Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvelous as he had known it.
Seamus Heaney, Lightenings viii
This clip is from White Diamond, a beautiful documentary by Werner Herzog
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
With such questions in mind, I recently read a book called Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination, by Malcolm Guite, which brilliantly explores these topics. Guite is himself a poet, a priest, and also a songwriter. He was kind enough to chat with me about poetry and ecstasy.
Jules Evans: You’re a poet, a priest and a rocker. Which came first?
Malcolm Guite: My love of poetry goes back a very long way. Both of my parents liked poetry and quoted it unhesitatingly in their natural conversation. My mother in particular had a great fund of it, and I’ve inherited from her the ability to remember it. Poetry never occurred to me as a child in a bookish context, it was always more incantatory. We used to travel by sea a lot, and on the way my mother would almost automatically begin ‘I must go down to the sea today, to the lonely sea and the sky’.
I got more seriously and personally into it when I was 16, and I discovered Keats. I was dragged by an improving aunt to Keats’ house in Hampstead, not knowing anything about Keats, expecting some boring old fart, and I was utterly amazed. The Ode to a Nightingale was written on one of the walls. I stood in the room looking out through the french window to where the nightingale had been, and read this poem, and had a kind of epiphany. Keats wrote:
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown;
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that ofttimes hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Around the same time, I was in the process of rejecting my parents’ Christianity, and adopting a more reductive scientific view. When I read Keats’ Ode, I suddenly felt there was mystery again. I didn’t want it to be God, because I had a lot of issues with the Bible at that time. I convinced myself for a while that I could simply enjoy poetry on the side, without challenging or disrupting the increasingly narrow or materialistic view of the world which I was adopting. And I eventually realized I couldn’t do that. Deep within me, I knew when I read that poem that it wasn’t ultimately going to be enough to say ‘I know exactly how the world works’ with one side of my mind, and then just read poetry as a consolation.
JE: So poetry brought you to faith?
MG: Maybe it was the other way round. It was only when I had become a priest, and had a more formal sacrament, that I started writing poetry – because then I was freed to let poetry be its own sacrament in its own way, rather than being a substitute for religion.
I was ordained as a priest in 1990, and for seven years I was very busy working as a parish priest on a demanding estate in Huntington. I got fully engaged in it, loved it in some ways, but it was very draining, and I didn’t write any poetry during that time. Then I was offered a sabbatical for three months. And I thought, what do I want to do with it? And suddenly, rising from the depths, I thought, I’ve got to read poetry again. So I sat down and re-read all the poetry that’s referred to in Faith, Hope and Poetry. And I experienced it as a kind of life-saver.
I realized my faith had become, if not threadbare, then very functional and works-oriented, very much a practical faith to get me through the week. I’d lost my sense of those infinitely receding depths and hinterlands. And what happened as I re-read a huge amount of poetry was that, even when the poetry wasn’t about my faith, it simply opened up my access to this intuitive and imaginative way of knowing. That open way of reading flowed back into how I read the liturgy and Bible. So in that sense I can say there is poetry, even secular poetry, that gave my faith the kiss of life again.
JE: In the book you explore the idea – which one finds in thinkers like TS Eliot and CS Lewis – that reason-thought and imagination-feeling have become divorced in western culture since the Scientific Revolution. Could you summarize that argument?
MG: One of the questions being asked at the beginning of the Scientific Revolution was about exactitude and quantity, about being able to know and predict the way the world behaves. In order to achieve that, in order to do rigorous experiments, the first scientists and philosophers found it necessary to exclude from their minds the whole affective and mythological way of thinking. If you’re trying to find out whether air contains oxygen, you may have to exclude from your mind the intuition that it’s also the breath of God. Having set certain things aside temporarily, we forgot we’d set them aside. Having chosen to concentrate on the purely material causality of things in the world, we then became so intoxicated by the apparent accuracy of our results, that we thought that was the only type of causality. We didn’t realize there could simultaneously be other kind of things.
Thomas Sprat wrote a history of the Royal Society, and he prefaces it by saying he must specifically exclude what he calls the delightful deceits of fancy. That conscious purging of language of its metaphorical content, that desire to approach ‘mathematical plainness’, strikes me as necessary for a certain kind of scientific technique, but it’s absolutely deadly if it’s mistaken for a total picture of the whole sum of reality. And that I think is the great error into which we fell.
JE: You described how various poet-seers saw this danger happening, and tried to prevent this split from happening. You put forward a wonderful reading of the argument between Theseus and Hippolyta, in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, as an argument between these two ways of knowing. Theseus gives a Platonic account of various forms of ecstasy, only to dismiss these experiences as ‘tricks’ of the imagination:
Hippolyta: Tis strange my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.
Theseus: More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
Hippolyta: But all the story of the night told over
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.
JE: It strikes me that the arguments Theseus puts forward are precisely the sort of Skeptic arguments put forward today by thinkers like Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Jesse Bering and Derren Brown – that our inference of some agency or presence behind ecstatic experiences are really just ‘tricks’ of ‘strong imagination’.
MG: Yes. What’s interesting is the pair of terms that Theseus uses. He says ‘if it would but apprehend some joy / It comprehends some bringer of that joy’. I think the distinction between those two ways of knowing – apprehend and comprehend – is actually very helpful. The ‘prehend’ part of both words is about picking things up, like a prehensile tail. The idea of ‘comprehend’ is that you comprehend something by completely surrounding it, so that your mind completely understands it. But perhaps there are some things we can’t comprehend. In the King James Bible version of St John’s Gospel, it says, ‘The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not’, which I don’t think means the darkness didn’t understand it, but rather there was something about this primal light which could not be surrounded by the totality of the mind, because it is bigger than the mind. Therefore the mind can’t come to a final conclusion about it.
‘Apprehend’ is something else. When you apprehend something, you’re not saying you’ve completely got a hold of it, you’re saying you’ve grasped something of it, and are moving towards it. One of the best opening lines of a poem ever is from ‘The Forge’ by Seamus Heaney. The opening line is ‘All I know is a door into the dark’. Taken as a statement by itself, it’s wonderful. We get to the end of what we know, and what we find is a door. To go through that door, we need imaginative apprehension.
