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How To Escape Fear: An Interview With Martha Nussbaum

The philosopher discusses the role of emotion in building democracy

martha nussbaum

“Hope really is a choice and a practical habit,” says Martha Nussbaum in her new book The Monarchy of Fear – an x-ray of Trump America’s emotions. Building on political theory, psychoanalysis, psychological studies and classics, the philosopher argues that fear, disgust and envy undermine democracy, while Martin-Luther-King-Jr-style-love and ‘practical hope’  offer answers to our current political crises. 

Dubbed as ‘The Philosopher of Feelings’ by The New Yorker, Nussbaum is at her twenty-third book. Currently a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, she has previously taught at Harvard, Brown and Oxford. In November 2016, Nussbaum was awarded the Kyoto Prize – the equivalent of the Nobel in fields that are non-eligible for the European prize – and thus joined a short list of philosophers including Karl Popper and Jürgen Habermas. Election Day caught the thinker at the award ceremony in Japan. As she was battling her own political anxiety far away from home, Nussbaum then thought her work on emotions “hadn’t gone deep enough” and decided to go deeper by writing The Monarchy of Fear. She discusses divisions, fairy tales, logical fallacies and how we can stop being part of the problem in the interview below.

                                                                                                                                         Paula Erizanu

In your book, you argue, along Rousseau’s lines, that the child is born in monarchy – he is helpless and can only survive if he ‘enslaves’ people; but he evolves into a mature human being when he stops seeing his parents as an extension of himself, and instead starts respecting and giving back to them. You then extrapolate that to politics, suggesting that democracy is a form of political maturity. But does the mere scale of contemporary states inevitably mean that some people will become abstractions to us, and that by respecting some people we may overlook or overstep others’ freedoms?

I don't think democracy ever needed people all to know one another. Even in ancient Athens, where there were only about 10,000 (adult) citizens, that would have been impossible. And personal knowledge is not even a good thing for democratic choice. For example, it's right to exclude people from a jury if they know the defendant. Democracy needs us to think that each life is precious, and it also requires knowledge of the situations of many different classes and groups in society, but none of this requires personal familiarity. That is what imagination is for, and that is why I have so long defended a form of education that nourishes both imagination and historical knowledge. 

Democracy also requires the Socratic ability to think about the structure of an argument and to distinguish good arguments from bad, so that political conversation is real deliberation. That too is conveyed by the humanities and by the whole structure of what we in the US are accustomed to call Liberal Education. We need those abilities now more than ever, but the humanities are being downgraded and cut, both in universities and in schools.

Laws can’t be enacted or sustained without the hearts and minds of people, you write in The Monarchy of Fear. Does this mean that a state also involves a lot of emotional work, that a state can’t just be a rational project?

Let's try to avoid that slippery word ‘rational.’ If it just means ‘based on thought, or involving thought,’ most emotions, I argue, are rational in that sense. Grief isn't a stomach ache, it involves thoughts about the loss of something precious.  If ‘rational’ means ‘based on good (factually correct, inferentially sound) thought’, well many emotions are not rational in that sense, but neither are a lot of our non-emotional beliefs. So let me rephrase the question: government should not deal in detached abstract formulations if it wants to succeed and endure, but must speak to people's deep sources of meaning and value. Summoning such emotions is essential for any bold project. 

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"Democracy needs us to think that each life is precious."

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In my 2013 book Political Emotions I study the New Deal, how FDR summoned people to compassion with the victims of economic disaster; there are many other examples. In the present book I talk about Dr. Martin Luther King's magnificent way of summoning people to love and common work.  Of course emotions, like anything in life, can be used both well and badly, and there are also plenty of bad examples in the book. 

You say that art enhances compassion and understanding. But does art not also reify our own prejudices and stereotypes? For instance, you suggest that instead of analysing the poverty of Hansel and Gretel, fairy tales focus on destroying the witch that suddenly appears in the story. But isn’t this just a pattern of storytelling – that the conflict between concrete villains and heroes makes for a better story than an analysis of structural, complex and more abstract issues?

Art, like emotions in general, can certainly be used to simplify and distort. But the arts also have amazing abilities to connect us across divisions and to remind us of deeper parts of ourselves that busy lives often suppress. And no, I do not think that artworks need simple heroes and villains. Perhaps it is not surprising that my favorite British novelist is Anthony Trollope, who said that he did not think that there was any human being who was all good or all bad. In his novels we find that even the villains, such as the egregious and hilarious Mrs. Proudie, are surprisingly magnificent, and I cry at her death, after having battled with her intensely for hundreds of pages. That is the sort of attitude that would help us in society today.  I consider Trollope a temperamental relative of my favourite artist of all time, Mozart, whose gentle and generous intelligence illuminates every corner of human striving. No matter what Mozart's librettist has given him to work with, he always creates rich complexity, and helps us discover in ourselves possibilities of love we didn't know we had.

Might it be that humans fall into the logical trap of finding scapegoats in other people – whether it’s minorities or leaders - rather than in systems because we tend to think in terms of (simplistic) stories rather than argumentative essays?

Absolutely. When you feel powerless, you reach for control, and a simple narrative of blame gives people the illusion of control. Solving problems created by automation and technological change is hard. Blaming immigrants is all too easy.  So a good politician will try to stop this baneful reaction by urging people to think better. I give examples of this in my book, including George W. Bush's repeated insistence after 9/11 that Americans should not demonise Islam or Muslims but should search for the particular criminals involved.

