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Martha C. Nussbaum is a universalist feminist, which makes her something of an anomaly in the academy today. As she has pointed out in several recent books, such as Sex and Social Justice (1999) and Women and Human Development: A Capabilities Approach (2000), feminism, while completely taken for granted in the liberal West (ever met anyone who is for discrimination against women?), is anything but a common presupposition in lands untouched by either the Enlightenment or rationalized industrialization.

This is a point nearly always missed by advocates of the separatist (and highly rhetorical) feminism now reigning in the higher altitudes of the postmodern university. Just a few years back Nussbaum penned a tartly dismissive review of several books by Judith Butler (who is, appropriately, a professor of rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley) in the New Republic (February 22, 1999). So scathingly devastating was this review of what might be called Butler’s “multiculturalist feminism” that it prompted a torrent of letters from the usual suspects, one of which had the audacity to object (from the left!) to Nussbaum’s assertion that “women who are hungry, illiterate, disenfranchised, beaten, [and] raped . . . prefer food, schools, votes, and the integrity of their bodies.” Not so, claimed the letter writer. No, based on her own recent studies, opined this correspondent, “the gender practice of the rural poor is quite often in the performative mode, carving out power within a more general scene of pleasure in subjection” (emphasis added).

Battling such nonsense certainly requires a commitment to the notion of universal human rights. But perhaps even more, it requires a broader understanding of the human condition than one could gain from reading our contemporaries. Nussbaum cultivates that understanding through the careful study of classical philosophy. Her first book was a close reading of Aristotle’s biology (a monograph in 1978 on Aristotle’s De motu animalium); then in 1986 she produced a seminal work on the relation of Hellenic ethics to the Greek tragedians (The Fragility of Goodness) and concluded the trilogy with a study of the Stoic critique of concupiscent desire.

In many ways, Upheavals of Thought can be considered the capstone of these works. Nussbaum has now taken the results of these primarily historical studies and used them to fashion her own updated version of what she calls “neo-Stoicism.” By that term she means two things: one, that emotions are inherently cognitive operations, or in her words “involve judgments about important things”; and two, that these judgments become emotional precisely by their connection to the emoter’s neediness. That is, while we are capable of recognizing all kinds of matters as notionally important, it is only when they affect us directly that they elicit an emotional reaction. Nor is that ineluctable fact a testimony to man’s essential selfishness, although it can of course mean that as well. Rather, self-referentiality is essential to all the emotions, and it does no good whatever to moralize against that fact. For Nussbaum, all emotions are egocentric. As she puts it.

I do not go about fearing any and every catastrophe anywhere in the world, nor (so it seems) do I fear any and every catastrophe that I know to be bad in important ways. What inspires fear is the thought of damages impending that cut to the heart of my own cherished relationships and projects. What inspires grief is the death of someone beloved, someone who has been an important part of one’s own life. This does not mean that the emotions view these objects simply as tools or instruments of the agent’s own satisfaction: they may be invested with intrinsic worth or value. They may be loved for their own sake, and their good sought for its own sake . . . . [Nonetheless], the emotions are in this sense localized: they take their stand in my own life, and focus on the transition between light and darkness there, rather than on the general distribution of light and darkness in the universe as a whole.

This is wisdom, and the book is packed chock-a-block with the stuff. Admittedly it is written in a fairly dry style, which might strike the reader as an ironic feature of a book discussing emotional upheavals; but to my mind her sobriety of style is exactly suited to the matter at hand. Nussbaum’s sobriety allows her readers to gain a certain distance on their own emotional turmoil, and thus also needed clarity about what such turmoil might tell us about our relationship with the world. In short, for Nussbaum emotions are a form, so to speak, of smart thinking.

