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Political Emotions: Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How to Tame Our Raging Reactivity and Nurture Our Noblest Civic Selves

Political Emotions: Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How to Tame Our Raging Reactivity and Nurture Our Noblest Civic Selves

“The heart has got to open in a fundamental way,” Leonard Cohen sang in his timeless ode to democracy — an insight not blunted by romantic mysticism but, like every Cohen lyric, honed by the complex reality of life and the most elemental truths of the human experience. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this when, in laying the groundwork for nonviolent resistance, he asserted: “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.” Half a century earlier, Tolstoy had articulated the same notion in his correspondence with Gandhi, one of Dr. King’s great influences: “Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills.”

In Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (public library), Martha Nussbaum — whom I continue to consider the most effective and compelling philosopher of our time — furnishes the incisive, layered philosophical substantiation of this idea, drawing on her earlier exploration of the intelligence of emotions and on a canon of thinkers as varied as Kant, Whitman, Tagore, Mozart, and King. What emerges is a work of tremendous lucidity, but also of robust hope that we are capable of taming the wilderness of even our most ferocious emotions into a garden abloom with love, justice, equality, and human dignity.

Martha Nussbaum

Nussbaum writes:

All societies are full of emotions. Liberal democracies are no exception. The story of any day or week in the life of even a relatively stable democracy would include a host of emotions — anger, fear, sympathy, disgust, envy, guilt, grief, many forms of love. Some of these episodes of emotion have little to do with political principles or the public culture, but others are different: they take as their object the nation, the nation’s goals, its institutions and leaders, its geography, and one’s fellow citizens seen as fellow inhabitants of a common public space.


Such public emotions, frequently intense, have large-scale consequences for the nation’s progress toward its goals. They can give the pursuit of those goals new vigor and depth, but they can also derail that pursuit, introducing or reinforcing divisions, hierarchies, and forms of neglect or obtuseness.

In a sentiment of extraordinary prescience — for Nussbaum’s writing predates the shrill political moment of the present by a good while — she cautions:

Sometimes people suppose that only fascist or aggressive societies are intensely emotional and that only such societies need to focus on the cultivation of emotions. Those beliefs are both mistaken and dangerous. They are mistaken, because all societies need to think about the stability of their political culture over time and the security of cherished values in times of stress. All societies, then, need to think about compassion for loss, anger at injustice, the limiting of envy and disgust in favor of inclusive sympathy.

Art by Alice and Martin Provensen from a vintage adaptation of Homer for young readers

She adds what may be the finest, clearest formulation of what went wrong with the 2016 American presidential election and Brexit, well before either catastrophe:

Ceding the terrain of emotion-shaping to antiliberal forces gives them a huge advantage in the people’s hearts and risks making people think of liberal values as tepid and boring.

Nussbaum considers the antidote to such corrosive forces and the two central roles of our political emotions:

All political principles, the good as well as the bad, need emotional support to ensure their stability over time, and all decent societies need to guard against division and hierarchy by cultivating appropriate sentiments of sympathy and love.

In the type of liberal society that aspires to justice and equal opportunity for all, there are two tasks for the political cultivation of emotion. One is to engender and sustain strong commitment to worthy projects that require effort and sacrifice — such as social redistribution, the full inclusion of previously excluded or marginalized groups, the protection of the environment, foreign aid, and the national defense. Most people tend toward narrowness of sympathy. They can easily become immured in narcissistic projects and forget about the needs of those outside their narrow circle. Emotions directed at the nation and its goals are frequently of great help in getting people to think larger thoughts and recommit themselves to a larger common good.

