Love, Ambition, Happiness, Pets and Nationalism

By Liah Greenfeld

Our psychological functioning cannot be understood in isolation from the cultural environment and historical period we inhabit. The mind—not only what we think, but the very ways we perceive reality and feel, our mental experience itself—changes with culture and history. I hope I have proven in the last six posts that human emotions are not universal, not hard-wired into our brains, as neuroscientists would have it [see Are Human Emotions Universal?], and that such emotions as ambition, happiness, love, without which, for us, it would be hard to imagine life, and even the tenderness we feel towards our pets are modern emotions, meaning that people were not ambitious or happy, did not fall in love, and did not love their dogs and cats before the 16th century in the English-speaking world and before much later, if at all, in much of the rest of our world. In the first post of this blog I promised to explore the connection between these emotions and some other seemingly disparate phenomena [see Love, Madness, Terrorism: Connected?]. I shall begin this exploration now. Its purpose is to show that the cultural and historical environment within which our minds develop and function is exceedingly complex and that factors that create some of our core mental experiences often lie completely outside of the purview of the science of psychology (including neuropsychology) which is entrusted with the task of explaining our mental experiences.

What brought about the specifically modern emotions and relationships, such as ambition, happiness, romantic love, and love for our pets, was—remarkably—the defining political force of our day, nationalism. In the very end of the 15the century, the English feudal aristocracy actually destroyed itself in a series of family feuds, called The Wars of the Roses. Almost all feudal lords were dead. A very distant relation of the destroyed royal family became king, starting a new dynasty—the Tudors. He needed an aristocracy to help him rule and, as a result, a long period of mostly upward mobility began in England with talented young men rising from the lower gentry and/or merchant classes into what became the new aristocracy, while people from below these strata rose into the gentry, and so on. Such social mobility was not simply a new experience for these people, but it was an experience that made no sense to them: it was, in other words, inconceivable. Given the way they saw reality at that time, society was divided by God into three separate orders: the upper, military order of the nobility, whose function was to defend the Church; the second, intermediary order of the clergy, the priests who mediated between God and men; and the huge lower order, called “the people,” whose function was to support the two upper orders. The order of the clergy was itself sharply divided into the upper clergy, recruited from the nobility, and the lower clergy, recruited from the people. No possibility of mobility between the lower and the upper orders existed: they differed as species of life differ, to be born into the people (as a peasant, let’s say) and to become a nobleman through merit was no more imaginable than to be born a chicken and to become a human being. It was, in fact, believed that these orders of men had different kinds of blood: blue in the case of the nobility. And yet, here they were—red-blooded individuals rising into the order, whose blood was blue. Since this was a positive experience, those who went through it needed to rationalize it—that is, make sense of it in positive terms.

They did so with the help of the idea of “nation.” The word “nation” at that time, after a long semantic evolution, was applied only to the very powerful people who represented the authority of kings and of princes of the Church in ecclesiastical councils which supervised the affairs of Western Christianity. As such, “nation” came to mean “an elite.” (You can read how this happened in my book Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity). The new English aristocrats, in an attempt to explain to themselves, why they occupied the positions which could only be held by people with blue blood, made the word “nation” the synonym of the word “people” (which earlier applied only to the lower classes). In so doing they elevated the entire English people to the dignity of the elite of representatives of supreme authority, making all Englishmen equal. Every Englishman now could rise to whatever social position and the people (= nation) of England was in effect sovereign. As a result of the redefinition of the English people as a nation, as you can see, the English society was reimagined as a democracy—i.e., a society based on the principles of fundamental equality of membership and popular sovereignty. This new imagination is nationalism. In the following centuries it spread through the world.

In addition to the two fundamental principles of democracy, nationalism is based on a third one: secularism. By implying that sovereignty (the right to make all laws and take all decisions) belongs to the people, this new imagination deprived God of sovereignty and made him essentially irrelevant in political and social life. The public importance of religion drastically diminished and eventually it lost virtually all its earlier power to influence individual decisions.

You can easily see how this new way of perceiving reality—which must be the way all of you in fact perceive it—empowered us, giving each one an enormous degree of control over one’s destiny, making it possible for each one to decide what to become, what to strive for, in effect, transforming each individual into one’s own maker. In the past, throughout one’s life one was what one was born—the decision was, basically, God’s. As a result, one did not have to construct one’s identity: one simply learned it from society. All one’s expectations and obligations were given from the start; there were no choices to make; all one had to do was to adjust to the specific routine. For us, in distinction, owing to nationalism, the world is wide open and full of choices. But to enjoy this new-found freedom of self-definition, we need the help of identity-forming devices. All the modern emotions I have discussed in the previous posts—ambition, happiness, romantic love, sexless love—are such devices. They are so important for us because modern society, based on the principles of nationalism, makes their identity-affirming function essential for our psychological functioning.

[Originally published in Psychology Today]

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