JE: I was reading your book while also reading a book by a psychiatrist called Iain McGilchrist.
MG: Oh, The Master and the Emissary? I haven’t read it yet, just bits of it.
JE: It’s very much about these two ways of knowing, embodied (he argues) in the two hemispheres of the brain. He also thinks they have become increasingly divorced since the Enlightenment, with the left hemisphere’s rationality becoming dominant and tyrannical. He ends by suggesting poetry might be one way out of left-brain tyranny back to a more harmonious marriage of the hemispheres. Anyway, I thought of it when I came across the quote from CS Lewis in your book:
The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism’.
Your book, like McGilchrist’s, suggests that there were various poet-prophets since the Enlightenment – Coleridge, TS Eliot, CS Lewis, Tolkien – who have tried to prevent this great divorce of reason and imagination from happening (McGilchrist would include various continental philosophers like Heidegger, Nietzsche and Hegel). Do you think they failed?
MG: I think it’s too early to say. The jury is still out. CS Lewis, Tolkien and Owen Barfield, three members of the Inklings, they may be outliers or forerunners, who got a little ahead of us. It’s ironic, as they’re mainly dismissed as being reactionaries. I think they may be harbingers of a change that’s to come. The other thing is that obviously I’ve concentrated on poetry as the imaginative art form that is the most transformative, which can genuinely change your opinion of life, but also your whole mode of knowing. I quote Owen Barfield’s description of the moment that you ‘get’ some poetry, as a ‘felt change of consciousness’.
But if I look at the way the imagination is at work in contemporary western society, for example in the students in my chaplaincy, it’s clear that music and film are as important for them as poetry is for me. Look at the success of the Lord of the Rings films, for example. The real question to ask is, are they going to consume music and film simply as another consumer item, as a private consolation for a materialist world-view that remains unchallenged. That would be a worst-case scenario, where the arts, far from healing, contribute to the divide by marking out their own territory. Or, are they going to encounter film and music that has a transcendent effect which transforms all the other areas of their life.
JE: You’re a big fan of rock music, and are in a rock band. Do you think that some of the greatest rock artists took up the baton of being poets for their society, like Bob Dylan, or David Bowie, or Morrissey?
MG: Absolutely, particularly Dylan and Leonard Cohen, who are still producing really fine work. Cohen’s most recent album, Old Ideas, really addresses some of this stuff quite strongly. Also the album Ten New Songs. There’s an amazingly transcendent song on that called Alexandra Leaving, which is about an epiphany in a moment of sorrow. The singer acknowledges something transcendent and beautiful, which puts his personal sorrow into a different perspective. There’s a great line in it:
And you who had the honor of her evening,
And by the honor had your own restored
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving
Alexandra leaving with her lord.
Very simple language, but pointing to a very different way of reading the situation to the basic ‘who’s the winner and loser here’ attitude.
JE: So, going back to poetry, I used to read it at university, I even wrote it a bit. But I haven’t written it or even read it since I graduated. What I enjoyed about your book was it gave me a way to enjoy poetry again, a way to find meaning in the practice of close reading. It’s almost like the return of close reading to its sacramental origins after decades of arid literary theory.
MG: Exactly. One of the things I got very frustrated with in coming back to poetry was a lot of the secondary reading. The high-end literary theory ends up distancing you from the text rather than opening you up. You’ll notice there’s almost no reference to the immense secondary literature on these poets. Instead, I try to open up why these poems are transcendent and sacramental to me, in the hope the reader will get the same thing.
JE: You tie that search for the transcendent in poetry to a very old Christian practice called lectio divina. Could you tell us a bit about that?
MG: Lectio divina is about a slow savouring of the text, almost a tasting of it. One of the classical expressions of it talks about tasting the word. The Latin phrase is palatum cordis – the palette of your heart. The medieval Catholic practice of it survives into Anglicanism, in a famous collect by Archbishop Cramner: “Blessed Lord, which hast caused all holy Scripture to be written for our learning; grant us that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them’. So even though the book is a collection of symbols and words, there’s the idea that you nevertheless receive them into you almost as a substantial thing, and the deepest nutrient elements of it become part of who you are. It’s very different from simply processing information.
JE: It reminds me of the Stoics, who talk about digesting philosophy and making it ‘a part of oneself’ as Seneca put it. They would memorize fragments of philosophy and of poetry and make it a part of their inner logos. (It also reminds me, by the by, of Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book, about the art of spiritual reading).
MG: That Greek tradition obviously informs St John’s Gospel, and the idea of Jesus as the Logos made flesh. So when Jesus says ‘man does not live by bread alone’, and says ‘The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life’, there’s something extraordinary going on.
JE: So you talk in the book about some of the ways we can learn to savour a poem – its twists of meaning and perspective, its images and metaphors, how the words relate to each other, and also how the poem relates to other poems in the past.
MG: Yes. TS Eliot had this great phrase, ‘the auditory imagination’, by which he meant that certain words and phrases, by their cadences and rhythm, summon up the echoes of others. Particularly when you’re reading within a great literary tradition, where the masters of that tradition are themselves consciously drawing on their predecessors, and engaging in some kind of dialogue or conversation, then a very beautiful and complex web of allusion and connection becomes possible. Eliot turned that into an entire technique. The Waste Land is really an assemblage of allusions to other writing.
JE: It’s a bit shamanic, isn’t it, it’s the poet channeling the spirits of the tribe.
MG: Yes – he used to refer to The Waste Land as ‘He do the police in different voices’.
JE: He’s a voice-hearer.
MG: He’s a voice-channeler.
JE: But it’s quite an artful form of shamanic channeling, it’s not like some of the awful automatic writing that came out of the spiritualist movement in the late 19th century.
MG: Yes. It’s a balance of the conscious and the unconscious. There’s a great phrase in one of Coleridge’s essays on Shakespeare, where he says Shakespeare was ‘directing self-consciously a power and an implicit wisdom deeper than consciousness’.
And Eliot also says a wonderful thing in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, where he says all poems compose a ‘simultaneous order’ in the mind of the reader. Whether you’re reading Seneca or McGilchrist, for a moment they can all be in conversation in your mind. And when that happens in poetry it’s particularly fruitful.
