Emotions in the classroom: An invitation to teachers

The Living With Feeling project at QMUL is seeking partner schools and teachers to work with, to promote the emotional health of primary and secondary schoolchildren.


Monday 22nd July 2019 Workshop, OR

Tuesday 13th August 2019 Workshop


The emotional health of pupils is an increasingly important concern for both primary and secondary schools in the UK, and the ‘Living With Feeling’ project is offering a free workshop and free educational resources to support teachers delivering lessons in this area. This is a call for interested teachers to get in touch with us.

We are a Wellcome Trust funded humanities research project at Queen Mary University of London, led by Professor Thomas Dixon at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, exploring emotional health in history, philosophy and experience.

The new Ofsted Inspection Framework 2019 will include a new judgement category of ‘personal development’, which refers to the importance of character and resilience, while emotions and emotional well-being remain central topics in relationships and sex education and health education.

Statutory guidance mandates teaching the links between physical and mental health; exploring what constitutes a ‘normal’ emotional range; and developing children’s emotional literacy and emotional vocabulary. There is particular attention to the effects of loneliness and isolation.

The project will be working with primary and secondary schools, supporting teachers in the design and delivery of learning materials and activities relating to emotions, emotional literacy, and emotional health.

We are offering free full-day workshops for teachers during July and August 2019, with a view to developing a series of resources, tailored to specific schools and age ranges, to be used to deliver lessons on emotions and emotional health between September 2019 and June 2020, in the first instance, and with plans to extend the project in future years and at other schools.

Our activities will draw on the project’s historical research into areas including:

  • Anger and how to talk about it
  • Friendship and love
  • Tears, crying, pain and sadness
  • Gender stereotypes and emotions
  • Emotions in animals and humans (including the evolution of emotional expressions and the work of Charles Darwin)
  • Philosophies of emotion, including ideas about Stoicism
  • Compassion, sympathy, and altruism


  • To enrich children’s emotional vocabulary and to support them in learning to talk about their feelings, with a view to improving their emotional health and well-being.
  • To open up historically and culturally informed views of emotion rather than putting forward a narrow, restrictive vision of a few emotional states as ‘universal’.
  • To avoid being prescriptive about what emotions are normal and to respond to and be guided by children’s own experiences and ideas.
  • To support children in extending their emotional vocabularies and learning different philosophies of emotion and emotional health.

Target audience: Teachers with responsibility for PSHE and related provision in primary and secondary schools in the UK; teachers with interest in delivering lessons about emotions in other parts of the curriculum.

Previous work with schools:

  • The project’s Principal Investigator, Thomas Dixon, previously delivered a series of educational activities at Osmani Primary School, Tower Hamlets.
  • In an exercise called ‘What Are They Feeling?’, historical images were used to promote discussion about feelings, emotion, and expression, across cultures and over time.
  • The activity was conducted in the classroom in small groups and 1:1 situations, and was repeated by the students themselves, in the playground and with their parents.
  • This was not a quiz with ‘right’ answers, where children tried to guess the original historical feeling terms. Instead, they were encouraged to respond imaginatively to the images in their own words.
  • The activity was led by the children’s own experiences and vocabularies.
  • It demonstrated the children’s rich emotional repertoire. They generated over 150 different ‘feeling’ terms, from bodily sensations to moral characteristics.
  • The activity showed how we read emotional expressions not in isolation, but in specific contexts. Some of the children constructed narratives around the images.
  • Discussion ranged from whether animals had the same sorts of feelings as humans, to what situations made the children cry. The children reflected on national and gender stereotypes.

Our offer to schools in 2019-20:

To support the design, planning and delivery of PSHE (and other) lessons on emotions and emotional health, drawing on historical research and ideas.  This may include:

  • a talk from an historian on the project;
  • activity worksheets using historical images;
  • explanations of the science of emotions, especially Charles Darwin’s work and his book on the expression of emotions;
  • an online game using historical images;
  • the use of our specially produced radio dramas with lesson plans;
  • art and/or stop-motion animation class to depict emotional expressions;
  • facilitated discussions about how emotions differ across cultures and over time.

For a taster of what we do:


Monday 22nd July 2019 Workshop, OR

Tuesday 13th August 2019 Workshop

Should universities teach well-being? (audio of panel event)

This is a recording of a May 2019 panel discussion at Queen Mary, University of London, on the question ‘should universities teach well-being?’

There is, apparently, a mental health crisis in higher education. Student referrals for counselling are soaring, and according to one study, 40% of PhDs are depressed or anxious. Students in Bristol took to the streets to demand better mental health services, while the universities minister declared the purpose of universities should no longer just be knowledge, but also well-being. What are universities’ responsibilities in this area? What should students expect and demand? Can universities teach wellbeing, and what is the role of the arts and humanities in this endeavour? You can also download this from the Centre’s podcast on iTunes, here.

Dr Tiffany Watt Smith, QMUL Drama (Chair)
Shamima Akter, QMSU Vice President Welfare
Prof Kam Bhui, QMUL Head of Centre for Psychiatry and Deputy Director of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine at Barts and The London
Jules Evans, QMUL Centre for the History of Emotions
Kevin Halon, QMUL Counselling Manager
Niall Morrissey, QMUL Mental Health Co-ordinator
Dr Ruth Fletcher, QMUL senior lecturer in medical law

You are not your brain

William M. Reddy is William T. Laprade Professor Emeritus of History and Professor Emeritus of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. His many scholarly contributions to the history of emotions include The Navigation of Feeling (2001) and The Making of Romantic Love (2012). He is co-editor of the book series Palgrave Studies in the History of Emotions.

In this post for the History of Emotions Blog, Professor Reddy uses his own personal experience to shed some critical light on the idea that your brain can make you do things.

You are not your brain. This is not a point about whether or not you have a “soul,” or whether your “mind” somehow operates independently in a place outside your head. This is a completely down-to-earth, obvious, objective fact.

Continue reading

Did Aldous Huxley invent the history of emotions? Sort of, yes

I’m researching a book about Aldous Huxley and his friends Alan Watts, Christopher Isherwood and Gerald Heard, and how these four posh Brits moved to California and helped to invent the modern culture of ‘spiritual but not religious’.

Of the four, Huxley is my favourite. My last book, The Art of Losing Control, owes him a profound debt. Writing a biography of someone is a bit like moving in with them – you start to notice all their annoying habits. Huxley definitely has some but, having now read pretty much everything he’s written, I can still say he’s a truly great thinker.

I think his greatest claim to fame is his analysis of humans’ urge to self-transcendence. I’ve read a lot of people on this topic – William James, Ken Wilber, Emile Durkheim, the great mystics. Huxley is the greatest analyst I know of this central domain of human experience.

He took from William James and his friend FWH Myers the idea that the conscious ego is just an island on top of a much larger ocean of human personality. There is also a ‘subliminal self’ which we carry around with us, which occasionally intervenes into our awareness. There’s all kinds of junk down there but – as Myers was the first to claim – there are also latent powers of healing and inspiration. At the deepest level, Myers suggested (and James and Huxley agreed), the not-self of the subliminal mind merges into the Atman, super-consciousness, Mind-at-large.

Huxley insisted – decades before Abraham Maslow – that humans have a ‘basic drive to self-transcendence’. We exist in our small, conditioned, utilitarian egos, cut off from our deeper selves, but it’s boring and claustrophobic in there, and we long for a holiday. Maybe the soul in us yearns to get out of the cocoon and unfold our wings.

Huxley’s genius was to appreciate all the different ways humans seek these holidays from the self: alcohol, drugs, dancing, art, reading, hobbies, sex, crowds, rallies, war. Having tried to cover this enormous terrain myself, I can tell you that no one else comes close in terms of having a bird’s eye view of the landscape. James, for example, only analysed ‘religious experiences’, which he defines as man’s solitary encounters with the divine. This is just a tiny corner of the field that Huxley covers – it doesn’t even take account of collective religious experiences, let alone all the transcendent experiences that humans have which don’t explicitly involve God.

Huxley also brought an acute historical analysis to the topic. He was an early pioneer of the history of the emotions, and the history of medicine – I could make a case that he actually invents the history of the emotions, with his essay on accidie in 1923 * . He suggested that, while humans have basic drives, such as the drive to self-transcendence, those drives take different forms depending on a person’s temperament, physique and culture.

