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History of Emotions

Mad Max: Escape From The Iron Cage

Imagine, if you will, the scene. The Enlightenment has defeated Religion, and its various champions meet to carve up the vanquished enemy’s territories. Philosophy takes the chair: ‘Right then, settle down everyone. Thank you. Now, let’s see…Religion used to offer ethics and laws. We’ll split that with jurisprudence. It also used to offer divination and blessings for the harvest. Economics, you can do that. It provided consolation, healing and exorcisms. You good with that, Psychology? The Arts, you can handle myth-making and ecstasy, OK? Excellent. So that just leaves community-building. Anyone? Sociology? I can count on you for that, yes? Good.’

Max Weber once suggested our society was haunted by the ghosts of dead religious beliefs. Sociology is more haunted than most. For the last century and a half of its existence, sociology has repeatedly told us that the rise of capitalism and decline of religion has left us lacking community and miserably alone. The great sociologists have found many different ways of describing the prison of modern isolation. Weber suggested we are trapped in ‘the iron cage’ of capitalist productivity; Emile Durkeim wrote that we have lost the capacity for ‘collective effervescence’ and are suffering from suicidal ‘anomie’; while Thorsten Veblen and Norbert Elias both insisted that we are imprisoned in an over-civilised concern for the approval of strangers. Our lives have become boxed-in and one-dimensional (Herbert Marcuse), our characters are corroded by the rat-race (Richard Sennett), we are cut off from nature and each other (Charles Taylor), we no longer dance together (Barbara Ehrenreich) or even go bowling together (Robert Putnam).

OK, we get it! We’re alone and depressed. So how do we get out of the iron cages we have constructed for ourselves. On that subject, sociology is oddly silent. Sociology, after all, is a social science, very prickly about its scientific status, and it’s not the job of science to lay out a grand moral vision. Early sociologists like Comte and Marx tried that, and it didn’t work. Science describes, it doesn’t prescribe. Thus sociology describes, very intelligently, the bars of our prison-cage.

From a certain perspective, sociology is itself part of the prison. Let me explain what I mean, with reference to that fascinating bundle of contradictions, Max Weber. What an interesting figure he is. Someone should make a film about him, starring Viggo Mortensen. Mad Max: Escape From The Iron Cage. His catchphrase could be: ‘It’s Weber time!’

‘It’s Weber time!’

Mad Max’s mother was a Calvinist religious enthusiast and his father was a worldly bureaucrat. They didn’t get on. Max spent his life working out the struggle between religious charisma and rational bureaucracy. His mother wanted Max to be religious too, but Max preferred the army and then academia. In 1897, he had an argument with his father, who then died, and this plunged Max into a suicidal depression – he seems to have had the same melancholic-enthusiast temperament as his mother. Except he didn’t come out of this emotional crisis religiously awakened. Instead, he threw himself into academic work and found a salvation of sorts there. For the rest of his career, he subjected religious phenomena to a pitiless rational analysis and classification, pounding it to death with his rubber-stamp, as if to revenge his dead bureaucrat father upon the irrational animist beliefs of his mother.

Weber’s great theme is the disenchantment of the modern world, and the historical shift from religious charisma to rational bureaucracy. A charismatic world-view – from the Greek charis, meaning gift – implies that God or the gods connect with humanity through the gifts of revelation and ecstasy. Yet over time, Weber suggested, the magic dust has seeped out of the world. In religion, the charisma of prophecy evolved into the rational religious ethic of priests. In politics, the charisma of tribal leaders evolved into the rational bureaucracy of civil servants. This might not sound much fun, indeed modernity may sound like an iron cage of rational technology, but we need to face up to this like adults, and accept that we live in an age without the consolation of gods, rather than taking flight into irrational mysticism like children.

