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A discussion on power, politics and fear

Insights from Martha Nussbaum in advance of the globally renowned intellectual’s upcoming visit – which you’re invited to.

September 13, 2018

Martha NussbaumMartha Nussbaum is one of the most distinguished philosophers and public intellectuals of our time. And Sept. 27 at 2 p.m. in St. Cajetan’s is your chance to hear her speak right here on campus, thanks to the Denver Project for Humanistic Inquiry.

Currently the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, she has authored more than 20 books and been the recipient of multiple awards (including the Kyoto Prize in 2016) and delivered the National Endowment for the Humanities’ prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2017.

Nussbaum will discuss themes from her most recent work, “The Monarchy of Fear.” The book, a thorough examination of the current political crisis, focuses on what so many pollsters and pundits have overlooked – that the political is always emotional.

In anticipation of her talk, here are some insights from Nussbaum on the value of reaching understanding through a shared sense of humanity.

  • At a time when students are facing increasing economic pressures, how would you characterize (or justify) the value of studying the humanities? 

Our relative position has improved! The humanities used to be disregarded, and science was on a pedestal, and now the science is being treated just as badly! No, no … Philosophy, since the time of Socrates, has called for an examined life that looks for reasoning and facts. We want evidence, to search for those values we care about and consider what we are willing to risk to support those values.

We all welcome a critical thinking that unmasks false claims — that’s what Socrates did all the time. But, say, how do you not accept history yet care about scientific evidence? Or vice versa?

That’s part of why I write so much about the humanities. We need to understand one another, and we need to be able to look one another in the eye with a mobile imagination and with love. If we don’t have that, we can’t move forward at all. And often these things don’t cost a huge amount of money. I don’t think you have to have fancy lighting equipment or whatever to have kids put on a play.

  • How do you characterize power/powerlessness and fear (or what do you mean by it in the title of your talk)?

On the one hand, I am helpless, and the universe doesn’t care about me; on the other hand, I am a monarch, and everyone must care about me. What fear is is the thought that there are bad things looming over you and that you are powerless to ward them off. We learn early on, and fear never goes away; we are all powerless over it.

  • How do you establish ground rules for a productive conversation within a political environment that is so divided? 

We really need to be able to speak to one another and listen to one another. … We should have more bipartisan initiatives, but we have to start with ourselves because I have certainly had plenty of colleagues and students who think it’s like the apocalypse; the last days are at hand. We have to stop doing that. You need to be able to disagree, even strongly, with people and still respect and even trust them. This means thinking them people of goodwill who are trying, as you are, to solve problems.

  • For many disadvantaged folks, hope doesn’t seem like a choice when they’re preoccupied with basic survival. How do people activate agency in this?

I think a lot of people get hope through civic organizations and through their churches. … A lot of hope is local. And I think that’s very important: that people don’t need to think, ‘Oh, how can I change Washington?’ They shouldn’t be thinking that way for the most part. But they find hope in their own communities.

  • How would commitment to service help us recover a shared sense of humanity? 

Young people would see the diversity of people in their country as soldiers in World War II learned to do during their service, only my young people would be trying to help, not to kill. I think young people should have a mandatory national service program that would precisely remedy the de facto segregation of this country, that would put them in touch with people of different classes and races than their own.


In addition to Nussbaum’s talk, a panel of experts on Wednesday evening will discuss her enduring contributions to various fields, including moral philosophy, aesthetics and political thought. More information on both events is available on D-Phi’s website.

Note: Some of Nussbaum’s responses above have been previously published. They are used here with her authorization.

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