Is it a Feeling or an Emotion?

The difference between a feeling and an emotion.

The education of the emotions has been so neglected that most people are unaware of, and unconcerned by, the fierce forces that move them, hold them back, and lead them astray.

If I tell you that I’m grateful, I could mean one of three things: that I am currently feeling grateful for something, that I am generally grateful for that thing, or that I am a grateful kind of person. Similarly, if I tell you that I’m proud, I could mean one of three things: that I am currently feeling proud about something, that I am generally proud about that thing, or that I am a proud kind of person. Let us call the first instance (currently feeling proud about something) an emotional reaction, the second instance (being generally proud about that thing) an emotion or sentiment, and the third instance (being a proud kind of person) a character trait. There is a strong tendency to confuse or amalgamate the first and the second instances, calling them both ‘emotions’; but, whereas an emotional reaction is brief and episodic, an emotion—which may or may not be precipitated from repeated emotional reactions—can endure for many years, and, in that time, predispose us to various beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Similarly, there is a strong tendency to confuse or amalgamate emotions and feelings. Crucially, while I am necessarily conscious of an emotional reaction, I need not be conscious of an emotion, and might in fact only discover that emotion, for example, resenting my mother or being in love with my best friend, after several years in psychotherapy. An emotional reaction, by virtue of being a reaction, is necessarily a feeling, even if I remain uncertain about its type or object; but an emotion is a feeling only if it is felt, that is, if it surfaces into consciousness.

So the difference between feelings and emotions (at least for me—there are different accounts) is that, whereas emotions can be either conscious or unconscious, those emotions that are conscious are also feelings. In other words, feelings are the conscious or felt subset of emotions. Animals, which are not attributed with an unconscious, are commonly said to have feelings, but seldom said to have emotions.

If an emotion is left unfelt, this is most often through repression or some other form of self-deception. However, self-deception can also take place at the level of emotional reactions, for example, by misattributing the type or intensity of the emotional reaction, or misattributing its object or cause.

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The perfect Christmas present for anyone who, like me, wants to take as much pleasure from every meal, and every drink.

Ideally, wine should function synergistically like a sauce or like salt: augmenting the dish, and being augmented by it.

Given how much time we spend eating, it is certainly an art worth learning.

The Psychology and Philosophy of Wonder

 …wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy beings in wonder. —Plato

Ceiling of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Ceiling of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

In Plato’s Theaetetus, Socrates presents the young Theatetus with a number of contradictions. This is the exchange that ensues.

S: I believe that you follow me, Theaetetus; for I suspect that you have thought of these questions before now.

T: Yes, Socrates, and I am amazed when I think of them; by the Gods I am! and I want to know what on earth they mean; and there are times when my head quite swims with the contemplation of them.

S: I see, my dear Theaetetus, that Theodorus had a true insight into your nature when he said that you were a philosopher, for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder. He was not a bad genealogist who said that Iris (the messenger of heaven) is the child of Thaumas (Wonder)…

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle says that it is wonder that led the first philosophers to philosophy, since a man who is puzzled thinks of himself as ignorant and philosophizes to escape ignorance and accede to knowledge.

In his commentary on the Metaphysics, St Thomas Aquinas appears to agree, adding that, ‘Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder.’

If wonder truly is the impulse for philosophy and, by extension, science, religion, art, and all else that transcends everyday existence, it becomes important to ask the question, what exactly is wonder?

Wonder is a complex emotion involving elements of surprise, curiosity, contemplation, and joy, and is perhaps best defined as a heightened state of consciousness and feeling brought about by something very beautiful, rare, or unexpected—that is, brought about by a marvel.

‘Marvel’ derives from the Latin mirabilia (‘wonderful things’) and ultimately from the Latin mirus (‘wonderful’). ‘Admire’ shares the same root as ‘marvel’ and originally meant ‘to wonder at’, although this sense has been steadily attenuated since the 16th century—along, one might say, with wonder itself. If Aquinas speaks of philosophers and poets in the same breath, this is because both are moved by marvels, with the aim of poetry being to record and recreate marvels.

Wonder is most similar to awe. However, awe is more explicitly directed at something that is much greater or much more powerful than us; and it is more closely associated with fear, respect, reverence, or veneration than with joy. Without this element of respect, reverence, or veneration, all that remains is fear, that is, not awe but terror or horror.

Another important difference between wonder and awe is that wonder is more detached, allowing for greater and freer contemplation of its object.

Wonder has a number of other near-synonyms, including astonishment, amazement, and astoundment. In essence, to astonish means to fill with sudden and overpowering surprise or wonder, to amaze means to astonish greatly, and to astound means to amaze greatly. This overbidding ends with dumbfounding, which means—you guessed it—to astound greatly.

Wonder involves significant elements of surprise and curiosity, which both are forms of interest.

Surprise is a brief and spontaneous reaction to something unexpected, immediately followed by at least some degree of confusion and one or more emotions such as joy, fear, disappointment, or anger. Surprise is the gap between expectations and reality, and serves to our attention to a possible threat and incite us to examine and revise our expectations.

The meaning of ‘surprise’ is ‘overtaken’. In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero argues that real sapience consists of preparing oneself for every eventuality so as not to be surprised by anything. He cites the example of the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras, who, upon being told of the death of his son, said, Sciebam me genuisse mortalem: “I knew that I begot a mortal.”

