Didn't the ancients have any feelings?

If you've ever read Roman, Old English, Medieval, or Renaissance lit, you may have noticed how devoid of feeling it is? Many of the ancient sagas from Homer to Iceland are filled with action, especially violent war-type action. But didn't any of these societies have any feelings? Of course, they must've by why don't they ever write about it? Is it because we expect everyone to reveal their every feeling on the page? Is this desire something that makes us modern?

I mean pick up a novel, open it to any page and read. Feelings are spread before us in almost every paragraph with gallons of ink. There are so many feelings that it sometimes takes the characters forever to DO anything.
"Literature certainly reflects the preoccupations of its time, but there is evidence that it may also reshape the minds of readers in unexpected ways. Stories that vault readers outside of their own lives and into characters’ inner experiences may sharpen readers’ general abilities to imagine the minds of others. If that’s the case, the historical shift in literature from just-the-facts narration to the tracing of mental peregrinations may have had an unintended side effect: helping to train precisely the skills that people needed to function in societies that were becoming more socially complex and ambiguous."
At least that is what one researcher thinks. Our tendency to reflect, read, and write about feelings helps us to navigate society today. We evolved those skills over time, and, if you think about it, in a relatively short period of time...5,000 years or so.

Not to say that there wasn't emotions in early texts, but it was more "hand wringing and tearing of hair," and relatively little of the more subtle emotional cues we read in our novels today.

When did this change? Between 1500 and 1700 and who was writing about emotions then? You guessed it, Shakespeare. Specifically "when it became common for characters to pause in the middle of the action, launching into monologues as they struggled with conflicting desires, contemplated the motives of others, or lost themselves in fantasy—as is familiar to anyone who’s studied the psychologically rich soliloquies of Shakespeare’s plays."

So that leads this researcher to ask:
"If mentalizing skills can be burnished by language that draws attention to mental states, has literature’s increasing use of such language improved readers’ social intelligence over the centuries?"
What do you think? Are we socially more intelligent than our ancestors?


  1. Our ancestors conveyed their emotions in a much more symbolic way than we do now in literature. They weren't able to portray emotional nuance in literature quite as we can today, but they had their methods of expressing it. Carl Jung believed the key is in ancient myths and legends, and that even subconsciously, cultures of people were able to convey complex psychological feelings in stories and horrible beasts. For example, I've recently seen it argued that even Dante's vision of the circles of hell represented how we only damn and destroy ourselves from the inside when we, for example, betray others, a surprisingly complex psychological concept.
    Luckily, some graffiti from ancient Rome survives and gives a great example of some of the more emotive, relatable everyday text which generally hasn't been preserved like great works of literature have.

    "Let everyone one in love come and see. I want to break Venus’ ribs with clubs and cripple the goddess’ loins. If she can strike through my soft chest, then why can’t I smash her head with a club?"
    (from http://www.pompeiana.org/Resources/Ancient/Graffiti%20from%20Pompeii.htm)

    The idea that our ancestors expressed their emotions through cultural myths speaks loud and clear here; heartbroken, this anonymous Roman expresses himself by trying to pick a fight with the literal manifestation of love itself.

  2. I certainly believe that any language that puts attention on any emotional or mental state can help everyone become more socially understanding. By reading literature that describes these kind of things, it gives the reader an idea that perhaps there are people in the real world who express similar emotions. After all, the emotions and mental states must have had some relation to the writer if they appeared in their literature. It also indirectly tells readers that there are feelings and experiences beyond their own. It's definitely a fascinating perspective to look at.
    As far as comparing our own social intelligence to our ancestors', I would say that we are. However, it is also important to keep in mind the context in which we live and our ancestors lived when making these comparisons. Today, there is more of a social concern about being caring and understanding of others and most people live under different circumstances where as our ancestors were more likely to (or at least appeared to be) live in similar circumstances with each other and be less accepting of others.

  3. In my personal opinion I'd believe that the literature of the past did reflect their current cultures and mindsets. We can all agree that depending on the times, say 1400 and before, a good portion of the world was considered "barbaric". Let's also not forget that greek/roman traditionally speaking were very militaristic societies. Hence why The Holy Roman Empire was as big as it was. So the literature of that time had probably reflected those waring years of conquest and blood fueds. After the times of say, the Renaissance, the world as a whole has pushed towards the intricacies of complex thought and analysis. To look for understanding in the science of the world, and even now, the emotions of the people within. We've already integrated emotion into our literature as a result of that, I believe.

  4. I believe that because of the era in time, things were different socially. Their way of life was totally different than ours today. The way people in that time expressed emotions was a pure image of what their world was like. The way our society works now, I would say yes we're way more socially advanced than our ancestors but it is because of the period that we live. There are way more social resources now than there were then.

