One More Time, With Feeling!

Once again I am reblogging a post I wrote several years ago that still retains its relevancy — I hope. In our day the mantra seems to be “Do what feels right!” We not only regard the release of uncontrolled emotion as a good thing, we sing its praises and television reinforces our adoration with images to athletes and spectators “losing it” while involved in athletic contests. The attempts to excuse Serena Williams for her raw emotion at the U.S.Open recently is simply one more example of which I speak. In any event, our notions about “honesty” or “true feelings” contrasts sharply with the views of the Greeks who insisted that Temperance, the control of emotions, is one of the highest of virtues. But, then, talk about “virtue” is also passé. Our love of raw emotion goes hand-in-hand with our distrust of reason and this, too, contrasts with the Greeks. To be sure, the Athenians were not perfect, But, at the same time, we might learn something from them.

The president of the Baltimore Ravens, Stephen Bisciotti, recently held a press conference to rebut allegations that his organization had the Ray Rice CCTV tape for many weeks showing him beating his wife in an elevator before it was released to the public and should have acted much sooner then they did. I won’t go into the details of his talk or the reasons for it — the subject has been “out there” for weeks and is getting tiresome. Domestic violence is just plain wrong and the song and dance the NFL and collegiate sports engage in to skirt the issue is simply embarrassing. But what interested me was the general response to Bisciotti’s talk, which was held to be in sharp contrast to an earlier press conference held by Roger Goodell who struck many people as too remote and lacking in emotion.

Bisciotti was received with much greater enthusiasm: he showed “feeling,” and “emotion.” He “seemed sincere.” Goodell, it was said, seemed robotic and lacking in any real sense of remorse for failing to deal with the Ray Rice case in a quick and summary fashion. The implication here is that Bisciotti is more crediblebecause he showed more feeling. Say what??Strange that so many folks (and I admit my sample is not very large) weigh feelings as the most important criterion in determining credibility, when, in fact, feelings can (and do often) go awry. They are, after all, what brought about Ray Rice’s attack on his wife in that elevator. Have we come to that point as a culture, where we dismiss reason even though it is what enables us to approach truth as best we humans can — at times crawling and at other times blindfolded? I’m not saying that Goodell is a reasonable man (on the contrary), but just that his appearance as “robotic” and “unfeeling” puts people off. We don’t want cold hard facts; we want folks like Goodell to show deep remorse, and doubtless a bit of weeping and gnashing of teeth would be in order. Quick! Get a close-up!! Maybe tearing his hair out and perhaps a handful of mea culpasthrown in for added effect. Then we would believe him.

In his dialogue Phaedrus, a novel about love, Plato has an image of a chariot pulled by a black horse and a white horse. The black horse represents the passions that are always struggling to gain ascendency; the white horse represents the gentler emotions, like remorse, sympathy, and compassion; the chariot is directed by reason that seeks always to keep the others in control. The horses provide the energy to pull the chariot, but reason is required to give the chariot direction. What Plato was going for, it seems, was some sort of balance — a notion that was precious to the Greeks going back at least to Homer. And it is precisely this sort of balance that is lacking in our culture today. The charioteer is asleep at the reins — or watching television.

I suspect the emphasis on emotion and feelings — even passion, as when Oprah Winfrey urges us to “follow your passion. It will lead you to your purpose” — came about as a result of the general conviction that reason has given us such things as science and science, in turn, has provided us with the Bomb, pollution, and industry, which is poisoning our air and water. And this is natural; to an extent there are some grounds for this concern. However, reason is a small candle that is absolutely necessary if we are to find our way out of the dark morass we have gotten ourselves into as a people — and, assuredly, we are not facing serious global problems because we have been too reasonable!  The rejection of reason and reliable, verifiable facts (as opposed to opinions or “alternative facts”) is certain to lead us deeper into the darkness. Bear in mind that feelings include not only compassion and love but also fear, envy, rage, and hate. They are not always the best of guides to conduct, or to the truth — as we can see if we pay attention to what is going on around us these days

This is not to say that feeling and the emotions (the white horse) should be ignored. On the contrary. Fellow-feeling, compassion, and a lively conscience are necessary if we are to build bridges toward the rest of the human community. But raw emotions, especially passion — as suggested by Oprah — are not the answer. Balance, as the Greeks saw so clearly, is the answer. Balance between reason and the emotions. It matters not whether Goodell or Bisciotti show us real “feelings.” What matters is that they tell us the truth and that they act in such a way that the violence in the NFL, and elsewhere, decreases and players and spectators — not to say all human beings — show respect for one another.

