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Love and Politics: Reflections on Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice

Our political culture is in the pits. It would be better if it displayed more compassion. The great religions of the world advocate it, as do humane atheistic thinkers like Albert Camus. But our politics too seldom does.


We liberal progressives often fault conservatives for lacking political compassion. After reading a piece like Steve Hochstadt’s “Cutting Food Stamps,” or thinking of the homeless, senseless school shootings, Hurricane Sandy’s victims, or of people languishing in prison for minor drug offenses, we ask ourselves such questions as, “How can Republicans vote to cut spending on programs that help the poor or the environment?” “How can they vote against gun control legislation?” “How can they be so heartless?” And we are right to do so.

But before going further, a few words about “liberal progressives.” One can embrace both words, but they’re not identical. Liberals preceded Progressives and were mainly concerned with expanding and protecting various kinds of civil liberties or freedoms. In the United States, Progressives arose in the 1890-1914 period and emphasized compassion, social justice, and equality. They were a diverse group (including some Republicans) who wanted government bodies and laws to constrain and supplement capitalism so that it served the public good. The LA Progressive’s main goal—to “provide a means of expressing progressive viewpoints and to champion the causes that promote the betterment of society particularly the lives of the dispossessed and powerless”—is in keeping with this tradition.

Even though liberalism gradually broadened to demonstrate more concern for the poor, it has not always placed as much emphasis on emotions such as compassion. In Liberal Imagination (1950) Lionel Trilling wrote that liberalism “drifts toward a denial of the emotions and the imagination.” Our liberal President Obama has sometimes been criticized for being too passionless, too cerebral, too professorial, too cold (see here though for his praise of compassion and empathy). Part of the reason liberals have sometimes deemphasized emotions is the wish to be objective, rational, and “scientific,” and emotions and imagination seem unscientific. Think of it: we call our study of politics “Political Science.”

Although in a later essay, I’ll examine the paucity of imagination in our political culture, in this one I’ll concentrate on the need for positive emotions, particularly love and its attendant values compassion and empathy. And I’ll do so via an examination of a new book, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, by Martha Nussbaum, author of more than a dozen books and a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where President Obama also once taught.

I was drawn to her book for several reasons. Skimming through it indicated an emphasis on the role of literature, music, and art in awakening and developing “political love.” And having previously written on political wisdom and the importance of literature and such values as love and compassion, I hoped to gain new insights on these subjects.


Her book has not disappointed. Reading it has reinforced, but more importantly broadened, my understanding of love’s significance in political life and how it can be fostered there.

In her very first chapter, “A Problem in the History of Liberalism,” she makes clear not only the aim of her book, which is indicated in its subtitle, but also the type of society she hopes to help foster. It should be one that seeks the “common good.” Since defining that term can be contentious, she specifies her vision of it. “I envisage throughout a type of liberalism that is not morally ‘neutral,’ that has a certain definite moral content, prominently including equal respect for persons, a commitment to equal liberties of speech, association, and conscience, and a set of fundamental social and economic entitlements.” (16) “Entitlements” are a frequent object of right-wing rage, but Nussbaum stands with Franklin Roosevelt (FDR)—later on she frequently praises him and mentions her "enthusiasm for what Roosevelt accomplished.” (118) Not only did he push through such programs as Social Security, but in 1944 he told Congress that “freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitious men are not free men.’” And he called for a “second Bill of Rights” that would include the “right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.” (349)

She also clarifies her main theme by writing, “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.” (3) Further, she argues that “all of the core emotions that sustain a decent society have their roots in, or are forms of, love,” and “a compassionate and generous attitude toward the frailties of human beings—prominently including oneself—is a linchpin of the public culture I am recommending here.” (15, 22) Although she does not state it directly at the outset, she believes that emotions such as love are not just feelings but also involve thought and values. In an Appendix summarizing an earlier book, she simply refers to it as Upheavals of Thought, but referring to it complete with subtitle, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, would have made her concept of emotions clearer. Nevertheless, she writes in her Appendix, “I defend a conception of emotions according to which they all involve intentional thought or perception directed at an object and some type of evaluative appraisal of that object.” (399) Thus, love, compassion, and empathy are not just feelings.

