When Emotions Get the Best of Reason

Part of what makes life challenging has to do with overestimating our self-knowledge. I have many friends with prodigious intellectual qualities, but few whose behavior suggests they understand themselves as well as they think.

Indeed, I’ve been known to fall into the same confusion they do.

People find it far easier to identify the flaws in others than in themselves.

We raise a critical finger at those who vote for the “wrong” candidates, date ill-suited members of their preferred gender, and behave in a mind-boggling fashion.

Less time is spent pointing at the person in the mirror.

Why might that be? The question is complex, but I’ll offer you a simplified answer of significant, if incomplete, merit. It comes from a 17th-century Dutch philosopher who might have passed as a therapist if such a profession existed.

Can you guess his name? Of course not. Baruch Spinoza: 1632 – 1677.

Spinoza attempted a logical proof of our weakness in the face of external events and the disorganizing, confusing moods and temperaments they produced inside of us. Further, he thought our minds are easily fooled by misleading images of the nature of a universe full of things, plants, animals, and people.

Take man’s long-held opinion about the earth’s shape. Look outside, and remember everyone once trusted the absolute flatness of the planet. If you thought otherwise, no one believed you.

We now know better, I hope.

The philosopher points to several causes of our limited ability to think clearly. He considered men undercut by emotions impairing their capacity to reason. Furthermore, the ideas we form by reliance on our senses are inadequately thought out. Most of us become “slaves” to our feelings in Spinoza’s chosen word.

If we think of the world of today, examples come to mind. Many of us favor politicians who excite us to a state of blind trust. When those leaders deny the evidence of well-crafted science, their followers fall in line.

These demagogues make some “feel better” about themselves. They offer someone else to blame for their problems and, like Pied Pipers, take their “believers” toward a cliff they are unaware of.

Intellectual arguments alone don’t carry much power to alter fixed, erroneous thoughts underpinned by strong emotions. In Spinoza’s judgment, no feeling can be countered by “true knowledge” beneficial to well-being unless it carries emotional weight consistent with that truth.

I’m sure you’ve attempted to persuade acquaintances through well-organized reasoning and impressive evidence without success.

Ah, but the situation is not hopeless, indicated our friend Baruch. He believed “the more an emotion is known to us, the more it is within our control.” This argument came from Freud over 300 years later. The same ancient Greek maxim of “know thyself” arrived centuries before.

As Freud also knew, “true knowledge” or insight had to be attached to emotions to change thought and behavior. Once this combination finds its place within an individual, Spinoza tells us the person will no longer be enslaved by his feelings but become a “free man.”

In our own century, psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s research confirms Spinoza’s recognition of our tendency to overvalue our intellectual gifts and discount the role of emotions in our lives.

Another point is worth underlining. The philosopher knew perfect understanding was available to no one. Perfection resided in God, according to the Dutchman, a God of marked differences from the usual definitions. Regardless, Spinoza conceived women and men as capable of improving their realistic awareness of the world as it is instead of being abducted into the bondage he described.

To end this oversimplified essay on a philosophy of significant difficulty, Baruch shows you and me the starting place from which we can improve our knack for steering clear of harmful temptations and desires: from overeating to choosing friends and mates ill-suited to our best interests.

Moreover, he predicted his recommended approach to life would enhance our contentment and reduce the number of misguided goals we seek. He meant those whose pursuit impairs us.

This long-departed man’s writings claim we cannot find fulfillment while dragged by emotions like wild horses off the path of self-empowerment.

First, however, we must accept our limited rationality and imperfect thought instead of assuming we routinely display excellent self-awareness and wisdom about what is to our advantage.

Ready to start?

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The painting of Spinoza is the work of Alexander Roitburd. It is sourced from Wikiart.org.