The philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum wants Americans to get in touch with their feelings; not in a fit of self-indulgence but as a righteous act of civic duty. In “The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis,” she writes against a (mostly male) tradition of philosophical and political thinking that minimizes emotions as merely a source of irrationality and embarrassment.
With more than two dozen books to her name, Nussbaum has been here before. Her ample body of work casts feelings as not just worthy of study but essential for understanding our political selves.
But the 2016 presidential election made her realize she “hadn’t gone deep enough.” A self-described “liberal social democrat,” she was so shaken by Donald J. Trump’s victory — having been “reasonably confident that appeals to fear and anger would be repudiated” — that she felt an overwhelming sensation of alarm. She believed fear was what had gotten Trump elected, and here she was, so scared that she was momentarily incapable of being “balanced or fair-minded”: “I was part of the problem that I worried about.”
An elegant and precise stylist, Nussbaum has always seemed a peculiar spokeswoman for bringing unruly emotions into the fold. She writes about gut feelings like envy and disgust with an air of serene lucidity. In “The Monarchy of Fear,” she insinuates that her postelection alarm felt not just uncomfortable but alien to her. She has spent decades parsing the role of negative emotions while resisting their seductive pull. Even her brush with political anxiety in 2016 lasted less than 24 hours. Once she realized she might be able to wring some insight from upheaval, she “went back to sleep with a calming sense of hope.”
Since we’re talking about feelings, I’ll confess to experiencing pinpricks of irritation when I came across that self-satisfied line, which appears on the second page of Nussbaum’s preface, before she has even started to make her argument. But one of the virtues of this slender volume is how gradually and scrupulously it moves, as Nussbaum pushes you to slow down, think harder and revisit your knee-jerk assumptions.
She’s transparent about her beliefs and her background, describing her cosseted upbringing in Philadelphia as “fairly affluent” (and her father, whom she loved and eventually rebelled against, as racist, sexist and anti-Semitic). She admits that her “highly privileged life” as a celebrated academic affords her the luxury of contemplating at leisure what plenty of people are experiencing as a national emergency. Nussbaum might live differently than most Americans do, but she wants to put that remove to good use. Where other members of the elite might flee or close ranks, she insists on…