philosopher Richard Firth-Godbecher
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Why do we laugh or cry, feel fear or bravely plunge into the unknown, reach out for the beautiful or turn away from the terrible? All these questions, probably, occupy every person from childhood to a greater or lesser extent. The British philosopher Richard Firth-Godbecher is certainly not the first to attempt to understand the causes of emotional experience. How much he succeeded, the critic Lidia Maslova found out especially for Izvestia.

Richard Firth-Godbecher

“Emotions: A Magnificent History of Humankind”

Moscow: Mann, Ivanov and Ferber, 2022. – per. from English. O. Bykova. — 320 s.

The most mysterious thing about the Russian translation of the book on emotions, written by Richard Firth-Godbecher, Ph.D., is the flattering epithet “gorgeous” on the cover. The original study of human concepts of emotional experience (from Plato to futuristic fantasies of emotion-recognizing computers) is called A Human History of Emotion: How the Way We Feel Built the World We Know. , built the world we know”). This title reflects one of the main ideas that can be traced in the book: everything that people think they know about the world around them is usually emotionally colored, and often the emotional perception of this world precedes rational analysis. Therefore, the course of historical development is far from being controlled by reason, which can only justify decisions made in a fit of passion after the fact: “Throughout history, certain strong emotions acted as the driving force for change. Often, desire, aversion, love, fear or anger swept through entire cultures, pushing people into actions that changed everything.”

Philosopher Richard Firth-Godbecher


In essence, even our publishers, who consider it possible to characterize the history of mankind as “magnificent”, express not so much a thought or observation as an emotion – admiration (another question is how justified it is). In Firth-Godbecher’s historical excursus, admiration comes up somewhere in the middle, in the eighth chapter “The Emergence of Emotions”, the main character of which is Rene Descartes, to whom, in fact, we owe the emergence of the term “emotions”. “For Descartes, the fundamental passion from which all others flow was admiration,” writes the British philosopher, explaining that this is not at all the admiration that makes modern people throw around the words “magnificent”, “excellent” and “brilliant”. “The French admiration of the 1649 meant something like recognizing that something exists and deciding how to treat it. <...> Admiration is followed by feelings that form our judgments: love, hate, joy, desire and sadness.

In the chapter on Descartes, Firth-Godbecher, striving for maximum intelligibility and liveliness of his narration, demonstrates his trademark beginning, which is used in many chapters, when one or another character who turned history or science upside down is presented as if he were an ordinary person living in the neighborhood. Descartes, the author of the book finds on his deathbed: “In 1650 – a little more than a century before the concept of “emotion” acquired its modern meaning – a fifty-three-year-old Frenchman was dying of pneumonia in a cold and damp house on Vesterlongatan, one of the main streets of Stockholm “. Not very lucky and Plato, whom we first meet on that sad day when his teacher Socrates was forced to take poison. “About 399 years before the birth of Christ, a young man a little over twenty was lying in bed, broken by illness,” Firth-Godbecher begins the story of “Platonic feelings” and, in general, about Plato’s understanding of the structure of the human soul. — The Greeks called the emotions pathē – pate, which can be translated as “suffering” or “suffering”. <...> Plato considered pate to be the unrest of the soul, ripples caused by external events or sensations, something that unbalances us and breaks peace.

After the sick Plato, Alexander of Macedon, as Firth-Godbecher imagines him, keeps a little more cheerful: “In 334 BC, about 65 years after the execution of Socrates, a young man was sitting in a tent and reading an important letter”. Using the example of a resourceful commander who learned well the lessons of Aristotle with his rhetoric and provoked his soldiers with a brazen letter from the Persian king Darius, the author of the book demonstrates the manipulative function of emotions in human history and, above all, in the formation of the world’s largest religions. “It was emotions, not actions, that contributed to the emergence and doctrinal development of one of the world’s largest religions,” the British philosopher writes about Buddhism, but this also applies to the ideological basis of Christianity, which was laid by the apostle Paul when he “adapted Jewish ideas about feelings for the Roman mentality “.

The Jews, in the interpretation of Firth-Godbecher, were not in too much of a hurry to feel something themselves, making their emotional life dependent on God: “To cause in Yahweh one of the types of disgust meant to commit a sin and risk the well-being of four generations of one’s family. The Ten Commandments are only part of a long list of things God abhors.” The fact that Yahweh was predominantly in a state of disgust for his people is explained at the moment when Firth-Godbecher makes a little self-disclosure: “It’s time to show the cards: my main field of research is disgust. I did my dissertation on disgust; I write about him, I think about him.

The author of the book thinks about disgust with undoubted sympathy, finding it a useful feeling in various respects. Firstly, “disgust is clearly an evolved defense mechanism that helps us avoid pathogens and poisons,” and secondly, “the emotion of disgust is a kind of universal moral guideline that exists inside each of us.” And finally, the disgust of the gods is the most effective regulator of human behavior. In the mythological anecdotes of Firth-Godbecher, the wayward gods are sometimes offended, sometimes angry, sometimes disgusted with people, and the main thing for a person who wants to succeed in this life is not to cause negativity in the gods.

By the time the reader reaches the unsettling modernity (artificial intelligence is about to be entrusted with the almost divine function of identifying terrorists by facial expressions by scanning airport queues), the entire history of mankind is largely presented as a history of humiliating fear and the word “gorgeous” in relation to it is colored with mocking irony. However, a sense of humor is perhaps the only human feeling that, paradoxically, escaped the attention of the British researcher, despite all his attempts to periodically take on a casual humorous tone and amuse the public with illustrative examples from the life of his beloved cat Zazzi.

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