“The Centrality of Emotion, Part 1: What Ancient Philosophy Offers Modern Naturalists” by B. T. Newberg

“The Scream of Nature” by Edvard Munch

Emotion is central. As much as we naturalists embrace objective science, the reason we do so is for the sake of the subjective. If it were not for the emotional response to nature, community, and the depths of our own minds – in short, the re-enchantment of our world – there would be little point to Naturalistic Paganism at all.

This is something I’ve realized as I’ve been working to create an online educational course for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. In order to make it applicable to all paths of Spiritual Naturalism, not just Pagan ones, I’ve had to drill down into the core of what we do. What I’ve discovered is that emotion is central, but a principled approach to cultivating it is hardly to be found in the science we so cherish. Rather, we must return to ancient philosophy for a model. Part 1 of this article explores this issue, while Part 2 attempts to integrate ancient philosophy and modern science.

A Path of Head and Heart

Whether you are a Naturalistic Pagan or a Secular Buddhist or a Humanistic Jew, at the center of it all is emotion. This has been recognized by leaders in the modern naturalist movement, for example DT Strain and Tom Clark, and no doubt numerous others. What these modern thinkers affirm is that the spiritual response to life involves not only intellectual assent to a set of principles, but also a fully-embodied life practice motivated by emotion. In other words, it is a path of head and heart.

However, despite the obvious importance of emotion to our daily lives and its recognition among spiritual leaders, there is relatively little in modern science or philosophy that has anything to do with it. With few exceptions*, science and philosophy have let the question of a subjectively happy life slide to the periphery. To judge by modern higher learning, emotion is not central at all.

It wasn’t always that way. Ancient philosophy, as scholar Martha Nussbaum observes, was primarily a “therapy of desire.” The central question was how best to live. Happiness, in the sense of a meaningful and worthwhile life, was the goal, and the question was what emotional desires led most directly to that blessed state.

So, if the ancient world had what the modern is missing, perhaps we would do well to take a deeper look at why and how they made emotion central.

Why Emotion Is Central

Philosophers in the ancient world placed emotion at the center. The reason is aptly summarized by the 8th cen. Buddhist Shantideva, who said (to paraphrase): “To keep your foot from being hurt on a stone, you need not cover the world in leather; all you have to do is cover your own two feet.” In other words, if the world is emotionally painful, don’t expect it to change for you; just change yourself.

This sentiment was echoed throughout the ancient world. For example, the Stoics of ancient Greece – far from being emotionless, as the common misconception would have it – believed only those emotions which were in accord with reality were conducive to happiness. You cannot help but suffer if you yearn for what can never be; happiness comes from deep acceptance of how the world actually is. Meanwhile, far away in ancient China, Confucius and Lao-tzu were in complete agreement: we must flow with the Dao, not against it. All these philosophers taught the central insight that happiness comes only from emotional reconciliation to the universe, not as we wish it to be but as it truly is.

So, in short, ancient philosophy’s approach to happiness is to cultivate an emotional life that is in right relationship to reality. Thus, the rationale for the centrality of emotion is clear. As Shantideva reminds us, if the world is painful, you need not wait for the world to change; all you need to do is change yourself.

How Emotion Is Central

Philosophers didn’t just bloviate on emotion; they got their hands dirty. Each school analyzed exactly how it arises in order to discover how best to work with it.

McEvilley details the theories of the various schools, but the general method can be summed up in three simple steps:

  1. analyze how emotions arise
  2. diagnose the point(s) at which influence is possible, and
  3. train yourself in the skills necessary to do this successfully

For example, the Buddha put forth the twelve links of paticca-samuppada, or co-dependent arising, showing how attachment leads to suffering and where the process can be interrupted. Something similar was advanced by the Stoics, detailing how the mind processes an emotional impulse until it reaches a point where one may withhold assent if it is not in accord with reality. Such understandings of the emotional process allowed the philosopher leverage on her own emotions: by understanding how the process occurs, she learned how to influence it in more fruitful directions, thereby taking responsibility for her own emotional life.

From the Ancient World to the Modern

In short, the ancient world had what the modern world is largely missing, namely a workable method for making emotion genuinely central to one’s life path. There is one major problem, however: all of these philosophies are products of their times, drawing on long-outdated models of the mind and world. The Buddha’s paticca-samuppada, for example, includes not only emotion but also karma and rebirth, both of which stick out like a sore thumb to modern naturalists.** Today’s scientific models are far more accurate.

So, it seems the ancient and modern worlds each hold one half of the puzzle: the former has the right approach to the subjective, the latter to the objective.

Is there any way we can bring these two together? Can we apply the ancient approach to the most accurate, up-to-date, evidence-based models of emotion? Part 2 of this series takes up this challenge.

Meanwhile, what’s your take on this idea? Do you think it’s possible to bring the ancient approach to modern scientific models of emotion? Or do you foresee problems?

*The few exceptions include Positive Psychology, which grew out of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which in turn was inspired by ancient Stoic philosophy. Another important exception, which we’ll meet in Part 2, is appraisal theory, one of several modern theories of how emotion arises.
**Of course, this is not always interpreted in a supernatural way. Secular Buddhists tend to interpret these as metaphors, with karma as the straight-forward cause-and-effect consequences of action, and rebirth as the moment-to-moment re-arising of consciousness. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder what a modern paticca samuppada might look like if it started with scientific evidence, rather than being accommodated to it (which is the aim of Part 2 of this article).

About B. T. Newberg

B. T. Newberg

B. T. Newberg

B. T. founded HumanisticPaganism.com in 2011, and served as managing editor till 2013.  His writings on naturalistic spirituality can be found at PatheosPagan Square, the Spiritual Naturalist Society, as well as right here on HP.  Since the year 2000, he has been practicing meditation and ritual from a naturalistic perspective.  After leaving the Lutheranism of his raising, he experimented with Agnosticism, Buddhism, Contemporary Paganism, and Spiritual Humanism.  Currently he combines the latter two into a dynamic path embracing both science and myth.

Professionally, he teaches English as a Second Language.  He also researches the relation between religion, psychology, and evolution at www.BTNewberg.com.  After living in Minnesota, England, Malaysia, Japan, and South Korea, B. T. Newberg currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and cat.

B. T. currently serves as advising editor for HP.

See B. T. Newberg’s other posts.

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3 Comments on ““The Centrality of Emotion, Part 1: What Ancient Philosophy Offers Modern Naturalists” by B. T. Newberg

  1. Just commenting so that I get email notices of anybody else’s comments. Looking forward to others’ opinions. 🙂

  2. Well said. I believe the scientific theory can be equally applied to the subjective would of religious experience as it can be to the objective discipline of the sciences.

    One of my inspirations has been the philosophy of Epicurus. It is unfortunate his writings are sparse, scattered, and incomplete, and much of what we know of his teachings is second and third hand. He is often considered a classical hedonist, but where his philosophy diverges in the pursuit of happiness through “simple” pleasures and warns against excess. Epicurean philosophy emphasized observation and deductive reasoning to cultivate meaning from the world. Epicureans shared much in common with early materialist who saw the material of the world comprised of “atoms” and all aspects of experience could be reduced to the “atomic.” However, Epicurus encourage the religious life and worship as a form of pleasure but showed little interest in the gods, believing they where indifferent to and where not engaged in the lives of Humans. Much of this school of thought has been overshadowed by stoicism and Plato/Socrates based philosophy.

  3. Agreed, Epicurus has a lot to offer, especially since he’s a perfect example of how an atomic understanding of the universe – essentially the same as found in modern science – can be used to inform a spiritual life.

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