Posts Tagged ‘Robert C. Solomon’

You can count these emotions on your fingers :  Envy, Jealousy, Spite, Resentment and Vengeance and like the grip of your hand, these emotions can lay hold of our sense of self and our sense of those around us.  Thus, they are called double-edged emotions by Robert C. Solomon in his lectures “The Passions:  Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions” from The Teaching Company.  These forceful five are not only energy against others, they are also forces that diminish our sense of self and satisfaction with life.  Here are brief definitions according to Solomon:

  1. Envy might be the opposite of love.  Love reconciles and brings people together.  Envy separates people and focuses on what another person has and because we want it, our attitude about that person is affected by the desire.   Envy is rarely acted upon….more of a passive emotion that eats us up from the inside.
  2. An exacerbation of envy is spite.  Spite is taking action against someone for which we have envy.
  3. Jealousy is a not a matter of love, affection or desire, but rather a sense of competition and thus a social emotion that binds one to our rival.
  4. “Resentment is an emotion of impotence, the feeling that there is not much we can do about our frustrations in the world.”  Thus, resentment tempts us to take “…joy in other people’s suffering.” (43)
  5. Vengeance is deeply related to justice.  An eye for an eye is remembered from the Old Testament and rather than being barbaric is a reminder for people to keep their vengeance in proportion to the injury they have experienced.

It seems unavoidable to be bitten by one of these five but it may be possible to avoid being consumed by them.    Solomon is sympathetic.  He notes that the world is fundamentally unfair and difficult.  These emotions keep us honest about that.  But, that the world is unfair is not the ultimate reality for the Christian.  The ultimate reality  is that even the unfair circumstances or situations are not final.  We, with God‘s help have the ability to affect our experiences through the mind and our modified behavior.  The force of the five double-edged emotions pulls our heads up and to attention.  We would be fools to ignore them and we will be stronger and more resilient if we out-maneuver them.  Like competitive efforts on the TV show Wipeout, the thrill is getting by these five.  They, not other people are our real competitors and if we out-maneuver them through compassion, wisdom and self-enrichment, we feel like winners.  I wonder if some Wipeout contestants get snagged because they attend too much to the swinging, rolling, shifting obstacle rather than the destination point just beyond them.


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If anger, fear, compassion and love are the basic emotions, there are also secondary emotions or emotions that are cultivated from the basic emotions.  For example, empathy is cultivated from compassion.  There are also, it seems, more complex emotions that specifically have to do with our sense of self.  The first of these is pride and shame.  Dr. Robert C. Solomon  provides trajectories between pride and shame, and their family of emotions which include guilt, embarrassment, regret and remorse.

As a self-referential emotion, pride has been understood as positive and negative down through the centuries.  And it can cut both ways today as well.   We have all experienced a person that is too prideful of their abilities or circumstances.  They do not acknowledge the role of others, fate or the Creativity of God as contributors to their circumstances or abilities.  We have also been with those who seem to lack pride and struggle to revere and appreciate themselves appropriately.  Pride is an emotion that is informed by our social life and then engages our social life in response.  So if we feel proud, it is likely that we will help others feel appropriately proud.  If we feel inappropriately proud it is likely that we may not be able to focus on and celebrate others.   The existence of pride reveals to us that the self is not just a private or individual reality – rather, pride is a social/communal reality.   Branching out from pride are distinct emotions of guilt, embarrassment and remorse.

Solomon notes that the difference between shame and embarrassment is one of responsibility.   Shame kicks in when we accept responsibility for doing something wrong.  For example, when our children do not come appropriately dressed to a concert that we knew would require finer wear than play clothes, we feel ashamed.  If however, we are invited a birthday party where everyone will be in costume and we do not get this information ahead of time, when we arrive to the party we are not ashamed but embarrassed because we cannot assume responsibility for knowing about the costumes.

I found Solomon’s definitions of regret and remorse interesting so I will briefly list them here:

  • Regret – is deeply individualist.  We experience regret when we let ourselves down.   For example, a seasoned runner decides not to challenge themselves by signing up for a marathon.
  • Remorse on the other hand is more communal.  We experience remorse when we refuse to acknowledge a person of lower socio-economic class than us in the grocery store.  We have a sense that we have done the wrong thing and violated one of our values of how we act in community.

