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Political Emotions: Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How to Tame Our Raging Reactivity and Nurture Our Noblest Civic Selves

“We need … to investigate, and to cherish, whatever helps us to see the uneven and often unlovely destiny of human beings in the world with humor, tenderness, and delight, rather than with absolutist rage for an impossible sort of perfection.”

Political Emotions: Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How to Tame Our Raging Reactivity and Nurture Our Noblest Civic Selves

“The heart has got to open in a fundamental way,” Leonard Cohen sang in his timeless ode to democracy — an insight not blunted by romantic mysticism but, like every Cohen lyric, honed by the complex reality of life and the most elemental truths of the human experience. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this when, in laying the groundwork for nonviolent resistance, he asserted: “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.” Half a century earlier, Tolstoy had articulated the same notion in his correspondence with Gandhi, one of Dr. King’s great influences: “Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills.”

In Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (public library), Martha Nussbaum — whom I continue to consider the most effective and compelling philosopher of our time — furnishes the incisive, layered philosophical substantiation of this idea, drawing on her earlier exploration of the intelligence of emotions and on a canon of thinkers as varied as Kant, Whitman, Tagore, Mozart, and King. What emerges is a work of tremendous lucidity, but also of robust hope that we are capable of taming the wilderness of even our most ferocious emotions into a garden abloom with love, justice, equality, and human dignity.

Martha Nussbaum

Nussbaum writes:

All societies are full of emotions. Liberal democracies are no exception. The story of any day or week in the life of even a relatively stable democracy would include a host of emotions — anger, fear, sympathy, disgust, envy, guilt, grief, many forms of love. Some of these episodes of emotion have little to do with political principles or the public culture, but others are different: they take as their object the nation, the nation’s goals, its institutions and leaders, its geography, and one’s fellow citizens seen as fellow inhabitants of a common public space.


Such public emotions, frequently intense, have large-scale consequences for the nation’s progress toward its goals. They can give the pursuit of those goals new vigor and depth, but they can also derail that pursuit, introducing or reinforcing divisions, hierarchies, and forms of neglect or obtuseness.

In a sentiment of extraordinary prescience — for Nussbaum’s writing predates the shrill political moment of the present by a good while — she cautions:

Sometimes people suppose that only fascist or aggressive societies are intensely emotional and that only such societies need to focus on the cultivation of emotions. Those beliefs are both mistaken and dangerous. They are mistaken, because all societies need to think about the stability of their political culture over time and the security of cherished values in times of stress. All societies, then, need to think about compassion for loss, anger at injustice, the limiting of envy and disgust in favor of inclusive sympathy.

Art by Alice and Martin Provensen from a vintage adaptation of Homer for young readers

She adds what may be the finest, clearest formulation of what went wrong with the 2016 American presidential election and Brexit, well before either catastrophe:

Ceding the terrain of emotion-shaping to antiliberal forces gives them a huge advantage in the people’s hearts and risks making people think of liberal values as tepid and boring.

Nussbaum considers the antidote to such corrosive forces and the two central roles of our political emotions:

All political principles, the good as well as the bad, need emotional support to ensure their stability over time, and all decent societies need to guard against division and hierarchy by cultivating appropriate sentiments of sympathy and love.

In the type of liberal society that aspires to justice and equal opportunity for all, there are two tasks for the political cultivation of emotion. One is to engender and sustain strong commitment to worthy projects that require effort and sacrifice — such as social redistribution, the full inclusion of previously excluded or marginalized groups, the protection of the environment, foreign aid, and the national defense. Most people tend toward narrowness of sympathy. They can easily become immured in narcissistic projects and forget about the needs of those outside their narrow circle. 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.

The other related task for the cultivation of public emotion is to keep at bay forces that lurk in all societies and, ultimately, in all of us: tendencies to protect the fragile self by denigrating and subordinating others… Disgust and envy, the desire to inflict shame upon others—all of these are present in all societies, and, very likely, in every individual human life. Unchecked, they can inflict great damage. The damage they do is particularly great when they are relied upon as guides in the process of lawmaking and social formation… But even when a society has avoided falling into that trap, these forces lurk in society and need to be counteracted energetically by an education that cultivates the ability to see full and equal humanity in another person, perhaps one of humanity’s most difficult and fragile achievements. An important part of that education is performed by the public political culture, which represents the nation and its people in a particular way. It can include or exclude, cement hierarchies or dismantle them — as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with its breathtaking fiction that the United States has always been dedicated to racial equality, so stirringly does.