Curiosity derives from the Latin cura, ‘care.’ To be curious about something is to desire knowledge of that thing. With the knowledge satisfied, the curiosity is extinguished. Wonder, in contrast, cannot be extinguished by knowledge. In Modes of Thought (1938), the philosopher AN Whitehead concurs with Plato and Aristotle that ‘philosophy begins in wonder’, and adds that, ‘at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.’

So while wonder involves significant elements of surprise and curiosity, it is both other and greater than either.

Wonder is incited by grand vistas, natural phenomena, human achievement, extraordinary facts, and so on, whether on travels, at the circus or theatre, or in a film, museum, or book, and is evidenced by a bright-eyed stare sometimes accompanied by an opening of the mouth and a suspension of the breath.

By drawing us out of ourselves, wonder does make us feel small and insignificant, but it also gives us right perspective by reconnecting us with something much greater and vaster and higher and better than our daily struggles. Wonder is the ultimate homecoming, returning us to the world that we came from and were in danger of losing.

This account of wonder, however convincing, does not seem to correspond with the more active, pregnant kind of wonder that inspired Theaetetus to philosophy. Socratic wonder is not so much wonder in the sense of awe, but, as hinted by Aristotle, wonder in the sense of puzzlement or perplexity: wonder that arises from contradictions in thought and language, and gives rise to a desire to resolve or at least understand these contradictions.

T: Yes, Socrates, and I am amazed when I think of them; by the Gods I am! and I want to know what on earth they mean; and there are times when my head quite swims with the contemplation of them.

Socrates himself only turned to philosophy after being puzzled by the Delphic Oracle, which, though he believed himself to be ignorant, pronounced him to be the wisest of all men. To discover the meaning of this contradiction, he questioned a number of so-called wise men and in each case concluded, “I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.”

Wonder is a universal experience, found also in children and perhaps even in higher-order primates and other animals. Socratic wonder on the other hand is much more rarified, and, as Socrates implies, not given to everyone. Yet both kinds of wonder share a concern for what is in some sense beyond us, or beyond our grasp.

In the Advancement of Learning, Francis Bacon called wonder ‘broken knowledge’, and there is certainly a sense in which wonder breaches us (‘wonder’ may be cognate to the German Wunde or ‘wound’). This breach requires filling, whether passively or actively, not only with philosophy but also with science, religion, and art, giving rise to a third and even higher form of wonder, which is the wonder of discovery, knowledge, and creation.

Culture does not sate wonder but instead nourishes it. For instance, scientific discoveries are often more wondrous than the perplexities that they resolve, while religious buildings and rituals are designed to make us feel small while at the same elevating us. Through culture, wonder inspires yet more wonder, and the end of wonder is wisdom, which is the state of perpetual wonder.

Unfortunately, many people do not open themselves up to wonder for fear that it may move them to ponder or linger, overwhelming their resources or upsetting the fragile status quo. After all, to wonder is to wound, and thauma is only one letter off ‘trauma’.

Instead of being encouraged or cultivated, wonder is dismissed as a childish emotion that is to be grown out of. It is true that wonder is natural and abundant in children, before it is banged out of them by need and neurosis.

Whenever we do something not for its own sake but for the sake of something else, we stifle wonder. Today, most students go to university not for the sake of learning but for the sake of coming out with a competitive degree, and so pass by the wonder and wisdom that could have saved them.

According to Matthew, Jesus said, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven … whosoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

The Meaning of Nostalgia


By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. —Psalm 137 (KJV)

Nostalgia is sentimentality for the past, typically for a particular period or place with positive associations, but sometimes also for the past in general, ‘the good old days’ of earlier life.

At the end of André Brink’s novel, An Instant the Wind, the character of Adam memorably says, ‘The land which happened inside us no one can take away from us again, not even ourselves.’ Nostalgia combines the sadness of loss with the joy that the loss is not complete, nor ever can be.

‘Nostalgia’ is a portmanteau neologism coined in 1688 by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer from the Greek nóstos (homecoming) and álgos (pain, ache). Nóstos is, of course, the overriding theme of Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus strives to get home to Penelope and Telemachus after the Trojan War.

In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas, another survivor of the Trojan War and the ancestor of Romulus and Remus, gazes upon a Carthaginian mural depicting battles of the Trojan War and the deaths of his kin. Moved to tears, he cries out, sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt: ‘These are the tears of things and mortal things touch the mind’.

Johannes Hofer intended ‘nostalgia’ to refer to the homesickness of Swiss mercenaries fighting in foreign lowlands. The symptoms of this homesickness, also known as Schweizerheimweh or mal du Suisse and attributed by military physicians to ear and brain damage from the constant clanging of cowbells, included pining for Alpine landscapes, fainting, fever, and even, in extremis, death. In the Dictionnaire de musique (1767), Jean-Jacques Rousseau claims that Swiss mercenaries were threatened with severe punishment to prevent them from singing their Swiss songs and thereby exacerbating their nostalgia. By the 19th century, nostalgia had become a topos in Romantic literature, inspiring a fashion for alpinism among the European cultural elite.

Today, nostalgia is no longer looked upon as a mental disorder, but instead as a natural, common, and even positive emotion, a means of escaping the deadening confines of time and space. Bouts of nostalgia are often prompted by thoughts about the past; feelings of loneliness, disconnectedness, or meaninglessness; particular places and objects; and smell, touch, music, and weather.

When I was 14, I kept a lock of the fur of my English sheepdog Oscar after he got run-over by a tractor and had to be put down. Like the books and toys of our childhood, or our childhood home, the lock became like a time portal, which, for many years, helped me to nostalgize about Oscar.