Self appraisal is the common thread in the shame/pride family of emotion.   Solomon says that, “Guilt and shame turn on having done something wrong, whether violating the law or local custom.” (36)  What distinguishes them is that guilt is something that we feel as individuals or as “individuals before God.” (36)  Shame, on the other hand, is more communal .  Not only have you let yourself down but you have let others down as well.  Interestingly, Solomon notes that the Western world and Christianity in particular is more a guilt culture where as cultures that are more tribal are more shamed based.  What do you think?  Is he right?

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Professor Robert C. Solomon takes us from the basic emotions of anger, fear and love into the complexities of sympathy and its trajectory into empathy.  Sympathy can be as simple as “feeling sorry for someone” (30) wherein we are really largely concerned with our own well-being.  At a greater depth of experience, sympathy can become empathy during which we actually share in an emotion with another person.  He notes three levels of empathy:

  1. Emotional contagion is the lowest level.  Emotional contagion is characterized by primitive or hard-wired response.   For example, “ When an infant sees a mother upset and becomes upset too.” (31)
  2. Receptivity is the next highest level.   A parents response to a child’s hunger or wet diaper.  We as individuals don’t ask how it would feel to be the other person, we just simply respond.
  3. Imagination is the highest level of empathy particularly in situations when we are not acquainted or familiar with the other person.  “What would it be like to have this happen to me?” (31)   Solomon notes that empathy leads to a desire to want to help another person but this requires a greater understanding of their circumstances.  And when the desire to help is absent, it may be because we are considering the situation of a perceived enemy.  This is very difficult empathy to cultivate.

While sympathy maybe hard-wired,  Solomon reveals his bias that empathy is cultivated from the sympathetic wiring that is imperfectly connected to our own self-interest.  Quite creatively, he attends to the full complexity of empathy by providing a philosophical history of self-interest.  He profiles the work of philosophers who have reasoned that self – interest may not just be selfish but may also be a way of meeting another person’s needs as well.  I.e. we would like the sunglasses because our girlfriend will think we are cool.  Thus we are affirmed and loved.

So, when the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), via its Book of Order, asks its ministers and officers to serve the church with energy, intelligence, imagination and love, it is a vow beyond creative or fanciful imagination.  Rather it may be an engagement with the world from a maturing self-interest whereby we grow in empathy sustaining precious diversity in order to fully reflect our Creator.

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Love is the third emotion explored by Robert C. Solomon and his described as the most favorite of our positive emotions.   But again, Solomon is going to understand love as not thing that happens to us but an engagement with the world and a series of choices.  He notes that love is not only the discovery that another person is loveable but it is the bestowal of virtues that “make a person valuable to us” (27).  Surely there are situations that are beyond our control in partnership.  Given that caveat, it is equally true that when love endures it is because we have made the choice to move forward with an imperfect and at times even crazy partner.

Solomon notes that fairy tales ending is really the beginning of love.  For it is after the hero and the heroine are joined and riding off into the sunset that the real work begins.  And by real work, I mean real choices.  Solomon’s lecture implies that love has more to do with the lover than the lovee.  Additionally, our ability to engage critical thinking about our choices and our willingness to learn and adapt (when the situation is not an abusive one) may be the strongest patterns of behavior in long-standing relationships.

The irony is that within a loving relationship there will surely be times when we don’t feel in love at all.  Indeed, other emotions arise like fear , anger, shame etc.  Those, seemingly antithetical emotions challenge and critique love.  If we hold them in tension with love, they provide a path….even if it is  sometimes a narrow path, forward.  An active love is dependent upon the regular challenge of antithetical emotions that, like a good workout in the gym, strengthens our choice to continue the task of loving.  Then, with serendipity, we receive warm and wonderful moments of reward that even if they are brief run deep like a spring fed well and we can return to them to be nourished.

Process theology asserts that Our Creator imagines many wonderful possibilities for each of us.  But as we live imperfectly and narrow our possibilities and potential, God moves courageously forward with us….choosing to love us.  As faithful creatures, outside of abusive relationships, this might be behavior we would want to discipline ourselves toward.

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Continuing my reflections on the video series from the Teaching Company The Passions:  Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions a second basic emotion considered there is that of fear.  According to Robert C. Solomon it is perhaps the most studied emotion because it is so easy to induce. There is a neurological structure for fear that seems tied to the lower brain stem.  And though it is a trigger, most of us would agree that it is purposeful and even good to be afraid. The world is full of uncertain things that require our defenses.  However, it would be a simplification to understand that fear is a brief psychological response to stimuli.   Fear is an important engagement or strategy with the world.