He argued – and this was one of the principal themes of my book The Art of Losing Control – that mystical transcendence had been marginalized and pathologized in western culture, starting from around the Reformation. It became embarrassing and ridiculous to admit to the sorts of mystical experiences which were highly valued in medieval culture. ‘We keep them to ourselves for fear of being sent to the psychoanalyst’, he said.

Lacking in role models or institutions for genuine mystical transcendence, western culture instead offers us what Huxley called ‘ersatz spirituality’ – package holidays from the self, such as consumerism, gadget-idolatry, booze, casual sex, and nationalism, which Huxley thought was the dominant religion of the 19th and 20th centuries (it’s returned with a vengeance in the 21st century).

What’s the solution? Rather than preaching a return to Christian orthodoxy, as TS Eliot, WH Auden or CS Lewis did, Huxley beat out a new path, which has proved much more influential in western culture: learn spiritual practices from the world’s religious traditions, test them out using empirical psychology, and find the ones that work for you.

He outlined this approach in his 1946 anthology, The Perennial Philosophy. I’ve loved this book since I was a teenager (I still have the copy I stole from the school library). It first introduced me to the likes of Rumi, Traherne, Chuang Tzu, Hakuin and Meister Eckhart, and helped me realize how much the world’s wisdom traditions share. But now I can see its flaws.

This was a book born out of historical despair. Huxley had played a central role in the British anti-war movement, and then abruptly abandoned it in 1937 to move to the US, ending up living with his wife in a hut in the Mojave desert. He thought western civilization was heading for destruction, and that literally our only hope was for a handful of people to dedicate themselves to mysticism at the margins of the general awfulness, like the Essenes seeking gnosis in the desert.

The only hope was if the Perennial Philosophy became generally recognized and embraced by humanity. He insisted the world’s great mystics all agreed on all the core points. But this was an argument born more of political despair than calm scholarship. It over-emphasized the extent to which mystics of different traditions agreed. And it ended up ranking mystical experience – only emotionless encounters with a formless, imageless divine are ‘true mysticism’, while any encounters with the divine in a particular form are considered second-rate.

You can understand how this is important to Huxley’s political dreams (humans fight over particular forms of the divine, so it’s better if we all meet in the Clear Light). But it’s pretty outrageous for him, a new convert to mysticism with hardly any practical experience, to lay down the law as to what is or isn’t a genuine encounter with the divine. How the hell does he know?

There’s an obvious anti-Abrahamic and pro-Hindu/Buddhist bias in his vision. He hates any religions that are time-based (ie with a historical vision), and thinks Buddhism and Hinduism are more tolerant because they’re more focused on the ‘eternal now’. Odd to argue for Hindu tolerance at the precise moment millions of Hindus and Muslims were massacring each other during the Partition.

But in more practical terms, it’s a very lonely, intellectual and bookish sort of spirituality that he offers (that must be why it appealed to me). There’s no mention of the role of community, or elders, or collective rituals. Just the intellectual and his books in the desert. ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’.

And it’s a hard path. Huxley, in effect, says that the only possible route for humanity is straight up a sheer cliff face. Anyone can be a mystic, he says. You just need to be completely detached from all worldly things and totally focused on the divine. No biggie.

It turned out to be very difficult. He suffered several hard years of failure and self-disgust, during which he wrote Ape and Essence, his most horrible and despairing book. He admitted at the end of his life that he’d never had a mystical experience. God will not be rushed.

But by the 1950s, he’d relaxed, and moved into his mature spirituality. Rather than insisting on the sheer cliff face of ascetic mysticism as the only route to salvation, Huxley accepted there were lots of practices one could do here in this world to make yourself healthier and happier on your long, multi-life journey to enlightenment.

He understood more and more the importance of the body to well-being and realization, and was an early supporter of gestalt therapy, the Alexander technique and hatha yoga. He finally found a place for sex in his spirituality – Island includes elements of Tantric practice. He also found a new appreciation for ecstatic dance – notice the children in his utopia, Island, practice ecstatic dance to ease themselves of anxiety. This was a decade before Gabrielle Roth developed 5Rhythms at Esalen. It’s a pity we never got to hear his thoughts on Beatlemania – they were certainly into him, and put him on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s.

He was also a big fan of hypnosis, and taught himself to be a hypnotist (his friend Igor Stravinsky claimed Huxley was a healer, and had cured him of insomnia). And, of course, he discovered that psychedelics offered a short-cut to temporary ego-dissolution. Those were the only times he ever really got a glimpse of the divine – when he was high.

It was tremendously shocking that this great English man of letters should preach the chemical path to liberation. But Huxley quite rightly pointed out that humans have been using psycho-active plants for religious rituals for several millennia. Other spiritual exercises rely on alterations in body chemistry, such as chanting, fasting or flagellation. That an alteration in body-chemistry is the means to a spiritual experience doesn’t mean that experience is only bio-chemical.

In the last decade of his life, the disgusted prophet of the desert became an unlikely hit on American campuses, lecturing to thousands of students at a time on visionary experience and integral education. This is his second great claim-to-fame. He had a vision that universities could offer an integral education which avoided over-specialization and over-intellectualization, and which instead educated the whole person – their body, their subliminal mind, their intellect, their social and political self, their relationship to nature, and their higher consciousness.

That vision of education proved hugely popular with baby-boomers, and yet somehow – such is the inertia of the university system – it’s had very little impact on what universities offer in the sixty years since then. They still offer the same over-specialized and totally intellectual learning experiences to undergrads, alas. His vision was, however, a defining influence on alternative colleges like Esalen, the Garrison Institute, CIIS and Schumacher College.

Today, we are all Huxley’s children. The ‘spiritual but not religious’ demographic is the fastest growing in the US. Contemplation has enjoyed its biggest revival since the Reformation. We are all influenced by ‘empirical spirituality’ like the science of mindfulness. Most westerners say they’ve had a mystical experience. And the psychedelic renaissance that Huxley called for 60 years ago may finally be happening.

* As to Huxley inventing the history of the emotions – his 1923 essay on accidie was decades before Lucien Febvre’s 1941 article calling for a history of emotions. He also wrote a ‘History of Some Fashions in Love‘ in 1924. Huxley argued in Ends and Means (1937) that humans’ basic drives take different forms or ‘canals’ during different eras in history. His historical novel Grey Eminence (1941) analysed the history of western meditation, and drew heavily on Bremond’s Literary History of Religious Sentiments in France, which was a principle inspiration for Febvre as well – so it’s interesting to ponder whether Grey Eminence was a direct influence on Febvre’s idea. We know at least it was read and reviewed in the 1945 edition of Annals of Social History, which Febvre edited. Febvre and Huxley’s brother Julian later fell out over UNESCO’s grand ‘history of humanity’ project, but that’s another story. 

But it’s Huxley’s Devils of Loudun (1952) which to my mind is Huxley’s greatest work of history of the emotions. It’s fascinating in its historical analysis of possessions, witchcraft, and how changing attitudes altered how people perceived and experienced ecstatic phenomena. He notes, for example, that by the Victorian era possession by demons has more or less disappeared, while possession by dead souls became more common. And he notes that by the 20th century, people have started to report being possessed by machines, particularly radios. Devils also has an extraordinary footnote on the clystère or enema-pump as a medical procedure for melancholy and exorcisms, and how it entered the West’s pornographic imagination as a result. You can see it in the bottom-right of Durer’s famous engraving Melancholia, below. He also mentions a painting of a clystere procedure by Boucher, although I haven’t been able to identify this. 

Later in his career, Huxley wrote essays on the history of tension, and on the history of visionary experience and artistic culture (that essay, later published as Heaven and Hell, is unsurpassed as an analysis of the arts and ecstatic experience). He was uniquely well-placed to develop this sort of interdisciplinary endeavour, and was an early pioneer of the medical humanities, popping up to give historical and philosophical speeches at medical conferences in the 1950s and 1960s (his speech on the history of tension was given at a conference on tranquiizers). His ability to act as a ‘pontifex’ or bridge-builder between the sciences and humanities had a profound influence on psychedelic science – thanks to him, early researchers like Humphrey Osmond and Timothy Leary came to interpret psychedelics through the lens of mystical experience. 

Did Aldous Huxley invent the history of emotions? Many more traditional historians could lay a claim as well – Huizinga, Elias, Febvre, Norman Cohn. But Huxley deserves to be mentioned in the history of the history of emotions as well. 

Durer’s Melancholia, with the clystere in the bottom right corner


Euphoria: A Very Brief History

Dr Christopher Milnes is an early career scholar and history tutor based in London.  His book ‘A History of Euphoria: The Perception and Misperception of Health and Well-Being’ was published with Routledge in January 2019.


