This remarkable book is really three books, written by someone who has such an extraordinarily capacious mind that she easily examines topics in ancient, modern, and contemporary philosophy, as well as in literature, law, music, psychology, and religion. The book is a long awaited enlargement and revision of Nussbaum's earlier work, including the famous Gifford Lectures she gave in 1992-93. Her prose is lucid, at times taking on the literary form of the very people she studies. Her arguments are clear. Her organizational skills allow her to introduce lengthy discussions of quite diverse topics and still offer a coherent thesis. This book instructs and delights on nearly every page.
The first book (pp. 17-294) is Nussbaum's contribution to the developing consensus that our emotions, far from being irrational, are in fact intelligent. [Her title, taken from Proust who is prominent throughout the book, misleads by suggesting that emotions must be violent disruptions of thinking.] Emotions are judgments of value. Without them we would not be able to live humanly, since we must evaluate in order to survive and to flourish. Emotions are not just fuel for action, but a central part of moral reasoning and living. The realm of emotions, however, as Nussbaum shows, is quite complex, including general and particular emotions, background and situational emotions. She examines various theories of emotions, for example, arguing against some personalists who ignore or deny that we share many emotions with other animals. Against other theorists, she argues that human society with its norms and expectations, differentiates our emotions from those of other animals. Still our emotions are also different from those of other human beings. In addition to cultural differences, childhood experiences are one major source for this individuation of our emotional life; and Nussbaum proposes themes from contemporary developmental psychologies to explain some of what seems irrational in our emotional life. She concludes her "neo-Stoic" view of emotions with an analysis of Mahler's music, since, she holds, the arts and particularly this aesthetic form demonstrate that any account of emotions must be highly diversified and extend beyond the linguistic.
In the second book (pp. 294-454), Nussbaum extensively examines compassion. She claims that there are three objections that must be answered before accepting emotions as essential in moral analysis and moral life. First, emotions compromise our dignity as free agents since they involve neediness and since they are not in our control. Second, emotions refer to our own goals, and hence they are not impartial. Third, the moral role of emotions is ambivalent because even "good" emotions lead to undesirable emotions. For example, love tends toward resentment since we need other people and yet want to be independent of them. Although these objections are important, her answers are somewhat unpersuasive and incomplete. For example, impartiality is itself a questionable limit category that should be shown to depend on emotions. Further, the self, although affected in all emotions, may still be quite focused on others, both particular others and human beings more generally.
Nussbaum rightly proposes compassion as a politically significant emotion that enables us to expand our range of concerns beyond ourselves and to others, even those who are distant and barely knowable to us. Accordingly, she argues that each society must foster this and similar emotions through education and the arts. Society must teach an expansive compassion for fellow human beings, particularly when they are seriously harmed by lacking any of Nussbaum's well-known set of basic opportunities for human functioning.
In the third book (pp. 455-714), Nussbaum tracks one strand in the history of various explanations of love. After a chapter on Plato, Spinoza, and Proust in which she establishes an ethereal end-point for love, she devotes long chapters to Augustine the theologian, Dante the poet, Brontė the novelist, Mahler the composer, Whitman the democratic poet, and Joyce the radical novelist. Through this analysis, she charts what she calls the "Ascent of Love," although her argument in fact pleads for a descent of love from the Platonic and Christian heaven to the earth of our ordinary lives. Nussbaum suggests that a love which ascends from the mundane multiplicity of human life originally uplifted people to the good and beautiful, but she also shows how this ascent of love needed to be corrected since it tends to reject or at least neglect actual human life. She also shows how this same goal-directed ascent obscures the horizontal, intrinsic value of striving to love. At the conclusion of her historical analysis, it is clear that, for her, Joyce gets it best when he sacramentalizes the disconnected, trivial, yet realistic moments of life. Still, she concludes that no one view of love, whether ascent, striving, or descent, gets it completely right. And she opines that perhaps no one view of love will ever encompass all that is important.
For Nussbaum, real love must include reciprocity, not simply solitary self-giving or mystical climbing. Real love must not only not treat persons as mere means to some lofty goal, but must also treat them as agents who have a life beyond our beneficence. And real love must affirm not only humanity but also both the uniqueness and the relatedness of each individual. For Nussbaum, our lives are very "uneven, uncertain, and prone to reversal." Any love that cannot accommodate loss, lameness, and the chamber pot is a love that soars too far above real human beings.
There is a certain unity in the three books. The first establishes, negatively, that emotions are not irrational and, positively, that they are ingredient in any moral analysis. The second book establishes, negatively, that emotions need not limit us to concern for our own self but, positively, that one emotion, compassion, is essential for social transformation. The third book establishes that love can take us to the empyrean heights, but that, negatively, it then loses the earthlings about us. Nussbaum argues that the past two centuries have seen a positive return of love to daily life. Minimally, love now becomes the absence of hate. More comprehensively, love must be as complex as our multiple attachments in the messiness and self-transcendence of our earthly life.