Modern Emotions: Aspiration and Ambition

By Liah Greenfeld

The claim of this post is that such characteristic emotions as ambition, happiness, and love as we understand it today, which form the very core and define the emotional experience of so many of us, are not universal, but specifically modern in the sense of being a creation of the modern culture; that members of pre-modern societies were unfamiliar with them, i.e., did not experience ambition, happiness, and love; and that even at present these emotions play only a minor role in the emotional life of billions of people living outside modern Western civilization.  The sources of these three emotions, in other words, are to be sought not in human nature, but in modern culture.

The focus of this post is ambition, while the following two posts will be devoted, respectively, to happiness and love. Still later posts will explain what in modern culture called these emotions into being.  (I’d like to remind the reader that this blog is continuous, i.e., it follows the agenda set in the first post, with each new post continuing the arguments of the preceding ones.)  

Emotions which are central to our experience, that is, emotions which are shared across significant populations, rather than moving exceptional individuals, are necessarily conceptualized–captured in specific words or in concepts which use words earlier applied to other experiences with a new meaning. Emotional vocabularies of different languages, even from closely related cultures, usually cannot be fully translated one into another. For instance, there is no translation for the French word ennui–English language appropriates it as such, because no concept in English coveys its meaning perfectly. In English, the emotion to which ennui refers and which French people, apparently (as we can judge from the very existence of a word for it) experience on a regular basis, must be described in many words. (Per Oxford English Dictionary: “the feeling of mental weariness and dissatisfaction produced by want of occupation or by lack of interest in present surroundings or employments.” It is much less than depression and significantly more than boredom.) For us not only the word, but the experience itself is foreign.

In the 16th century, numerous new concepts and words entered the English language to capture emotional experiences which were new for people in England and for a long time after that remained foreign for others. “Aspiration,” first used by Shakespeare, was one such completely new word. It denoted, as we all know, a hopeful desire to become, to acquire an identity of, something better or higher than one is, or has, at the present moment. (One would “aspire” to become an athlete or a writer, but not a thief or a slave, for instance).  The word for this new emotion reflected the nature of a physical sensation that accompanied it–filling one’s lungs with pure, delicious air. That is, consciousness of such “upward desire” alone was enough to produce this physical sensation. [See Are Human Emotions Universal?] “Aspiration” was tightly connected to another new word, “achievement,” and, in fact, always presupposed it. One could aspire only to something one hoped to get to on merit: for example, to become rich, but not to win the lottery.  Both these words (and several others) fell within the semantic space–that is, an area of meaning and experience–of the individual’s capacity and expectation to improve one’s identity and social position, to gain dignity, by one’s own effort. This area of meaning and experience itself was new. A new semantic space could emerge only if a possibility for self-creation that did not exist before came into being. The new emotions, therefore, while physically expressed through the existing neurobiological mechanisms, were a result of history.

The governing emotion within the new cluster was ambition. “Ambition” was an old negative term. Before the 16th century it was included among vices such as pride and vainglory and referred to inordinate desire for honor. Now it became neutral and would be characterized as base or noble, a sin or a virtue, depending on whether or not it was an aspiration and what kind of achievement it presupposed. The essential quality of ambition as an emotion now became its intensity. It is in connection with ambition that the word “passion”–which before that time referred to suffering, as in “Passion on the Cross”–began to acquire its current meaning of intense, overpowering emotion, an authentic movement of one’s innermost self. Ambition eventually became one of the two central modern passions. Love was to become the other one.

Liah Greenfeld is the author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience

Facebook: LiahGreenfeld

[Originally published on Psychology Today]

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