JE: So there’s a speaking with shades, with spirits, that you get in a lot of poetry, in Heaney, or Eliot, or Dante. And it’s a trip, because it’s messing up your sense of time and causality, of what happened when and how people and events are connected.
MG: Exactly. One of the problems with 19th century reductive mechanistic science was that it wasn’t playful enough with time and space, whereas modern physics is. There’s a curious way in which science has caught up with poetry, and its shift in perspectives and sense of everything as being connected to everything else. There’s a lot of that playfulness with time in Eliot. In ‘Little Gidding’, for example, he walks through the ruins of London during the Blitz, and he meets the figure ‘of some great master’, who you realize is Dante. This character has come to him at an intersection of time – there’s something about London in the Blitz that connects to Florence during an earlier war. And they have this conversation about the nature of poetry, how it urges ‘the mind to aftersight and foresight’.
I had this experience reading Eliot myself. I read The Waste Land when I was a teenager and absorbed the line ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’, about London commuters. Many years later, I read Dante’s Divine Comedy, and came across that very line, which Dante uses to describe the souls in limbo. And I thought ‘wow, great use of an Eliot quote!’ even though of course Dante came first. The Divine Comedy shapes how we experience The Waste Land. But it’s also the case now that The Waste Land shapes how we experience The Divine Comedy.
JE: There’s a hope that the practice of lectio divina won’t just help us read a work of art, but also to read the book of life. A hope that the cosmos is a work of art which we can learn to appreciate.
MG: Absolutely. Because we tend to read books in a rather literal way, we assume that’s the way we should read the cosmos too. There’s a wonderful passage in Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, where he imagines his son’s future, and he says:
so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
It’s a notion that the phenomena, the appearances we observe, might have the character of being logoi themselves, filled with meaning and intimately connected to one another in a semantic web.
JE: The skeptic in me would say, is life really like a work of art? Is it so ordered, patterned, and full of meaning? Maybe that’s why we turn to art, to poetry or novels, because life is much messier and more random and chaotic than that.
MG: To turn to that extraordinary word Logos, if we think there is some kind of meaning both ‘out there’ and ‘in here’, then there has to be a Mind which gives structure or meaning. So it leads to some notion – and I’m not rushing here to a Biblical or Christian God – some notion of Logos or Mind behind things. Now obviously we could look out at the world and think ‘well, it’s a completely chaotic mess’. But we should be hesitant – you can think that about a poem sometimes. It takes time for its meaning and shape to emerge. The chaotic, puzzling or even frankly repellent aspects of existence may be things we need to think about more.
JE: One of the things poetry seems to do, then, is to help us transcend time and space and perhaps feel closer to God. It can be a sort of ecstatic vehicle.
MG: Yes. A poem that leaves you in exactly the same place that it found you, knowing neither more nor less, isn’t a particularly successful poem. A poem must always in some sense bring you to what Keats calls ‘the magic casement’. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a gushy Romantic poem. The classic example of a modern poem which does that, by a pretty bleak poet, is Philip Larkin’s ‘High Windows’.
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
It doesn’t tell you what you see through the high windows, or whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it just suggests this quality of transcendent more-ness. And instead of leading you through a series of increasingly beautiful things, he actually leads you through a series of increasingly degrading things, and then suddenly opens up.
JE: Which is something Eliot and Baudelaire do too – finding transcendence in the banal and ugly.
MG: Yeah, I think he owes something to both of those poets. The danger of the kind of Romantic poetry that I love is that it ends up like being endless reams of William Morris wallpaper that people can paper over things with. It has to deal with terrible things too, which the best of it does, like ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.
JE: OK. Perhaps poetry can open a door or window onto the Other. But we can’t always be sure what Presence we’re meeting. It’s true that Coleridge found ‘haven’ in Christianity at the end of his career. But that wasn’t necessarily the case when he was at his most creative, when he was writing ‘Kubla Khan’, for example, and imagining a woman ‘wailing for her demon lover’. Think about how many poets say their ultimate inspiration is not the Holy Spirit, but something very different – for Ted Hughes and Robert Graves, for example, the Muse seemed to be more a chthonic earth-goddess.
MG: I take that point. I might want to play a bit with the word ‘ultimate’ – I obviously would want to make the case that, in so far as I have a theology of Logos, I do think there may be a single ultimate source of all these things, but I’m very interested in how it’s mediated and incarnate.
‘Kubla Khan’ or Hughes’ work are really good examples – I don’t want to rush to presume upon an explicit Christian meaning in a non-Christian poem. But I do want to suggest that, if it’s the case that Christianity is true, then it’s a truth that needs to accommodate the power and beauty of what is going on in this poem, without defacing it or opposing it. At the deepest level, the Christian idea that there is a profound transcendent backdrop to everything helps us to account for the consistency with which poetry and other art forms – Christian or non-Christian – have pointed to such a backdrop. But that’s not to say the individual poet is persuaded of the Christian case.
In fact, I would go further – one of the problems with people who are persuaded of the Christian case is that they then just read ‘safe Christian writing’. If they’re really persuaded of Christianity, then they ought to be able to read anything, even the apparently hostile stuff, and think how does this fit into the Christian cosmos. There is a problem with rushed transcendence in Christianity, it’s not sufficiently engaged with the world which it claims God so loved or with the flesh which it claims Jesus became. So I understand and empathise with the radical critique of it made by Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials, where he says the gaps of transcendence have to be closed so people can learn to love their own world, to love the dust. There are deep resources in Christianity for that, but they’re not used. It takes a poet like Ted Hughes to make us realize how like a goddess the Earth is, how deeply she gives, and with what mutuality and feared love one should return to her.
JE: OK. I’d ask a similar question about rock and roll, which I think was also a ‘vehicle for ecstasy’ in the second half of the 20th century, a really important one. But many of the great ‘rock-prophets’ (as it were) would say that if their inspiration came from anywhere, it wasn’t from a Christian God, it was something altogether more pagan – think of Jimi Hendrix’ ‘Voodoo Chile’, or the Stones’ flirtation with Satanism, or Led Zeppelin’s fondness for magic, or Jim Morrison’s self-identification with Dionysus. These artists were into the Beyond, into the unconscious, and the supernatural, but not Christianity.