One particularly timely and illuminating aspect of the book deals with the question of protest, free speech, and the parameters within which dissent is constructive rather than destructive. A century and a half after Thoreau’s abiding treatise on how to use civil disobedience to advance justice, Nussbaum writes:

The space for subversion and dissent should remain as large as is consistent with civic order and stability.

She opens the book with Walt Whitman, who not only illuminated these ideals of truth, justice, and equality with the sidewise gleam of his poetry but also shone on them a direct rhetorical beam in what remains one of humanity’s greatest meditations on democracy. Considering his particularly transcendent form of dissent, Nussbaum writes:

What Whitman is striving to create is a public ritual of mourning expressing renewed dedication to the unfinished task of realizing America’s best ideals, a “public poetry” that will put flesh on the bones of liberty and equality.

Art by Allen Crawford from Whitman Illuminated

Half a century after James Baldwin’s case for the poet’s role in a divided society and John F. Kennedy’s memorable assertion that “when power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” Nussbaum considers the political power of poetry as a tool for enlarging the scope of love and, to borrow Einstein’s phrase, for widening our circles of compassion:

Poets … cleverly hold their intended audience through sufficient rootedness in culture and history: indeed, it is rather remarkable that figures as radical as Whitman and Tagore should be so widely and intensely loved and accepted. But then they challenge their cultures to be the best they can be, and far better than they have been before. Thus a kind of political love that has its roots in specific traditions can also be aspirational and even radical. “I am he,” writes Whitman, “who tauntingly compels men, women, nations, / Crying, Leap from your seats and contend for your lives!”

Both poets suggest by their choices that the problems of their troubled societies need to be confronted in a spirit of love, through works that tap deeply into the roots of people’s anxious confrontation with their mortality and finitude.


All of the core emotions that sustain a decent society have their roots in, or are forms of, love — by which I mean intense attachments to things outside the control of our will… Love… is what gives respect for humanity its life, making it more than a shell. If love is needed even in [a] well-ordered society … it is needed all the more urgently in real, imperfect societies that aspire to justice.

Art from the 1969 children’s primer How Our Government Helps Us

Nussbaum considers the particular type of self-transcendence necessary for enacting this aspiration and the psychosocial tools that make it possible:

We need … to investigate, and to cherish, whatever helps us to see the uneven and often unlovely destiny of human beings in the world with humor, tenderness, and delight, rather than with absolutist rage for an impossible sort of perfection. A primary source of political difficulty is the ubiquitous human wish to surmount the helplessness that is so large a part of human life — to rise, we might say, above the messiness of the “merely human.” Many forms of public emotion feed fantasies of invulnerability, and those emotions are pernicious. [A democratic society] will succeed only if it finds ways to make the human lovable, inhibiting disgust and shame.

In the remainder of the thoroughly terrific Political Emotions, Nussbaum goes on to explore various frontiers of opportunity for curbing the calamitous reactivity of our political emotions and placing love at the center of our civic universe, wresting reality-tested wisdom from things as varied as the French Revolution, the opera The Marriage of Figaro, the New Deal, and Auguste Comte’s idea of “religion of humanity.” Complement it with Adrienne Rich on politics and poetry and James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s forgotten conversation about morality and the political power of art, then revisit Nussbaum on agency and victimhood, anger and forgiveness, the intelligence of our emotions, and how to live with our human fragility.


Are You An Echo: The Remarkable Story of the Forgotten Young Woman Who Became Japan’s Most Beloved Children’s Poet

A celebration of indiscriminate empathy and a sensitive reminder that the tragic and the transcendent can coexist.

Are You An Echo: The Remarkable Story of the Forgotten Young Woman Who Became Japan’s Most Beloved Children’s Poet

In 1966, while leafing through an obscure book, a 19-year-old Japanese aspiring poet by the name of Setsuo Yazaki discovered a poem that stopped him up short with its staggering generosity of empathy and existential truth conferred with great simplicity:


At sunrise, glorious sunrise
it’s a big catch!
A big catch of sardines!

On the beach, it’s like a festival
but in the sea, they will hold
for the tens of thousands dead.

The poem had been written many decades earlier by a young forgotten poet named Misuzu Kaneko (April 11, 1903–March 10, 1930). Yazaki hungered to know more about her life and work, but was met with a near-total vacuum. The only known copy of her poems had been destroyed during the bombing of Tokyo in WWII. The bookstore where she once worked was long gone. No one seemed to know if she had any surviving family.