I say ‘help’ because nostalgia does have a surprising number of adaptive functions. Everyday life is humdrum, often even absurd, but nostalgia lends us context, perspective, and connectedness, reassuring us that our life is not as banal as it seems, that it is rooted in a narrative, and that there have been (and will again be) meaningful moments and experiences.

In that much, nostalgia serves a similar function to anticipation, which can be defined as enthusiasm and excitement for some expected or hoped-for good event. The hauntings of times gone by, and the imaginings of times to come, strengthen us in lesser times.

Nostalgia is nothing if not paradoxical. In supplying us with substance and texture, it also reminds us of their lack, moving us either to creativity or restoration. This restoration often takes the form of spending, and marketers rely on nostalgia to sell us everything from music and clothes to cars and houses.

Nostalgia also serves important social functions. Many friendships and connections endure solely or mostly out of nostalgia, so much so that inducing or sharing in a nostalgic moment can at once revive a flagging relationship.

Nostalgia is commoner in uncertain times or times of transition or change. According to one recent study, it is also commoner on cold days or in cold rooms, and actually makes us feel warmer!

On the other hand, it can be argued that nostalgia is a form of self-deception in that it invariably involves distortion and idealization of the past, not least because the bad and boring bits fade from memory more quickly than the peak experiences. The Romans had a tag for the phenomenon that psychologists have come to call ‘rosy retropection’: memoria praeteritorum bonorum, ‘the past is always well remembered’.

If overindulged, nostalgia can give rise to a utopia that has never existed nor can ever exist, and yet is pursued at all costs, sapping all life and joy and potential from the present. For many people, paradise is not so much a place that you go to as the place that you come from.

Nostalgia ought to be distinguished from homesickness and from regret.

Although homesickness is a loan translation of nostalgia, it refers more specifically to the distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home.

Regret is a conscious negative emotional reaction to past actions or lack thereof. Regret differs from disappointment in that regret is of actions, disappointment of outcomes. Guilt is deep regret for actions because they fell short of our moral standards. Guilt is a prerequisite for remorse, which is more mature and turned out than guilt in that it includes an impulse for repentance and reparation.

Nostalgia can more fruitfully be compared to a number of similar or related concepts including saudademono no awarewabi-sabidukkha, and Sehnsucht.

Saudade is a Portuguese and Galician word for the love and longing for someone or something that has been lost and may never be regained. It is the desolate incompleteness or wistful dreaminess that can be felt even in the presence of its object, when that presence is threatened or incomplete (a great example is contained in the famous final scene of Cinema Paradiso). The rise of saudade is associated with the decline of Portugal and the yen for its imperial heyday, a yen so strong as to have entered the national anthem: Levantai hoje de novo o splendor de Portugal (‘Let us once again lift up the splendor of Portugal’).

The literal translation of the Japanese mono no aware is ‘the pathos of things’. Coined in the 18th century by Motoori Norinaga for his literary criticism of the Tale of Genjii, it refers to a heightened consciousness of the transience of things coupled with an acute appreciation of their ephemeral beauty and a gentle sadness or wistfulness at their passing—and, by extension, at the realization, reminder, or truth that all things must pass. Although beauty itself is eternal in its recurrence, its particular manifestations are unique and special because they cannot in themselves be preserved or recreated.

Related to mono no aware is wabi-sabi, an aesthetic of impermanence and imperfection that is rooted in Zen Buddhism. Wabi-sabi calls upon the acceptance and espousal of transience and inadequacy to foster a sense of serene melancholy and spiritual longing, and, with it, liberation from material and mundane distractions. Hagi pots with their pockmarked surfaces, cracked glaze, and signature chip embody wabi-sabi. With age, the pots take on deeper tones and become even more fragile and unique. Also embodying wabi-sabi are haiku poems that evoke transience and loneliness. Here is a pair from me.

The sunlit seabed—

A golden reticulum

Of racing ribbons.

The moonlit lagoon—

Silver scales scintillating

On quivering brine.

The Buddha is reputed to have said, “I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.” That dukkha, or ‘suffering’, is inherent in all life is the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The second of the Four Noble Truths is that the cause of all suffering is lust, that is, coveting or craving. The deepest form of dukkha is the sense of dissatisfaction that things, being impermanent and insubstantial, can never measure up to our standards or expectations. When we understand this truth, we stop struggling in hope and fear, we stop craving, but instead open up to the ways of the world. It is not that we no longer suffer, but that the sting has been removed because, for want of better expression, we no longer think that our suffering has to do with us.

Sehnsucht is German for ‘longing’, ‘yearning’, or ‘craving’. It is dissatisfaction with an imperfect reality paired with the conscious or unconscious yearning for an ideal that comes to seem even more real than reality itself, as in the final lines of Walt Whitman’s Song of the Universal.

Is it a dream?

Nay, but the lack of it the dream,

And, failing it, life’s lore and wealth a dream,

And all the world a dream.

CS Lewis called Sehnsucht ‘the inconsolable longing’ in the human heart for ‘we know not what’. In the afterword to the third edition of The Pilgrim’s Regress, he describes the feeling as ‘that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of the The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.’

Lewis redefines this feeling as ‘joy’, which he understands as ‘an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction’, and which I like to think of—in the broadest sense—as our aesthetic and creative reservoir.

The paradox of ‘joy’ arises from the self-defeating nature of human desire, which might be thought of as nothing more or less than a desire for desire, a longing for longing.

