Professor Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher known around the world, traveled to Italy to give the keynote speech at an annual event hosted by the publishing house Il Mulino, which has long published Italian translations of her books. Nussbaum spoke before Italian politicians and dignitaries about the importance of emotions in politics.
Nussbaum’s speech, on December 14 at Santa Lucia in Bologna, was attended by former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, Minister of Economy and Finance Fabrizio Saccomanni, and Ignazio Visco, the Governor of the Bank of Italy. Other government officials and Ivano Dionigi, the rector of the University of Bologna, also attended, part of an audience of about 700.
Nussbaum reminded the audience of the ideas of the great Italian nationalist and patriot Giuseppe Mazzini, who believed that the narrowness and selfishness of most people needed to be counteracted by a public cultivation of patriotic sentiment connected to ideas of social justice and the common good. Otherwise, difficult projects requiring the sacrifice of self-interest would lack the support they need to be enacted and to remain stable. She illustrated this idea by examining the use of an idea of national goals and ideals by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., in struggling against American racism. She reminded them, too, of the fact that Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, who was born 200 years ago this year, thought that his music gave powerful support to projects of social justice through the emotions it inspired.
These themes are prominent in Nussbaum’s new book, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, which Il Mulino will publish in Italian this spring. (Harvard University Press is the American publisher.) In that work, Nussbaum examines a variety of philosophical proposals for a “religion of humanity” such as those of John Stuart Mill, Auguste Combe, and Rabindranath Tagore, and argues that we need to redo their projects because they were based on an inadequate grasp of human psychology. But once we do that, she writes, we can propose a public cultivation of emotions for the benefit of the public good through political rhetoric, architecture, memorials, and, in general, the public use of the arts. She develops this idea through numerous examples from the history of the U.S. and India.
"I was deeply honored to give the Il Mulino lecture. For over sixty years, this publishing house has upheld the highest standards of commitment to public discussion, and it is a tribute to the Italian media culture that so many journalists and public figures want to attend an event in their honor,” Nussbaum said. “I was so impressed by the commitment and sophistication of the journalists who interviewed me, and I kept wishing that public political culture in the U.S. was like that, so interested in debating theoretical ideas at a high level and in a very public way."
Before speaking in Italy, Nussbaum spent a week in Frankfurt, Germany, giving the Dagmar Westberg Lectures, three lectures on the same theme of emotions in politics. She spoke at the University of Frankfurt, and she met 99-year-old Dagmar Westberg, who told Nussbaum her remarkable life story. Westberg grew up the half-Jewish daughter of a wealthy industrialist in Hamburg, and she managed to stay in Germany during World War II on account of her family’s influence and money. But she chose to devote that some of that money to supporting the humanities and theories of justice. Nussbaum said later she was truly inspired by the meeting.