Yazaki spent sixteen years trying to track down this ghostly genius. In 1982, by then in his mid-thirties, he finally made a breakthrough — he found and met with Kaneko’s 77-year-old younger brother, who brought her three worn pocket diaries containing the only extant record of the 512 children’s poems she had written in her blink of a lifetime, most never published.

Misuzu Kaneko, January 1930

Her poems have something of Whitman in their empathetic reverence for the splendor of the earth and its creatures, something of Blake in their precision of insight into the nature of things, and something of Plath in both the largehearted appetite for loving the world and the poet’s heartbreaking death. Her short life is a rare reminder that the tragic and the transcendent can coexist, and that the barely bearable emotional porousness with which some people are endowed is the common root of both their sorrowful sensitivity and their uncommon capacity for compassion.

Yazaki set about enchanting the popular imagination with the grounding and elevating power of the lost poems he had found. Over the years that followed, as he published these forgotten treasures, Kaneko was resurrected as Japan’s foremost poet for young readers. Children in public schools could recite her verses by heart. Her gentle face adorns a national postage stamp. When a tsunami devastated Japan in 2011, television companies stopped commercials and instead played her poem “Are You an Echo?” as a public service announcement that adrenalized nearly one million volunteers to flock to the site of the disaster.


If I say, “Let’s play?”
you say, “Let’s play!”

If I say, “Stupid!”
you say, “Stupid!”

If I say, “I don’t want to play anymore,”
you say, “I don’t want to play anymore.”

And then, after a while,
becoming lonely

I say, “Sorry.”
You say, “Sorry.”

Are you just an echo?
No, you are everyone.

But despite her immense popularity in Japan, the English-speaking world has been deprived of Kaneko’s poetry for nearly a century — until now, thanks to Seattle’s independent Chin Music Press: Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko (public library) introduces young readers to the life and work of this extraordinary woman, whose writing continues to salve generations by wrapping the delicate consciousness of words around what so many unconsciously feel but cannot articulate.

A labor of love by David Jacobson, who first fell in love with Kaneko’s poetry in its original Japanese, this unusual bilingual book translated by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi tells the story of the poet’s life alongside some of her most beloved poems, illustrated in tender watercolor by Japanese artist Toshikado Hajiri.

Kaneko was born at the dawn of the twentieth century in a small fishing village. Her mother, who became a single parent after the girl’s father died when she was three, ran a bookstore and felt strongly about reading and education. Unlike most Japanese girls in that era, whose formal education ended after sixth grade, Misuzu remained in school until the age of seventeen. A precocious child, she read voraciously about faraway lands and was animated by a sympathetic curiosity about the natural world. Like Oliver Sacks, who would lie in the garden and wonder what it’s like to be a rose, young Misuzu would puzzle over what it’s like to be snow and how orphaned whale calves grieve their parents after a whale hunt.


Snow on top
must feel chilly,
the cold moonlight piercing it.

Snow on the bottom
must feel burdened
by the hundreds who tread on it.

Snow in the middle
must feel lonely
with neither earth nor sky to look at.

In her early twenties, Kaneko began writing short poems for children based on vivid memories from her own childhood. She submitted some of them to five magazines that held regular competitions for young writers. To her amazement, four of the five accepted her poems and printed them in the same month of 1923. Soon, her poems began appearing in magazines all over the country. Barely in her twenties, she became a literary celebrity.

In a sensitive insight, Jacobson considers how Kaneko must have felt as she released her art into the world, and finds an analogy in one of her own poems:


The flower shop man
went to town to sell flowers
and sold them all.

Poor lonely flower shop man.
The flowers he cared for are all gone.

The flower shop man
is now alone in his hut
as the sun goes down.
The flower shop man
dreams of happiness
for the flowers he sold.

But while the public shone its adoring attention on Kaneko, darkness was brewing in her private life. The man she had married — a clerk in her family bookstore — turned out to be a terrible, unfaithful husband. As Jacobson tactfully puts it, she “contracted a disease from her husband that caused her great pain.” To compound the physical agony, he forced her to stop writing.

The little girl they had together was the light of Kaneko’s life, but when she finally decided to rise from the pit of unhappiness by leaving her husband, she collided with further heartbreak: Japanese law automatically granted the father indisputable custody and Kaneko’s husband didn’t hesitate to use it — he declared that he was to take their daughter away. Bedeviled by debilitating bodily pain and anguished by the loss of her daughter, Kaneko sank into further despair.