Weber warned, in 1919, that young Germans were rejecting rationality and instead finding consolation in the ‘sterile excitation’ of revolutionary politics, and in ‘windbags…who intoxicate themselves with Romantic sensations’. This was dangerous. As Tina Turner put it, we don’t need another hero. You can see Max’ point – the politics of charismatic heroism cost millions of lives over the next thirty years. Yet Weber’s own more rational world-view has a potential flaw. Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out in After Virtue that rational bureaucracy can become so focused on the smooth running of the machine, it loses sight of the ultimate end or telos that it was designed to serve. Life without any sense of passion, conviction, inspiration or faith becomes meaningless, a machine going round and round without a driver or a map.

Academic ecstasy

This brings me to Weber’s thoughts on the role of the academic, which is something I’ve been pondering since coming back from Wales.

Weber discusses the role of the academic in a fantastic lecture he gave in 1919, called Science as a Vocation. He starts by telling the assembled students that he must disappoint them (modern life, for Weber, is one long disappointment, and maturity is accepting that). He is not going to unfurl some grand redemptive moral vision for them. That’s not the academic’s job. The academic is not a seer, nor a revolutionary. Their proper role is not to impose any particular ethical world-view (or ‘weltanshauung’) on their students, and they only render themselves ridiculous when they try to become ‘arm-chair prophets’.

Instead, the academic specializes, and bends over their own small square of scholarship like a monk. They ruthlessly suppress their own passions and prejudices, and subject their chosen topic to dispassionate critical analysis. They may feel the occasional throb of religious ecstasy or political outrage, but such feelings have no place in the sober rational analysis of academia. The academic excises everything personal – their character, their emotions, their convictions, their life.

Durer’s portrait of the melancholic ecstasy of scholars

This is not to say the academic is soulless. Far from it. The academic may feel a ‘vocation’, a ‘passionate devotion’ to their craft, an ‘enthusiasm, ‘inspiration’ or ‘intuition’ which has ‘nothing to do with cold calculation’. They may even feel a ‘frenzy (in the sense of Plato’s ‘mania’), a sort of academic ecstasy which Weber compares to the Pentecost – he speaks of the academic feeling a ‘strange intoxication, ridiculed by every outsider’. So even that cold fish, the modern academic, is still haunted by the ghost of dead religious beliefs – in this case, the old Renaissance ideal of the ecstatic Platonic scholar.

But what God or demon does this academic ecstasy serve? Academics, Weber suggests, are tiny cogs in the great ‘process of intellectualization’, which helps to disenchant the world and make us realize there are ‘no mysterious incalculable forces’, therefore we can ‘master all things by calculation’. Academics, then, have a vocation for disenchantment, a passion for the dispassionate. But as the academic sits wearily through yet another departmental meeting, they may wonder, does this long ‘process of intellectualization’ really make life better?

Weber is uncertain. He’s dismissive of those who think that science brings more meaning into our lives. ‘Who – aside from certain big children from the natural sciences – still believes that the findings of astronomy, biology, physics or chemistry could teach us anything about the meaning of the world?’ He’s equally dismissive of those ‘big children in university chairs or editorial offices’ who think the progress of science makes us happier.

So what’s the point? It’s not for academics to say what the meaning of life is, what god or values we should serve. But Weber suggests academics can, at least, help to clarify what serving a particular god (or moral goal) would mean, and the sympathy or conflict between a particular world-view and empirical reality. An academic can be compared to a civil servant, who does not tell the Prince what values or ends to pursue, but explains the consequences and ramifications of any particular decision. The academic cannot, finally, tell us what god we should serve, and any choice involves a leap of faith.

From relationships to concepts

I have sympathy with this rather tortured position. I took a similar stance in Philosophy for Life, in which I explored various ethical world-views (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism etc) without forcing any particular one on the reader. I pursued the same tack when I taught the book as a course at Queen Mary. I also felt it was not for me to impose any particular ethical vision onto the students, other than the academic virtues of rigour, honesty and openness to criticism.

Yet what of my own beliefs and experiences, my own emotions and character, my own relationship to God (or the absence of God)? Are such concerns and experiences properly left out of academic work? Every academic faces the question of whether and to what extent to include their own feelings and experiences in their work, but a historian of emotion researching (and experiencing) ecstasy faces these questions in a particularly acute form!

