09 November 2008

Do you have the right feelings? – Wisdom Sunday

The doctrine of subjective value is so pervasive this it probably seems a silly question. How can anyone have the right feelings? Feelings are just feelings. You like something, or someone; or you do not. You can’t help your feelings. Period.

But consider the case of two people reflecting back upon similar experiences from their respective pasts. One of them savors the moment, reliving every detail, recalling the experience with relish. The other shrinks back in horror, unable to enjoy the memory, grieving it intensely, ashamed both of the event itself and every recollection of it. The experience could be anything, stealing an apple from a neighbor’s tree as a child, a schoolyard fight, ganging up with one’s friends against another child; maybe they killed a stay cat. Why the difference in attitude? Should the first man really be feeling good about the past? Should the second really be feeling bad? (Bear in mind they are remembering the same sort of experience.)

The idea that emotions can be right or wrong probably seems silly to many people today. It was not always the case, however:

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it – believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt…. When Shelley, having compared the human sensibility to an Aeolian lyre, goes on to add that it differs from a lyre in having a power of “internal adjustment” whereby it can “accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them,” he is assuming the same belief. “Can you be righteous,” asks Traherne, “unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.” St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought [see Nicomachean Ethics, 1104b]. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in “ordinate affections” or “just sentiments” will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science” [id., at 1095b]. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful [see Laws, 653]. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one “who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize here because of the affinity he bears to her” [Republic, 402]. In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in the Rta -- that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with Satya or truth, correspondence to reality. As Plato said that the Good was “beyond existence” and Wordsworth that through virtue the stars were strong, so the Indian masters say that the gods themselves are born of the Rta and obey it. The Chinese also speak of…the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar. “In ritual,” say the Analects, “it is harmony with Nature that is prized” [Analects of Confucius, 1.12]. The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being “true” [Psalm 119.151].

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I…refer to…as “the Tao.” Some of the accounts of it…seem…merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself – just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgment; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it. – C. S. Lewis, “Men Without Chests”, in The Abolition of Man.
Lewis mentions emotional states which can be “out of harmony with reason” as in those cases where we ought to like something but do not. We should also mention those occasions, which he does not mention, in which we feel liking where we ought not to do: we enjoy memories which we really shouldn’t. And we do so because we appraise these memories incorrectly; we do not see them as we ought to do.

Take our two fellows above. Perhaps they both are recalling an incident in which each of them, strong, bullied one who was weaker. One looks back, smiling at the remembrance of the incident. “It’s a dog eat dog world,” he says to himself, “with nature ‘red in tooth and claw;’ some win, some lose. The strong win; if the weak don’t like it, they should make themselves strong. If they do not, what concern is it of mine? Do unto others before they do unto you.” The other looks back in shame. He sees the event as a sin, against Reason, against Nature, against God, or even against humanity. What he did, he should not have done. If he is a Christian, the remembrance is, in the words of the Prayer Book, grievous to him; for he must see that as a sin (one of many) which put Christ on the cross. He cannot look upon one of the causes of the Crucifixion as a fond memory. When one adds his union with Christ into the mix, the memory must take on an additional horrific dimension: it would be Christ looking back upon the event as a fond memory, incongruous in the extreme.

But the key to all this, the wisdom, is in understanding that having the proper feelings isn’t a matter of letting human nature take its course. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man is concerned about education. We must be taught to feel the right things. We have to learn to experience shame for certain actions. All the ancients are agreed: We must be trained in righteousness; we must be taught the Tao.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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