The Personalist Project

In a recent post at Contentions, Jennifer Rubin opines that in an effort to regain his popularity, President Obama has decided to “show some emotional connection to the American people.”

What makes this mock-worthy, of course, and also somewhat sad, is the fact that emotions cannot simply be manipulated like that. They are not at the disposal of our will. We can decide to fake them, but not to feel them. And the problem for Obama is that the difference between the two is usually pretty obvious to the onlooker. (Though Rubin brings up the interesting case of Bill Clinton whose play-acting was so convincing that he might be described as a “real phony”.)

Rubin’s post nicely illustrates something I have been reflecting on lately: namely, the mysterious fact that it is precisely the involuntariness of emotions that makes them so revealing of the person who feels them. Unlike deliberate acts of the will, which can be performed in spite of contrary habits, beliefs, and inclinations, emotions spontaneously embody and express a person the way he really is. Not the way he ought to be, or the way he wants to be, but the way he is right here and now.

Needless to say, not everything that happens in us and is involuntarily has this personalist and revelatory significance. Headaches and feelings of hunger are involuntary but can hardly be said to reveal the “real self”. What makes emotions different is that they are responses—personal, meaningful and spontaneous responses to a given reality. In an emotion, therefore, it is not just the body that is acting up, but the self. That is why a person is implicated in his anger but not in his hunger, and why he can be blamed for being aloof but not for feeling tired.

Roger Scruton has some deep insights into all this. Here is a quote from his book Sexual Desire, which makes the point well:

it would be wrong to think … that what is not voluntary is in some sense only a secondary and derivative expression of the self. On the contrary…a man is never so much represented to… another as when he blushes or laughs. The expression on a face is largely determined by involuntary movements; and yet it is the living picture of the perspective that “peers” from it, and hence the true and dominant image of the “self”.

So what happens when a person decides to emote? Even when such a decision is well-meant, the result can only be artificial. And the likelihood is that it will be perceived as such. It will look insincere. Fake. Like something designed to hide, rather than express the person behind it. Scruton gives a good example of this sort of thing:

The voluntary smile is not a smile at all, but a kind of grimace which, while it may have its own species of sincerity—as in the smile of Royalty, which as it were pays lip-service to good nature—is not esteemed as an expression of the soul. On the contrary, it is perceived as a mask, which conceals the “real being” of the person who wears it.

Now, it’s not necessarily wrong for politicians to wear a mask of the kind Scruton here describes. On the contrary, the mask can serve an entirely legitimate and even necessary function: to separate the private person from his public role, and to protect the former from being entirely absorbed into the latter. It also, and importantly, protects the objective character and dignity of the office.

But there are also masks that are less wholesome than that. There are ways of “dialing up the emotions” that are designed to flatter and manipulate, to distract and deceive, and so on.

I find myself straying from the main point I wanted to make, however, which is this: that while we normally think of free and deliberate acts as being human or personal in the most proper sense, there is every reason to think that (at least some) emotions are equally characteristic of and central to our personhood. No one, to my knowledge, has understood this better or analyzed it more clearly than Dietrich von Hildebrand (see especially chapter 8 of The Heart), who connects this truth with the fact that man is a created person, which means that the deeper depths of his own being way outstrip the limits of his self-possession:

Typical of man’s createdness is the existence of a depth dimension of his soul which does not fall under his mastery as do his volitional acts. Man is greater and deeper than the range of things he can control with his free will; his being reaches into mysterious deeps which go far beyond what he can engender or create.

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Comments (2)


#1, Sep 18, 2010 4:27am


One of the most insightful commentaries I’ve come across anywhere on the relationship between the core of a person’s being, and the people and things that generate a reflexive emotional response within them.

To paraphrase another author whom it might be scandalous to cite directly here: “Show me the woman that a man truly can say he loves, and I will show you the essence of the man himself.”

So it is with everything.  Among my favorite things, there are many that I prefer to experience in private, some as simple as Luke 15:11-32, because my involuntary reaction to them tells far more about me than I am comfortable revealing in public.

One of the great tragedies of adulthood is that “virtue” in the public sphere seems to require of us that we mask our innate reactions toward that which causes us to rejoice.  As always, the problem with beauty is not finding it, but bearing it, especially with an outward appearance of stoic indifference.

It’s not an original thought, but I’ve often argued that it’s not what or who we are like, but rather what and who we like, that conveys who we really are as human persons.  By “like” I mean that, or whom, to which we are involuntarily drawn - and to which we respond with an almost instinctive, unconcealable outpouring of gladness or joy - as you suggest above.

The same could be said about that which repels us, and what it says about who we essentially are, but I would prefer to dwell on the positive.

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Sep 18, 2010 5:27am

Thanks LHB.  I’ve had great teachers.

The last part of your comment reminds me of one of them, Alice von Hildebrand.  Years ago, when Katie and I began dating, she advised us to emphasize what she called the “we-communion”: a way of being together in which the focus is not on each-other, but on something else of value—a play, a piece of music, beautiful scenery, a family dinner, etc.  This, she explained, would enable us to get to know each other indirectly but well, and in a very natural, un-pressured way, through observing one another’s responses to the things we were doing or seeing.

Great advice, for more reasons than just this one.  It contrasted sharply with what we saw many around us do: talk directly to each other about themselves, what their priorities were, their views about marriage, the roles of husband and wife, how many children, etc.  Some of this is well and good.  But for the most part, it assumes a degree of self-knowledge and honesty that is utterly unrealistic, especially at a young age

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