sentimentalismRuth was one of those people about whom C.S.Lewis quipped “She was always living for others—and you could tell the “others” by their hunted look. “Just as nice as could be”, Ruth was often as nasty as could be.

Ruth was a little tyrant because she believed her mission in life was to be nice and helpful. She chose her victims, I mean her “charity cases”, based on her subjective feelings. Old Mr. Livealone must be a lonely person who needed cheering up so it was Ruth’s mission to “bring him out of himself.” The single mother with a gaggle of kids and questionable other bed occupants must be miserable and in need of moral and social reform, so Ruth was the person to bring hope and change. The people at the local soup kitchen were clearly in need of not only a good hot meal, but a good hot bath, a job, and some stern advice from Ruth. 

“Ruth or ruthless?” someone asked. At which point another neighbor joked, “On the whole, I’d rather be Ruth-less.”

Sentimentalism is the tyrannical tendency in both personal and social life to decide one’s position and determine one’s actions based on subjective sentiments alone. Without any other anchor, individual sentiments are unpredictable, inconsistent, and ultimately tyrannical masters.

Sentiment is based in human feelings and the most base level of human feelings we might call “emotion” for want of a better term. “Emotion” is the raw product. It is the animal instinct—the wordless gut feeling—the surge of rage or the lift of love. It is the nameless chthonic feeling itself—the low of loneliness and the exhilaration of ecstasy. It is the instantaneous instinct of fight or flight. Emotion is completely irrational, nameless, and inarticulate. It simply is. The person who lives in constant reaction to basic emotion is immature, unstable, unpredictable, and dangerous.

The second level of human feelings we might call “sentiment”. These are emotions that have been educated—but not very well. Sentimentality is raw emotion recognized, expressed, and articulated. Let us say there is a vile injustice. The person ruled by the emotion of rage may throw a fit and throw a bomb. The person ruled by sentiment says calmly, “I feel deep concern over the injustice that we have experienced, and I would like to discuss the matter.” Sentimentality seems to express emotion when, in fact, it more often masks emotion.

Sentimentality is emotion that has been educated by shallow educational principles, ill thought out parental controls, social expectations, peer pressure, the popular press, and the opinions and common assumptions of the day. It is this sentimentalism which has become a form of dictatorship in personal relationships and society. It is what drove Ruth to be “nice” to those she considered “not nice” and it is sentimentalism which drives not only small scale personal choices, but large scale economic and political decisions.

In the absence of any greater philosophy or authority, politically correct ideologies are driven by the desire simply to be nice, to never offend and so bring about a pleasant, bland, and hedonistic society. Society must have rules, and since sentimentality recognizes no greater principles the resulting rules will be simplistic, arbitrary and irrational. So, for example, it will be assumed that all immigrants or members of minority groups are poor, downtrodden, innocent dupes of cruel overlords or those who make deviant sexual choices are automatically oppressed and persecuted victims. Any attempt to reason with those driven be sentimentality will be vain for sentimentality is not rooted in reason.

When sentimentality becomes part of a larger ideology the result is truly ruthless. The sympathetic sentimentalist will soon become a warrior campaigner, charging in like a threatened she-bear to right all wrongs and rescue all victims. In their crusade they will run roughshod over all opposition and believe themselves righteous for doing so.

Shall we have a world without brute emotion and tyrannical sentimentalism? Shall we be cool, rational and objective creatures—Vulcan tin men with no heart? No. There is a third category of feelings which we might term “passion”. If “emotion” is the raw feeling and “sentimentality” is the poorly formed popular expression of emotion, then “passion” is a term for the human emotions that are properly formed by the great tradition.

In The Abolition of Man  C.S. Lewis argues for what the Chinese call the Tao—a way of wisdom that is above all cultural and temporal determinants. Quoting Plato, Lewis says, “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting and hateful.”  Lewis argues that this need to conform one’s emotions and tastes to a greater standard of what is beautiful, good, and true is universal, “In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta—that great ritual or pattern of nature and super nature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta is constantly identified with satya or truth—which corresponds to reality.”

Lewis goes on to give examples of the Tao and says it is this universal and objective standard for what is beautiful, good, and true which must inform emotion—lifting it past mere sentimentality to passion. Passion is the proper love for all things in their proper place. Emotions educated into “passion” provide the proper motor for noble decisions and determined actions.

A modern scientifically based education prizes objectivity and the scientific method, but the role of education is not to remove all emotion or sentimentality from human life, but to form the emotions to discern the truth, understand the roots of goodness, and love all things according to their worth. Passion is therefore emotion properly educated and channelled. Passion drives the person to accomplish great things and live a great life with energy and zeal but also with truth and integrity.

Passionate people will  form a properly passionate society. One where Truth is lived, Beauty is loved, and Goodness is valued.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. A few parts and ideas of this article were previously published in St Austin Review.

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