C. Wright Mills, a great American sociologist who inspired many a Sixties radical, offers one solution. He tried to build a more engaged and ‘passionate’ model of academic work, where one works not just on one’s thesis, but on one’s character and society as well. He suggests academic research is ‘the most passionate endeavour of which a man is capable’ (tell that to your colleagues at the next departmental meeting).

C. Wright Mills looked for a more passionate model of academia

Yet Wright Mills is also aware that passionate scholarship, or ‘felt knowledge’, has its pit-falls. In a review of James Agee’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (which is about the suffering of farmers during the Great Depression), he applauds the book for its passion, its indignation, its ‘sociological poetry’. But he also criticises Agee for getting too ‘in his own way’, ‘obscuring the scene and the actors’, for being ‘over-whelmed’, ‘indulgent’ and gushing. In other words, if you’re going to include yourself and your own feelings in your work, you have to be able to hold yourself and your emotions at a critical distance, and consider when to put yourself ‘in shot’, when to leave yourself out.

All of that is very well, and useful for me as a writer. But we are still faced with the wider social question: how do we escape from the iron cage of our isolation and anomie, and build stronger communities? I am not sure sociology can be much help here, because its tools of rational analysis and critical distance are, perhaps, themselves somewhat inimical to community. The way to love your neighbour or wife is not by holding them at a critical distance. Sociology studies the bare ribs of community, but tells us nothing of the heart which once beat within it. It tells us everything we need to know about the concepts of ecstasy, caritas, bonding and love, except what they feel like.

Weber praises Plato for inventing academia, for inventing the rational concept, and turning religion (man’s relationship with a living, breathing God) into theology (the articulation of abstract concepts). That achievement, he says, was when the long process of intellectualization and disenchantment began. All the -ologies that academics serve grew from Plato’s invention of theology, and are part of that same evolution from living relationships to abstract concepts. But was that not a terrible falling off? Can a concept love you? Can the concept of community keep you warm at night?


Did you make it this far? Well done!

Here’s an article on baking and its benefits for mental health, which should be headlined Knead You Tonight, but isn’t.

Everyone’s sick except for me and my Papa Smurf

Here’s a new study from the Maudsley of CBT for psychosis-like experiences in children. It suggests that ‘over half of children in the general population report unusual or psychosis-like experiences’. Surely, then, they’re not…er…unusual? Personally I had a toy Papa Smurf that spoke to me and there was absolutely nothing weird about that. Right, Papa Smurf? (He’s nodding.) Also here’s an episode of RadioLab about hearing voices.

Todd Kashdan and Robert Diesner-wotsit wrote an article about what happy people do differently for Psychology Today.

The Church of England is growing in London, as this video and report explores. Humanist communities are growing too – I’m playing the drums at Sunday Assembly this Sunday (then going to church after…It’s all good!)

Here’s a brilliant New York Times magazine article about Jason Everman, and his journey from Nirvana to Soundgarden to the US Special Forces to a Bachelors in philosophy.

I saw Bruce Springstreen perform last Sunday. It was amazing. Here’s a former captain of England’s cricket team on why he’s seen the Boss perform more than 70 times. And here, on the excellent blog ‘Rock and Theology’, a theologist ponders how the Spirit is so strong in Bruce, despite him not being a Christian.

I had a big break in my journalism career last weekend, with this cover story in the Telegraph Weekend. Thanks to the Telegraph team for that.

Finally, let’s end with some ecstasy for the weekend. Here’s a track from Daft Punk’s new album, called Giorgio by Moroder, which is a song and also an interview with synth-pioneer Giorgio Moroder. I love its combination of historical education and musical ecstasy – good combo!

See you next week,


Set the controls for the heart of happiness

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed there was no newsletter last weekend. Apologies. The reason for this is I have journeyed deep into the warm, pulsating heart of the happiness movement. Last Thursday I took part in a conference on Positive Psychology at Wellington College (the pioneer of well-being classes), and then I went down to Dartington, in Totnes, Devon, to take part in an Action for Happiness two-day happiness festival.  I left Dartington, I kid you not, while a choir stood on the misty lawn singing ‘happy, happy, happy clappy!’ I felt like a rehab patient leaving the Priory.