MG: This relates to Blake’s comment about Milton, that he was of the Devil’s party, without knowing it. What he’s saying is, in Milton and others, the supposedly non-Godly is the thing which is actually represented with most power, energy, excitement and engagement, and God is increasingly represented as this state of completely detached passivity and stasis. There’s a complete failure in some Christian theology to show dynamis, or power, which is actually all there in the theology of the Holy Spirit, but which had completely fallen into abeyance in the West.
And then it was revived in the culture which ultimately produced rock and roll – the African-American Pentecostal and Baptist churches, which utterly emphasized the dynamism of the Holy Spirit, and reclaimed that fire and energy as of God. But it has to be said that this was not happening in the average English parish church in the 1950s. If you went to an English church then, and you were of the generation of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, you would not say ‘wow, the mysterious powerful ever-present Dynamis of flame is here!’. You’d say ‘this is just another bloody jumble-sale’. Then you’d tune into Radio Luxembourg, and you’d hear great music that has come out of the Pentecostal tradition and become soul or blues. That’s where the power is. I’m not sure how deep the Stones’ flirtation with the Occult was. I think it was that ultimately it sounded more transformative and transcendent to them.
JE: I think part of rock music’s flirtation with the Occult is, firstly, a rejection of authority – this is partly why people get into magic and the shamanic, because they don’t want to get into any hierarchy. And also, the thing about operational magic is that it’s often a power-trip.
MG: Sure. I’ve given a very generous construction of it. But I do think there is genuinely a dark side of it. The difference between sacramental ritual on the one hand, and magic on the other, is a fundamental difference about the orientation of the soul. In sacramental ritual, the soul is giving glory to the Other, worshiping the Divine and becoming most itself – but a transformed self. Whereas I understand magic, in its worst sense, to be a power-trip – it’s an attempt to use the Holy or the Divine as a stream of power with which to get the stuff your ego wants you to get.
JE: In that sense, quite adolescent.
MG: Very. The divine pattern in Christ is death and then resurrection. There has to be a letting-go. In black magic, people think they can just wander into the realm of the sacred, and grab stuff for themselves and use it to manipulate other people. That’s purely a power-trip, and ultimately self-defeating.
JE: What do you think of contemporary Christian worship music?
MG: I don’t know a huge amount of it. There’s some of it that’s very good. There seems to be a bit of an obsession…it’s sort of like the Jesus equivalent of ‘beats per minute’ – how many times can you mention Jesus in a song, so everyone is reassured that it’s Christian. I understand there are some Christian radio stations that do that – if there aren’t three references to Jesus in a song they don’t play it. There’s a Canadian guy called Steve Bell who did an anti-jingly Christmas album called Keening for the Dawn. I notice among younger American evangelicals a real desire to re-discover depth, resonance, tradition, and waiting in darkness. What I don’t personally like is saccharine music which is one long series of highly personalised love-songs to Jesus, as though my private relationship to Jesus, my knowing how much He loves me, makes everything so good that I don’t even need to consider what’s happening in Syria. We need a Christian music which actually says ‘if the cross is true, then he’s being crucified in Syria right now, what are we going to do about it?’
JE: OK, thanks for the interview Malcolm. I love the revival of Lewis / Tolkien’s theology of imagination, and their sense of the power of story, metaphor and myth to transform us. But it seems to me that way of thinking can end up in the postmodern idea that everything is a story or metaphor, that the gospels are just another inspiring myth. We just need to find some ‘sacred fiction’ that works for us, whether that’s Star Trek, Doctor Who or Lord of the Rings (which by-the-by was voted the most popular book of the 20th century, and is obviously much loved by non-Christians.)
MG: That’s the opposite of what Lewis and Tolkien were saying. The point is, it’s about the re-marriage of the divorced parents – Imagination and Reason. It happens that it was our mother, Imagination, rather than our father, Reason, who’s been absent, and who we need to get to know again. But the point of bringing them together – the reason, for CS Lewis, why coming to Christ was so transformative – was that he loved myth, but as long as it was just myth, however moved by it he was, he didn’t feel he could re-connect it to Reason. The problem with Reason by itself was that as long as it was devoid of resonant story, it was just facts without meaning. The point about the Christian story was not simply that it was mythically resonant, but also that it was (they believed) historical fact. Tolkien said Lewis should think of the Gospels as a great myth written by God in the material of history. The previous poets had used language to tell a story, while the Author of the cosmos was able to tell a story in and through the actual material fabric of what happened.
JE: But it sounds like Lewis was saying ‘there’s various different myths, of Dionysus, Oedipus, Balder the Brave etc but my myth is true’.
MG: Well he’s not simply saying it’s true, he’s also saying it’s the truth of all the other myths as well, it’s the one that gives the other ones their grounding. It would not be sufficient to say ‘we all need a story to live by’, because someone could come back and say ‘you’re just making it up’. If you can show that something actually happened, which seems to make sense of all these other myths….There’s a great essay of Lewis’ called The Grand Miracle, in which he refers to the life, death and resurrection of Christ as like a missing chapter in a great work, the great work being the Cosmos. He says ‘if someone proposes to me that there is a missing chapter to a book I know very well, they’d have to show not only that it’s in the style of the rest of the novel, but that it makes sense of otherwise puzzling episodes’. And that’s exactly what he thinks the resurrection did.
Here’s a wonderful talk Malcolm gave on JRR Tolkien.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
I had a similar sort of experience, writing Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations. For the five years I was writing it, I had Raphael’s School of Athens on my wall, and it became a part of my inner architecture, with its beautifully-harmonious city-scape, filled with animated philosophers. Imagining that dream-school helped me, I’d suggest, almost as much as the ideas of the philosophers within it.
The ancient Christians were particularly skilled at this sort of inner architecture. St Augustine called it ‘painting the heart’ with images, symbols, metaphors, myths, in order to expand and beautify your inner psychic life. The fifth century monk Arnobius wrote:
Paint, paint before your eyes the various fabricated things, whenever you chant of these [the psalms]. Of what sort? Those which were seen with wonder by the apostles: paint the temples, paint the baths, paint the forums and the ramparts rising on the high summit.