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"Government should not deal in detached abstract formulations if it wants to succeed and endure, but must speak to people's deep sources of meaning and value."

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One of the most novel solutions you come up with to conquer fear and make democracies work better is the idea of a national service that requires young people to get into contact with people of different classes, ethnicities and ages to do constructive work. Why do you think this is needed and how could we prevent resentment or bad experiences? Why not make this service universal, involving people of all ages doing a few hours of community work on certain weekends of the month, much like the Soviets attempted with subotniks?

The problem I'm addressing is that people don't know one another. Our residential housing and our schools de facto segregated by class and race, and young people grow up not knowing how other people live. This makes informed political participation very hard. My picture is that people would see different regions of the country and different ethnic and cultural surroundings from those familiar to them, meanwhile doing useful work such as elder care and child care. (In the US the absence of nursing care is a huge hardship for aging adults.) It is important to do this when people are young, so that it affects their political understanding henceforth. And it needs to be a total immersion, not a few hours a week while you live in your usual place. Of course I think it's great if people do that sort of community work too, but it doesn't provide the same benefits of human learning and understanding.  I think bad experiences are part of learning, but the program needs to be set up well, with plenty of training and with counselors to deal with problems.

In its renunciation to things outside our control, Stoicism also gives up on love, you say. Is Stoicism a school that you fully disagree with? Are there other philosophical schools you find problematic?

 I have written two books about the Stoics that show my agreements and disagreements in great detail. In The Therapy of Desire and Upheavals of Thought I credit them with deep insight into what emotions are -- that they involve commitments to external goods beyond our control.  I call my own theory of emotions a ‘Neo-Stoic’ theory. I also agree with some of their normative proposals, particularly to wean ourselves from retributive anger, as I discuss in Anger and Forgiveness 

But I just draw the line at love. So it certainly is not a total rejection. Gandhi had roughly the same views as the Stoics, as Richard Sorabji shows in his excellent book Gandhi and the Stoics: Modern Experiments on Ancient Values, and I have the greatest admiration for Gandhi, though I think he too went too far in his rejection of deep human attachment. 

On another topic, the Stoics saw great and equal worth in all human beings, as I emphasise when I discuss the historical antecedents of the Capabilities Approach, so of course that too is something positive, as is their view that we have moral duties to people outside our own nation.  My forthcoming book The Cosmopolitan Tradition goes into all that much more fully.

You distinguish between idle and practical hope. How could we avoid falling into the first, and create the latter in our lives? How can we work on our emotional focus?

I argue that the reason to cultivate hope in uncertain times is Kant's reason: we have a duty to work for the improvement of our societies, but energetic action to serve the public good is not possible without hope. Obviously, then, what we need to cultivate is practical not idle hope. 

Strategies ought to be personal and local, but I suggest that a number of institutions can help: religion, the arts, liberal arts education, protest movements, and the study of theories of justice. I call these ‘practices of hope.’ Of course for each one there are good and bad versions.  We need to ask ourselves what will energise our own search for social good, and choose accordingly.

Has this book changed your mind about something? 

I wrote the book because I had already changed my mind. Having approached each emotion in isolation before, I began to see that an underlying fear often suffuses them all and explains why other emotions such as anger and envy turn politically toxic. I realised this by thinking about my own reactions to the election of 2016, as well as observing what I saw around me.  

Is there a question that this book has left unanswered for you, and that you might want to explore in a further project?

 Well, I think that grappling with the Utilitarians about welfare (in the book I talk about below) will certainly help me grapple with the practical and economic aspects of the crisis of our time, and those are, obviously, aspects I only touched upon in The Monarchy of Fear.

The implicit idea of The Monarchy of Fear is that the good life involves love and hope, and an astute management of our irrational fear, retributive anger, and disgust. Is that a fair definition of your idea of the good life?

I don't believe in giving definitions of the good life; that's something each person has to figure out for him or herself, in keeping with their religion or other doctrine. What I think philosophers are entitled to do is to propose an account of basic political entitlements that all citizens can share whatever their religious or non-religious ‘comprehensive doctrine’, and that is what I've tried to do in the book. 

As we're inaugurating our Thinker of the Month profiles, we'd like to ask you a few more general questions. Which thinkers have had the most influence upon you and how?

Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicurus and his ally Lucretius, Cicero. These are in my head, so they are touchstones to whom I keep returning to argue and learn.  It's not about agreeing, it's about having an internal conversation with their powerful arguments.

If you could only have three books, what would they be?

They would be operas: Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutte, and Idomeneo. 

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

I find that an embarrassing question. Others will tell whether I have achieved anything.

What has been your most ambitious unfinished project?

I'm just planning a book on opera that I will begin writing in a couple of years. And I have materials for a book on the British Utilitarians that I must not write until 2021, because it is promised as a lecture series in that year. I don't have any unfinished projects from the past. I tend to finish things!

What is one phrase or motto that keeps you going in times of distress?

Not so much mottoes, but quite a few Mozart arias can be summoned up in my head to remind me of the beauty of love. Whatever I'm listening to or singing for my voice lessons most recently. But non-Mozart as well: the Agnus Dei from the Verdi Requiem, for example.  And just now I am learning Henry Purcell's ‘Hark the Echoing Air,’ and its delightful silliness ("pleas'd Cupids clap clap clap their wings") is not just a challenge for my diction, but is also a lovely reminder of life's hilarity and pleasure.

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