Anyway, abandoning my usual dour demeanour, I admit that both events were great fun, and encouraging. My sense is that the Positive Psychology / happiness movement is becoming less positivistic (in other words, less dogmatic in its claims to objectivity and scientific truth) and more responsive to the role of philosophy and ethical reasoning in the search for the good life. (On that point, it’s sad that Christopher Peterson, one of the more philosophical voices within Positive Psychology, died this week. Here’s his beautiful last blog post).

I organised a philosophy discussion circle at Dartington – the first time I’ve facilitated one – and I think everyone involved really felt the benefit of that sort of open Socratic inquiry into what the good life means for us. As the Quakers well knew, there’s something very egalitarian and democratic about a discussion circle – there’s no expert or priest or higher authority ‘up there’ while the masses kneel beneath them. Everyone is equally at the front or at the centre. And facilitating a circle discussion seemed to involve letting go of control and letting silences happen – both quite difficult for me!

I also came away from the events hopeful that the Positive Psychology / happiness movement is aware of the risk that, in deifying certain emotional states or personality types as ideal, you pathologise their opposites. If you say that happiness is ideal, there’s a risk that sadness becomes an unacceptable failure. If extroversion is absolutely good, then introversion could be deemed absolutely bad. If optimism is always healthy, then pessimism becomes toxic. That sort of thinking is far too black-and-white, and I believe it actually causes suffering rather than mitigating it, by making introverts or pessimists feel worse about themselves. After all, introverts and pessimists have important social roles to play too, particularly in chronically optimistic short-term societies like ours.

We have many different moods and dispositions, and sometimes the best way to transform the difficult ones is to accept them rather than demonise them. In the words of Rumi, in what I think might be my favourite poem:

Learn the alchemy true human beings know: the moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door opens.
Welcome difficulty as a familiar comrade.
Joke with torment brought by a Friend.
Sorrows are the rags of old clothes and jackets that serve to cover, and then are taken off.
That undressing, and the beautiful naked body underneath, is the sweetness that comes after grief.

I’ve given a lot of talks in the last month or so on the relationship between ancient philosophy and CBT,  and often someone in the audience criticises CBT for being shallow, simplistic, mechanistic, capitalist and ‘not dealing with root causes’. Usually such critics are therapists or counsellors in other traditions, annoyed that they didn’t get any public money. My answer is typically that I expect other forms of therapy to get public funding in the future – it’s already happening for approaches like mindfulness therapy – but you can’t expect to get any government funding without a convincing evidence base. Anecdotal case studies by psychologists simply won’t cut it anymore. As Freud proved, they’re too easy to fake.

It is also clear to me, however, that CBT is not for everyone and the research still has a long way to go to work out how to help more people. But what saddens me is that some therapists fail to find anything to celebrate in the government’s new support for talking therapies. Nor do many lay-people see the young national mental health service as something to fight for. The Improved Access for Psychotherapies (IAPT) policy is still very young, and vulnerable (as Paul Burstow MP, former minister for care services, recently emphasised). We shouldn’t assume it will stay in existence without our protection.

Richard Layard, the economist who more than anyone helped get IAPT funding, warned at Dartington that not all allocated funding is coming through and that as much as half of all children’s therapy services are being closed (I’ve asked him for stats to back up that claim). It is a very recent phenomenon for government to take mental illnesses like depression and anxiety seriously. If you believe in talking therapies, not just CBT but any talking therapies, then please support IAPT. I am all for expanding the range of therapies available on the NHS, as long as they are evidence-based.

Idealistic champions of adult education like RH Tawney are long gone.

