Without harnessing the emotions of its citizenry, a nation would find it nearly impossible to achieve many of its important goals. The armed services, for instance, rely on patriotism to help fill their ranks with willing recruits, while anti-littering campaigns succeed by tapping into a sense of civic pride. Given the prominence of public emotion in political action, then, it seems uncontroversial that governments would devote significant energy to cultivating and channeling the passions of their citizens. But how can they do so while remaining true to the bedrock liberal principles of individual liberty and autonomy, and without veering into dictatorial oppression? Answering these questions is the project undertaken by Professor Martha Nussbaum in a book in progress, Political Emotions: The Public Psychology of a Decent Society.
In several chapters shared at a recent WIP talk, Professor Nussbaum briefly sketched the challenges confronting those leaders wishing to generate, in the words of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a “civil religion.” First is the danger of stirring up overly intense and indiscriminately focused emotions. As Professor Nussbaum suggests, emotions are not simply uncritical impulses; they are also normative evaluations. That is, an emotion is an endorsement of a particular political view, and governments must therefore be careful not to foster emotions that have as their object the subjugation or exclusion of certain political subsections of the population.
Second, political emotions require a significant amount of devotion in order to have any practical effect. However, this devotion cannot be blindly unwavering. Instead, Professor Nussbaum argues that emotional devotion must “remain compatible with liberal freedom.” That is, it must be subject to criticism, subversion, and dissent. Humor, for instance, can help deflate the pretentions of patriotism, and in doing so keep it from metastasizing into warmongering.
One way to resolve the inherent tensions of political emotions, Professor Nussbaum suggests, is for the government to encourage and enable artists to create different conceptualizations of worthwhile political values. While Professor Nussbaum discusses the many political thinkers—including Rousseau, Locke, Mill, and Rawls—who have contributed to the discourse on the significance of moral sentiments, she argues that the power of political emotions is better captured by music, dance, and poetry than by transparently rational philosophy. Indeed, Professor Nussbaum explores in great detail Auguste Comte’s globally influential idea for a “religion of humanity,” but she ultimately rejects it as a suitable basis for generating true public emotions in part because its staunch positivism leaves little room for artists to freely exercise their imagination.
To illustrate this point, Professor Nussbaum focuses in particular on the work of Walt Whitman and Rabindranath Tagore. In “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” for instance, Whitman creates a public mourning ritual for the loss of Abraham Lincoln, and speaks directly to the deeply felt emotions of a grieving reader. In doing so, Whitman has transfigured Lincoln’s death into a moral symbol for the pursuit of justice, and has elevated the reader’s sorrow in reaction to a specific loss into a rededication to the civic ideals that Lincoln represented. Similarly, Tagore’s “Amar Shonar Bangla,” later adopted as the national anthem of Bangladesh, portrays the natural beauty of Bengal as erotically seductive. Tagore’s poetry suggests a tender, sensuous relationship between the reader and her nation that contrasts starkly with the aggressive imperialism of Bengal’s British colonial rulers. Both Whitman and Tagore, then, aim to inspire in their readers a passion towards civic institutions, and ask them to engage in the public sphere with a spirit of love.
Tagore in particular built on Comte’s ideas, but, as Professor Nussbaum notes, he departed from Comte in a number of important ways. First, Tagore’s pluralist humanism seems to be a direct rejection of Comte’s cultural hegemony. Furthermore, Tagore’s poetry embraces an uncertainty that is at odds with a Comtean sense of order and restraint. Indeed, Tagore’s vision for society borrows heavily from the Bauls, a group of mystic Bengali minstrels whose delight in counter-cultural nonconformity would have no place in Comte’s rigid religion of humanity.
Tagore aimed to infuse the Baul spirit in society through education and popular music. While his school, emphasizing a pedagogy of movement and nature, flourished for a time, it is perhaps in his thousands of popular songs that Tagore’s legacy is most lasting. Gandhi often cited Tagore’s “Ekla Cholo Re” as one of his favorites, and the song’s theme of quiet but courageous resistance resonated deeply within the struggle for Indian independence. Professor Nussbaum detects another echo of Tagore’s work in the rhetoric of Jawaharlarl Nehru, whose “Tryst with Destiny” inaugural address described the unfinished business of building an Indian state as a labor of love.
Having identified the work of Whitman and especially Tagore as promising developments of Comte’s project of engendering political emotions, Professor Nussbaum proposes to focus next on the normative question of determining which values those political emotions should impel society towards. She will then delve into a survey of humankind’s psychological capacities, paying particular attention to play and its importance in fostering a compassionate concern for others. Last, she will explore the options available to a liberal society both at the level of institutional design and in the formation of individual identity. In doing so, and with Whitman and Tagore enlisted as spiritual guides, Professor Nussbaum will map out the terrain of a just, compassionate, and sustained culture of political emotion.