The history of euphoria reflects a great deal about the human experience.  This is a word that has belonged both to health and to sickness and which has emerged at times of both sadness and joy.  It is also part of the history of ignorance and knowledge.  What I particularly like about euphoria, however, is its breadth of meanings as well as its capacity to sometimes mean nothing very much at all – or, at least, nothing that probably does not already have a much better, more widely known name perfectly suited to it.

In Ancient Greece, to perceive the quality of euphoros (εὔφορος) in a person or a thing was to recognise the ability of that person or that thing to bear or carry something well.  The root euphoros and the words that came from it combined the Greek for ‘well’ and ‘bearing’ – eu (εύ) and pherein (φέρω).  This ability to bear or carry well could be understood in a literal or a more abstract sense.  People who danced beautifully might be thought to carry the different parts of their bodies well.  Ships that safely carried their cargoes could also be judged in this way.  Things easy to carry or wear or manageable and light, qualities of richness and manliness, a ready tongue, an ease of ability.  Abundantly fertile animals and plants.  All could have euphoros.[i]

Had it not been for the emergence of Neo-Latin in the early modern period, it is unlikely euphoros words would have entered most European vernacular languages.  Indeed, at first there was apparently little use for them.  English translations of the New Testament (originally in Greek) transformed the euphoreo of the rich fool’s fertile fields into variations on ‘brought forth plentifully’ – following the preference of earlier Latin translators for a wholly different phrase (in the Latin, uberes fructus ager adtulit).  Still, euphoros – or, rather, one of its relatives – seems to have eventually captured the attention of learned European physicians, some of whom would have read the now more widely available Greek medical texts such as the Hippocratic De fracturis, in which euphoria describes patients’ abilities to recover from their injuries:

Modes of treatment and peculiarity of constitution make a great difference as to the capability of enduring such an injury. And it makes a great difference if the bones of the arm and of the thigh protrude to the inside; for there are many and important vessels situated there…[ii]  [my italics – indicating the translation of euphoria]

When reading documents such as these, early modern European physicians would have sometimes wondered if euphoria might not be handy as a term in itself.  Whether this has ever actually been the case is debatable.  Certainly, since its first discernible emergence in the English language in the seventeenth century, euphoria (or ‘euphory’) has been so little understood it has frequently required some form of accompanying definition.  For instance, in 1684 readers of the English translation of Genevan physician Théophile Bonet (1620-1689)’s Mercurius Compitalitius were advised that ‘the most certain rule for the quantity [of mineral waters] is the Euphory, or well bearing, when the Stomach dispenses well with it…’ (Bonet 1684, 674).  I am sometimes left wondering why people bothered with this word at all.  Indeed, some writers have even occasionally expressed a degree of irritation at their contemporaries’ employment of such an unnecessary term.  The British Medical Journal complained in 1905, for example, that: ‘a Paris professor not long ago informed his hearers that ‘the cessation of the hyperthermia determines a remarkable euphoria’; would he have been less enlightening if he had said that when the fever abated the patient felt much better?’ (Style in Medical Writings 1905, 1342).

Physicians and indeed laymen did not commonly employ this word prior to the twentieth century.  Nevertheless, where it does emerge in texts from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, euphoria usually names the experience or observation of improving or recovering health, and/or of everyday health and/or of perfect health.  Here, qualities thought to belong to health – such as pleasure, strength and ease– were perceived, named euphoria and held up an indication that health was indeed to some degree present in the patient.  Euphoria could be a feeling of health but it might also be less of a feeling and more an observable healthy action or behaviour: Bonet’s Mercurius Compitalitius appears to describe not a feeling but a state of good urination following the efficacious imbibing of mineral water.

The various meanings of euphoria across the centuries remind me of how much meaning can be shaped by context.  They also reflect what appears to be a fairly consistent desire to believe that health is a perceptible truth, and that the presence of health in both self and others is something that can sometimes be perceived with confidence.  Euphoria in European medical history is part of what appears to be an abiding wish – and one that probably extends far beyond the history of this word – to occasionally tell oneself that there is no longer any need to worry.  Everything, for the time being, is okay.  Health is here.  For most people, a simple statement such as ‘I am well’ or ‘he is a little better’ has been sufficient.  But for roughly three hundred years ‘euphoria’ was sometimes an option for European physicians who liked that sort of thing.  It was probably unique in most European languages for this ability to combine – in a single word – the cherished idea of people confidently perceiving health in their bodies or the bodies of other people.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, euphoria also began to name sickly experiences of health and wellbeing – largely in the fields of psychiatric and pharmacological research, and probably at first in German-speaking countries (Euphorie).  This sickly euphoria could sometimes be thought of as a more overwhelming experience than healthy euphoria – but not always.  The French physician Charles Féré (1852-1907) used euphorie to describe sickly experiences of varying strengths, from the intensely felt ‘euphoric crises’ of epileptics to the ‘general sensation of euphoria, of general well-being’ he claimed could sometimes be found in hysterics (Féré 1892, 190, 306).[iii]  The idea that sick people could misperceive their own degree of health was hardly new (although how much it was acknowledged in the past, or indeed in the present day, is difficult to know).  Neither was the conviction of the ‘experts’ that such misperceptions could almost always be distinguished from the ‘true’ perception of health by a sane, intelligent observer.  Euphoria became part of this history.  An identification of euphoria – even when it named a health delusion – continued to reflect the supreme confidence of the person making the identification.  There was little room for ambiguity.

Euphoria remains a medical term in the present day.  Now, it is probably a little more common for the people who use this word to question its meanings and, consequently, its value as a medical term.  In the treatment of multiple sclerosis it is sometimes pointed out that the way in which practitioners define ‘euphoria’ can significantly change the extent to which the emotions and behaviours of sufferers are pathologized and framed as an aspect of the condition.  In wider western culture, the meaning and value of this word is rarely questioned.  Here, euphoria can mean any number of things.  Often, however, euphoria now gives a name to shared hubristic enthusiasm.  ‘But this euphoria was not to last’ has become something of a ubiquitous tautology.  And still it is sometimes possible to sense the judgemental gaze, sifting false from true, and telling itself: ‘I know real health and wellbeing – and that isn’t it.’

[i] See Liddell 1940 for the meanings of euphoros

[ii] For the Greek see Littré 1973.  For an English translation, see Adams 1868.  The numbering system differs in each book.

[iii]crises d’euphorie, générale une sensation d’euphorie, de bien-être général.’


Adams, Charles Darwin, ed. and trans. 1868. “De fracturis – 35.” In The Genuine Works of Hippocrates. New York: Dover.

Bonet, Théophile. 1684. Mercurius Compitalitius, or A Guide to the Practical Physician.  Translated by Théophile Bonet. London: Thomas Flesher.

Féré, Charles.  1892.  La pathologie des emotions; etudes physiologiques et cliniques. Paris: F Alcan.

Liddell, Henry George, Robert Scott, Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick McKenzie, eds. 1940. A Greek-English Lexicon Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Littré, Emil, ed. and trans. 1973. “De fracturis – 36.” In Oeuvres Completes D’Hippocrate. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert.

“Style in Medical Writings.” 1905. British Medical Journal 1, no. 2320 (June): 1341-3


Soul Health: Feeling Better Through a Medicine of Words

Dr Daniel McCann is Simon and June Li Fellow in English Literature at Lincoln College, University of Oxford. In this post for the History of Emotions Blog, he discusses the connection between reading and healing, the subject of his new book Soul Health: Therapeutic Reading in Later Medieval England, (University of Wales Press, 2018).

McCann’s current research covers the later medieval period and is concerned with the interconnection and interplay between medical and religious texts. He is especially interested in how texts can evoke emotional responses, belief, doubt, and indeed other complex mental states through their form and style. He was awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in 2012 and has published a number of articles that explore the relationship between emotion and healing, reading and healing, and medieval grammar and prayer. 