(Note: the author excludes from her catalogue of emotions—rightly in my view—depression, understood in the clinical, chronic sense. For one thing, that kind of depression is chemical, not environmental in origin. But more crucially, depression’s lack of intentionality means that it is not an e -motion; that is, depression does not bring us out of ourselves. Rather it induces a disengagement from the world, which cannot be said of the directionality of love, grief, anger, hatred, joy, hope, gratitude, guilt, contentment, fear, or any number of other emotions. Nussbaum also excludes such bodily appetites as hunger and thirst because they are purely physiological reactions. Pain and pleasure, as well as the sex instinct, hover somewhere in the middle: they are at the most fundamental level physiological, but they are also forms of sensations that bear within themselves an inherently intentional directiveness.)

The book is quite long, for it contains chapters on Nussbaum’s own emotional reactions to St. Augustine, Dante, Emily Brontë, Walt Whitman, and James Joyce, as well as a chapter devoted to the music of Gustav Mahler—each of which is itself nearly the size of a monograph. In fact, the book’s last section, Part III, is really a book within a book (it clocks in at more than 250 pages) and does not sit easily with the philosophical analyses carried on earlier. This is partly because Nussbaum works through all these authors using a technique similar to Dante’s in the Inferno and Purgatorio, where the Latin poet Virgil accompanies him on his journeys.

What the author has done is to cast herself as a kind of Virgilian cicerone who accompanies not Dante but Albertine, the character in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. This journey is meant to teach Albertine that her erotic attraction toward the novel’s character Marcel needs reform, a kind of Socratic “sentimental education,” so that Albertine may not be “excessively needy, vengeful, or partial, and so as to be supportive of general social compassion, reciprocity, and respect for individuality.” (In these passages Nussbaum often sounds like Seneca, the most famous Stoic of them all, writing to his pupil and young charge, Nero. Seneca’s notorious lack of success with that infantile imperial hellion of course does not vitiate the advice.)

Unfortunately, Nussbaum quickly abandons Socrates and eventually ends up with the rather disconcerting figure of Joyce as the beckoning Beatrice. This highly eccentric Irish novelist must play the Beatrice role because, except for an opening treatment in Part III comparing Plato, Spinoza, and Proust (who actually appear before the journey begins), Albertine’s journey itself is entirely chronological in its succession of figures. This means that the termination of Albertine’s ascent is really an accident, without theological or even philosophical coherence. For that reason, I do not believe that this journey-narrative—and thus the last third of the book—can be regarded as a success.

First of all, Nussbaum adopts a structure of ascent all the while assuming the Romantic criticism of the Christian ascent-narrative. Secondly, the structure of her narrative presupposes the Whig interpretation that all history is leading to the final telos of a liberal individualism that has superseded Christianity. Somewhat like the novelist George Eliot, who wanted Christian morality without the religion, Nussbaum encourages Albertine to grow beyond her own narrow horizons through a self-abnegating journey of transcendence while simultaneously undermining the very reason one should undergo such asceticism. Albertine is expected to reform her love without being offered a well-grounded judgment about her true end that would motivate her desire to reform. (One can almost hear the sneering ghost of Friedrich Nietzsche here pouring contempt on this impossible project, as he quite rightly did with George Eliot’s own naive Victorian hopes for a religionless morality.)

Albertine no doubt learns a lot, and so does Nussbaum’s reader, as long as he is willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Nor does Nussbaum abandon her central philosophical thesis, that emotions are not colliding, careening forces that sweep over a person unwilled like some tornado in a Kansas summer; rather they are all, without exception, indicators of our enfleshment in the world. But if the world as such has an end that transcends the egocentric and self-referential needs and emotions of the individual, then that too must enter into the emotional picture. The Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once decried early in his career the “sleek and passionless” theology of neo-Scholasticism and urged theology to devote itself to “movement, sharp debate, the virile language of deep and powerful emotion.” Martha Nussbaum’s own narrative would seem to want us all to have a life of the intellect marked by such deep and powerful emotion. But she ends up depriving her readers of a true judgment about where the intentionality of the emotions is leading us, toward the summit of our supreme fulfillment and happiness—our end in God.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., is the Margaret and Chester Paluch Visiting Professor of Theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/ Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois, during the 2002-2003 academic year.

Image by Luigi Mengato licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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