I’ve produced a few podcasts and blog articles on the topic of the emotions and suffering recently. I’m aware that people are very attached to their emotions and pain, and so I’m deliberately poking the hornet’s nest to some degree. Well, I’ve decided to take some of Gurdjieff’s advice and go the whole hog including the postage.
Many people readily confuse reason with emotions. They will point to ideologies and say how our abstractions and intellectualism have caused so much suffering. In reality, however, both reason and the intellect are entirely powerless. It is the emotions where all the power lies. Hitler was said to have excited all the nasty little biases and hatreds within people who followed him. Without that soup of putrid emotions, he would have had no power, and his ideology would have been impotent.
A brief list of the emotions will show that most of them are destructive – hatred, disdain, envy, jealousy, pride, greed, fear, hope … The so-called positive emotion of love can also turn into hate with ease. Just watch a jilted lover spit venom at a person they once adored.
Any human behavior based on the emotions will be inconstant. It has to be this way because feelings are merely a passive response to the environment. As things change so do our emotions, and so you can never rely on a person who is driven by strong emotions. One minute they will be all over you like a severe rash, and the next minute they will want you hung drawn and quartered.
If we look at the suffering we impose on each other we will find emotion to be the driving engine. Religious zeal, ideological frenzy, racial hatred, and nationalism exist at the macro level. Envy and jealousy operate at the personal level, and Spinoza went as far as to suggest that envy was the default emotional state for human beings.
Contrary to the notion that it is our emotions that make us human, it is the emotions that make us inhuman. They drive all the flavors of cruelty and abuse. The person of reason is derided by people who put their emotions up on a pedestal. They portray images of geeks with no social skills and an inability to relate warmly to other human beings. Not so. Someone who is reasonable has the self-awareness to be kind and considerate even when the other party is not. Kindness, compassion, and goodwill are the children of a reason. The emotions can only operate by “like and dislike” and are unreliable and often destructive.
So it isn’t your emotions that make you human. You share your emotional nature with the animals – one minute elated and the next deflated depending on circumstances. Of course, there is nothing here that is mandatory. If you are happy to be a leaf in the wind, relying upon good or bad circumstances to determine your emotional state, then all of this will be meaningless. However if your suffering and that of others is of concern to you, then it might at least be worth considering the role of reason in life.