In The Weight of Glory, Lewis illustrates this from the age-old quest for beauty,

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.



Zhou X et al: Heartwarming memories: Nostalgia maintains physiological comfort. Emotion. 2012 Aug; 12(4):700

What Is Courage Made Of?


What is courage? 

It seems like an easy question, until, that is, we start to give it just a little bit of thought.

In Plato’s Laches (4th century BC), Socrates famously sticks the question to the eminent Athenian general Laches. Also present is the Athenian general Nicias.

Here is a brief outline of the fascinating conversation that ensues.

L: Courage, Socrates, is when a man is willing to remain at his post and defend himself against the enemy.

S: I have to disagree, Laches, because a man who flees from his post can also sometimes be called courageous. The Scythian cavalry fight both in pursuing and in retreating, and, according to Homer, Aeneas was always fleeing on horses. Yet Homer praised Aeneas for his knowledge of fear, and called him the ‘counsellor of fear’.

L: Yes, Socrates, but these are cases concerning horsemen and chariots, not footmen.

S: Well then, what about the Spartan hoplites at the Battle of Plataea, who fled the enemy but turned back to fight once the enemy lines had been broken?

L: Yes, I’ll accept that example.

S: You see, what I really want to know from you is: what is courage in every instance, for the footman, for the horseman, and for every sort of warrior, not to forget those who show courage in illness and poverty and those who are brave in the face of pain and fear.

L: How do you mean?

S: Well, what is it that all these instances of courage have in common? For example, quickness can be found in running, in speaking, and in playing the lyre, and in each of these instances, ‘quickness’ can be defined as ‘the quality which accomplishes much in a little time’. Is there a similar, single definition of courage that can apply to every one of its instances?

L: Now I see what you mean. I suggest that courage is a sort of endurance of the soul.

S: That can’t be right, since endurance can be accompanied by folly rather than wisdom, in which case it is likely to be harmful. Courage, by contrast, is always fine and praiseworthy.

L: Very well then, ‘wise endurance of the soul.’

S: Again, I disagree. Who is the more courageous, the man who is willing to hold out in battle in the knowledge that he is in a stronger position, or the man in the opposite camp who is willing to hold out nonetheless?

L: Clearly, the second man—though you are right, his endurance is clearly the more foolish.

S: Yet foolish endurance is disgraceful and harmful, whereas courage is always a fine and noble thing. So, you see, courage can’t amount to wise endurance.

L: I’m now terribly confused.

S: So am I, but, still, we should persevere in our enquiry so that courage itself won’t make fun of us for not searching for it courageously!

L: I’m sure I know what courage is, of course I do. So why am I unable to put it into words?

N: I once heard Socrates say that every person is good with respect to that in which he is wise, and bad in respect to that in which he is ignorant. So maybe courage is some sort of knowledge or wisdom.

S: Thank you, Nicias, let’s go with that. If courage is some sort of knowledge, of what is it the knowledge?

N: It is the knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful in war and in every other sphere or situation.

L: That’s nonsense. Wisdom is a thing completely different from courage. For example, with an illness, it is the doctor who knows best what is to be feared, but the patient who shows courage.

N: I disagree. A doctor’s knowledge amounts to no more than an ability to describe health and disease, whereas it is the patient who has knowledge of whether his illness is more to be feared than his recovery. In short, it is the patient and not the doctor who knows what is to be feared and what is to be hoped.

S: Nicias, if, as you say, courage is the knowledge of the grounds of fear and hope, then courage is very rare among men, and animals can never be called courageous but at most fearless.

N: Yes and the same is true also of children. Or do you really suppose I call children courageous, who fear nothing because they have no sense?

S: Good. So now I propose to investigate the grounds of fear and hope. Fear is produced by anticipated evil things, but not by evils things that have happened or that are happening. Hope, in contrast, is produced by anticipated good things or by anticipated non-evil things.

N: Understood.

S: For any science of knowledge, there is not one science of the past, one science of the present, and one science of the future. Knowledge of the past, present, and future are the same type of knowledge.

N: No one can disagree with that.

S: Thus, courage is not only the knowledge of fearful and hopeful things, but the knowledge of all things, including those that are in the present and in the past. A person with such knowledge cannot be said to be lacking in courage, but neither can he be said to be lacking in justice, temperance, or any of the virtues.

N: I am amazed by this definition!

S: You see that, in trying to define courage, which is a part of virtue, we have succeeded in defining virtue itself. Virtue is knowledge—or so it seemed to me just a moment ago.

A simplified scenario may serve to clarify this unexpected definition of courage as knowledge. Imagine that I am walking along a beach and see someone drowning in the sea. I know that I cannot swim and that there are strong currents in that spot, but I dive in anyway on the grounds that a human life is at stake. Very soon, I too need rescuing, and, despite my good intentions, I have only succeeded in making a bad situation worse. Because I completely misread or miscalculated the situation, I acted not courageously but recklessly.

In contrast, the lifeguard is a strong swimmer and is equipped with a floater. If only from past experience, he knows that, if he dives in, he stands an excellent chance of pulling out the drowning person without imperiling himself. Of course there is some risk involved, but the potential benefit to the world is so large and likely that it far outweighs the risk. If the lifeguard perfectly understands all this, he will ‘courageously’ jump in. Conversely, if he is ‘cowardly’ and does not jump in, it has to be because he does not fully grasp the situation.