After, her introductory chapter, Nussbaum’s next ten chapters are divided into three parts: I. History; II. Goals, Resources, Problems; and III. Public Emotions. Chapter 2 (the first chapter in Part I), “Equality and Love: Rousseau, Herder, and Mozart,” deals mainly with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. She believes this opera, first performed in Vienna in 1786, emphasizes love and other “human sentiments that are the necessary foundation for a public culture of liberty, equality, and fraternity.” (29-30) Since I have examined her thoughts on the opera, Mozart, and Herder elsewhere, I will here merely add a few words on Rousseau. Simply put, she approves of him for realizing the importance of emotion and encouraging a state to “create ceremonies and rituals, engendering strong bonds of civic love connected to duties to other citizens and to the country”; but she criticizes him for advocating an “illiberal and dictatorial” civil religion that would be intolerant of existing religions. (5, 23)

Nussbaum’s next two chapters complete Part I. They are on “Religions of Humanity,” those of Auguste Comte and J. S. Mill in Chapter 3, and of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) in Chapter 4. Later on she refers to Mill and Tagore as “our two primary theoretical guides.” (392) About the nineteenth-century Frenchman Comte, she admires his emphasis on emotions and admits that his “religion of humanity” had a strong influence on thinkers in many countries, including Mill (who wrote a book on Comte) and Tagore. But she criticizes his ideas, like Rousseau’s, for being too authoritarian and inflexible. She also faults him for his lack of a sense of humor.


Such a sense is important to Nussbaum and she mentions it often. Although she does not mention theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, she would seem to agree with his statement that “a sense of humor is indispensable to men of affairs who have the duty of organizing their fellowmen in common endeavors. It reduces the frictions of life and makes the foibles of men tolerable. There is, in the laughter with which we observe and greet the foibles of others, a nice mixture of mercy and judgment, of censure and forbearance.” (See here and here for more on the importance of humor in political life and beyond.)

About the ideas of Mill, one of liberalism’s founding fathers, there is much that she likes, for example, his appreciation of dissent, his advocacy of women’s rights, his emphasis on a liberal education, and his recognition of the need to encourage social sympathy. She believes his 1867 Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St. Andrews “is one of the great documents of higher education.” (81) (See here for the Address and links to other Mill writings.) She also is at one with Mill in his recognition of the value of literature, music, and art. She mentions his “recovery from depression and his restoration to general social sympathy” being “assisted by reading poetry, especially the poetry of Wadsworth.” She also notes Mill’s belief that a university should encourage “noble aims and endeavors . . . by cultivating sympathy with great figures in history or fiction, as well as by the influence of stirring music and visual art.” (80)

She does, however, disagree with his belief that a “religion of humanity” should replace existing religions. Her own view (she is a convert to Judaism) is that it should supplement, not replace, them.

Readers of previous Nussbaum books will not be surprised by her emphasis on the arts and humanities. Titles such as Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities and Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life indicate her appreciation of their role. And her The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy foreshadowed the frequent mentions of Aristotle and Greek dramatists, of both tragedies and comedies, which we find in Political Emotions. Her chapter on “Music and Emotion” in Upheavals of Thought prepares us for the extensive and knowledgeable treatment that we find here (in Chapter 2) of The Marriage of Figaro.

Walker Evans

Walker Evans

The two poets she quotes most are Tagore and Walt Whitman, and she starts Chapter 1 by citing lines from them. She refers to “the type of poetry, oratory, and art that moves real people,” and insists that “poetry, music, and art are great uniters: they take people out of themselves and forge a shared community.” (387-88)

Tagore’s talents were many, and he is too little appreciated in the Western world. Nussbaum calls him “a great educator and artist who gave substance to notions that in Mill’s hands remained blurry and indistinct.” (82) She cites many of his works, not only poetry and songs, but his fiction (e.g., The Home and the World) and non-fiction (e.g., The Religion of Man).

