At a glamorous event in December at the New York Public Library in Manhattan, an international who’s who—Princess Beatrice of York, model Karlie Kloss, David Rockefeller, Wendi Deng Murdoch and Kerry Kennedy among them—gathered to honor the closest thing philosophy has to a rock star: Martha Nussbaum. The elegant source of their admiration was being celebrated at the third annual Berggruen Prize Gala; the award, which includes a $1 million endowment, is given to “thinkers whose ideas have helped us find direction, wisdom, and improved self-understanding in a world being rapidly transformed by profound social, technological, political, cultural, and economic change.”
The 71-year-old Nussbaum, a moral philosopher and law professor at the University of Chicago, is passionately concerned with justice and how it affects the personal and political. But her interest goes beyond the theoretical; she is committed to using philosophy to improve the very vocabulary of public discourse. Nussbaum has written five major books dedicated to this. The most recent, The Monarchy of Fear, is an engaging consideration of our current political crisis from the perspective of emotion—how anger, disgust and envy have been used, since antiquity, to divide people.
Nussbaum disproves the dig on modern academics—that they live above the political fray, in ivory towers—perhaps because she takes her cues from the OGs of philosophy. “The great thinkers of the ancient tradition were not detached from political issues,” she says. “Seneca was regent of the Roman Emperor Nero, and he was trying to curb him from doing terrible things. There was no escaping political reality.”
Fear has dominated political conversation in the U.S. for a lot longer than Donald Trump has been president. But the noise of it has grown deafening and debilitating in the past two years. Though Nussbaum is certainly adept at putting fear in context, as well as articulating how it is used for political strategy and to justify rage, she—and we—are equally interested in how to move beyond it. With hate crimes on the rise and talk of impeachment everywhere, there is perhaps no more pressing concern. Below, a conversation on how to “purify” anger and find hope in the Trump era.
In Monarchy of Fear, you write of the epiphany you had on the night Trump was elected president in 2016.
I was in Japan, isolated from my friends and unable to express my upset and fear in the usual way—by talking to and hugging them. There was this churning of panic as the news came in. I already knew the electorate was divided, so why was I so terrified? I realized people were feeling that way all over the place. Some fear can be good, but this was a seething current of emotion preventing people from getting together and talking to each other about what we should do to fix the nation’s problems.
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