The Renaissance refined these visualization and memorization techniques for painting the inner world. The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, published in 1548, are a four-week course through which participants paint various evocative scenes in their mind – the fires of Hell, the sufferings of Jesus. Poetry helped to enhance these vivid inner worlds. Milton, who went blind in middle age, nevertheless said that the inner sight of poetic vision helped him to wander ‘where the Muses haunt / Clear spring, or shady grove, or sunny hill’. Until very recently, memorized poetry was part of the inner architecture of educated people.
Art was also a means to this inner architecture – think of the stages of Christ’s story painted in each of the cubicles in the monastery of San Marco, in which the novice would go round, day by day, painting their soul with its sublime imagery. And architecture itself helped to paint the soul – who could sit among the great stone redwoods of Durham or Chartres without some of that Gothic grandeur imprinting itself on their soul?
To us, as liberal individualists, soul-painting seems like brain-washing. But it wasn’t entirely passive and top-down. Rather, the Christian world was a sort of massive multi-player open-source world made up of Scripture and fan-fiction. The medieval adept absorbed the words and imagery of the past into the deep sources of their imagination, and this led them to new encounters with Jesus, Mary, Gabriel, Michael, Sophia and others, which in turn became part of the open-source world.
Of course, the Christian world was blessed with some master-builders to help with the construction (today we’d call them master-programmers). Dante and Shakespeare, above all, helped to body forth spirits and to expand the inner landscape of the Renaissance soul. How lucky people were to have access to their great inner worlds, how lucky we are to still have their books of spells (even if we’ve more or less forgotten how to read them).
What we lost, in the Scientific Revolution, was a shared inner world. We also lost the sense of there being any point in trying to cultivate such worlds. What was the point in spending hours or even days contemplating a painting or poem? What was the use? Our minds became ever-more technocratic and focused on external, tangible results.
A few Romantic rebels still constructed beautiful inner worlds, but lacking a common open-source culture, they were often quite idiosyncratic and private, like the eccentric world of William Blake, who insisted ‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.’
Last week, I met a lady who, in all honesty, had chosen a deity to worship from an app called Godpicker. She had picked a Turkish goddess, half-woman, half-fish. Things went well for her, she assured me, as long as she remained faithful to this goddess. Which is fine, but a rather lonely and private religious life (and who knows, if she has contacted something, whether it’s benign or not? What protection does she have, on her own, without teachers, outside of a community? It’s like meeting someone on Tinder and immediately inviting them to move in).
We still long for a collective inner landscape. This is what Star Wars and Lord of the Rings provided for my generation, to some limited extent. Their landscapes, characters and crises are imprinted on our souls. The multiverses of 20th century fantasy and science fiction are comparable to the medieval world of Christendom, with their massive, vivid, open-source universes, in which adepts become co-creators.
But most of these new myths lack the quality of Lord of the Rings. They are infantile fantasies of power, invulnerability and self-aggrandizement, while the greatest stories – of Jesus, Oedipus, even Frodo and Luke – are stories of anti-power, vulnerability and self-abnegation.
Still, even if we have forgotten the old method of ‘painting the heart’, we’re still doing it, unconsciously. The internet has made it far easier to create inner worlds. Where the medieval adept painted their heart with icons of the saints, today we paint our online walls with selfies. Where the Christian or Buddhist icon was a window beyond the self, today we wall ourselves in with our own reflection.
We also paint the soul with the hyper-real images of pornography. As a man / self-employed person, I’ve watched my share of online porn – how could I not, it’s so bright, so real, so immediately absorbing. Yet, a few years back, I had a series of dreams, where I was wandering through my inner world (it somewhat resembled Constantinople, if you’re wondering), and I’d find myself drawn down backstreets and alleyways until I was perusing the shelves in a porn shop. Porn had become a portico of my inner world. Which is fine but…well…it would have been more fun if I was making love to actual people in my dream-world rather than looking at images…
I find that computer games – again, so bright, so real, so immediately absorbing – also become part of one’s inner world. You close your eyes, and you’re still there, wandering the streets of San Andreas or Vice City, blowing things up. I happen to love gaming. Games masterfully create inner landscapes – think of the beautiful landscapes of Assassin’s Creed, Halo, Super Mario World, or Batman: Arkham Asylum. Some games let us co-create these worlds, as in Minecraft, Spore, The Sims or Second Life.
Perhaps we just need to dream up better worlds. Imagine an online world, a dream city, where we could absorb the best of our culture, where we could witness the great events of our common story, where we could speak with prophets and philosophers, where we could expand our soul and come back to the outer world prepared for the next level. Perhaps some monastic coders are making that world, even as we speak.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
So, thinking about our workshop tomorrow, I’m wondering what are the similarities and differences between Stoicism and Christianity? Here are some initial thoughts, please chime in with your own thoughts too.
1) Serving God / the Logos
I think one of the main similarities, one of the ways in which Stoicism anticipated Christianity, is the idea of serving the will of God. Neither Stoicism or Christianity demand that God or the Gods do your will (and bless you with children, or a good harvest, or a good hunt etc), which is really a form of operational magic, but rather that you do God’s will, that you accept the will of God and try to serve it.
We should also note that the Stoics were monotheists - they followed Heraclitus in believing in one Logos. In this they can be compared to the evolving monotheism of Judaism, particularly that of Moses around two centuries earlier. Later Christians would draw on the Stoic concept of the Logos, particularly in the marvelous opening to the Gospel of St John. I wonder if one could argue that Stoicism is in some ways more monotheistic than Christianity, in that there is no opposing Enemy, no angels and demons, and no Trinity? There is just the Logos.
Anyway, back to this idea of giving up your will and serving the Logos. Cleanthes said: ‘Conduct me, Jove, and you, 0 Destiny, Wherever your decrees have fixed my station.’ Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus anticipates, I think, some of the noble sentiments of the Lord’s Prayer:
O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Word of all came to be one.
This Word, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God’s universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.