Meanwhile, one thing that struck me as we discussed various ‘happiness policies’ at Dartington, was how little anyone spoke of adult education. Likewise, not one political party mentioned adult education at their conference. Schools, academies, universities – they’re all in the news constantly. But adult education is completely off the political radar at the moment. Adult education was a central part of the socialist vision for thinkers like RH Tawney. But no one in parliament cares about it now, none think it worth fighting for. At least Action for Happiness is trying to do something for adult education, albeit in a rather informal and unstructured way. It is a noble attempt to spread ideas about the good life and the good society – inspired, I believe, by Richard Layard’s experience of attending a Quaker reading group for many years.

The Octagon Room at Queen Mary, University of London

Talking of reviving adult education, we had a seminar at Queen Mary, University of London yesterday evening, in the beautiful Octagon Room, which was once a library for East End workers back in the 19th century when Queen Mary was known as the People’s Palace. We had a great group of participants come and talk about their work – including Philosophy Now, Philosophy In the Pub, Skeptics In the Pub, Pub Psychology, Sapere (a charity that does a lot of work with Philosophy 4 Children), Niki Barbery Bleyleben (good name!) who runs discussion groups for mums, and many others. We videoed the presentations and will put them up soon, along with the report I’m writing on philosophy clubs, and the website,, which will finally launch next week, I promise!

One of the things I suggest in the report is that the contemporary grassroots philosophy movement is in part a product of the 1960s, and that decade’s radical reformation of academia and demand that it ‘look beyond the campus’ (in the words of the Port Huron Statement). In that spirit, here is a 2008 BBC Radio 4 documentary by Nick Fraser on ‘1968: Philosophy in the streets’, with contributions from philosophers including Simon Critchley and Alain Badiou.

One of the participants at our seminar was Paul Hains, who together with his wife Brigid recently launched the excellent online magazine Aeon. I’m not just saying that because he occasionally sponsors our philosophy club events – the essays it publishes are really very good. Check out this one by Ross Andersen (whose Atlantic articles on philosophy are typically excellent) on dendrochronology and the threats facing the oldest trees in the world

Here, from the Futility Closet blog, is some advice from 1820 on how to fight ‘low spirits’, in a letter from Sidney Smith to Lady Georgiana Morpeth:

Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done — so I feel for you. 1st. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°. 3rd. Amusing books. 4th. Short views of human life — not further than dinner or tea. 5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely — they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life — a sorry business at the best. 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep good blazing fires. 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana,

Very truly yours,

Sydney Smith

Did you see the BBC 2 series on the history of the stiff upper lip? It was excellent, and managed to get the history of emotions onto mainstream TV. Well done to my supervisor, Thomas Dixon, for contributing to the programme (he’s now a leading historian of public crying, or a ‘sobbing guru’ as someone put it on Twitter). Check out the blog posts he wrote about the research behind the show.

Talking of stiff upper lips, a fortnight ago I participated in an excellent seminar on Stoicism and CBT at Exeter University. Here’s a blog on Stoicism and its uses today that came out of it – expect some very good posts in the future from some of the seminar participants.

I admire Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey of the University of Roehampton for their pioneering work over the last decade on reading groups and book clubs. Their latest project is taking reading groups into prisons. They have expanded the number of such groups from 4 to 30. Great work.

Here’s a BBC radio programme about the fast-developing science of hallucinations.

From 3 Quarks Daily, here’s communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor in an hour-long discussion with Confucian philosopher Tu Weiming, asking if we’re leaving the secular age.

And here’s an essay with Tu Weiming explains why he thinks we’re moving beyond the Enlightenment and philosophy is taking a ‘spiritual turn’.

I’ve had some wonderful emails from people who have read the book over the last fortnight – thank you very much. It means a huge amount to me and makes me feel the hard work is worth it. You can help me in my work by buying the book for yourself or others, spreading the word, or writing a review on Amazon or Good Reads. We finally got an offer from the US (hooray! thanks for your support on that). There’s still a lot of work to be done, so your help in promoting the book is hugely appreciated.

In the meantime, here is a photo of the nominees for this year’s Booker Prize, with Will Self at the back showing how to do book promotion.

See you next week,