The connection between reading and healing has a history far deeper, and far darker, than modern “bibliotherapeutics” would lead us to believe. While you don’t have to look far to find accounts of ‘consoling fictions” offering mental and physical health, looking a little further into the past reveals something quite different. For the medieval period, reading had a strong medicinal potential that was believed to treat the very soul of the reader through the powerful emotions it could evoke. This was part of a wider medical model going back to classical times: the Galenic framework of the “res non-naturales”, or non-natural things, stated that the regulation of the emotions was key to maintaining humoral balance and so health. In particular, activities that could evoke moderate joy – or gaudium – were seen as beneficial in the regimental care of the self. Reading bawdy verses about lusty monks (for example) could provoke a salutary laugh – which was sometimes called hilaritas. And yet, while reading for pleasure and joy was recommended, the vast majority of texts in the Middle Ages were anything but joyful. Though Chaucer can provoke a laugh, we have to remember that the medieval “best-sellers” were those pious texts dealing with Christ’s suffering, torture, and death. The emotional tones and hues of such texts are vastly more complex, manifold, and difficult than simple joy. Moreover, they circulate in manuscripts that often extol their medical potential. For instance, the enormous Vernon manuscript (c.1390s) states from its opening that reading it provides “soul-hele” – soul health. It’s full of texts which, through their sophistication and beauty, set out to evoke sorrow, fear, compassion, and a host of other emotional states that are worlds apart from joy. This begs an important question of such reading material: how can emotions, widely understood to be dangerous, operate therapeutically?

It’s a question I wanted to answer in my first book, available to buy now. What I discovered is that the medieval monastic culture that produces such potent religious texts was not medically ignorant. From its earliest stages, and most clearly after the Benedictine reform, monastic culture had a keen interest in maintaining the health of the monks. Moreover, many medical texts – from medical compendia to vernacular herbals – were associated with, produced by, or at least held in, monastic libraries. To assert that dangerous emotions generated through reading are medicinal is not a mistake born of ignorance. It is instead a deliberate recommendation that comes from a complex understanding of the state of the soul, the nature of sin, and the potential use of the soul’s affective powers. Emotions can be medicines precisely because they can also be diseases. As key thinkers from the period – such as John of la Rochelle – note, emotions are not positive or negative in and of themselves. It all depends on the object of the emotions, and the level of their intensity. It’s a bit of a hackneyed commonplace to assert that the medieval period saw sin and sickness as the same thing – but it is an accurate one. Sin, the soul’s chief sickness, is essentially an emotional problem. As Walter Hilton, an influential medieval English spiritual writer, notes, sin is

not ellis but a fals mysrulid love of a man to himsilf. Oute of this love, as Seynt Austen seith, spryngeth alle manere of synne deedli and venial


nothing else but a false, ungoverned love of a man unto himself. Out of this love, as St Augustine says, springs all manner of sin deadly and venial.  

(Scale of Perfection, Bk 1, ll.1117-1118)

Love, when not properly directed or controlled, corrupts and festers. Here it is seen as the shared origin of all sin, and Hilton is recapitulating earlier monastic explorations into the precise nature of vices and virtues. Of course, such an emotional illness requires an equally emotional medicine:

Be contrition we arn made clene, be compassion we arn made redy and be trew longyng to God we arn made worthy. Thes arn iii menys, as I understond, wherby that al soulis come to hevyn . . . for be these medycines behovyth that every soule be helyd.


By contrition we are made clean, by compassion we are made ready, and by true longing to God we are made worthy. These are three means, as I understand, whereby all souls come to heaven…for they are medicines by which every soul is healed.

(Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, p. 54)

With customary clarity, Julian of Norwich asserts that the best treatment is a medicine of extremes, not of moderation. Contrition, compassion and longing are some of the most central emotional states of religious life, but they are also some of its most intense. There is no sense of balance to the emotions here, only their increasing potency and force. There is, however, a sense of order. This treatment is programmatic, moving from one emotion to another, from one medicine to another. My book takes Julian’s comments here as a starting point, and over the course of its chapters it explores the medicinal emotions that can heal the soul of sin. Fear, penance, compassion, and longing are the core ones. But as I soon discovered, the texts themselves understand emotions as fluid and layered, with each text seeking to evoke multiple emotions within the souls of its readers. For instance, compassion is not an emotion, but rather an emotional aggregate or complex. So too that last medicine she mentions, longing, is in effect a blend of contrasting and powerful emotional states. It is so intense that it will be painful, will contain as much fear of God and sorrow for sin as it does compassion and ardent love for the divine. The focus of the book is always on the texts of the Vernon manuscript, and how they work to promote the health of the soul. To do this requires moving beyond contemporary notions of “affective scripts” to look at language in more detail. In my book, I explore medieval grammar theory to understand precisely how words evoke emotions. It is the interjection (a cry or exclamation) which was believed to signify per modum affectus (in the mode of affect), and many texts use interjections with skill and precision to evoke specific emotions. For instance, the rhythmical prose text A Talking of the Love of God, makes careful use of interjections to try and evoke that complex longing for God in the reader:

A derworþe lord what schal I nou dou. nou mai I liue no more for serwe and forsore, now my dere lemmon schal vnderfonge deþ. nou mai I Murne strongley, nou mai I wepe bitterli nou mai I syke sore & serwen euer more. A now me leden him forþ to mount of caluarie, to þe qualstouwe to don him þere o dawe. A my deore lemmon, he bereþ þe Roode tre on his bare scholdre for þe loue of me. his bodi is so tendre, his bones longe and lene, al stoupynde he goþ þat del hit is to seone. A Mi swete lemmon, þe duntes þat þei smyte þe, þe serwe þat þei don þe.


Ah! Dear worthy Lord what shall I now do? Now may I live no more for sorrow and grief, now my dear darling shall undergo death, now may I mourn strongly, now may I weep bitterly, now may I sigh sorely and lament ever more. Ah! Now (me/they) lead Him away to Mount Calvary, to the place of execution to kill Him. Ah! My dear love, He bears the cross on His bare shoulder for the love of me. His body is so tender, his bones long and lean, all stopping He goes so that a pity it is to see. Ah! My sweet darling, the blows that they smite thee with, the sorrow that they do to you.

(A Talking of the Love of God p. 48, ll. 23–33)


Unlike prior passages in the text, this one begins with the impassioned interjectional cry to Jesus – that “Ah”. This emotional cry sets a tone for the rest of the passage, carefully sustained through repetition and additional interjections. Initially, the urgency and force of the opening question ‘what schal I nou dou’, is sustained through subsequent clauses by the repetition of its immediate answer ‘nou mai I’. Through this repetition, each clause is connected back to that forceful opening in a manner that directly recalls its emotive energy. The reader is thus constantly brought back to that cry throughout the whole section, its force and potency endowing each clause and each detail with added emphasis. Additional interjections break up the passage into dominant sense units and mark progress in the narrative, but they all work in the same manner to express and evoke raw emotion. The result is that each stage in Christ’s crucifixion is marked not by detail but rather by the emotive reaction to it. The whole passage thus plays with ideas of action and reaction. Until this moment all events in Christ’s Passion have occurred in the distant past, but now the present tense is used exclusively: the past of Calvary merges with the moment of narration, and by extension the moment of reading. Such reading was understood as emotionally evocative – producing passions in precise ways to help move the soul closer to a state of health – of salus. It is a medicine of extremes, and of extreme words at that, but as the Vernon manuscript shows, and as my book seeks to prove, the best medicines are always the bitterest.

REVIEW: Empathy: A History, by Susan Lanzoni

Dr Riana Betzler is a philosopher of cognitive science, medicine, and biology. In this review for the History of Emotions Blog, she discusses Susan Lanzoni’s new history of empathy.

Riana’s current research focuses on social cognition and, in particular, empathy. Her research is informed by her background in cognitive science and time spent working in labs, conversing with practising scientists. She completed her PhD in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge. Prior to returning to Cambridge as a Teaching Associate, she spent two years as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research (KLI) in Klosterneuburg, Austria (near Vienna).

Susan Lanzoni, Empathy: A History (Yale University Press, 2018)

Image of cover of Empathy: A History

This expansive new account of the history of empathy demonstrates the ways in which the concept has been imagined and reimagined across multiple discourses over the course of about a century.

The story unfolds in roughly chronological order, showing how empathy developed from aesthetic roots, was taken up as a technical scientific term in clinical and social psychology, and then stood at the centre of political debate in the wake of World War II and during the Civil Rights Era.  Lanzoni uses thematic vignettes to elaborate on how the empathy concept was deployed for specific concerns at specific times.  For each of these vignettes, one gets the impression that there is enough material to fill a whole book.  Lanzoni identifies her approach as akin to David Armitage’s method of serial contextualism, which provides “a way of delving into significant historical moments with detail yet still holding to an expansive view” (p. 16).

