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Cato's TearsReview - Cato's Tears
and the Making of Anglo-American Emotion
by Julie K. Ellison
University of Chicago Press, 1999
Review by Constantinos Athanasopoulos, Ph.D
May 31st 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 22)

A fascinating book on emotions, and the way emotion influences the political traditions of the Anglo-American culture comes from Julie Ellison, Professor of English at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Full of interesting details on the way the story of the Ancient Roman orator Cato has influenced not only literary but political circles as well on both sides of the Atlantic, the book is an excellent source book for cultural and English-American Literature studies.

In its methodology it follows much of the contemporary cultural studies’ turn into hermeneutics and deconstructionism: it focuses on the hermeneutics of the literary work of major 18th and 19th century literary figures such as Anna Letitia Barbauld, Phillis Wheatley, Sarah Wentworth Morton, Ann Eliza Bleecker, Charles Brockden Brown and Royall Tyler and the theatrical plays of John Dennis and Edward Young. It also follows the Derridean tactics of the androcentric configuration of politics and the androcentric analysis of sympathy, grief and mourning and pinpoints their role in male dominated modern political scenery (p.5). Both elements of Ellison’s methodology can be found in many standard textbooks of contemporary literary theory, feminist theory and cultural studies.

Most feminist theorists will find much to talk about in their courses in this book, even though it may be the target of austere criticism from some for the unfriendly remarks the author makes about some contemporary feminist theorists -- for example see in p.174 the remark that Susan Jeffords’ argument on the political use of sentiment for the powerful white men is "over-simplified".

In general, literary, cultural and feminist theorists will find great value in reading this book. However, this is not the case for political theorists and philosophers.

The book has a very peculiar structure in its argument which makes it difficult to discuss and even more difficult to assess its philosophical value. It seems that Ellison’s book follows Derridean theory not only in its methodology, but in its way of discussing things in philosophy as well. The political point of the book is more clear, but even there one may have doubts since the first and the last chapter are in many ways in opposition of what one may have expected by reading the chapters in-between.

Let us start from the more clear cut political stand of the book.

The author summarizes her effort in the last few pages of her book as follows: "My study of the eighteenth-century interdependence of stoic disinterestedness and weeping men has led me to conclude that libertarian toughness arises in order to prevent government from serving as the medium of "needs talk"" (p.193). In this and other places in her book she makes it clear that she moves in the anti-libertarian camp of the pro-social needs talk. By giving us the means of understanding why the libertarians become tough and unite in their efforts to limit government spending and interference in the social realm, Ellison shows us that this is somehow a perversion of the libertarian’s way of responding to pain in others. She seems to consider the way British nobility and Democrats respond to others’ suffering a response far more true to their ethical code and the pressure of historical knowledge itself (p.13-5, 192-3). And that is why perhaps she does not strongly criticize President Clinton’s apologies for his sexual misbehavior for being fake.

But how can it be that the British nobility and the Democrats unite in her view? One may see here a far too hasty generalization. Let us not forget that the forefathers of the Democrats united to defend their free-trade way against the British nobility in the American War of Independence. Even in her discussion of the differences of right-wing Conservatives (and the defenders of the Cato Institute) from the Democrats, she seems to place too much emphasis on the pro-free trade feelings of the one side and the anti-free trade feelings of the other. Let us not forget here as well that Democrats show quite indifferent attitudes to various social problems, when it comes to winning or losing an election. Perhaps in this age of political make-believe serious and historical differences in political platforms seem to whither away under the pressure of the thirst for power. Perhaps Ellison’s book is what we need in order to comprehend the otherwise very strange recent unifications of political platforms of right and left parties world-wide. A good example of this is Clinton’s Presidency in the last International Socialist Convention in Europe, where he claimed that governments should spend more in social issues, and this in a hall full of hard-line socialists, who would probably not been able to receive a entry visa to visit his country a few years ago!.

But the more cumbersome side of her argument seems to be the philosophical one. In general, philosophers would consider as valid a claim about the interdependency of metaphysics and epistemology: we cannot know the truth, unless we believe that there is such a thing as truth. But in her book Ellison seems to go further and try to show how the quite epistemological liberal guilt is the foundation of true metaphysics and ontology! In some of her claims she brings passages from Sartre’s work to support her view (p. 223, note 18). Sartre however is far from placing the "gaze of the Other" as an antithesis of "bad faith". And even if one may claim that the antithesis of "bad faith" may help in the discovery of true metaphysics, no one could claim that Sartre (or any other sound-minded philosopher) would go so far as to make the subject-object dynamics of guilt equal to the "constitution of the subject, the object and the moral importance of their relation" (p.181). In such a statement (as with the statement of "rationality is a very emotional thing" in p. 189) we see the Derridean influences of the writer, but far too little soundness of argument in an otherwise quite interesting book.

The book even if somewhat problematic in the political and philosophical arguments has many merits for historians of politics and philosophy: it shows how the Scottish Enlightenment representatives influenced the modern liberal treatment of sympathy and made their own impact to the advancement of the libertarian elitist "poweful white men" ideology, which is still heard in news broadcasts across the world!

With these and the above mentioned benefits for Anglo-American Literature and Cultural and Feminist Studies students, the book in general increases our knowledge in the quite sensitive and mystical area of emotion and politics, that manages most of our social lives, and becomes one of the few Anglo-American Literature books which most of the people who read it will find interesting!

 

Dr.Constantinos Athanasopoulos has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow (on the topic of The Metaphysics of Intentionality in the Philosophy of Language and Mind of Sartre and Wittgenstein). He has also studied philosophy, psychology and religion at Brandon U., Canada, and Moral Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews. Currently he writes books for the Greek Open University (one on Medieval Philosophy and another on Byzantine Civilization) and teaches part-time philosophy courses at the University of Athens and Patras, Greece. His many research interests include metaphysics, philosophy of mind and language, Continental and Analytic, and Medieval and Byzantine Philosophy, moral psychology, ethics, environmental philosophy and ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of education, philosophy of psychology and psychiatry. Parallel to job-hunting his other hobbies include Byzantine Music, Orthodox Theology and going to the movies.


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