragraph refers to the story to which Homer alludes in Book III of the Iliad:

Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes …

I wondered in 2017 whether all men were to be considered as pygmies. In any case, Homer would seem to give us three terms of an analogy:

cranes : pygmies :: Trojans : X.

The X then would be the Achaeans.

In Book VIII now, they have been taken hold of by “pale terror” (χλωρὸν δέος, the adjective giving us the first element of “chlorophyll”; the noun, indirectly, “dinosaur”). This fear cannot be simply a rational response to meteorological phenomena above Mount Ida, interpreted as signs from Zeus. First of all, surely the fear spreads through the host by such emotional contagion, or “sympathy,” as Collingwood describes in a section of The Principles of Art called “Psychical Expression” (§ 2 of Chapter XI, “Language”, in Book II, “The Theory of Imagination”; page 230–1):

Every kind and shade of emotion which occurs at the purely psychical level of experience has its counterpart in some change of the muscular or circulatory or glandular¹ system which, in the sense of the word now under discussion, expresses it. Whether these changes are observed and correctly interpreted depends on the skill of the observer … There is a kind of emotional contagion which takes effect without any intellectual activity; without the presence even of consciousness. This is a familiar fact, alarming because it seems so inexplicable … The spread of panic through a crowd is not due to each person’s being independently frightened, nor to any communication by speech; it happens in the complete absence of these things, each person becoming terrified simply because his neighbour is terrified …

This ‘sympathy’ (the simplest and best name for the contagion I have described) exists visibly among animals other than man, and between animals of different species …

¹ Not the endocrine system only. Even men, whose sense of smell is so feeble, can discover that certain emotions in their fellow men occasion peculiar scents by causing glandular discharges. To an animal whose sense of smell is so acute as a dog’s, I suppose there is a ‘language’ of scent as expressive as the ‘language’ of involuntary facial gesture is to us.

One burden of this section of Collingwood’s book is to show how, regarding “emotions of consciousness” (page 132),

The common-sense view is right, and the James–Lange theory is wrong.

Collingwood has not explicitly laid out a “common-sense view.” He may however have a book by William James lying before him, either The Principles of Psychology (1890), open to Chapter XXV, “The Emotions,” or Psychology: Briefer Course (1892), open to Chapter XXIV, “Emotion”:

Common-sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect, that the one mental state is not immediately induced by the other, that the bodily manifestations must first be interposed between, and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be.

As Collingwood does in The New Leviathan, James could be responding the original Leviathan (1651), where Hobbes takes fear to a be a form of the “simple passion” of aversion, “with opinion of Hurt from the object.” For Collingwood (10.21–22, pages 67–8),

This is a rationalistic account in the seventeenth-century manner, making a thing out to be rational which is not rational … It is a mistake because … if there is belief in danger the right reaction is to keep calm and avoid it, not to fall into that strange paralysis of mind which is called fear.

James has already observed that something like that “strange paralysis” is indeed essential to fear; but for him it is something bodily:

Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colorless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we should not actually feel afraid or angry.

I’m afraid James has fallen for the third of of what, in New Leviathan Chapter II, “The Relation Between Body and Mind,” Collingwood describes as “old wives’ tales” (here I adapt my 2014 description of the tales):

  1. The mind inhabits the body as a person inhabits a house.
  2. The mind and body are more intimately connected, by Psycho-physical Parallelism.
  3. Mind-events and body-events do not run parallel, but they interfere with one another, and this can be called Psycho-physical Interactionism.

James tells something more like the second tale, in the “Introductory” Chapter I of his Briefer Course (page 12):

The immediate condition of a state of consciousness is an activity of some sort in the cerebral hemispheres. This proposition is supported by so many pathological facts, and laid by physiologists at the base of so many of their reasonings, that to the medically educated mind it seems almost axiomatic.

From seeming “almost axiomatic,” the supposed physical condition of consciousness will become a “working hypothesis.” James goes on to mention the effect of blows to the head, along with loss of blood, epilepsy, alcohol, opium, and so forth. “A cup of strong coffee at the proper moment will entirely overturn for the time a man’s views of life.” Hence,

the simple and radical conception dawns upon the mind that mental action may be uniformly and absolutely a function of brain-action, varying as the latter varies, and being to the brain-action as effect to cause.