The central questions that Lanzoni seeks to answer are: “How did we get here?  And can history shed light on what empathy means today?” (p. 8).  By “here,” Lanzoni seems to refer to the current state of ambiguity surrounding the meaning of “empathy”.  This ambiguity, and the sheer number of diverse definitions circulating in the field, has been widely acknowledged within the literature and is generally considered to be a problem.[1]  Definitional instability seems to threaten the prospects both for coherent interdisciplinary study of empathy and for application of the findings of empathy research to social and political problems.  Lanzoni argues that the history of empathy, however, shows that its meaning has always been ambiguous and multifaceted.  She contends that there is no one “definitive conception of empathy for all time” (p. 17) and suggests, as far as I understand, that we would be wrong to look for one definition for the present.  She “invites us to embrace many empathies” (p. 18).  This is a refreshing thesis amidst all of the hand wringing about the difficulties with defining empathy.

The book is organised into three parts: (1) Empathy as the Art of Movement; (2) Making Empathy Scientific, and (3) Empathy in Culture and Politics.  Each part is comprised of three chapters.  Lanzoni largely focuses on the development of empathy in the United States, but includes some reference to exchanges with British aestheticians, German theorists, and Viennese psychologists.

Part one identifies the roots of empathy in psychological aesthetics and the German concept of Einfühlung.  Einfühlung was originally conceptualised by Theodor Lipps and others as a way of understanding objects by projecting oneself into them.  This form of projection was thought to involve a kind of bodily resonance.  In the Anglo-American context, amateur psychologists such as Vernon Lee (Violet Paget) and her partner Kit Anstruther-Thomson, conducted experiments in the art gallery using methods of systematic introspection.[2]

At around the turn of the twentieth century, Einfühlung was translated into English.  In describing the translation process, Lanzoni highlights the disagreements about terminology occurring at the time.  For example, many theorists, including James Mark Baldwin and Charles Sanders Peirce, were convinced that psychology and the mental sciences required clearer terms.  Baldwin sought to standardise psychological terminology by creating his Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology.  He did not, however, agree with the use of the term “empathy” as a translation for Einfühlung and instead put forward the term “semblance.”  Lanzoni effectively conveys here how terminological disagreements often reflected differences of opinion about the underlying concept and its scope.  Eventually, “empathy” won out as the term of choice but disagreement about its particular meaning persisted.  The aesthetic meaning of the term empathy continued to be dominant, but Lanzoni indicates that it started to move into the interpersonal domain through association with the extroverted personality type.

Google n-gram chart showing the frequency of use of “empathy” in English from c. 1900 to 2000

Part two is about making empathy scientific.  Lanzoni begins by explaining how empathy related to psychiatric diagnosis.  She focuses on the neuropathologist E. Ernest Southard’s development of an “empathic index.”  Interestingly, this scale was supposed to capture the psychiatrist’s ability to imagine behaving as the patient did; if the psychiatrist could not imagine behaving in such a way—if the patient’s behaviour was too outlandish—the patient was thought to be “beyond empathy” and likely to be suffering from schizophrenia (p. 10).  This represents a fascinating reversal from later empathy scales, which are supposed to measure the patient’s ability to empathize.[3]  Some scholars, including William James, expressed scepticism about the validity of this form of diagnosis by projection; the worry was that it committed the psychological fallacy, or made the false assumption that one’s psychological responses were identical to the ones being investigated.  Empathy also continued to be associated with the extroverted personality type, manifesting in the idea that schizophrenia was an extreme form of introversion; this suggests that people with schizophrenia were perhaps viewed as both beyond the clinician’s empathy and lacking in empathy themselves.

At this point, Lanzoni identifies a shift in empathy.  It was no longer conceptualized as involving the transfer of one’s feelings into another individual or object but instead required flexibility and control.  This idea of empathy as involving controlled identification carries into Lanzoni’s discussion of empathy in social work and psychotherapy, which centres on the work of Jessie Taft, Otto Rank, and Carl Rogers.  Interestingly, emotions enter more clearly into the picture at this point as well.  Jessie Taft, for example, viewed emotion as a valuable conduit to others.  Empathic identification during this period was seen as requiring serious training—training that was thought to be especially difficult for men with medical expertise.  Lanzoni demonstrates how the relational psychotherapeutic tradition therefore broke from both psychoanalysis and medicalized psychiatry.  She then turns to the development of measures of empathy by Rosalind Dymond Cartwright and others[4].  The issue of standardization again comes to the fore here.  Alongside a desire for rigorous scientific testing, there were significant worries about validity.  Were the various empathy scales measuring the same thing?  Were they really measuring empathy or projection?[5]  Similar kinds of concerns come up in the contemporary literature.[6]

Kenneth B. Clark with his wife Mamie Phipps Clark. Both were psychologists and civil rights activists. (Image Garland County Historical Society / Central Arkansas Library System.)

Part three concerns popular and political empathy.  Lanzoni discusses how empathy entered into everyday discourse after World War II.  This was partially a result of the popularization of psychology but also had to do with a desire for better social connections and interpersonal relations.  Empathy was seen as universalizing—highlighting the commonality among diverse individuals.  During this period of popularization, empathy was used for a dizzying array of purposes ranging from cultivating family bonds to developing advertising campaigns.  Empathy was also a subject of intense interest among social scientists and was seen as a crucial aspect of political engagement after World War II.  Lanzoni focuses on the work of Kenneth Clark, a civil rights activist who alongside the psychologist Gordon Allport, championed empathy as a way of overcoming racial division.  Clark and Allport worked to develop educational programs that were meant to cultivate empathy through roll playing and practice.  These educational programs were deployed, for example, in workshops with police officers.  By this point, empathy was seen as going hand in hand with justice and functioned as an aspirational value.

Finally, Lanzoni brings us into the present with a well-informed history of the brain science on empathy, starting with mirror neurons and then delving into the field of social neuroscience.  She argues that these neuroscientific studies provide a nuanced picture of empathy as involving both emotional identification and modulation through reason.  She also highlights the ways in which these neuroscientific findings hinge on “the capacity to describe, to illuminate, and to think through the meanings of empathy, a task that has occupied a diverse array of scholars over the past hundred years” (p. 275).  In this way, the neuroscientific literature cannot be seen as providing a more objective view of empathy, detached from the history of diverse conceptualization.

Lanzoni’s discussion of the neuroscientific literature also provides fodder for critique of the current anti-empathy trend.  This trend is exemplified by the work of Paul Bloom and Jesse Prinz, who are especially concerned with the relationship between empathy and morality.  Prinz argues that empathy is not necessary for morality and although he does not rule out its value altogether, he expresses scepticism about its benefits.[7]  Bloom goes further and argues that empathy is detrimental because it spotlights individuals in biased and parochial ways.[8]  According to Bloom, “From a moral standpoint, we’re better off without it”.[9]  Both Prinz and Bloom embrace definitions of empathy that focus purely on emotional sharing.  According to Prinz “empathy is a kind of vicarious emotion; it’s feeling what one takes another person to be feeling”.[10]  Bloom writes: “The notion of empathy that I’m most interested in is the act of feeling what you believe other people feel—experiencing what they experience”.[11]  Circumscribing empathy in a way that makes it purely emotional enables both Prinz and Bloom to highlight the ways in which unbridled empathy goes wrong.  On Lanzoni’s view, on the other hand, empathy is inherently multifaceted and encompasses elements of both emotion and reason.  It is therefore impossible to be simply for or against it; identifying its merits and pitfalls will require a sophisticated, detailed, and contextualized approach.

Lanzoni’s book provides a comprehensive and engaging account of the shifts in the meanings of “empathy”.  It brings out a number of themes that have been present throughout the history of empathy and that continue to be debated today—including the problem of projection, issues about objectivity, and the relationship between popular and scientific concepts.  There are, of course, some things that are left out.  For example, although the terms “sympathy” and “compassion” come up occasionally, Lanzoni does not explicitly delve into the immense disagreement, tension, and confusion that surrounds their definition and differentiation from “empathy.”  She also largely leaves out the debate about empathy as the root of the moral sense—a view that is grounded in the tradition of British sentimentalists such as Hume and Smith (who used the term “sympathy”) but has been revived in contemporary moral psychology.  While I can see how leaving these areas of discussion out lends the book greater focus, I was also surprised to see them downplayed.  The moral dimension of empathy in particular runs through some of Lanzoni’s vignettes—especially the ones about empathy in psychiatry and empathy in public discourse—and could have been more explicitly highlighted.

