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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/13/18

Can Martha C. Nussbaum Rescue Us from Our Fears? (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) July 13, 2018: My favorite scholar is the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and polymath Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955). He liked to say that we need both proximity (closeness) and distance to understand something. Over the years, I took five courses from him at Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri (USA).

For distance, we Americans can draw on our Judeo-Christian heritage of thought, on the one hand, and, on the other, our Greco-Roman heritage of thought -- both of which heritages include texts that are, in effect, written transcripts of what Ong refers to as primary oral thought and expression -- for example, the Homeric epics and the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The Hebrew Bible includes, of course, the famous Hebrew prophets who called for social justice -- such as the prophet Amos -- who emerged during the ancient Israelites experiment with monarchy as a form of governance.

In our American cultural history, the American Protestant tradition of the jeremiad calls to mind those ancient Hebrew prophets. In our American cultural history, the Declaration of Independence is a famous expression of the American Enlightenment, which is part of the Greco-Roman tradition of Western philosophical thought that emerged in ancient Athens and is exemplified by Plato and Aristotle. The ancient experiment in participatory (but limited to male citizens) democracy also emerged in Athens, and it is an early exemplar on which our American experiment in representative democracy is based.

Because Aristotle wrote his famous treatise on civic rhetoric during the famous experiment of participatory democracy in Athens, we might wonder what he would have thought of the ancient Hebrew prophets such as Amos who called for social justice during the ancient Israelites experiment with monarchy as a form of governance. In short, what would Aristotle have thought about their call for social justice? Conversely, we might wonder what the ancient Hebrew prophets who called for social justice such as Amos would have thought about the experiment in participatory democracy in ancient Athens -- or about our American experiment in representative democracy.

For further discussion of the American Protestant tradition of jeremiads, see Sacvan Bercovitch's book The American Jeremiad, 2nd ed. (University of Wisconsin Press, 2012; orig. ed., 1978) and Cathleen Kaveny's book Prophecy Without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square (Harvard University Press, 2016).

Now, I do not know if Martha C. Nussbaum (born in 1947), a WASP convert to Judaism, ever read any of Ong's 400 or so publications. She frankly delineates her WASP background and conversion to Judaism (pages xii-xvii). In any event, she does not happen to advert explicitly to Ong's claim that we need both proximity (closeness) and distance to understand something. Nevertheless, she carefully draws on both our Judeo-Christian and our Greco-Roman heritages of thought in her short new book The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2018). But I am sorry to report that her book does not come equipped with an index.

I see her new book as a follow up to her earlier book Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013). See my OEN review titled "Can Martha C. Nussbaum Help Save Our Embattled Democracy?" (dated October 7, 2013):

In her short new book, Nussbaum says, "Philosophers sometimes show contempt for religion and religious people. That is one reason why they have little public influence in our nation, a deeply religious nation. Our fellow citizens are not stupid or base to embrace religion. We must wish, and this seems as likely as anything good is likely, that each person who embraces religion will find there the ingredients of a hope that is inclusive and loving, rather than divisive and retributive. Philosophy by itself shows how we can respect our enemies; it does not show us how to love them. For that we need the arts, and many need religion" (page 233). Love is an important theme in her new book, as it was in her 2013 book.

As the main title of her short new book suggests, Nussbaum's primary focus is on fear. But she also discusses certain related emotions -- anger, envy, and disgust. In two other books she has discussed disgust (2004) and anger and resentment (2016).

As an undergraduate at Saint Louis University, I took an ethics course. The required textbook was Vernon J. Bourke's Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy (Macmillan, 1951), based on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Among other things, Bourke discusses Aquinas' account of the seven deadly sins -- two of which are envy and anger. Nussbaum's nuanced discussion of anger, envy, disgust, and fear remind me of certain nuanced distinctions Aquinas makes in his discussion of the seven deadly sins.

As the subtitle on her new book shows, she sees herself primarily as a philosopher -- engaging in political philosophy. However, as a convert to Judaism, she is deeply concerned about social justice. Nevertheless, her new book is not a jeremiad. Basically, it is a further contribution to political philosophy. She explicitly states that "this is not a book of detailed public policy" (page 61).

As she sees things, the political crisis that she addresses involves Trump and Trump voters, on the one hand, and, on the other, catastrophizing liberals and progressives who see Trump and his administration in apocalyptic terms -- in short, as the end-times envisioned in the book of Revelation (page 3). However, it strikes me that the non-college-educated white voters who voted for Trump are not likely to read Nussbaum's new book. However, I suspect that many college-educated people are not familiar enough with Aeschylus' trilogy of plays known collectively as the Oresteia to benefit from her discussion of the last play in the trilogy (pages 64-67). Fortunately, Nussbaum finds analogous points in the thought of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (pages 88-95; she refers to Dr. King repeatedly throughout her book).

As an undergraduate at Saint Louis University, I heard Dr. King speak on campus on Monday afternoon, October 12, 1964, and again, in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 25, 1965.

Now, in my estimate, the tendency that Nussbaum refers to as the "othering" of certain groups (page 2) is best accounted for by C. G. Jung's account of projections onto others involving "shadow" material in our psyches. But Nussbaum does not mention Jung. Nevertheless, she does use the term "projective disgust" (pages 101, 108, 112, 114, 118 ["projective formation"], 126, 127, 129, 130, 132, 170 ["projected"], and 219). Nussbaum says, "Projective disgust is a denial of love and faith" (page 219).

Nowhere in her discussion of misogyny (pages 165-196) does Nussbaum even mention that the Democratic Party's presidential candidate in 2016, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, did not draw large enthusiastic crowds -- as Trump did -- except for her final rally in Philadelphia, when she was joined by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. In plain English, Clinton did not generate much political emotion (in Nussbaum's terminology), because she was an uncharismatic campaigner -- qualified, yes; charismatic, no. But why doesn't Nussbaum undertake an analysis of Clinton's failure to generate much political emotion? Wouldn't such an analysis be instructive?

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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