This conception … will be the working hypothesis of this book … To work an hypothesis ‘for all it is worth’ is the real, and often the only, way to prove its insufficiency. I shall therefore assume without scruple at the outset that the uniform correlation of brain-states with mind-states is a law of nature.

Though they have tried, people have not been able to convince me that this makes any sense. Under the influence of Collingwood no doubt, I can only say for now that while mind as such is subject to laws of logic and ethics, it is not subject to laws of nature.

Both James and the Collingwood of The Principles of Art analyze an instance of fear into the same three elements.

I shall stick with James’s example of a bear, because I did see a bear in the wild, in the 1990s. I was hiking on the other side of the ridge beyond my uncle’s West Virginia house. Some land up there had been logged a few years earlier, and at the edge of the clearing, an animal was rooting around. It was a bear. I stopped short and wondered what to do. For a moment I thought I could be in real danger, though that seemed unlikely, from what I had heard about the bears of eastern North America. I don’t remember clearly the physical manifestations of my momentary fear. Let us say that I trembled. James and Collingwood have the following analysis of my experience.

  1. Meet a bear.
  2. Be frightened.
  3. Tremble.

I have listed the elements in what for Collingwood is their “definite structural order” (page 230). James interchanges the last two elements, intending their order to reflect causation—whatever that means. He goes on to say (in both books referred to),

The best proof that the immediate cause of emotion is a physical effect on the nerves is furnished by those pathological cases in which the emotion is objectless … In every asylum we find examples of absolutely unmotived fear, anger, melancholy, or conceit; and others of an equally unmotived apathy which persists in spite of the best of outward reasons why it should give way.

By Collingwood’s account, none of the emotions here is “unmotived.” It may indeed not be “the emotional charge on a sensum,” as a “psychical emotion” would be; it is rather an “emotion of consciousness,” which is the emotional charge “on a certain mode of consciousness.” Alluding to his own example of fear, Collingwood explains:

To the series (1) scarlet colour, (2) fear, (3) cringing, in the case of psychical emotions, the corresponding series in an emotion of consciousness is (1) consciousness of our own inferiority (which is not a sensum but a mode of consciousness), (2) shame, (3) blushing.

In each case, the third element is an expression of the second. Collingwood concludes with what was quoted earlier: “The common-sense view is right, and the James–Lange theory wrong.”

Collingwood introduces his example of fear much earlier (in § 2, “Feeling,” of Chapter VIII, “Thinking and Feeling,” which is the first chapter of Book II; page 161). I don’t know if the infant here is Collingwood’s own, or Collingwood himself.

When an infant is terrified at the sight of a scarlet curtain blazing in the sunlight, there are not two distinct experiences in its mind, one a sensation of red and the other an emotion of fear: there is only one experience, a terrifying red.

Neither then, perhaps, is cringing a distinct experience. It is what the outside observer sees, and reads as fear.

Collingwood pursues a different sort of analysis in The New Leviathan, where fear is only one kind of passion, the other being anger. The impulse to cringe is ultimately self-defeating; it gives way either to death or defiance.

The Achaeans turn defiant, after retreating inside their new walls for the first time. Zeus has pity and—by Homer’s account—sends the sign of an eagle carrying a fawn. The Achaeans all go back out to fight, Diomedes first. Gorgythian becomes the ninth Trojan whom Teucer slays with an arrow. Hector’s charioteer Archeptolemus is a tenth.

Now Hector is angry. He knocks down Teucer with a stone.

Concerning emotional contagion, Collingwood observes in The Principles of Art (page 231),

How this contagion ‘takes’ will depend, of course, on the psychical structure of the mind that takes it. Terror in a rabbit will communicate itself to a pursuing dog not as terror but as a desire to kill, for a dog has the psychical ‘nature’ of a hunting animal. Every one knows that dogs chase cats because cats run away …

That’s basically what happens now at Troy (lines 338–42):

As when some hunting hound in the speed of his feet pursuing
a wild boar or a lion snaps from behind at his quarters
or flanks, but watches for the beast to turn upon him, so Hektor
followed close on the heels of the flowing-haired Achaians,
killing ever the last of the men; and they fled in terror.

7 Trackbacks

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