But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another:
some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired;
others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives;
and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body.
They do these foolish things, time and again,
and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for.
O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning,
rescue men from painful ignorance.
Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts.
and deign to rule all things in justice.
so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return,
and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals;
for there is no greater glory for men
or for gods than to justly praise the universal Word of Reason.
There is a sort of ‘inner magic’ in this attitude of acceptance of God’s will – it frees you from anxiety and fear, while giving you the courage to press on and do the right thing.
2) What is the highest thing in your life? Who or what are you serving?
Another important idea in both Stoicism and Christianity is the question of what is the most important thing in your life. What do you serve? What is your god or master? Because everything will follow from that. There’s a similar idea in Plato – if you make public approval your God, then you make yourself the slave of the public, and will have to dance to their tune. If you make money your god, then you will have to dance to that tune, and bend and twist in accordance with your master.
One of the things I think I have been searching for in life is something or someone to serve. I think that’s true of a lot of people. And in a way, my career initially involved serving a succession of bad masters. Then I became a freelance journalist, which is in a way the ultimate humanist illusion – you’re ‘working for your self’. In fact, I found, that often meant I was anxiously seeking validation from ‘the public’, my new master.
I have been trying, not entirely successfully, to switch from serving the outer master of public approval, to serving what Epictetus calls the God Within, what Jesus calls the Kingdom. Because that is a master worthy of service. That involves a switch in the centre of your self, an an evolution from a self based on appearances (looking good to others) to a self rooted in service to God. I know that sounds pretty fancy and pious for an idle and vain sod like me, but that’s the aspiration at least, even if the actuality falls well short of that.
3) Inner service, not external spectacle
Related to this idea of serving the God Within is the idea in both Stoicism and Christianity of being wary of ostentatious worship of God, because you might really be showing off to other people. Epictetus says ‘when you’re thirsty, take a little water in your mouth, spit it out, and tell no one.’ And Jesus also talks about how people who pray very ostentatiously have already got their reward here on Earth.
As Pierre Hadot has explored, early Christianity also took on the Stoics’ idea of askesis – the idea of the spiritual life involving training of the mind, the passions and the body. Indeed, the desert fathers developed this idea of askesis into asceticism, into a very rigorous programme of mental and particularly physical self-discipline. The idea of askesis is still strong in Orthodox Christianity, which in general seems to me much closer to Greek philosophy, while modern Evangelicalism seems to have thrown that entire tradition out in favour of loud and slightly soupy declarations of love for Jesus. However, I understand Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises are growing in popularity among Evangelicals, so perhaps the idea of spiritual training is making a comeback.
5) Serving the City of God before the City of Man
Christianity also developed the Stoics’ idea of the cosmopolis – the City of God – and the idea that the good person should try and serve the cosmopolis first, and their own particular tribe second. This is a radical idea, in that it breaks through tribal and racial barriers and insists that all humans share a divine nature. What a beautiful idea it is.
OK, so what are the differences?
1) The Logos made flesh
While Christianity drew on the Stoic idea of the Logos, there is a crucial difference. Christ is, according to St John, the Logos made flesh. There is a big difference between serving a rather distant and unknowable ‘force’ or providence, and serving a flesh-and-blood person, who was born in a particular place and time, who wept for us, who suffered and died for us. I think in some ways it is easier emotionally to love and serve a person rather than a pantheistic force – though it is also perhaps harder intellectually!
The relationship with God in Judeo-Christianity is very different to the Stoics’ relationship to the Logos. For the Stoics, it’s rather like the relationship between an aristocratic English (or aristocratic Roman) father and their son – rather distant, intellectual, and based on cold ideas of duty and virtue. In Judeo-Christianity it’s much more, well, Jewish – loud, emotional, needy, constantly bursting into arguments, constant back-and-forth, with God just as needy as humans. The relationship with God is more emotional, more sensual, more (dare I say it) erotic than in Greek philosophy (although there is an argument that this erotic aspect of worship is in Plato too). The Jewish God is hungry for our love, for our praise, and when we turn to Him he runs to meet us. Compare Cleanthes’ Hymn to one of David’s Psalms, or indeed to the passionate and weepy conversion experience of St Augustine, and you get a sense of the difference.
2) Christianity is much more emotional and needy!
Just to elaborate on the point above – Christianity is far more emotional, it seems to me, than Greek philosophy – full of sobs, and groans, and wails of anger or despair, as well as exultation and ecstasy. Again, the Psalms of David are a good indication of this. Though of course there are traditions in Christianity that are more wary of the emotions – particularly Orthodox Christianity. And there’s a pleading, even a begging, to Jewish and Christian prayer – please God, release us from our suffering, please God, free our people, please God, heal our sickness, please God, send comfort, please please please. This is very different to the proud self-reliance of Stoicism. Epictetus wrote: ‘Zeus says: “If you want any good, get it from yourself.” Well, you can see the difference.
3) Christianity believes in grace
Elaborating on the last quote from Epictetus – Christians believe much more in external assistance from God, in the Holy Spirit, in Grace and its power to save people and transform them, when they have reached rock bottom. The Stoics think any help must come from your reason, not from God (although our reason of course comes from God). This is a major difference, and one of the reasons I moved beyond Stoicism to Christianity, because I believe in grace – in moments when God lifts us up and puts us back on our feet.
4) Christianity believes in Satan!
Another massive difference is that Christians tend to believe in the Enemy – in an evil rival to God who somehow or other is allowed to control a lot of what happens here on Earth, and who seeks to tempt us and to destroy us. Not only that, but the Enemy (Satan, Lucifer) has a whole horde of evil minions too. Stoicism sometimes talks about the Enemy (in Epictetus for example), but the Enemy is typically our lower self, our bad habits or (in Platonism and Roman Stoicism) our more bestial self as opposed to our more divine self.
The Christian universe is, therefore, in some ways a much weirder, more polytheistic, and more dangerous place, teeming with evil spirits trying to destroy us. The Greek philosopher would look on the world of the gospels – filled with people possessed by devils – and think ‘what superstitious madness is this?’ There is barely a reference to demonic possession in Greek philosophy. If someone is ill, it’s because of bad thinking or bad habits. In some ways, I think this is a more helpful attitude from a therapeutic perspective – if someone has depression or anxiety or hears voices, it will just freak them out even more if you say ‘this is the Devil trying to drag you to Hell for eternity’.
