Orfeo's Exile. The Nexus between Emotion and Reason

Term Paper, 2015

10 Pages, Grade: 1,7



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The medieval notion of the emotion
2.1 Augustine’s response to the stoic view of emotion and reason

3. Emotion and reason in the romance Sir Orfeo
3.1 Orfeo’s exile- the nexus between emotion and reason

4. Conclusions

5. Works cited

1. Introduction

The Middle English romance Sir Orfeo is an anonymous poem of the early fourteenth century (1330-40) that has found great resonance with literary research and critique. It has been praised by multiple authors to be a ‘small poetic miracle’ (Pearsall 1996: 51) or ‘one of the most loveliest and charming of all Middle English Romances’ (Severs 1961: 187). The romance deals with Orfeo, king of Winchester who fails to save his beautiful wife Eurodis from the underworld and who decides in consequence of this loss to leave his kingdom in order to live in the wilderness. One day he rediscovers Eurodis among sixty ladies, follows her to the underworld, succeeds to bring her back to his kingdom and to restore his power.

The various readings and interpretations of the poem attest its literary relevance among Middle English literary works of art. These readings touch on the work’s references to Christian Mythology as well as upon philosophical and psychological questions posed by the authors. For instance Enrico Giaccherini (2002: 4) emphasises the protagonist’s decision to go into exile as a reference to Christian mythology. Furthermore, A. C. Spearing provides a psychoanalytic interpretation of the characters according to which Eurodises’ behaviour indicates traits of schizophrenia (Spearing 2000: 262-263). Moreover, Peter J. Lucas (1972:1) alludes to the social dimension of the poem. According to Lucas the “testing of social bonds of love and loyalty” depicts the main issue of the poem. Researchers have been inter alia interested in the characters’ behaviours and motives for behaving in a certain way in a specific situation. Both Derek Pearsall (1996: 61) and J.K. Knapp point out the “poem’s vision of the human condition” (Knapp 1968: 263). According to the former the uniqueness of the poem consists in the way it associates the weakness of human mind and the persistence of human heart (1996:61).

Pearsall indicates the metaphors of “mind” and “heart” in order to allude to the dualism between reason and emotion constituting according to him not only the poem’s uniqueness and its core aspect, but also the condition of being human (1996:61). In point of fact, regarded from a retrospective view on humanity’s history emotion and reason have been the most distinctive traits in human nature. However, we do not need to go that far in order to recognise the remarkable impact of this dualism on human life, for each decision made by an individual in its everyday life underlies the power of reason and emotion. Thus, can be explained the readers identification with and fascination for the poem. Pearsall does not further illustrate to which extent the forces of ‘mind’ and the ‘heart’ at work in the poem are represented in regard to the characters’ behaviours. Hence, in compliance with Pearsall’s determination, the goal of this paper is first to provide the philosophical medieval1 notion of emotion and reason and subsequently to investigate how emotion and reason relate to each other in the poem Sir Orfeo.

2. The medieval notion of the emotion

Seen from a diachronic perspective, the notion of emotions has undergone different approaches in the field of philosophy and psychology. Recently philosophical interest in emotions has increased due to new findings in other research fields such as cognitive science, developmental and evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and linguistics (Goldie 2010: 2). If we seek to understand how emotions are represented in Sir Orfeo as a work of art that mirrors the prevailing world view of its time of emergence, it is crucial to comprehend the medieval notion of emotions. However, even in the Middle Ages different competing conceptions of emotions exist (King 2010:167) offering divergent notions. Still, medieval thinkers were unanimous concerning the inherent qualities of a theory of emotions (King 2010: 167). According to them emotions consist of a cognitive (thought and belief) and a physiological dimension. Yet two occurrences were regarded as completely physiological: the urges and depressions. These occurrences were clearly extracted as being ‘purely physiological’ (King 2010: 167) and contrasted to the so called ‘paradigmatic’ emotions, such as delight, anger, distress and fear.

Besides philosophical approach, medical and confessional literature provided practical knowledge on emotions during the Middle Ages (King 2010: 168). Many Arabic philosophers who worked as physicians focussed on the medical dimension of emotions. Furthermore, for instance Christian doctrine ascribed an important role to emotions such as compassion and contrition play a fundamental role in Christian thought (King 2010 168). However, among Christian clergy only Christian theologians, who represented the intellectuals of the Middle Ages, were concerned with psychological theories of the emotions.

2.1 Augustine’s response to the stoic view of emotion and reason

The medieval notion of the emotions was fundamentally influenced by Augustine of Hippo’s discussions. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who became already as a teenager interested in philosophy and adopted classical teaching to Christian faith, deals with the emotions in his late work The City of God (Book 9.4-5 and 14.). In this work Augustine refers to the Stoic view of emotions which indicates that emotions are false and subjective value judgements that stand in contrast to the rational view of reality (Knuuttila 2010: 429). In accordance with the Stoics, Augustine defines emotions as “disturbances” and “mental passions” in The City of God (Augustine 1972: 346) and approves to the stoic assumption that emotion oppose to reason. However, he contradicts to the stoic idea that this opposition applies to all emotions (King 2010: 169). According to the theologian emotions can be in obedience to reason. Augustine provides the example of compassion, which he associates to exercising justice and thus to reason (Augustine 1972: 349). Apart from that he disapproves the Stoics, who assume that emotionlessness depicts the ideal state of being. Augustine refers to the Christian doctrine to refute this idea. For instance he emphasises that even Jesus was marked by emotions that were considered to be characteristic for human nature. Moreover, he argues that Christian doctrine invites human beings to feel emotions, such as loving your enemy or fearing God (King 2010: 169).

Besides Augustine underlines the fact that even a wise person may become subject to emotions (Augustine 1972: 346 f.). He gives the example of a Stoic philosopher who was paralysed with fear vis-à-vis a situation, in which a ship he was on was hit by a storm. The story was written by Aulus Gellius, a Latin author, in his work called Noctes Atticæ. Gellius had travelled on the shame ship as the Stoic philosopher. When the storm had passed, he as a reasonable man was asked by Gellius why he was paralysed with fear during the storm. In response to this question the stoic philosopher pulls out of his pocket a book written by Epictetus the Greek Stoic philosopher, in which the latter explains that even wise persons are impacted by emotions, underlining, however, that by the force of reason they can overcome their ‘disturbances’ (Augustine 1972: 346). Gellius who has read the book of the Stoic philosopher points out that according to the Stoics the human soul is unwillingly violated by external objects that provoke emotions such as fear and sadness. These emotional states can yet be overcome by the wise person’s power of reason (Augustine 1972: 347). Providing this example Augustine insists that by the force of reason the wise person may overcome his feelings of fear and sadness.

3. Emotion and reason in the romance Sir Orfeo

According to Augustine’s exposition emotion and reason cannot be regarded as fundamentally separate concepts. In point of fact, as Augustine maintains, there can be an interplay between them; on the one hand emotions can be in obedience to reason, on the other reason can strengthen a wise person in order to overcome emotions triggered by external objects. On the basis of these assumptions we will in the following examine how emotion and reason are represented in the medieval literary work of art Sir Orfeo. In this analysis predominantly the romance’s protagonist, King Orfeo, will be at the centre of interest.


1 Looking at the medieval notion of emotion and reason will help us to examine and understand the poem within the historical context it emerged from

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Orfeo's Exile. The Nexus between Emotion and Reason
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orfeo, exile, nexus, emotion, reason
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Anonymous, 2015, Orfeo's Exile. The Nexus between Emotion and Reason, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/511928


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