Overall, Lanzoni puts forward a view of empathy as flexible and skilful.  What history tells us, according to her view, is that empathy “comprises a complex, artful but also effortful practice that enrols feeling, intellect, and imagination” (p. 280).  Lanzoni convincingly shows how the complexity and multifaceted nature of empathy constitutes both its mystery and its promise.  Here we can also see how Lanzoni’s book, comprehensive as it is, leaves open space for further discussion.  What kind of normative import does this flexible and skilful form of empathy have?  Does this vary depending on context?  And is there anything still left at stake in continued disagreement about the value of empathy as opposed to sympathy or compassion?


[1] See e.g., Coplan, A. (2011). Understanding Empathy: Its Features and Effects. In A. Coplan & P. Goldie (eds.), Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives (pp. 3-18). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Similar worries can be found at the start of many articles on empathy in psychology.

[2] For more on Vernon Lee and the tradition of empathy in aesthetics, see: Burdett, C. (2011). ‘The subjective inside us can turn into the objective outside’: Vernon Lee’s Psychological Aesthetics. 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 12.

[3] Such scales today are prominent within the literature on empathic deficits in disorders such as psychopathy (e.g., Hare, R. D. (1991). The Hare psychopathy checklist-revised: manual. North Tonawanda, NY: Multi-Health Systems), Inc. and autism (e.g., Baron-Cohen, S. & Wheelwright, S. (2004). The Empathy Quotient: An Investigation of Adults with Asperger Syndrome or High Functioning Autism, and Normal Sex Differences. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34(2), 163-175.)

[4] Dymond, R. F. (1949). A scale for the measurement of empathic ability.  Journal of Consulting Psychology, 13(2), 127-133.

[5] See e.g., Hastorf, A. H. & Bender, I. E. (1952). A caution respecting the measurement of empathic ability. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 47(2, Suppl.), 574-576.

[6] Some discussion of these issues can be found in: Cuff, B. M. P., Brown, S. J., Taylor, L. & Howat, D. J. (2016). Empathy: A Review of the Concept. Emotion Review, 8(2), 144-153, DOI: 10.1177/1754073914558466er.sagepub.com.

[7] Prinz, J. (2011). Is Empathy Necessary for Morality? In A. Coplan & P. Goldie (Eds.), Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives (pp. 211-229). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[8] Bloom, P. (2013, May 20). The baby in the well: The case against empathy. The New Yorker, ; Bloom, P. (2014). Against Empathy. Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum; Bloom, P. (2016). Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. London: The Bodley Head.

[9] Bloom, 2016, p. 4.

[10] Prinz, 2011, p. 212.

[11] Bloom, 2016, p. 4.

The magickal turn

Instagram witch Harmony Nice

Recently, I’ve noticed several friends and acquaintances – mainly millennials – getting into magick.  A 30-year-old successful professional woman who pays to consult a globe-trotting voodoo-priestess about her love life. A 33-year-old musician who’s left a humanist community and joined a coven. Stephen Reid, formerly a leader of UK Uncut, who then set up The Psychedelic Society and now runs magick rituals. I get the sense our culture, and particularly millennial culture, is having a magickal moment. But why is now the witching hour? Several possible reasons – these are just guesses. Millennial women are attracted to magick perhaps because it offers a form of spirituality that empowers young women, rather than subjugating them. The image of magick has gone from middle-aged bangly suburban women to hip young urban influencers like Lana Del Rey, or ‘witches of Instagram’ stars like Harmony Nice. Witches, says Cosmopolitan, are ‘the new social media influencers’. Magickal symbols increasingly show up on the catwalk, in music videos, or Netflix shows like the re-boot of Sabrina. Young women sign up to astrology apps, read Sabat magazine, and swap copies of Women Who Run With Wolves. There’s a networking aspect to it – covens are the contemporary equivalent of the 70s feminist circle, or the female equivalent of Masonic lodges. Magick has also flourished thanks to the internet, both as a medium for dissemination (wicca forums, astrology and tarot apps), and as an ethos. As the writer Erik Davis has explored, Silicon Valley tech-heads have been drawn to magick since the 1990s – it fits well with the idea that one can use tools or algorithms to conjure up virtual worlds, which in turn alter material reality and make you powerful and rich. Think of the opening scene of The Social Network. Eduardo writes an algorithm on his dormitory window and – abracadabra! – the whole of Harvard is in uproar within an hour.   More broadly, the rise of magick is part of the growth of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ demographic, particularly among millennials. Contemporary spirituality is decentralized and anti-hierarchical. We’re suspicious of gurus and priests, we’re not even sure we’re into a monotheistic God. We want our spirituality close to the Earth and nature, we prefer local spirits to transcendent principles. We want rituals, but prefer to make up our own rather than fit into crusty established ceremonies. Magick fits well with this DIY, bricolage spirituality. Both shamanism and tantric Buddhism have proved popular in Western spirituality, and both incorporate the magickal idea that you can use your imagination and intention to channel divine energies and change your reality. In some ways, it’s a ritualized version of the Law of Attraction – visualize the future you want, and it will happen. Both promise quick results. And who knows, maybe millennials are particularly drawn to magick because they grew up on Harry Potter. My generation grew up on Star Wars so we’re more drawn to eastern wisdom (Yoda). Magical politics I also wonder if we’re having a magick moment because of our desperate political situation. It strikes me that both Amazon shamanism and Tibetan tantric Buddhism are religions of the oppressed. These cultures, both at the mercy of foreign invaders for centuries, turned to magic out of despair, when they are outnumbered and the facts of material reality are against them. Are young Westerners also drawn to magick today out of political despair? I’ve been reading, this week, about the Kalachakra ritual, one of the highest tantric rituals in Tibetan Buddhism. It’s the Dalai Lama’s favourite ritual – he’s conducted the three-day ceremony 11 times in public, twice in the West, and once, in 1985, to 200,000 people in India. The ritual has different levels, open to different levels of initiate. The highest level apparently involves a male initiate having sex with one or more mudras, or female consorts. The male adept then takes on the female’s energy and becomes highly empowered by balancing male and female energies within him (the woman is typically an accessory to male empowerment in Tibetan tantra).The Dalai Lama has hinted he’s taken part in this highest-level sex magick – it’s curious to think this kindly old man, global symbol of inoffensive spirituality, is also a high-level sex magician. Hey, if he can still do it at 83, good luck to him. The lower levels of the Kalachakra ritual are more open to the lay-person, and the Dalai Lama has authorized the English translation of the ritual. It’s basically a very long and extremely complicated visualization process. The initiate imagines entering a palace shaped like a mandala, then imagines seeing various deities and spirits, and becoming one with them. It’s a feat of both imagination and memory to keep this extremely complicated picture in your mind. I took part in a Tara tantric empowerment once, and I was lost after five minutes.

The Kalachakra mandala, painted onto sand, is then visualized by initiates as a magickal, reality-altering symbol

