In his famous essay, The Abolition of Man C.S.Lewis does intellectual battle with two mediocre educators who had written a book on literary criticism for high school students. In it, they asserted:
When the man said “This is sublime” he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall…. Actually he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was really saying was “I have feelings associated in my mind with the world ‘sublime’ “ or shortly “I have sublime feelings.” … This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.
At first reading what they have written seems to make sense. However, Lewis attacks their seemingly common sense comments because in attempting to debunk sentimentalism they also debunk properly formed sentiments, and in debunking proper sentiments they reduce everything to a kind of shadow play of ephemeral emotions—all of which can be shown to be subjective nonsense.
They were intellectually lazy. They saw that some human sentiments are silly and subjective, so they rejected all human emotions. They forgot that emotions are the motivations for the greatest of human actions. Rightly formed passions are the motors that drive human beings to greatness. An old Russian proverb states, “The heart moves the feet.”
Recognizing this, Lewis insists that “heart” is as important as “head.” Those who would get rid of human emotion completely are like the dull man from Missouri who always says, “Show Me.” Lewis argues that such short sighted rationalists are what T.S.Eliot characterized as Hollow Men—characters like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz—or in Lewis’s words, “men without chests.”
It may be desirable to be completely rational, but reason alone leads to barren and often impossibly impractical solutions. Anyway, weeding all emotion out of intellectual discourse is unsatisfactory (and impossible).
Not all emotion is bad. Emotion balances reason with feeling. Emotion often sparks the human conscience and brings common sense and compassion where reason alone might be cruel or senseless. What we need to do is understand where emotion fits into the human personality and allow its proper place in the process of education.
For the sake of argument therefore, let’s recognize emotion as the first category of feeling. Emotion is the raw product. Emotion is the animal instinct—the wordless gut feeling—the surge of rage or the lift of love. It is the nameless chthonic feeling itself—the low of loneliness and the exhilaration of ecstasy. To make a decision or take action on the emotion itself is dangerous, for emotion is completely irrational, nameless and inarticulate. It simply is.
Sentimentality is emotion that has been educated—but not very well. Sentimentality is emotion expressed and articulated. Let us say there is a vile injustice. The person ruled by the emotion of rage may throw a fit and throw a dish. The person ruled by sentiment says calmly, “I feel deep concern over the injustice that we have experienced, and I would like to discuss the matter.” Sentimentality seems to express emotion when, in fact, it more often masks emotion.
I say that sentimentality is educated—but not very well because in the sentimental the emotion has most often been educated by the popular press, the opinions of the people or the common assumptions of the day. It is this sentimentalism which has become a form of dictatorship in our society. We are prisoners of sentimentalism in many aspects of popular culture in which marketing manipulates the raw emotions to produce sentimental responses in order to prompt commercial decisions, relationship decisions and political decisions.
Many examples of the dictatorship of sentimentalism in the political sphere may be given, but one is the push for same sex marriage. Emotions of rage and hurt are expressed in the language of civil rights and equality for all. The sentimentalist discusses the issue in language determined by the popular assumptions of the day: equal rights and justice for the oppressed. However, few rational arguments are made. Instead the entire debate is determined by a shallow and unquestioned sentimentalism.
In the face of emotion and sentimentality one might be inclined to side with the authors C.S.Lewis is criticizing and dismiss subjective emotions and sentimentality completely. Lewis proposes another answer. He does not want to remove emotion or sentimentality from the discussion, for it is the ability to believe passionately and live passionately that motivate action and inspires heroism. Instead of debunking emotion and sentimentality Lewis insists that they be properly educated and trained.
If emotion is the raw feeling and sentimentality is the poorly formed popular expression of emotion, then passion is a term for the human emotions that are properly informed and therefore formed by the great tradition.
In The Abolition of Man Lewis argues for the existence, worldwide, of what the Chinese call the Tao—a way of wisdom that is above all cultural and temporal determinants. Quoting Plato, Lewis says, “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable disgusting and hateful.” Lewis argues that this need to conform one’s emotions and tastes to a greater standard of what is beautiful, good and true is universal:
In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta—that great ritual or pattern of nature and super nature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta is constantly identified with satya or truth—which corresponds to reality.
Lewis goes on to give examples of the Tao and says it is this universal and objective standard for what is beautiful, good and true which must inform emotion—lifting it past mere sentimentality to passion. Passion is the proper love for all things in their proper place. Lewis quotes the poet Thomas Traherne who writes, “Can you be righteous unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.”
Education, therefore, is not the attempt to remove all emotion or sentimentality from human life—as if it were beneficial or even possible to live according to reason alone. Instead, education is the enterprise whereby we learn the true value of all things and love them according to their worth.
In the well educated person, passion takes the place of sentimentality. Passion is emotion properly and wisely educated and channeled. Passion drives the person to accomplish great things and live a great life with energy and zeal but also with truth and integrity.
Passion then becomes a partner with reason in the process of education. Properly formed passion motivates a person to move forward. It balances the relentless and possible cruelty of reason with compassion and concern. It balances the impractical and senseless reason with common sense and proportion. It balances the cold, hard reasonableness of reason with humanity, wit, humility and most importantly—a sense of humor.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the St. Austin Review.
Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic priest in South Carolina. He is a graduate of Oxford University and the author of fifteen books and hundreds of articles. He blogs at Standing on My Head. Visit his website to explore his books or invite him to speak.