Socrates famously argues that no one ever knowingly does evil. If people do evil, it is essentially because they are unable to measure and compare pleasures and pains—not, as most people think, because their ethics are overwhelmed by a desire for pleasure. If people do evil, it can only be out of ignorance. If people are reckless or cowardly, it can only be out of ignorance. Yes, they may be governed by greed or fear, but that is only because they are poor calculators of pleasures and pains, and, in particular, long-term pleasures and pains.

Now, geometry, medicine, and any other subject that is classified as knowledge can readily be taught and passed on from one person to another. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case with courage and the other parts of virtue, suggesting that Socrates is wrong and that they are not knowledge after all.

In the Meno, which Plato almost certainly wrote several years after the Laches, Socrates confirms that people of wisdom and virtue seem very poor at imparting these qualities: for example, Themistocles was able to teach his son Cleophantus skills such as standing upright on horseback and shooting javelins, but no one ever praised Cleophantus for his wisdom and virtue; and the same can also be said for Lysimachus and his son Aristides, Pericles and his sons Paralus and Xanthippus, and Thucydides and his sons Melesias and Stephanus. As there do not appear to be any teachers of virtue, Socrates infers that virtue cannot be taught; and if virtue cannot be taught, then it is not, after all, a type of knowledge.

If virtue cannot be taught, how, asks Meno, did good men come into existence? Socrates replies that he and Meno have so far overlooked that right action is possible under guidance other than that of knowledge: a man who has knowledge of the road to Larisa might make a good guide, but a man who has only correct opinion of the road but has never been and does not know might make an equally good guide. If the person who thinks the truth is just as good a guide as the person who knows the truth, then correct opinion is just as good a guide to right action as knowledge.

In that case, how, asks Meno, is knowledge any different from correct opinion, and why should anyone prefer the one to the other? Socrates replies that correct opinions are like the statues of Daedalus, which needed to be tied down if they were not to run away. Correct opinions can be tied down with ‘an account of the reason why’, whereupon they are transformed into knowledge.

Since virtue is not knowledge, all that remains is for it to be correct opinion. This much explains why virtuous men such as Thermistocles, Lysimachus, Pericles, and Thucydides were unable to impart their virtue to other people. Virtuous people are no different from soothsayers, prophets, and poets, who say many true things when they are inspired, but have no real knowledge of what they are saying. If ever there was a virtuous person who was able to impart his virtue to another, he would be said to be among the living as Homer says Tiresias was among the dead: he alone has understanding; but the rest are flitting shades.

Like all the virtues, courage consists not in knowledge but in correct opinion. The virtues relate to human behaviour and, in particular, to good or moral human behaviour, that is, to ethics. In ethics, the choice of one action over another involves a complex and indeterminate calculus that cannot be condensed into, and hence expressed as, knowledge.

Whereas knowledge is precise and explicit, correct opinion is vague and unarticulated and more akin to intuition or instinct. For this reason, correct opinion, and so courage, cannot be taught, but only ever encouraged or inspired.

This has some serious implications, for example, for education. If courage and the rest of virtue can only inspired, then the best education consists not in being taught but in being inspired—which is, I think, a far more difficult thing to do.

Unfortunately, it seems that many people are not open to being inspired, not even by the most charismatic people or the greatest works of art or thought. As Hemingway scathed, ‘He was just a coward and that was the worst luck any man could have.’

Courage is the noblest of the virtues because it is the one that underwrites all the others, and the one that is most often mortally missing. There is little point in being anything if we cannot be that thing when it is most needed.

The Secret of Self-Esteem

Where does self-esteem really come from?

‘Confidence’ derives from the Latin fidere, ‘to trust’. Self-confidence essentially means to trust and have faith in oneself. It is our certainty as to our judgement, ability, and so on—in short, our certainty as to our aptitude to engage with the world. A self-confident person is able to act on opportunities, rise to new challenges, take control of difficult situations, and accept responsibility and criticism if things go wrong.

Just as the foundation of successful experience is self-confidence, so the foundation of self-confidence is successful experience. Although any successful experience contributes to our general self-confidence, it is, of course, possible to be highly confident in one area, such as cooking or dancing, but very unsure in another, such as public speaking.

In the absence of confidence, courage takes over. Confidence operates in the realm of the known; courage, on the other hand, operates in the realm of the unknown, the uncertain, and the fearsome: you cannot be a confident swimmer unless you once had the courage to lose your footing in deep water. Courage is more noble than confidence, because it requires more strength, and because a courageous person is one with limitless capabilities and possibilities. In the lonely hearts, ladies often specify that they are looking for a confident man, but who they are truly looking for is a courageous man.

While self-confidence and self-esteem often go hand in hand, it is possible to have high self-confidence and yet low self-esteem, as is, for example, the case with many celebrities. Esteem derives from the Latin aestimare, ‘to appraise, value, rate, weigh, estimate’, and self-esteem is the cognitive and, above all, emotional appraisal of our own worth. Our self-esteem is the matrix through which we think, feel, and act. It reflects, and also in large part determines, our relation to ourself, to others, and to the world.

It is possible that self-esteem evolved as a barometer of status or acceptance in the social group, or else to lend us the strength to act in the face of fear and anxiety. Psychologist Abraham Maslow included it as a deficiency need in his hierarchy of needs, and argued that a person could not meet his growth needs unless he had already met his deficiency needs. To me, it seems that we are each born with a healthy self-esteem (and a small smattering of self-confidence), which is then either sustained or undermined by our life experiences.

