Adler on the Conflict Between Reason and Emotion

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


Dear Dr. Adler,

We are advised to be governed by reason and not to let our emotions run away with us. At the same time we are told not to suppress our emotions, lest we become mentally ill. Which is it to be? Are we to give our emotions free play or hold them in check? How do we corrdinate reason and emotion?

Emotion, as the term indicates, moves us. Fear, anger, love, and joy stir us inwardly and usually move us to act outwardly. This intensity, excitement, and drive to action contrasts sharply with the detachment, balance, and calmness associated with reason. The great writers in our tradition discuss this contrast and advance different theories of the proper roles in human life to be played by reason and emotion. They express three main views: (1) reason should govern emotion; (2) reason should get rid of emotion; and (3) emotion should rule over reason.

Aristotle and Plato held the first view. For them, reason is the specifically human faculty which judges rightly what is good and directs man to the right goals. They hold that emotion, too, is a part of man’s nature and a necessary component of moral virtue and action. Emotion is good, in this view, when it is properly subordinated to reason and employed by it in the service of good ends. Indeed, for Aristotle, such cardinal moral virtues as temperance and courage are habitual emotional attitudes or responses which carry out the commands of reason.

The second view, held mainly by Stoic philosophers like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, is that we should try to suppress our emotions and eventually be rid of them. The ideal is a state of complete detachment or indifference — literally apathy — toward whatever might might excite and disturb us. Nothing must be allowed to shake the even tenor of our judgment or our inner calm. We should be “stoical” even when faced with the death of loved ones, our own sufferings, the attitude of the world toward us, public or private catastrophes. The Stoics aim at freedom from the passions, not their control and inclusion with the moral life.

In modern times, Immanuel Kant voices a somewhat similar view. He holds that the truly good will must be utterly unaffected by the passions. Duty alone is the rationally justifiable motive of moral action. Inclination and delight are irrelevant in the moral sphere.

The third view, that emotion should be supreme, is mainly a modern position. The German Romantic philosophers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries — stress the primacy of emotion, imagination, and intuition in the attainment of knowledge and the fulfillment of life. They hold that analytical reason is inadequate and misleading in man’s quest to attain the depths of existence.

Sigmund Freud’s view does not fit any of the three basic positions. Like the Greeks, he holds that the emotions should be controlled in order to achieve the goals of life. But his thinking is essentially biological rather than moral. Adjustment of emotional demands to the actual conditions of life, he says, “promises greater security and success” than unbridled indulgence. The suppression of emotion, on the other hand, results in abnormal mental states or neuroses. Freud counsels us to try to make the best possible adjustment of instinctive emotional impulses to the realities of nature and society. We must avoid both emotional indulgence and suppression. Freud’s ideal is a wholeness and balance that withstands emotional storms within and social pressures without.

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