One evening, after bathing her daughter and sharing with her their favorite desert — sakuramochi, a pink ball of sweet sticky-rice wrapped in a salty cherry tree leaf — Kaneko went into her study, wrote a letter to her husband asking that he let her mother raise the girl, and took her own life a month before her twenty-seventh birthday.


Deep in the blue sky,
like pebbles at the bottom of the sea,
lie the stars unseen in daylight
until night comes.
  You can’t see them, but they are there.
  Unseen things are still there.

The withered, seedless dandelions
hidden in the cracks of the roof tile
wait silently for spring,
their strong roots unseen.
  You can’t see them, but they are there.
  Unseen things are still there.

The grandmother eventually did get to raise the little girl. Jacobson offers a touching ending to a tragic story:

Every year on the anniversary of Misuzu’s death, grandmother and granddaughter would share a sakuramochi. Together, they remembered Misuzu’s kind and gentle soul.

Given the harrowing undertones of Kaneko’s life-story, the decision to make a children’s book about it is a courageous refusal to sugar-coat the complexity of life and a reflection of Neil Gaiman’s admonition against protecting children from the dark. (The ghost of E.B. White resounds: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”)

Complement the tender and touching Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko with Wabi-Sabi, a lovely children’s book based on the Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in impermanence, and Little Tree, an uncommonly beautiful and subtle Japanese pop-up masterpiece about the cycle of life, then revisit this collection of children’s book celebrating great artists, writers, and scientists.


Simone de Beauvoir on the Artist’s Task to Liberate the Present from the Past

“The artist … must first will freedom within himself and universally; he must try to conquer it.”

Simone de Beauvoir on the Artist’s Task to Liberate the Present from the Past

“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin wrote in considering freedom and how we imprison ourselves. “We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin asserted half a century later in her case for storytelling as a force of liberation. “We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

Our individual part in that world-remaking collective imagination is what the great French existentialist philosopher and trailblazing feminist Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908–April 14, 1986) examines in a portion of The Ethics of Ambiguity (public library) — the paradigm-shifting 1947 treatise that gave us Beauvoir on freedom, busyness, and why happiness is our moral obligation and vitality and the measure of intelligence.

Simone de Beauvoir, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson)

Using the word “man” in the dated way which Ursula K. Le Guin so brilliantly unsexed, Beauvoir writes:

Every man has to do with other men. The world in which he engages himself is a human world in which each object is penetrated with human meanings. It is a speaking world from which solicitations and appeals rise up. This means that, through this world, each individual can give his freedom a concrete content. He must disclose the world with the purpose of further disclosure and by the same movement try to free men, by means of whom the world takes on meaning.

But this liberation, Beauvoir argues, is bedeviled by a central paradox of our temporal bias: Instead of fully inhabiting our present, we are too often tempted to regard it as posterity’s past and observe it with the same “tranquil curiosity” of a tourist with which we observe yesteryear’s events and torments. She writes:

Such an attitude appears in moments of discouragement and confusion; in fact, it is a position of withdrawal, a way of fleeing the truth of the present… But the present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action; we can not avoid living it through a project; and there is no project which is purely contemplative since one always projects himself toward something, toward the future; to put oneself “outside” is still a way of living the inescapable fact that one is inside.

The present and the past, she notes, require of us not only different perceptual attitudes but different practical actions:

We must not confuse the present with the past. With regard to the past, no further action is possible. There have been war, plague, scandal, and treason, and there is no way of our preventing their having taken place; the executioner became an executioner and the victim underwent his fate as a victim without us; all that we can do is to reveal it, to integrate it into the human heritage, to raise it to the dignity of the aesthetic existence which bears within itself its finality; but first this history had to occur: it occurred as scandal, revolt, crime, or sacrifice, and we were able to try to save it only because it first offered us a form. Today must also exist before being confirmed in its existence: its destination in such a way that everything about it already seemed justified and that there was no more of it to reject, then there would also be nothing to say about it, for no form would take shape in it; it is revealed only through rejection, desire, hate and love.

Artists and writers, Beauvoir argues, experience this challenge of upholding the responsibility of the present most acutely, and it is they who must labor most fervently to liberate the present from the past:

In order for the artist to have a world to express he must first be situated in this world, oppressed or oppressing, resigned or rebellious, a man among men. But at the heart of his existence he finds the exigency which is common to all men; he must first will freedom within himself and universally; he must try to conquer it: in the light of this project situations are graded and reasons for acting are made manifest.

Complement the indispensable The Ethics of Ambiguity with Beauvoir on optimism, pessimism, and our ultimate frontier of hope and how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, then revisit Toni Morrison on the artist’s task in a troubled present.


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