In the West, self-esteem is primarily based on achievement, whereas in the East it is primarily based on ‘worthiness’, that is, on being seen and accepted as a good member of the family, community, and other in-groups. In the West, you can get away with being a bad in-group member so long as you are successful; in the East, you can get away with being unsuccessful so long as you are a good in-group member.

One problem with achievement-based self-esteem is that it promotes the fear of failure and the pursuit of success at all costs. Moreover, because achievement is not wholly within our control, and because its effects are transient, it cannot offer a secure foundation for our self-esteem. Worthiness-based self-esteem also has its limitations. First, it relies heavily on the acceptance or rejection of others, and so, like achievement-based self-esteem, is not wholly within our control. Second, because acceptance is contingent upon conformity with the in-group, it severely restricts our range of possibilities.

People with healthy self-esteem are able to take risks and to give their all to a project or ambition, because, although failure may hurt or upset them, it is not going to damage or diminish them. They do not rely on externals such as status or income, or on crutches such as alcohol, drugs, or sex. To the contrary, they treat themselves with respect and take good care of their health, development, and environment. They are open to growth experiences and meaningful relationships, tolerant of risk, quick to joy and delight, and accepting and forgiving of themselves and others.

It is instructive to compare healthy self-esteem with pride and also with arrogance. If self-confidence is “I can” and self-esteem is “I am”, then pride is “I did”. To feel proud is to take pleasure from the goodness of our past actions and achievements.

Pride could not be more different from arrogance in that, if pride stems from satisfaction, arrogance stems from hunger and emptiness. Arrogance derives from the Latin rogare (ask, propose), and means ‘to claim for oneself or assume’. Arrogance does not amount to excessive self-esteem, for just as there can be no such thing as excessive physical health or excessive moral virtue, so there can be no such thing as excessive self-esteem. Instead, it betrays all the opposite.

Arrogant people require constant reassuring and bolstering both from themselves and from others, which accounts for their boastfulness, entitlement, anger, and reluctance to learn from mistakes and failures. In contrast, people with healthy self-esteem do not seek to pull themselves up by pushing others down. Instead, they are happy simply to revel in the miracle of existence, with cheerfulness, humility, and quiet action.

Just as high self-esteem does not amount to arrogance, so low self-esteem does not amount to humility. Humble people understand that there is more to life than just themselves, but that need not mean that they do not have a healthy self-regard.

Needless to say, only a minority of people with low or insecure self-esteem are arrogant: most simply suffer silently. People with low or insecure self-esteem tend to see the world as a hostile place and themselves as its victim. As a result, they are reluctant to express and assert themselves, miss out on experiences and opportunities, and feel powerless to change things. All this lowers their self-esteem still further, sucking them into a downward spiral.

Low self-esteem can be deeply rooted, with origins in traumatic childhood experiences such as prolonged separation from parent figures, neglect, or emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. In later life, self-esteem can be undermined by ill health, negative life events such as losing a job or getting divorced, deficient or frustrating relationships, and a general sense of lack of control. This sense of lack of control may be especially marked in victims of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, or victims of discrimination on the grounds of religion, culture, race, sex, or sexual orientation.

The relationship between low self-esteem and mental disorder and mental distress is very complex. Low self-esteem predisposes to mental disorder, which in turn knocks self-esteem. In some cases, low self-esteem is in itself a cardinal feature of mental disorder, as, for example, in depression or borderline personality disorder.

The Buddhist take on poor self-regard is that it is akin to a negative emotion or delusion because, if a person is not secure in himself, he is left to frantically pursue everything except what is truly important: his own growth and that of others. Moreover, his agitation is vain: it does not change the past, it does not change the future, but only makes the present miserable.

The Buddhist notion of diligence is to delight in positive deeds, and the person who does not engage in such virtuous activity is a victim of kausidya, that is, ‘laziness’ or ‘spiritual sloth’. Kausidya has three aspects: not doing something out of indolence (laziness), not doing something out of faintheartedness (poor self-regard), and seeming busy but in reality wasting time and energy on meaningless activities that will not accomplish anything in the long run (manic defence). Only when we refrain from these three aspects of kausidya are we truly diligent.

Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, seems to perfectly encapsulate the Buddhist attitude in this poem-prayer.

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in facing them.

Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain but for the heart to conquer it.

Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved but hope for the patience to win my freedom.

Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.

Aside from prayer, is there any way in which we might increase our self-esteem?

Many people find it simpler to work on their self-confidence than on their self-esteem, and end up with a long list of abilities and achievements to show for themselves. As they also depend on this list for their self-esteem, they cannot afford to look upon themselves as they truly are, with all their imperfections and failures. And so they are unable to recognize, let alone address, their real problems and limitations, and, more tragically still, to accept and love themselves as the less-than-perfect human beings that they truly are.

As anyone who has been to university knows, a long list of abilities and achievements is neither sufficient nor necessary for healthy self-esteem. While people keep on working at their list in the hope that it might one day be long enough, they try to fill the void with status, income, possessions, relationships, sex, and so on. Attack their status, criticize their car, and observe in their reaction that it is them that you attack and criticize.

Similarly, it is no good trying to pump up the self-esteem of children (and, increasingly, adults) with empty and condescending praise. No one will be fooled, least of all the children, who will feel confused if not exasperated, and be held back from the sort of endeavour from which real self-esteem may grow. And what sort of endeavour is that?