It’s interesting to consider, in passing, how important the imagination is to Tantra, to shamanism, to Sufism, and to Christian meditative traditions like the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. In all of these traditions, the imagination is a divine power which can transform the psyche and also transform the body (meditate on the Passion intensely enough and you will receive the stigmata). Modern psychology has learned a certain amount from these wisdom traditions, but I don’t think it has a deep appreciation of imagination – what it is, what it can do, how we can use it to change ourselves. But these traditions don’t think the imagination can just change the mind and body. They also think it can change the world.
The Kalachakra ritual, for example, is more than just a ritual of personal transformation. It’s a magickal rite of political transformation, a weapon of war for a dispossessed people. The text mentions the myth of the magical hidden kingdom of Shambhala. Supposedly, in the future, the world will descend into chaos and barbarism. The armies of darkness – described in the text as mlecchas – will come together under a world-emperor. At that point, the magical kingdom of Shambhala will reveal itself, and its king will ride out with his armies and magical weapons,and utterly rout the enemies. Then Tibetan Buddhism will be established as the world religion, and the Earth will enter a golden age of peace and prosperity. This is the Tibetan Buddhist version of Jihad. The mlecchas are identified as the followers of Mohammad and Jesus. Contemporary Tibetan Buddhists, naturally, say the jihad is just a metaphor for an inner revolution, but that was not the case historically – the myth seems to have arisen when Buddhist communities were being attacked by Muslims in Afghanistan and north India, and pushed back into the Himalaya. This grand fantasy of revenge was born out of historical defeat and despair. I wonder – does the Dalai Lama think that initiating hundreds of thousands into the Kalachakra today will help save Tibet from Chinese occupation? Perhaps millennials are also drawn to magick out of a need for sense of control amid bewildering global change. The Atlantic asked earlier this year why millennials are so into astrology and came to a similar conclusion – they’re an anxious generation at a difficult historical moment, and astrology gives them something to hold onto (even if they don’t totally believe in it). Certainly I find myself paying more attention to astrology in times when I feel stuck and unsure what to do. Perhaps the turn to magick expresses this sort of political despair and hope for a miracle. I noticed Stephen Reid, formerly of UK Uncut and now director of the Psychedelic Society, organized a magickal ritual in Parliament Square as part of Extinction Rebellion – in eight years he’s gone from traditional socialist activism, to psychedelics, to magick. Myths of the apocalypse or golden age are also coming back into the mainstream – the myth of Shambhala has struck a chord with some environmental activists like Joanna Macy (here she is talking about it). Friends warn me of the astrological turbulence set to hit the world in 2019, or the Maian prophecy, or the end-time warning of some Amazon elders. This is exactly what you’d expect to see happening now, when we’re going through a historical crisis comparable to the birth of modernity in the 15th to 17th-centuries. Back then, as the historian Norman Cohn explored, Europe was filled with end-time prophecies and sudden millenarian movements – the prospect of apocalypse propelled many unlikely prophets to temporary prominence. They would inspire their followers with their incredible certainty, seize control of the historical moment, proclaim the coming of a Golden Age, and then inevitably, be routed as their dream failed to materialize. I see contemporary western politics as increasingly prone to magical thinking. Like medieval peasants, we suspect our enemies have access to secret occult powers. We blame the rise of Donald Trump on chaos magick, and try to use our own magick against him. We try to concoct the magical spell, formula or symbol that will galvanize the masses and save the world. We rely on imagination to save us from the present quagmire. ‘What’s money really?’ asks Russell Brand. ‘It’s just an imaginary concept. We can just stop believing in it.’ It’s true that, in the short-term, magickal techniques – stories, symbols, mantras, ceremonies – can have surprisingly large political impacts, because politics is partly a question of trying to seize the public’s imagination. This is what scholar of the occult Gary Lachman calls ‘meme magic’. You come up with a mantra like Take Back Control, or Make America Great Again, and see if it spreads in the imagination of the masses. You come up with a symbol like the Guy Fawkes mask beloved of the Occupy movement, which was created by comic magician Alan Moore. Or you conjure a utopia to aim for, like the Shambhala myth, or a dystopia to avoid, like the Tory party’s Project Fear.

The comic writer and magician Alan Moore goes to Occupy London and sees the magickal symbol of rebellion he created (in V for Vendetta) playing out in this world

So in that sense, political magick does work. But if it isn’t backed up by effective policies in the material world, the city in the sky dissipates into thin air.  Look at Trump’s magical MAGA spell, for example. He very effectively conjured a dream into his followers’ fevered imaginations. Hillary is a crook, a Satanic witch. The elite are evil, possibly demonic. He is going to save America, drain the swamp. He’s going to build a wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it. But, two years into power, the intoxication is wearing off, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious, there’s no wall. Where’s the magic wall? The more Trump and his government insist the wall is a reality,the more they sound like Hitler in his bunker in 1944, insisting the war is nearly won. The magic trick is exposed. I expect we will turn to increasingly far-out forms of magical politics this century, in our desperation to avoid the grim facts of material reality.  Still, we do need a miracle. We need hope. At the very least, we need to be able to imagine a future beyond the collapse of the status quo. If that’s magical thinking, pass me a wand.

Trump and Nietzsche

I wasn’t a big reader as a youth. I was more of a jock and a class clown. It was only around the age of 17 that I suddenly became a moody adolescent book-worm – it was both a quickening and a sickening. In one term, I read Hamlet, King Lear, Heart of Darkness and Freud’s Five Cases of Hysteria, and also watched Blue Velvet. Strong medicine! I had a sudden horrifying and fascinating sense of the dark subconscious bubbling beneath civilized appearances.

The book that made the biggest impression on me, by far, was Friedrich Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. I was transfixed by his description of the play of two opposing forces in ancient Greek culture – the Apollonian, which seeks limits and moderation, and the Dionysian, which seeks excess and ecstasy. I started to see these forces everywhere. Every essay I wrote weaved its way inevitably back to the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The obsession continued at university. Fifteen years later, I wrote my first book on the Socratic path to flourishing, and my second on the Dionysian path. How long a shadow that book has cast!

Strangely enough, I never read other books by Nietzsche. I got my Nietzschean philosophy second-hand, from the novels of DH Lawrence. But recently I was sent a new biography of Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux, called I Am Dynamite. I devoured it – it’s a beautiful, moving, and very absorbing account of a heroic and pathetic life. And it inspired me to read more Nietzsche, and consider influence on our time a little more deeply.

Nietzsche grew up in a fairly well-to-do German family in Prussia, but the family fortunes took a turn for the worse when his father – a Lutheran pastor – died of a degenerative brain illness in his 30s. The family became hard-up, but Nietzsche lifted them up through his academic brilliance. He was appointed a professor of philology at the age of 25, but he dreamt of being a composer. He managed to befriend Richard Wagner – already a European celebrity – and spent the happiest days of his life at the Wagner castle, where he was embraced as one of the family. For a few years, he moved in the exalted atmosphere of Chateaux Wagner – all high ideals and swooning ecstasies.

But his 30s were not as glorious as his 20s. He wrote The Birth of Tragedy at 28, but it was greeted with ominous silence by the press and academic peers. It was so over-the-top in its ecstatic style, compared to the average plodding academic work. Then he fell out with Wagner, and fell in love with a 20-year-old Russian, named Lou Salome, who ultimately rejected his advances and humiliated him. He was prone to terrible migraines and digestive troubles, and was often confined to bed for days. He found himself tramping across Europe, from city to city, self-publishing his own books, and almost always alone.

Nietzsche in a humorous photo with his friend Paul Ree and 20-year-old Russian tearaway Lou Salome. The three lived in a sort of Platonic menage a trois for a while, before Lou and Paul abandoned the besotted Nietzsche. He became markedly more misogynistic afterwards. ‘You go to women?’ he wrote. ‘Do not forget the whip.’

Yet somehow, out of these inauspicious circumstances, his ideas burst forth, more and more confident and radical. He was certain that he had an entirely new vision of existence, which would destroy the last 2500 years of morality, and pave the way for a bold new adventure for mankind.

When one reads the great prophets of moral philosophy – the Buddha, Plato, the Stoics, Christ, the author of the Upanishads – one notices that they all preach self-knowledge, self-examination, self-control, sobriety, chastity and asceticism of the body. Only through this self-denial, we are told, can the virtuous person go beyond desires and appetites, beyond appearances, beyond impermanence, and arrive at some transcendental resting place – the One, God, the Logos, Buddha-nature, Brahman.

Nietzsche, through his great ‘transvaluation of values’, turns all these systems on their head. Their morality is not virtue and health. It is sickness, weakness, pessimism, nihilism, a symptom of decadence and decline. It is the consolation of the weak, the broken and the disappointed, those who turn wearily from life and ‘put their last trust in a sure nothing rather than an uncertain something’.

He writes, perhaps with the Buddha in mind: ‘They encounter an invalid or an old man or a corpse, and straightaway they say ‘Life is refuted!’ But only they are refuted, they and their eye that sees only one aspect of existence.

These famous moral systems are really an outgrowth of ‘slave morality’. The slave-philosopher Epictetus is a perfect example. He has no power over external things, so he says that true power, true freedom, is power over one’s thoughts and desires. How convenient. Then, like Socrates, he preaches this acceptance-of-weakness to strong aristocratic youth, and ruins them.

The ‘slave-morality’ was first invented by the Jews, Nietzsche says, out of their weakness and domination by various more powerful races. Judeo-Christianity pretends to be a morality of meekness and forgiveness, but underneath that mask lurks resentment and passive-aggression. ‘I forgive you’, they say to their conquerors, but what they really mean is ‘I’m better than you’. And the Romans, alas, fell for it.

Against the slave-morality, Nietzsche champions the masters, the ‘blond beasts’, those strong, carefree warriors who maraud across the world from time to time, like the Vikings, the Teutonic knights, the Mongols, the Indian Kshatriyas, the Greek aristocrats. They were young, healthy, vigorous, laughing, cruel and violent. They basically did what they liked, and called it ‘noble’, and had a gay old time of it until Socrates, Jesus, Lao Tse and the Buddha came along and ruined everything.

