The history of what we mean by the word Emotion is a fascinating example of the variety of meanings, and changing hierarchy of importance among the different meanings, a word can have.
Emotion is based on a Latin conjunction of ex movere or to move out but is first used by the French in the 1700s to describe a mental disturbance. The English phrase “He’s out of his mind” is probably closer to the original meaning of the word emotion than are the more benign contemporary meaning of this word.
Emotion does not come to mean a category of feelings including happy, sad, mad, and all the rest until the 1800s and it is some time more until this is the almost exclusive meaning of the word emotion as it is commonly used.
So what did people call that general category of feelings including happy, sad, mad, and all the rest before French softened their word for out of his mind to include them? The answer is passion. Now this word too has undergone a unique journey. Originally from the Latin word pati meaning to suffer it was used to translate the Greek phrase meaning to under go, in the sense of, “He has to under go brain surgery next Friday.” A patient is one who receives the action of another, and a passion is that which we experience on account of another’s action.
An example might make this clearer. Sadness is an emotion experienced by everyone at some time in their life. When someone is sad we often ask them, “What’s got you down?” or “Why so blue?” Each of these responses to anothers sadness implies that there is an external cause, that the person simply isn’t sad because it is natural for people to be sad but that he is sad because of the action of another.
The rest of the history of the word passion finds it being used almost exclusively for the death of Christ. Here especially it has the notion that His sufferings were brought upon Him from outside agents. Indeed the omnipotent characteristic of God makes every evil Christ experienced at the hands of external agents all the more dramatic. Nevertheless we can still say that we all suffer, we all undergo, we all have passions as the result of external agents.
The original meaning of the word emotion, to move out, speaks to only half of the reality of our emotions, the physical part. Sadness, and its more severe cousin depression, bring a kind of weight or heaviness, which we talked about in our post on What is Depression?
Happiness conversely brings a kind of lightness, a spring in ones step. Anger is associated with heat, either an explosive kind of heat or a low simmering kind that comes out at unexpected times and places. There is however an intellectual component to emotion as well.
While nothing can stop us from experiencing a certain emotion, after all they are caused by external agents and not ourselves, and therefore having a particular emotional response does not enter into our will – what does become a matter of choice is what we do with the disposition generated in us by the emotion. Sadness, heaviness, inclines us to remain as we are, to do nothing. Happiness, lightness and pleasure, motivate us continue what we are doing, to do it with greater intensity.
What remains is to take into account the object we are sorrowing or enjoying. We can after all enjoy things which, though making us happy, are bad for us. The diabetic can enjoy chocolate cake but it is lethal to him. Even a healthy person can not take crystal meth no matter how enjoyable it is. Conversely we can sorrow at the three mile run which is good for us.
Thus it remains to each one of us not only to experience our emotions but to train ourselves to be happy at those objects which are good for the whole person, not just for our taste buds and to sorrow at those things which are bad for the whole person, not just for our sore calf muscles.