Whenever we live up to our dreams and promises, we can feel ourself growing. Whenever we fail but know that we have given our best, we can feel ourself growing. Whenever we stand up for our values and face the consequences, we can feel ourself growing. Whenever we come to terms with a difficult truth, we can feel ourself growing. Whenever we bravely live up to our ideals, we can feel ourself growing. That is what growth depends on. Growth depends on bravely living up to our ideals, not on the ideals of the bank that we work for, or our parents’ praise, or our children’s successes, or anything else that is not truly our own but, instead, a betrayal of ourself.

Socrates bravely lived up to his ideals—more than that, he bravely died for his ideals. He is notable both for what he is and what he is not. And what is he not? He is not someone who ever lost faith in the mind’s ability to think, learn, decide, and choose, that is, to apprehend and master reality. Nor is he someone who ever betrayed knowledge and integrity in favour of deception and unconsciousness. In seeking to align mind with matter, he remained faithful both to himself and to the world, and here he is today still alive in this sentence.

More than a great philosopher, Socrates was the living embodiment of the dream that philosophy might one day set us free.

The Psychology and Philosophy of Ambition

A man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions. —Marcus Aurelius

Ambition derives from the Latin ambitio, ‘a going around (to solicit votes)’, and, by extension, ‘a striving for honour, recognition, and preferment’.

Ambition can be defined as ‘a striving for some kind of achievement or distinction’. It involves, first, the desire for attainment, and, second, the motivation and determination to strive for its accomplishment even in the face of failure and adversity.

Some people achieve for the sake of achievement alone, or for the sake of developing skills and competencies, but ambitious people qua ambitious people achieve first and foremost for the sake of the rewards of achievement, such as money, honour, power, or fame, which elevate them above other people.

Ambition is often confused with aspiration. Aspiration derives from the Latin spirare, ‘to breathe’, and evokes a column of rising smoke. Unlike mere aspiration, which has for its object a particular goal, ambition (or degree and nature of ambition) is a character trait, and, as such, is persistent and pervasive. A person cannot alter his ambition any more easily than he might any other character trait: having achieved one goal, the truly ambitious person soon formulates another for which to keep on striving.

There are a number of variant conceptions of ambition. For example, in his Ethics (1677), Benedict de Spinoza remarks that ‘everyone endeavours as much as possible to make others love what he loves, and to hate what he hates’.

This effort to make everyone approve what we love or hate is in truth ambition, and so we see that each person by nature desires that other persons should live according to his way of thinking…

Ambition is often spoken of in the same breath as hope, as in ‘hopes and ambitions’. Hope is the desire for something combined with some anticipation of it happening. In contrast, ambition is the desire for attainment combined with the willingness to strive for its accomplishment. So ambition, although arguably a type of hope, is both more specific and more self-reliant than hope in general. The opposite of hope is fear, hopelessness, or despair; the opposite of ambition is simply lack of ambition, which is not per se a negative state.

Ambition is sometimes thought of as a form of greed, or the acceptable face of greed, which can be defined as the excessive desire for more than is needed or deserved. However, in contrast to greed, which limits us to its object, ambition can enable us to flourish while also contributing to the greater good. Ultimately, the difference between greed and ambition is perhaps one of emphasis, with greed being limiting or destructive and ambition constructive or life-affirming.

In Eastern traditions, ambition is reviled for tying us to worldly goods and witholding us from spiritual practice and the virtue, wisdom, and tranquillity that spiritual practice can bring. In contrast, in the West ambition is generally lauded as a pre-requisite for success, even if this has not always or unmitigatingly been the case. For instance, in the Republic (4th century BC), Plato famously argues that, because good men care nothing for avarice or ambition, they are only willing to rule if there is a penalty for refusing, with the greater part of this penalty being that they should be ruled by bad men.

The State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst… You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life… And the only life which looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of true philosophy. Do you know of any other?

Plato’s student Aristotle has a more nuanced approach to ambition. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he defines virtue as a disposition to aim at the intermediate between deficiency and excess, in other words, as a disposition to aim at the mean, which, unlike the deficiency or excess, is a form of success and worthy of praise. For example, he who flies from everything becomes a coward, while he who meets with every danger becomes rash, but courage is preserved by the mean.

Aristotle affirms that, while it is possible to fail in many ways, it is possible to succeed in one way only, which is why the one is easy and the other is difficult. By the same token, men may be bad in many ways, but good in one way only.

For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle … anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

Aristotle proceeds to list and discuss the principal virtues together with their associated vices, which correspond to the excess and deficiency of their associated virtue. In the sphere of ‘minor honour and dishonour’, he names ‘lack of ambition’ as the vicious deficiency, ‘ambition’ as the vicious excess, and ‘proper ambition’ as the virtuous mean.

Still today, people speak of ambition in the manner of Aristotle, as ‘healthy ambition’, ‘unhealthy ambition’, and lack of ambition. Healthy ambition can be understood as the measured striving for achievement or distinction; unhealthy ambition, such as, for example, the ambition of the tyrant, as the unmeasured or disordered striving for such. Healthy ambition is constructive or life-affirming, unhealthy ambition limiting or destructive and, in fact, akin to greed.

In the Politics, Aristotle advances that men’s ambition and their greed are among the most frequent causes of deliberate acts of injustice. In the Novum Organum (1620), Francis Bacon refines this thought: as long as ambitious men find the way open for their rising, they are busy rather than dangerous; but if they are checked, they ‘become secretly discontent, and look upon men and matters with an evil eye’. Bacon advises princes to exert restraint in employing ambitious people, and to handle them ‘so as they be still progressive and not retrograde’.