  5. I have to admit that reading this article made me analyze ancient history. I believe that these Romans, Old English, Medieval, and Renaissance literature don't show emotions because it was an era where male dominance where praise. Meaning mostly the kings of these eras were men and took control of everything and were very munipulate people's thoughts and the way they should live. As well as, I believe that specifically Europe had the most power than any other continent of the world. I mean they had advance technology and colonization. Showing emotion was not allowed because they wanted people to be brainwashed due to the cruel ruling these kings were applying. In today's society a person who does not express any emotions are seen to be anti social. We see emotions in films, TV, and books. So humanity overall has changed over time. It's just creepy that the Ancient Europe overall did not expressed any emotions.

  6. I do believe literature's increasing use of language improves peoples intelligence over the centuries. Over the years I have been in school, reading is recommended outside of the classroom.People who read are usually more grammatically smarter with their words, than those who don't.Words are so powerful, and more and more words are being used to describe things so beautifully nowadays.Words are becoming more and more emotion triggering in books, tv , movies, etc. Most definitely , we are more socially intelligent than our ancestors.

  7. I agree with the text that people have evolved into a bundle of sack full of emotions, nothing but emotions. Especially now that we have so many words invented for every emotion we are feeling, makes it easier for us to express ourselves. And yes it all started from Shakespeare. He started the whole thing with his long monologues. I do believe that ancients had emotions in there writing but it was not as obvious because there was no proper way to show it then. - Melissa Sanchez

  8. I found this article to be interesting because it is true that it took us time to express our feelings through writing. However I believe that it wasn't necessarily time that we needed but instead it was the certain person that would step out of the normal form of writing and actual write about their emotions. That was in fact Shakespeare because he is the main reason we now have novel full of emotion and feelings. Shakespeare is the main writer that we continue to read about in classes. I believe this is important because it is a way of explaining where literature all begin literature with feelings. By reading his work we can adopt his ideas and style into our own writing and that is what our professors intend to do when we are given a great piece of writing we should take in some of the style forms that it has and use it in our own writing.

  9. I believe that we are more socially intelligent. It's true that in older books they didn't really use emotion and how people felt, it was more of giving information. It's changed over time and I believe it has to do with how our culture changed and how in this age people are more opened and accepting. I've read some of Shakespeare's books and they do have a lot of emotion in them, I believe they are really popular because how the reader can reflect on their own lives through the emotions in the book. I believe when there is more emotions and feelings in the book the more interested a reader can be because they can picture themselves and sometimes even feel the same feelings the author was writing about. This makes us more socially intelligent because we have the ability to talk about a book using our own feelings and even understanding a book more.

  10. I believe that we are socially more intelligent than our ancestors. We are socially more intelligent because we have acquired from the past generations. Over time, we have learned to express our emotions in different and many ways either through writing, music, facial expressions, actions, and much more. However, I do disagree about what this article is implying because writing is the one of the main ways to express emotions. Just look at Shakespeare's work. He writes so in depth about feelings and emotions. Just because our ancestors wrote differently does not mean they did not feel emotion nor write it on a paper. I believe that expressing emotions in the past generations were more passionate and sweet compared to now. The way our ancestors wrote down feelings were in different words which makes it seem like they do not know how to because it is done and said differently now. Because of our ancestors we are able to adopt their style of writing and acquired the idea of how emotions should be conveyed.

  11. I believe we are more socially intelligent then our ancestors. We have grown as human race overtime to be able to respond to different emotions. For example, our music and writing has evolved it has become a lot vulgar then before but it has a lot of emotions as well. Shakespeare writies conveys so much emotion in them whether it sadness or infatuation. Shakespeare's work have molded the minds of many young minds out there. He became an inspiration to many authors because he was able to put so much emotion in writing.We are more socially intelligent because we are able to communicate with a book. Being able to understand and sympathize with a fictional character is the kind of emotion that Shakespeare was able to develop in his books and many other books that we read today.

  12. Personally, I think that we are socially more intelligent than our ancestors because of evolution. Although it is innate for every human being to feel, so many things have happened culturally and socially that led us to be more emotional. The thought processes between our ancestors and ours also go through a different route, which is increasingly evident in the way we express ourselves - language, body language, music. The early aged people might have expressed emotions through facial expressions and body language - something we also do. However, in addition to that, language have developed so much more as vocabulary constantly expands as it has no end. Literature's use of language has definitely improved readers' social intelligence through the centuries because there is an unending numbers as to how we interpret these texts. One person may interpret it differently from others and by interacting, ideas are shared and minds are opened to more emotions. Thus, we have become more socially intelligent.


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