Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were not neurologists, and knew nothing about the role of the amygdala or hormones. They did not know that there were such things as synapses. The same was true of the oldest Asian, African, Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The monotheistic religions did not base their teachings on the sciences, and the psychologists and psychoanalysts of the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth tried to formulate theories and establish methodologies on the basis of experiments they were able to analyse by examining the behaviour of their patients. And yet all these approaches make the same observations and strive to achieve a similar objective: no matter whether their message is based upon moral principles, the aspiration to inner freedom or even the desire to achieve a psychological equilibrium, the goal is always to achieve and maintain mastery and control over one’s emotions and passions. They are beyond our control, and the task of the philosopher, initiate, believer or patient is to become aware of the indeterminate element within himself or herself and to understand, insofar as that is possible, how that element functions in an attempt to control it and thereby attain an inner harmony. Socrates’ ‘temperance’ requires a determined commitment on the part of reason which, through introspection and asceticism (‘know thyself’), gains the ability to win the fight over the passions that bind us. Even Aristotle’s catharsis serves the same function: drama attempts to work upon the non-rational (affective and emotional) element in the spectator in order to influence the free and sometimes untamed dimension that escapes the control of his conscious reason. No matter whether we agree with the Greek dualists who contrast the soul (or mind) with the body, or whether we support the very different monist theses of contemporary physicalism and argue, like Otto Neurath, that ‘the language of physics is the universal language’ (he is referring to the theories of the philosopher and logician William Van Orman Quine), empirical and day-to-day experience always reveals the same truth: it is as though some indeterminate, non-conscious and uncontrolled element (which may be physical, unconscious or mental) has to be kept under control and surveillance if we are to find inner peace and a degree of wellbeing. This is an age-old insight: both the oldest teachings of philosophy, spirituality and religion and modern scientific knowledge reveal the same truth: our nature, bodies and brains are subject to tensions and ruled by conflicting powers and authorities, and we are torn between a limited consciousness that senses its freedom and the free and spontaneous emotions to which we are bound.
Our emotions are often beautiful, but they can also be dangerous. They represent our spontaneity and seem to speak to us of our freedom. And yet all contemporary studies – from neurology and psychology to marketing – prove that our emotions are the form of self-expression over which we have least control, that they are highly vulnerable and, basically, easily manipulated. Advertising, music, atmospheres, subliminal messages and films can have an impact on our emotional life, and we cannot control it because we are not even conscious of it. The ‘army camp’ that coordinates the agencies of our brain is vulnerable, both in itself and from within. In effect, he who can know and master its functioning and psychology from outside can become twice its master The era of global communications is also the era of global emotions: from the death of Princess Diana to sporting events and even the devastating tsunami that struck Asia in December 2004, we have witnessed massive ritual gatherings in which millions of individuals were overwhelmed by tears, joy or communion of mourning. Such planetary phenomena are unpredictable and uncontrolled and sweep away and colonize our consciousness and our hearts: no one can predict which direction such popular tumult will take, or which gods the impassioned crowds will worship. We try to assess the risks posed by these new ‘ritual rallies’ of the uncontrolled at both the individual and the collective level: how can we control the emotions? Can we be spontaneous whilst still remaining rational?