I often find Christianity (and modern Christians) quite off-putting in their belief in evil demons. It always seemed quite primitive to me, like a backward step after Socrates rather than an evolution forward. But then I suppose Socrates had a daemon too, and the Stoics did believe in pursuing eudaimonia (having a kindly daemon within) as opposed to kakadaimonia(having an evil daemon within)…so maybe there are more spirits in Greek philosophy than we realize! And maybe Greek philosophy is a bit naive in its understanding of evil, and its belief that evil is always simply ignorance – Dostoevsky would certainly argue this. Which brings me to the next point.
5) Human nature is fallen in Christianity, and perfectible in Greek philosophy
In Christianity, because of Original Sin or what-have-you, human nature is inherently fallen, inherently prone to fucking up. We can use our reason to improve ourselves, but we have to rely on God to forgive and help us, and we’re unlikely to be perfect while we’re here on Earth. In Greek philosophy, human nature is perfectible through reason alone. Nature has made us rational, and we can use our reason to become like Socrates. We can become a virtuoso in the art of living.
To me, while I struggle with the Christian story of how we got so fucked up (the apple, the serpent etc), I find their definition of human nature more realistic than Socrates’ or Aristotle’s. If our nature is inherently rational and all we have to do is ‘follow our nature’, how come there are so few sages? We’re like a species of plant where only one in every billion blossoms. It’s a pretty fucked up sort of nature.
6) Christians are much more certain about the afterlife than Stoics
Christians have a much clearer eschatology than Stoics – although of course this has evolved over the centuries and hardened into ecclesiastical doctrine. They believe, on the whole, in the resurrection of the body either in heaven for eternity, or in hell / annihilation. Catholics also believed, for many centuries, in purgatory. Stoics, by contrast, are not sure what they believe about the afterlife – they barely mention it. Plato, by the by, seemed to believe in reincarnation (like Pythagoras), but this may have been just a story.
Christians also have a very different eschatology to Stoics – they believe that all of creation is fallen, but it will all be redeemed in the End of Days, when Jesus returns. Stoics, by contrast, believe things will just carry on for a bit, and then everything will burst into flames, and then everything will start again. Both pretty wacky theories, although the Stoic story seems to be closer to where astrophysics is at now, with its theories of multiple big bangs.
Another important difference with regard to modern Stoicism and Christianity is that many modern Stoics are atheist and don’t necessarily believe in the Logos or Providence, but still believe in developing your rational agency to do the right thing. So in that sense, one of the things that appeals to me about Stoicism is it appeals to both theists (Christian, Muslim, Jewish) and hardcore atheists like, say, Derren Brown.
7) Christians are much bigger on community, on myth, ritual, music, dance, symbolism, stories
This is a huge difference, and I think is the reason Christianity became a world religion and Stoicism never did. It appeals not just to the intellect but to the emotions, the unconscious, the body, and to our desire to come together to celebrate life and God. This is one of the big reasons I have moved beyond Stoicism to Christianity – my desire for collective religious life is not satisfied by philosophy clubs, much as I love philosophy clubs. They leave too much of me out.
8) In Christianity, love is more important than rationality
As Jean Vanier put it, a mentally disabled person would to Aristotle be defective, sub-human. To Christ, they would be just as beautiful as any other child of God. I think this is partly why Christianity is much better at community than Stoicism – because communities need to be grounded in love, not rationality. If a community is grounded in rationality, it immediately leads to a stiff hierarchy of the rational. Love, by contrast, resists hierarchies. Love is gentle, vulnerable, humble, serving.
Well, those are some initial thoughts. What have I got wrong or missed out?
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
There have been exceptions to this emotional illiteracy in liberal philosophers, says Nussbaum. Rousseau imagined a ‘civil religion’, which would fuse the people together in ecstatic worship of the state (his ideas bore fruit during the French Revolution in the bizarre Cult of Reason.) The social scientist Auguste Comte also developed his own eccentric ‘Positivist religion’ which he planned to impose on the citizenry in his ideal state.
But Nussbaum finds these solutions unsatisfactory. Any sort of imposed religion – theistic, civil or positivistic – is illiberal and probably doomed to failure. Following Rawls, Nussbaum believes the state should not impose any ‘comprehensive theory of the good’ onto its populace. Nonetheless, she thinks it proper for a liberal state to encourage certain pro-social emotions as a psychological foundation for political stability. Rational utilitarianism isn’t enough – we need a more full-blooded ‘enthusiastic liberalism’.
Nussbaum is not alone in this desire for a more emotional politics. There has been a revival in the last two decades of Aristotle’s contention that it is the proper role of the state to encourage eudaimonia, or flourishing, in the citizenry. One finds this idea in a spate of books and articles on the politics of happiness, well-being and virtue over the last 20 years, by the likes of Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan, Jeffrey Sachs, Derek Bok, Robert and Ed Skidelsky and others.
There has also been a growing interest in ‘political theology’, or the role of religion (whether theist or atheist) as an important cultivator of political emotions, in thinkers as diverse as Ronald Dworkin, Roberto Unger, Alasdair MacIntyre, Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Haidt, John Gray and Simon Critchley. The philosopher Alain de Botton has even started his own ‘religion for atheists’, while Lord Layard has launched a grassroots movement called Action for Happiness. There is a growing sense that liberal societies need more than rational skepticism, that we either need to return to religion (see the current popularity of the Pope and Archbishop Welby among political reformers) or to find some secular alternative.
Let’s say we accept the proposition that liberal societies are failing to promote the proper emotions, and this is threatening their long-term survival (this is a big claim, and Nussbaum does not do enough to back it up). Let’s say we accept her list of ‘good’ emotions and ‘bad emotions’ (are shame and envy necessarily bad for the polis? Protagoras and Adam Smith might disagree). The question remains: how can governments promote emotions in their citizens, without becoming cultish and totalitarian? What policy levers are available to the budding political psychologist, keen to promote certain emotional states in the citizenry?