Domestic violence is a cultural phenomenon that, like any other serious problem, is not going to be solved by making passionate speeches and weeping in public. If it is to be solved at all, it will be by means of a carefully considered program that informs and, when necessary, punishes those who are guilty of such things as child abuse and wife-beating. Feelings alone can be totally unreliable, just as reason alone can be cold and calculating. What is required is a bit of both.

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Greek Lessons

It seems odd to suggest in this sophisticated (?) day and age that we might learn something from people who lived centuries before us and who were in some respects quite different. But, then, in most respects they were not so different and despite the centuries that have passed, there are lessons to be learned. After all, during the “classical period” that only lasted a few decades, Athens, especially, produced some of the greatest minds that the world has ever witnessed. And they spoke to us, providing us with the wisdom, creativity, and brilliance that launched Western Civilization.

Later, Plutarch wrote his Parallel lives of Greeks and Romans in order to show that history repeats itself and to teach young men how to live by witnessing the lives of the greatest of those who went before them. It was a given that we could learn valuable lessons by bearing witness to the lives of the great. These men were the heroes of the age and the ones who were looked to in order to help get one’s bearings in an increasingly confusing world. Today, we have our athletes and warriors. So did the Greeks and the Romans, though their heroes tended to be more …. heroic.

Consider, for example, one of the oldest works ever written down, though it was originally passed down orally from the old to the young. I speak of Homer’s Iliad. It tells us about the extraordinary warrior, Achilles, who has his prize taken away from him by Agamemnon, the leader of the expedition to Troy.  He pouts and sits sulking in his tent while his comrades are fighting a losing battle. Finally, he allows his best friend Patroclus, to don his armor and go forth to lead the Greeks into battle. Patroclus dies and Achilles is finally determined to fight and, being the great warrior he is, he turns the tide. In the process he kills the greatest warrior on the Trojan side, Hector. In the end Priam, Hector’s father, comes to Achilles and begs him to allow him to take Hector back within the walls of Troy and give him a proper burial. Achilles agrees.

In Achilles’ development throughout the course of the story, we see him going from childish petulance to anger, to rage, to courage, to compassion. In the process, we suspect, he learns the greatest of the Greek virtues: temperance — or self-control. In fact, this concern with temperance is echoed in  Greek dramas where we discover that temperance is held up repeatedly as something priceless in itself, though very hard to achieve. Without it, without self-control, the Greeks realized that men and women were invariably headed toward tragedy. The Greeks admired wisdom, courage and justice. But above all else they admired temperance. Later, the Stoics in Rome made it the centerpiece of their world view.

If we contrast this with our world view a great many things jump out. But the largest, certainly, is our lack of temperance. The notion that we should restrain ourselves and exhibit a calm demeanor while others around us are losing their minds shows others that we just “don’t get it.” Our mantra is “it’s not good to keep things bottled up.” Those who do are viewed as “uptight.” This is the age of letting it all hang out, exhibiting our emotions for all to see and holding nothing back. We see it all around us, especially in those athlete-heroes I mentioned above. In the eyes of many it is what sports is all about. The athletes set the tone and many of our leading politicians have started to follow their lead, exhibiting outrage, hatred, and contempt, raw emotion, at every opportunity — some more than others.. And they are not held in contempt: they are admired for it.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to healthy emotions. On the contrary. It just seems to me that we should hold something back, even if to create an air of mystery. And self-control, coupled with careful thought, is important if we hope to work our way out of the morass we seem to have fallen into.

Achilles sulked and exhibited rage, though he learned important lessons from his encounter with Hector and his exchange with Priam. He learned to be compassionate and to control his emotions. Those are the lessons we seem not to have learned as we simply wallow in a sea of our own uncontrolled passion. It is not admirable. But more importantly, it leads to tragedy. The Greeks knew that above all else.