Her emphasis on Tagore is not surprising. In 2010 she wrote: “I have two countries: the United States, where I am based, and, for the past 20 years, India, where much of my work has focused and where I spend a good deal of time.” And Tagore is India’s greatest poet of the modern era and a Nobel Prize for Literature recipient in 1913. He continues today to be widely read in Bangladesh and India—both of whose national anthems are taken from Tagore songs.

In addition to Tagore, Nussbaum refers frequently to other Indians, especially Mohandas Gandhi and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. She mentions these two, along with Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and Martin Luther King Jr., as being her book’s “heroes.” (385) And although Indian examples will not be mentioned as frequently in this review as more familiar U.S. examples, there are ample references to other Indians and Indian culture from the dalit (“untouchable”) “chief architect of India’s Constitution” (365), B. R. Ambedkar, to the film Lagaan.

Besides literary works of Tagore, Greek dramatists, and Whitman, she mentions Shakespeare’s Othello and many other writings. And some of her passages remind me of what one scholar has written of England’s greatest poet and dramatist: “Wisdom for Shakespeare has far more to do with the heart than the head. . . . what is still more essential is a true and faithful heart, radiant with love, care, and devotion, brimming with compassion and forgiveness.”

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Lest, however, one conclude that Nussbaum neglects the value of scientific insight, she balances her reliance on the humanities and arts with an ample use of experimental scientific studies from cognitive psychologists, primatologists, anthropologists, and neuroscientists.

This becomes especially clear in Part II, which also contains three chapters, one of which is “Compassion, Human and Animal.” The other two are on the type of “Aspiring Society” she hopes to encourage and the obstacles to its development.

She discusses these impediments in Chapter 7 on “Radical Evil,” a term borrowed from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant—along with the American philosopher John Rawls, one of her favorites, Kant is a thinker she often mentions. In discussing impediments she depends heavily on empirical research dealing with childhood development. We see how feelings of helplessness and disgust, as well as fear of death, are often linked to narcissism, and how “authority and peer pressure” are often “props for badness.” A nine-page section is entitled “Projective Disgust and Segmentation: Gora and the Runaway Slave.” Gora is a Tagore novel and title character, and the “runaway slave” is referred to in Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself.” In a lecture on “Radical Evil,” Nussbaum once summarized concisely how these writers dealt with such disgust.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

Like Tagore, Whitman understood that emotions supportive of respect for all the different citizens of a great nation, whatever their race, gender, or religion, required working vigilantly against the tendency to stigmatize the different by portraying people or groups as disgusting, as bearers of some type of bodily contamination or dirtiness. This human tendency, which I call projective disgust, is a flight from something in ourselves; it therefore can be countered only by a reconstructed relation to ourselves.

The “flight” she mentions (“anthropedenial”) is often from our own animal natures. But like Whitman, she laments this failure to accept our bodies. The “projective disgust” she speaks of has done great evil in the world. In a previous work, I have noted that “in almost all cases of [twentieth-century] wars and atrocities, the enemy was depicted as less human by the use of derogatory terms” like rats, lice, swine, and “yellow monkies,” or as Nussbaum would phrase it, by “projective disgust.”

But she also indicates how literature can help us overcome such disgust. “Both Whitman and Tagore suggest . . . that a cultivation of the imagination, through artistic play, is necessary if adults are to maintain and broaden their concern for the other people in their surroundings, overcoming the tendency of all societies toward stigmatization.” (190)

She also lists other means of overcoming the impediments she mentions. One is “a robust training in independent thought, personal accountability, and critical dialogue.” (197) Another approach is a civic program like One Book One Chicago, where Chicagoans read and discuss books like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird and Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, novels that can increase our compassion and appreciation for justice and dissent.

