Times Literary Supplement: Book Review of Martha Nussbaum’s “Political Emotions”

“The public culture needs to be nourished and sustained by something that lies deep in the human heart and taps its most powerful sentiments, including both passion and humor”, Martha Nussbaum writes, “without these, the public culture remains wafer-thin and passionless”. Continuing her philosophical inquiry into both emotions and social justice, Nussbaum now makes the case for love, arguing that emotions rooted in love can foster commitment to shared goals and keep fear, envy and disgust at bay.

It is not an easy task to conceptualize love, not least in a field which has long been dominated by the ideal of detached rationality. When John Locke wrote about religious tolerance, he acknowledged the problem of animosity between different religious groups in England and recommended that churches advise their members of “the duties of peace and good-will towards all men”. Locke made no attempt, however, to delve into the emotional origins of intolerance, and his silence about the psychology of a good society persists through subsequent liberal political philosophy. Nussbaum aims to challenge this.

In Poetic Justice: The literary imagination and public life (1996), she argued that judges and law students should improve their sense of perspective by reading Dickens. In Political Emotions, she uses the characters and gender roles in The Marriage of Figaro to illustrate her argument. Cherubino learns that love “means seeking a good outside oneself, which is a scary idea. It is, nonetheless, an idea that Figaro must learn before he can be the kind of citizen Mozart demands – and learn it he does” by acknowledging both longing and pain. To sustain democratic institutions, Nussbaum claims, a liberal society should cultivate the emotions that underpin imagination and sympathy for others, and the way to do this is through education and the arts. Imaginative capacities will be developed very early in the family, and should be furthered via art, poetry, music and literature. These skills enable us to see each person’s fate in every other’s, and to picture it vividly as an aspect of our own.

For Nussbaum, the liberal tradition should not cede emotion to anti-liberal forces (fascism, for example, was particularly good at using emotions for political ends). But all political principles need a proper emotional basis to ensure their stability over time, and all decent societies need to guard against division by cultivating appropriate sentiments of sympathy and love. This is why political emotions, narrative imagination and love, matter for justice.

Originally published in the Times Literary Supplement, 26 February 2014

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