Category Archives: Ambition

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.)  

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Are Human Emotions Universal?

By Liah Greenfeld

It is widely believed that human emotions, from love to ambition to pride or desire for freedom, for instance, are hardwired into our brain and that, therefore, both their range and their nature are universal, shared by humanity as a whole. This belief is wrong and itself reflects the fundamental universalism of modern Western, particularly American, thought and its tendency to consider all human consciousness and behavior as a function of biology. Both comparative zoology and comparative history  show that, above the limited range of emotions we share, as animals, with other animal species, what moves human beings and makes them suffer in one culture or society may be dramatically different from the emotions shaping the living experiences in another one.

Emotions, or feelings, as the name suggests, are experienced through physical sensations. In this they differ from other mental experiences, usually called “cognitive.” The part of sensations in an emotion allows us to place it into one of three categories: primary emotions, secondary emotions, and tertiary emotions. Primary emotions are experienced through specific sensations and represent the direct reaction of the organism to the stimuli of its physical environment. They include such experiences as pain and pleasure, fear, positive and negative excitement (joy and anxiety), hunger and satiation, and their biological function is to increase the individual organism’s survival. It is clear that these primary emotions are common to humans and other animals.

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Shakespeare and Mental Illness

Alan A. Stone, Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry in the faculty of law and the faculty of medicine at Harvard University, in Psychiatric Times, March 12, 2013:

The ancient Greek dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides gave Western civilization its foundational myths: Prometheus, Oedipus, Antigone, and the Oresteia. Two thousand years passed until Shakespeare arrived and, according to literary critics, achieved something perhaps more important: he “invented the human!”1 I think of this invention as the secular conception of the human condition. Yes secular! it is a vision of the moral adventure of life constrained by no religious orthodoxy.

Scholars debate whether Shakespeare was Catholic or Protestant. He often draws on both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, but God is missing from his greatest plays. Nonetheless, to paraphrase Simon Russell Beale, the great British actor, to perform in those plays is to experience “redemption and transcendence.” Shakespeare’s understanding of the human condition miraculously transcends his culture, time, and place…     Continue reading

Madness: A Modern Phenomenon

By David Phillippi

For most of human history, in most societies, identity was not something one had to go searching for – it was given at birth. For most individuals, the socio-cultural space relevant to their lives was easy to map out, and directions for proper navigation were well understood from a young age. Life may have been extremely difficult in the physical sense, but at least it was not confusing – people knew their proper place.

As Greenfeld has demonstrated in her first major work, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, this changed in 16th century England following the War of Roses, which wrecked the nobility and left the rigidly stratified society of orders in disarray. In its place, a new consciousness emerged–nationalism–the modern consciousness, which redefined the possibilities for life in England and in the other societies to which it soon spread. We call this new consciousness nationalism simply because “nation” was the name given to the society in which it emerged by those 16th century Englishmen who first experienced its dignifying effects.

Nationalism is a fundamentally secular and humanistic consciousness based on the principles of popular sovereignty and egalitarianism. (Three distinctive features which most often take shape along with this consciousness are an open class structure, the state form of government, and an economy oriented towards sustained growth). At the beginning of the 16th century, someone among the newly elevated English aristocracy began equating the word “nation,” which had formerly referred to as a political and cultural elite, with the word “people,” which referred originally to the lower classes. This equation of “nation” and “people” both reflected and reinforced the new reality of English society, where the principles of popular sovereignty and egalitarianism made the nation and all its members an elite. No longer confined to a particular station in life by a closed societal structure ordained by Divine Providence, man became his own ruler, the maker of his own destiny. This elevation in dignity for every member of the nation meant that life in the here and now gained much greater importance–eternity was no longer the realm of the meaningful. This is the source of the secularism of modern society–God was not consciously abolished, but was essentially replaced by man.

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