Part III, dealing with “public emotions,” begins with the chapter “Teaching Patriotism.” Since I have summarized her thoughts on this subject elsewhere, I’ll be even briefer here: She believes the right kind of patriotism can help raise us above narcissism and can play “an essential role in creating a decent society, in which, indeed, liberty and justice are available to all.” (207)

Chapter 9 comes next and is entitled “Tragic and Comic Festivals: Shaping Compassion, Transcending Disgust.” The ancient Greek plays receive much attention here. Nussbaum believes, as she writes in Chapter 1, that to become more compassionate “citizens must learn, in effect, to be both tragic and comic spectators of the varied predicaments of life. The tragic perspective gives insight into shared vulnerabilities; the comic perspective . . . embraces the unevenness of human existence with flexibility and mercy, rather than hatred.” (21) Not only drama and other literature, but also public oratory, art, and monuments can engender a sense of the tragic or comic and foster compassion and love. Thus, she discusses here not only Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son and Whitman’s great poem upon Lincoln’s death, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” but the Gettysburg Address, the Lincoln Memorial, the nearby Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Depression photography of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and others, which FDR sponsored. In the chapter on patriotism she analyzes Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

In Chapter 10, “Compassion’s Enemies: Fear, Envy, Shame,” Nussbaum discusses not only these “enemies,” but also ways of overcoming them. She begins with lines from Whitman:

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores
of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades . . .

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

She believes that few politicians have thought comprehensively about political emotions, with FDR being a notable exception. He helped overcome fear in his First Inaugural Address (1933), proclaiming “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.". In his proposed “second Bill of Rights” in 1944 (see above), “Roosevelt takes aim squarely at the problem of envy . . . . the class-based envy with which Roosevelt grappled was disabling, and his speech was one of many rhetorical efforts on his part to produce a spirit of civic friendship and common work.” (350-51).

Urban planning and architecture can also combat fear and envy, and Nussbaum indicates some ways this has been done in her own Chicago area. Moreover, “New York without Central Park would have been a much poorer and more envy-ridden place.” (359) A section on “Disability and Dignity” deals with how the building, modifications, and discussions of the Roosevelt Memorial helped deal with the shame often associated with disabilities and engender more respect for those suffering from them.

Her final chapter, 11, “How Love Matters for Justice,” sums up the insights gained. One is that all types of love—e.g., paternal, fraternal, romantic—involving all sorts of people, can promote “cooperative and unselfish behavior.” (382). These types of love consist of “a family of sentiments, not a single emotion.” (394) Another conclusion is that strong emotions can coexist with dissent and tolerance. Still another is that idealism is not contrary to realism. “Ideals are real: they direct our striving, our plans, our legal processes.” (383) At the end of the chapter, she responds to a hypothetical critic of her book for being too “unrealistic”: “The objector presumably thinks that nations need technical calculation: economic thought, military thought, good use of computer science and technology. So, nations need those things, but they do not need the heart? They need expertise, but do not need the sort of daily emotion, the sympathy, tears, and laughter, that we require of ourselves as parents, lovers, and friends, or the wonder with which we contemplate beauty? If that’s what nations are like, one might well want to live elsewhere.” (396-97)

Overall, I find much political wisdom in Nussbaum’s book. Her optimism and hopefulness, as opposed to cynicism and alienation, remind me of another onetime Chicagoan and great admirer of Whitman and FDR, the poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg.

Only two criticisms come to mind, one justified and the other not. The first regards the absence of pictures, especially where Nussbaum writes of Depression photographs eliciting compassion. She refers to Michele Dauber’s excellent book The Sympathetic State: Disaster Relief and the Origins of the American Welfare State, which contains many such photographs (e.g., on pp. 92-108), and a few such would have appropriate in Political Emotions. Another complaint about the book might be that it is not easy reading.

In our world of short, easily digested paragraphs and twitter, this may be true, but it is not because of any inelegant style, but because of the complexity and wide-range of the materials Nussbaum treats. But as I used to tell students about T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” not all worthwhile reading is as short and simple as Robert Frost’s two line poem (“The Span of Life”)—“The old dog barks backwards without getting up. / I can remember when he was a pup.” Finally, it seems fitting to end with this quote since the polymath and prolific Nussbaum has also co-edited and contributed to a book on animal rights.

walter moss

Walter Moss

Tuesday, 19 November 2013