The other related task for the cultivation of public emotion is to keep at bay forces that lurk in all societies and, ultimately, in all of us: tendencies to protect the fragile self by denigrating and subordinating others… Disgust and envy, the desire to inflict shame upon others—all of these are present in all societies, and, very likely, in every individual human life. Unchecked, they can inflict great damage. The damage they do is particularly great when they are relied upon as guides in the process of lawmaking and social formation… But even when a society has avoided falling into that trap, these forces lurk in society and need to be counteracted energetically by an education that cultivates the ability to see full and equal humanity in another person, perhaps one of humanity’s most difficult and fragile achievements. An important part of that education is performed by the public political culture, which represents the nation and its people in a particular way. It can include or exclude, cement hierarchies or dismantle them — as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with its breathtaking fiction that the United States has always been dedicated to racial equality, so stirringly does.

One particularly timely and illuminating aspect of the book deals with the question of protest, free speech, and the parameters within which dissent is constructive rather than destructive. A century and a half after Thoreau’s abiding treatise on how to use civil disobedience to advance justice, Nussbaum writes:

The space for subversion and dissent should remain as large as is consistent with civic order and stability.

She opens the book with Walt Whitman, who not only illuminated these ideals of truth, justice, and equality with the sidewise gleam of his poetry but also shone on them a direct rhetorical beam in what remains one of humanity’s greatest meditations on democracy. Considering his particularly transcendent form of dissent, Nussbaum writes:

What Whitman is striving to create is a public ritual of mourning expressing renewed dedication to the unfinished task of realizing America’s best ideals, a “public poetry” that will put flesh on the bones of liberty and equality.

Art by Allen Crawford from Whitman Illuminated

Half a century after James Baldwin’s case for the poet’s role in a divided society and John F. Kennedy’s memorable assertion that “when power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” Nussbaum considers the political power of poetry as a tool for enlarging the scope of love and, to borrow Einstein’s phrase, for widening our circles of compassion:

Poets … cleverly hold their intended audience through sufficient rootedness in culture and history: indeed, it is rather remarkable that figures as radical as Whitman and Tagore should be so widely and intensely loved and accepted. But then they challenge their cultures to be the best they can be, and far better than they have been before. Thus a kind of political love that has its roots in specific traditions can also be aspirational and even radical. “I am he,” writes Whitman, “who tauntingly compels men, women, nations, / Crying, Leap from your seats and contend for your lives!”

Both poets suggest by their choices that the problems of their troubled societies need to be confronted in a spirit of love, through works that tap deeply into the roots of people’s anxious confrontation with their mortality and finitude.


All of the core emotions that sustain a decent society have their roots in, or are forms of, love — by which I mean intense attachments to things outside the control of our will… Love… is what gives respect for humanity its life, making it more than a shell. If love is needed even in [a] well-ordered society … it is needed all the more urgently in real, imperfect societies that aspire to justice.

Art from the 1969 children’s primer How Our Government Helps Us

Nussbaum considers the particular type of self-transcendence necessary for enacting this aspiration and the psychosocial tools that make it possible:

We need … to investigate, and to cherish, whatever helps us to see the uneven and often unlovely destiny of human beings in the world with humor, tenderness, and delight, rather than with absolutist rage for an impossible sort of perfection. A primary source of political difficulty is the ubiquitous human wish to surmount the helplessness that is so large a part of human life — to rise, we might say, above the messiness of the “merely human.” Many forms of public emotion feed fantasies of invulnerability, and those emotions are pernicious. [A democratic society] will succeed only if it finds ways to make the human lovable, inhibiting disgust and shame.

In the remainder of the thoroughly terrific Political Emotions, Nussbaum goes on to explore various frontiers of opportunity for curbing the calamitous reactivity of our political emotions and placing love at the center of our civic universe, wresting reality-tested wisdom from things as varied as the French Revolution, the opera The Marriage of Figaro, the New Deal, and Auguste Comte’s idea of “religion of humanity.” Complement it with Adrienne Rich on politics and poetry and James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s forgotten conversation about morality and the political power of art, then revisit Nussbaum on agency and victimhood, anger and forgiveness, the intelligence of our emotions, and how to live with our human fragility.

Published March 3, 2017




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