This touches upon an important problem with ambition: that ambitious people experience an almost constant sense of dissatisfaction coupled with frustration at resistance or failure. As with the mythological Sisyphus, there can be no end to their toils and cares. And as with the mythological Tantalus, they can never quite reach the golden fruit that can quell their hunger or the fresh water that can quench their thirst.

As part of his punishment, Tantalus also had a rock dangling over his head for all eternity. Similarly, ambitious people, in proportion to their ambition, live with failure hanging about their necks. Indeed, it is this fear of failure that checks and curtails the ambition of all but the most courageous of people.

Just as mania can end in depression, so ambition can end in despair. To live in ambition is also to live in fear and anxiety, unless, that is, ambition can be counterbalanced with gratitude. Gratitude, the feeling of appreciation for what we already have, is especially lacking in future-focused people. Yet, ambition is far more innocuous, indeed, becomes almost entertaining, if, even without it, life already seems worth living.

Another problem with ambition is that it calls for sacrifice: ambition without at least the willingness to sacrifice is not ambition but mere fantasy. Unfortunately, in many cases, the prize is not worth the sacrifice; indeed, an argument could be made that, when it comes to pure ambition, the prize is never worth the sacrifice. Fortunately, ambition is rarely pure but usually intermixed with more laudable ends, even if these may be more incidental than deliberate or determining.

In that sense, ambition is like the dangling carrot that pulls the donkey-cart. On average, ambitious people attain higher levels of education and income and have more prestigious careers, and, despite the pangs of their ambition, report higher overall life satisfaction. Of course most ambitious people fall short of their ambitions, but that still leaves them considerably ahead of their less ambitious peers.

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle says that the effect of good birth, that is, of ancestral distinction, is to make people more ambitious. He does however warn that to be wellborn is not to be noble, and that most of the wellborn are wretches nonetheless.

In the generations of men as in the fruits of the earth, there is a varying yield; now and then, where the stock is good, exceptional men are produced for a while, and then decadence sets in.

Both nature and nurture have a role to play in the development of ambition. For instance, in a family of several children, the youngest child compares himself with his older siblings and, falling short, may become highly competitive and ambitious, or, to the contrary, withdraw in the conviction that he is fundamentally inadequate.

Purely psychological factors are also very important. Ambition can be thought of as an ego defence against psychogical stress, but if a person lacks the strength or the courage to take responsibility for his actions, he may instead respond with less potentially productive forms of ego defence, for example, by deluding himself that he is a ‘team-player’ or that everything is unfair. If his ego is rather strong, he may, alternatively, become dismissive or destructive, the latter being a means both of attracting attention and of sabotaging himself.

In sum, ambition is a complex construct that is driven by a host of positive and negative factors, among which intelligence, past achievement, fear of failure or rejection, envy, anger, revenge, feelings of inferiority or superiority, competitiveness, and the instinctual drives for life and sex.

One ego defence that merits particular exploration in this context is sublimation, which is considered by many to be the most successful of all ego defences. If a person feels angry with his boss, he may go home and kick the dog, or he may instead go out and play a good game of tennis. The first instance (kicking the dog) is an example of displacement, the redirection of uncomfortable feelings towards someone or something less important, which is an immature ego defence; the second instance (playing a good game of tennis) is an example of sublimation, the channelling of uncomfortable feelings into socially condoned and often productive activities, which is a much more mature ego defence.

An example of sublimation pertinent to ambition is the person with sadistic or homicidal urges who joins the army to provide an outlet for these urges, or, like Justice John Laurence Wargrave in Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None (1939), becomes a judge who liberally awards the death penalty in murder cases. At the end of the novel, in the postscript, a fishing trawler finds a letter in a bottle just off the Devon coast. The letter contains the confession of the late Justice Wargrave in which he reveals a lifelong sadistic temperament juxtaposed with a fierce sense of justice. Though he longed to torture, terrify, and kill, he could not justify harming innocent people; so instead he became a ‘hanging judge’ and thrilled at the sight of convicted (and guilty) people trembling with fear.

Another example of sublimation pertinent to ambition is that of the middle-aged protagonist of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (1912), Gustav von Aschenbach. Aschenbach, the alter ego of Mann, is a famous writer suffering from writer’s block. While staying at the Grand Hôtel des Bains on Venice’s Lido Island, he is taken by the sight of a beautiful adolescent boy called Tadzio who is staying at the hotel with his aristocratic family. Aschenbach becomes increasingly obsessed with Tadzio, even though he never talks to him and still less touches him. Instead, he sublimes his longing, which he eventually recognizes as sexual, into his writing. Thus, in Chapter 4:

… he, in full sight of his idol and under his canvas, worked on his little treatise – those one-and-a-half pages of exquisite prose, the honesty, nobility and emotional deepness of which caused it to be much admired within a short time. It is probably better that the world knows only the result, not the conditions under which it was achieved; because knowledge of the artist’s sources of inspiration might bewilder them, drive them away and in that way nullify the effect of the excellent work.

In life, few things are either good or bad, but, rather, their good and bad depend on what we are able to make, and not make, out of them. People with a high degree of healthy ambition are those with the insight and the strength (strength that is often born of insight) not only to control but also to tap into the blind forces of ambition, to shape and mold their ambition so that it aligns with their interests and ideals and fires them without at the same time diminishing them or others. A person and the life he leads shrinks or expands into his ambition. Ambition needs to be cultivated and refined, and yet has no teachers.

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