It is an engagement or strategy that appraises our environments and circumstances on two levels.  Solomon lays these out very clearly.  The first level is a basic appraisal that perhaps functions at the intuitive level.  We have the sense that something is not right or potentially dangerous at the basic level of appraisal.  The second level is a well-informed level of appraisal that researches, investigates and considers the source of a fear.  He contends that usually various sources of information, as they are processed, come into alignment or agreement.  However, when our appraisals don’t agree,  it is because  of the “profundity of the one level of appraisal, as opposed to the superficial and not-fully-believed other level of appraisal. Irrational fear is not a matter of intelligence versus emotion but of a convoluted and complex set of inner conflicts.” (pg. 21)   Solomon notes several variations of fear:

  • Panic – Solomon contends that panic is a mindless state within fear.  It  a state of engagement with a minimal amount of information.
  • Anxiety  – Solomon contends that anxiety lacks a straightforward engagement with world. I understand this to mean that when we feel fearful, anxiety detours us to some tangential part of what makes us afraid without a clear focus on the source of fear itself.  It would be like being afraid of spiders and this manifests itself an in an anxiety regarding webs.
  • Horror – While fear is characterized as struggling to find a right response or something to do, horror is an experience that there is nothing one can do.   Some 2,000 years ago Aristotle speculated that experiences of horror provided a catharsis from fear.   What do you think?

This brings me to another book that I am reading after watching an interview on John Stewart’s Daily Show earlier this week.  The interview was with Fareed Zakaria regarding his 2nd edition of The Post-American WorldWithin the book, Zakaria addresses our fear through the dynamics of terrorism and mainstream media. I quote,  “A cottage industry of scaremongering has flourished in the West – especially in the United States – since 911.  Experts extrapolate every trend they don’t like, forgoing any serious study of the data. …The watchdogs note the musing of every crackpot Imam, search the archives for every reference to the end of days and record and distribute the late-night TV musings of every nutcase who glorifies martyrdom…..The minority that wants jihad is real, but it operates within societies where such activities are increasingly unpopular and irrelevant” (pg. 14-16).  In such statements Zakaria encourages the US population to appraise their fear in order to live successfully and powerfully within the global community.

On the one hand, we are to respect the emotion of fear.  On the other hand, without appropriate appraisal of our fears, we run the risk of diminishing our own capacities and life.  It is important to be afraid but even more important to research and investigate the fear that come as a part of God’s creative design imparting information for better living and appropriate response.

Psalm 111:10

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Anger is a basic emotion.  That is, anger is hard-wired and thus evident in our physiology when we are experiencing them and they are evident within the human community as well as other creatures and their communities.   But anger is more than just a basic emotion.  It is also not an emotion that simply happens to us.  According to Robert C. Solomon, anger is a particular emotion.  And each emotion is a method of interacting with the world.  Drawing on Jean-Paul Sartre, Solomon notes that emotions are a strategy for our engagement with the world.  Anger and Fear are both part of the strategy by which you and I respond to the world.


Much of Western civilization has been built on the philosophy of the ancient Greeks who believed that freedom from emotion was the way to a better life.  They call this apatheia or apathy.  The residual effect of  Greek philosophy is that we imagine emotions as something that happen to us. When anger happens to us, can we help but express road rage, gossip, physical or verbal assault?  We might be able to  experience anger differently if we understand it differently.

There are those who believe that anger helps us  get what we want.   In other words we change ourselves through anger.  We may experience humiliation that someone will not help us with a difficult project.  It is anger that elevates us to a position of judgment against the one who will not help us and anger helps us to save face.

Anger is not always appropriate, but it is a feeling that brings a message:  “Hey, you have been humiliated or frustrated.  What are you going to do about it?”  If we understand that anger helps us to save face then we are more likely to use it responsibly (with the right person, over the right issue at the right time) or correct it with compassion and forgiveness, learning from the initial experiences of shame and humiliation.   Anger is not easily dismissed because our interactions with the world can be hurtful and we are in need of healing.  Anger is a strategy, but each of us have to decide if it is the best strategy!

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I am really enjoying lecture series from The Teaching Company entitled The Passions:  Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions.  The premise (as the title indicates) is that emotions are an intelligent engagement of the world. Over the next two weeks, I will be reviewing these lectures.  Check in with this blog and discover why you never have to excuse your emotions again.  Further, I hope to summarize  Robert C. Solomon‘s assertions that understanding our emotions more fully can enhance our life experience and quality of living.

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