Nussbaum rightly recognizes that if politicians really want to reach into the souls of their citizens and stir their emotions, they need the arts and humanities: symbols, metaphor, gesture, rhetoric, poetry, music, dance, monuments, architecture, festivals, pageantry, all the cultural apparatus that the Church wielded so expertly before the Reformation and Enlightenment tore it down as so much superfluous bunting.
With her usual critical acuity, she provides close readings of various works of art – the patriotic poetry of Whitman, the songs and dances of Rabindranath Tagore, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro – to show how deftly they cultivate pro-social emotions in the audience while never becoming fanatical. However, none of these works of art were ‘ordered’ by politicians. They arose spontaneously from the genius of their authors. Artistic genius is unpredictable, the muses tend to resist clumsy advances by politicians. So how can policy-makers directly work with the arts to try and cultivate political emotions? Don’t they have to leave artists alone to experiment?
Politicians can at least recognise that the arts play an important role – not just in earning money for the ‘creative economy’, but more profoundly in making us who we are, in shaping our emotions and national identity. Politicians can create conditions in which artistic talent is more likely to arise, and help to educate a populace to a level where it’s capable of responding to great art.
They can do this by encouraging the teaching of arts and humanities in schools and adult education, and by supporting artistic institutions and allowing them to take risks. Nussbaum looks to John Stuart Mill’s inaugural address to the University of St Andrews, in 1867, in which Mill highlights the importance of ‘aesthetic education’ in schools and universities as the foundation for a sympathetic, liberal ‘religion of humanity’. Nussbaum would also include dance classes in her ideal education, as they were in the Tagore school where her friend Amartya Sen grew up. I completely agree – Plato argued that dance has a central role in our emotional education, and it’s sad that schools give so little space to dance (or indeed, to sport).
A second policy tool available to the budding political psychologist is rhetoric. Nussbaum analyses the speeches of Martin Luther King, Churchill, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt to show how cleverly they cultivated the political emotions appropriate to the crises their countries faced. Today, by contrast, politicians speak in tweet-like soundbites. There’s a lot to be said for trying to raise the bar of political rhetoric in our time, although the presidency of Barack Obama show that rhetorical prowess is no guarantee of successful government.
A third policy lever available to the political psychologist is urban planning (as another new book, Happy City, explores). Nussbaum provides clever readings of emotionally literate public spaces, such as Chicago’s Millennium Park and the Lincoln Memorial. However, the rising cost of living space (in London, particularly) arguably has a much bigger impact on people’s well-being than any park or monument.
Despite these examples, my abiding impression of Nussbaum’s book is of the disconnect between academic philosophy and the emotional lives of ordinary people, even with an unusually ‘public’ philosopher like Nussbaum. Her close readings of the Marriage of Figaro or the tragedies of Sophocles are interesting, but alas our citizenry is not as culturally sophisticated as the citizenry of fifth century Athens (we don’t have the luxury of a large slave population to support our leisure), and while there is a mass audience for high culture, it is still a minority. Today, the main aesthetic cultivators of the public’s emotions are pop music, cinema and television. Yet these are strangely absent from Nussbaum’s cultural analysis (she doesn’t listen to pop and probably doesn’t watch television).
Some philosophers have considered the cultural and emotional impact of pop culture – Roger Scruton in Modern Culture (2007), Carson Colloway in All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (2001), Allan Bloom in his 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind. But these philosophers cast the most cursory of glances at pop culture before dismissing it with a Platonic sneer as barbaric and infantile. This is a pity. The two most successful recent examples of art shaping our political emotions in this country were the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert in 2012 and the Olympic Opening Ceremony the same year. In both of them, pop music played a key role. For good or ill, TV has also profoundly shaped our national psyche, far more than any opera or monument.
Another strange absence from her book is any discussion of psychotherapy and psychiatry – two policy levers by which governments can influence their citizens’ emotions. Aldous Huxley imagined a state where the citizens were pacified through soma. Today, the NHS spends $2 billion annually on mood-altering chemicals, including 50 million prescriptions for anti-depressants. The government has also spent over half a billion pounds on talking therapy, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to try and reduce levels of depression and anxiety disorders in the population. CBT, as I’ve explored, was directly inspired by the Hellenistic philosophies that Nussbaum has done so much to revive, and is a way for many ordinary people to discover ancient philosophy.
Oddly, Nussbaum has never discussed CBT in her books, and has been very dismissive of Positive Psychology. She has made valid criticisms of Positive Psychology – it’s overly fixated on optimism, and can be illiberal and dogmatic when politicians try to impose it on their citizens without their consent. And yet for all their flaws, CBT and Positive Psychology have brought the ideas of Socratic philosophy to millions of people, which is more than can be said for any academic philosopher.
Nussbaum neglects to consider at any length the importance of religions to political emotions (again, for good and ill). She is rightly wary of governments imposing any particular religion onto its citizenry. Yet policy makers can still try to work with faith groups, as say the anti-slavery campaign and the Jubilee debt campaign did so successfully. As Jonathan Haidt has explored, if you really want to generate ‘enthusiasm’ in the populace, you will probably need to tap into areas of the mind usually reached by religion. It’s notable how many of the figures she celebrates are, in one way or another, religious: Whitman, Tagore, Gandhi, Luther King. We are moved by the sacred, which is a tricky thing for a secular liberal philosopher like Nussbaum.
Political Emotions is an important contribution to an already impressive body of work. Nussbaum has transformed modern philosophy, helping to re-connect it to the emotions, to psychology, to the arts, and to public policy. She has been a defining influence in the rise of the Neo-Aristotelian idea that philosophy, including political philosophy, can and should transform our emotions.
And yet Political Emotions is curiously unemotional, dense, and unlikely to get the pulse racing. It opens the way for ‘further research’ (that phrase beloved of academics) and for no doubt interesting papers, seminars, conferences and books by other academics on the political emotions. But can philosophers not merely discuss the public emotions, but actually affect them? Maybe so – but to do so, they will need to venture further beyond the safety of the Ivory Tower and into politics and popular culture.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>