Nietzsche thought that liberal democracy was really an extension of Christianity, with its sympathy for the weak and the rights of man. He looked across late 19th century Europe, with its campaigns for universal suffrage, gender equality and the welfare state, and saw the triumph of slave morality, the triumph of the herd, the masses, the little people. It made him sick. He railed against the plebs, and especially against female suffrage – ‘the struggle for equal rights is a symptom of sickness’, he wrote. Healthy women loved to obey men. Only barren women fought for equality.

Democratic, plebeian, mediocre Europeans had lost any sense of greatness. They’d lost even the memory of God and of their predecessors’ heroic struggle for transcendence. They just wanted comfort and ‘well-being’. Nietzsche was no fan of well-being:

You want, if possible—and there is not a more foolish “if possible”—TO DO AWAY WITH SUFFERING; and we?—it really seems that WE would rather have it increased and made worse than it has ever been! Well-being, as you understand it—is certainly not a goal; it seems to us an END; a condition which at once renders man ludicrous and contemptible—and makes his destruction DESIRABLE! The discipline of suffering, of GREAT suffering—know ye not that it is only THIS discipline that has produced all the elevations of humanity hitherto?

Instead, he lays out a new vision for humans, a new project: the Ubermensch, or Superman. He writes in Thus Spake Zarathustra: ‘I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome.’ We should seek to transcend ourselves not in the service of ‘super-terrestrial hopes’ like God or Nirvana, but rather in the service of self-actualization. This self-actualization – becoming what we are – does not involve the disciplining of the body, the emotions and the desires, but rather letting the desires, emotions and body sing and dance. It does not mean a weary obedience to rules and precepts handed down by priests, but rather the bold creation of new values. Man creates meaning, he does not receive it from God. And this self-actualization will be here and now, in this body, on this Earth, or it will be nowhere. We must resist the urge to find consolation and security in fake metaphysical dreams like God or Nirvana, and instead learn to dance with uncertainty and chaos.

By 1888, Nietzsche felt he had blown his way clear of the old morality, and was euphoric with the new prospects he saw for mankind. He wrote four books in nine months, they poured out of him. He was filled with joy, and even lost control of his face and his emotions – he couldn’t stop grinning. He saw coincidences in everything. ‘He only had to think of a person for a letter from them to arrive politely through the door.’ His letters to his friends became increasingly manic. He started to allude to himself as Dionysus, or ‘The Crucified’. ‘I shall rule the world from now on.’ ‘In two months time I shall be the foremost name on the earth’.

In January 1889 he had some sort of breakdown in the streets of Turin. It is said he saw a man whipping a horse, and he clung to the horse’s neck and wept. How poignant if this is true – the man who condemned pity breaks down in pity! He retreated to his apartment, where he screamed and danced naked. His friend Franz Overbeck was contacted, and found Nietzsche cowering in a corner, trying to read his writings but obviously unable to comprehend them. He never recovered his mind – never seemed to know who he was or what was happening.

He was 44, but lived for another 11 years. His sister Elizabeth, who sounds an evil and selfish anti-Semite, took care of him, and cashed in on his growing success. She ran salons celebrating his work in the living-room, while Nietzsche howled in his bedroom upstairs. She controlled his estate, and turned him into a prophet of Nazism. Hitler came to visit, and emerged from their conversation bearing Nietzsche’s walking stick.

Was Nietzsche’s collapse a divine punishment for his hubris and over-reaching? Some kind of psychosis or spiritual emergency? Or a neurological illness, perhaps inherited from his father? We don’t know. But, just as he prophesized, in the years after his collapse his influence grew and grew. His dynamite philosophy blew a hole in Victorian complacency, and created a space for the fierce experimentation of modernism.

For some years after World War 2, Nietzsche was understandably out of fashion. But he’s been rehabilitated since the 1970s, and is now one of the most popular subjects for philosophy PhDs. Scholars have clarified that, unlike his sister, he wasn’t anti-Semitic – he admired Jewish culture. Nor was he a nationalist – he thought nationalism was a cheap intoxicant, despised German militarism, and called himself a ‘good European’. He was a key influence on Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and helped to create what Paul Ricoeur called the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ which is so popular in left-wing humanities and social sciences: what secret interest lurks under an ideal? Aren’t all claims to ‘truth’ or ‘beauty’ really disguised power-grabs by particular interest groups?

This new biography will add to his good reputation – what a heroic man we meet, what a stylist, what a humourist! Who else has chapter headings like ‘Why I am so clever’! Who else can tear apart an entire philosophy (like Stoicism) with a few hilarious sentences. What brilliant psychological insights he threw up in his inspired frenzy – on the unconscious, the ego, projection, the wisdom of the body.

It’s awkward, then, that this new, sympathetic, rehabilitated Nietzsche should prove to be so popular with the alt-right. The American neo-Nazi Richard Spencer has said he was ‘Red Pilled by Nietzsche’, and many other angry young white men on alt-right or Red Pill websites have nothing but praise for Nietzsche. They don’t get him, insist liberal or leftist defenders of Nietzsche. They’re misappropriating him. They’re making the same mistakes the Nazis made.

Oh come off it. Foucault is right that there are many Nietzsches, but one of the most consistent notes one hears is contempt for the masses and hatred of liberal democracy, equality, and the rights of women, workers or the weak. As I read his books this week – particularly Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals  – I thought how well it fit with the alt-right worldview: Liberal democracy is a monstrous cacophony that seeks to shame and emasculate strong men. It is a dictatorship of the offended, the resentful, and the easily bruised, who seek power through victimhood and hurt feelings. This conspiracy of the weak will only work if strong men fall for it – if they become cuks or ‘white knights’, in alt-right and Red Pill terms – if they are so credulous as to believe that women or minority groups really are interested in ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’ rather than simply power and domination. But the strong man, the Alpha male, will break the bonds of liberal guilt and roam free, just like Trump, Bo-Jo, Bolsonaro, Orban, Duterte, Erdogan, Berlusconi, and every other blond or not so-blond beast now strutting on the world stage.

How could the alt-right and Red Pillers not thrill to passages like this, where Nietzsche gets nostalgic about the good ol’ days of rape and pillage enjoyed by the ‘blond beasts’:

They enjoy freedom from all social control, they feel that in the wilderness they can give vent with impunity to that tension which is produced by enclosure and imprisonment in the peace of society, they revert to the innocence of the beast-of-prey conscience, like jubilant monsters, who perhaps come from a ghostly bout of murder, arson, rape, and torture, with bravado and a moral equanimity, as though merely some wild student’s prank had been played, perfectly convinced that the poets have now an ample theme to sing and celebrate.

It reminds one of Kavanaugh – it’s all just student pranks…just bants!

There are passages where Nietzsche even sounds like Trump – in his insults against women, and his absurd boasting: ‘At no moment of my life can I be shown to have adopted any kind of arrogant or pathetic posture’, he says, before continuing: ‘Anyone who saw me during the seventy days of this autumn when I was uninterruptedly creating nothing but things of the first rank which no man will be able to do again or has done before, bearing a responsibility for all the coming millennia, will have noticed no trace of tension in me.’ It reminds me of Trump’s immortal line: ‘I’m much more humble than you would understand’.

How could fascists not grin at Nietzsche’s Strangelovian denunciations of the superfluous dwarves of liberal democracy, who don’t deserve any sympathy – in fact, it is just this sympathy which has led to the ‘DETERIORATION OF THE EUROPEAN RACE’? How could they not cheer at his calls for ‘the higher breeding of humanity, together with the remorseless destruction of all degenerate and parasitic elements’, at his yearning for ‘the harshest but most necessary wars’, at his praise of violence and cruelty as the source of all higher culture, at his endless comments like: ‘The weak and the failures shall perish. They ought even to be helped to perish’.

I could give many such quotes. Nietzsche can’t be called a fascist or alt-righter, because he never stayed in one position long, and he rejected any political action as ‘filth’. But the alt-right can find a lot to love in him. I’m sure sometimes he is being provocative – just bants! – but words and ideas easily slip off the page and kill people.

And this champion of strength and virility was a sickly and weak man, a failure in the army, a loser in love, who claimed not to need public attention yet became more and more megalomaniac until he claimed to be a god. He’s right that there can be something morbid and unhealthy in Stoicism and other philosophies of consolation – but there is also, surely, something morbid and resentful in him, the impoverished and humiliated Prussian constantly insisting on his aristocratic rank. One can find him interesting, funny, fascinating, even sympathetic, and still be honest about the toxicity of his ideas and the damage they do.