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Emotions in History – Lost and Found

Ute Frevert

Emotions lost and found: Conclusions and perspectives

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1We have come to the end of our intellectual journey. It took us from the French president’s anger to global empathy; it fathomed women’s rage and allowed us to question men’s cold blood; it introduced us to honour cultures and examined practices of social shaming. With regard to time, we travelled from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, in some cases going even further back in time. Geographically, the journey started in the midst of Europe, in Brussels, from where we set off in different directions: mainly to France, Great Britain, and the German-speaking countries. On our way, we encountered Spanish hombres de honor and Sicilian mafiosi, met Algerian and Turkish immigrants, and briefly crossed the Balkan war theatre.

2Omitting Northern and Eastern Europe altogether, due to lack of language skills and expertise, the book focused on Europe’s western and central areas. Despite manifold national and regional differences, they share cultural traits and political institutions, commercial developments and social movements that proved pivotal for the way in which the economy of emotions was structured and evolved. Furthermore, throughout the modern period, those areas were closely interconnected, for better or worse. As much as people, goods, and news circulated more or less freely, emotional codes and styles informed and borrowed from each other, from the Age of Sensibility (succeeded by the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars) to the Age of the Therapeutic (preceded by the Second Thirty Years War).

3Yet, these codes and styles did not apply to all people living in Western and Central Europe during the modern period. How men and women, adolescents and senior citizens, peasants and city dwellers dealt with their emotions, how they regulated, managed, navigated and reflected upon them, did not follow the same pattern. Immigrant communities harboured emotional regimes that frequently differed substantially from those of the host society, and were radicalised even further once those differences became judged as cultural markers on both sides. Within the host society, social subcultures, particularly in adolescence, constructed their own universe of feeling that often bore little resemblance to how other youth or adult groups set up their economy of emotions. To give a contemporary example: “Emos” have become a significant subculture within urban European youth culture in recent years. They deliberately set themselves apart from others by cultivating special dress codes, musical styles and emotional communication that sometimes verges on the auto-aggressive. Their outer appearance and behaviour have very little in common with self-assertive, abrasive youth gangs, and they do not match the culture of coolness as it pervades late modern Western mainstream society.1

4Keeping this heterogeneity in mind, it is highly questionable to speak of emotional regimes, styles and codes tout court and imply that they pertain totally to social systems or national territories. Historically, we might be tempted to assume that late modern societies show less social and cultural diversity than early or premodern ones. Advanced consumer economies and all-pervasive media coverage seem to provide more homogeneous patterns of consumption, communication and appearances. The proliferation of self-help literature, for instance, addressing unisex and unisocial audiences, invites us to think that their advice and counsel is sought and followed by each and everyone. However, this is at best half-true. For a start, social norms and prescriptions as they are defined by the genre, do not always translate into practice, let alone produce uniform behaviour. Even if a message is not completely lost on readers (it rarely is), they might find it hard or unfeasible to follow the rules.

5Furthermore, those rules and prescriptions as they are transmitted via media images and therapeutic handbooks are in no way unique, let alone only relevant to our times. In early modern Europe, religious texts like sermons, prayer books, and spiritual writings worked as powerful emotional educators conveying strong normative scripts. On more worldly matters, advice manuals began to get published by the end of the late eighteenth century and were circulated widely during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In contrast to previous and present efforts, those books were more exclusive as they were written for, and directed at, segregated audiences: young versus adult men/women, rural versus urban, Catholic versus Protestant, rich versus poor. The general tone was set, however, by the educated upper (and) middle classes all over Europe who strove to claim and exert cultural hegemony.

6This is also the reason why these social milieus have taken centre stage in this book. Focusing on European honour cultures, in the first chapter we explored some crucial features of their emotional self-perceptions and practices. In the second chapter, we tracked emotions invading gender roles and relations that were first and foremost spelt out for men and women of bourgeois family background. Finally, the third chapter acquainted us with modes of empathic and compassionate behaviour implemented by (mostly) middle-class members of social reform and humanitarian movements.

7Again, this is not to suggest that those practices and self-perceptions dominated modern societies and eradicated social differences and diversity. In fact, as far as honour is concerned, the opposite seems to be true. Men who held on to highly emotionalised practices like duelling were but a tiny minority and they neither attempted nor managed to turn their passions into a general rule. Still, the honour culture as it was performed by social elites had a far greater impact on society than the habits of marginal or liminal groups. Even if the latter seem to follow similarly self-assertive and agonal scripts (by, for instance, claiming “respect” and addressing each other with sexually explicit language and gestures), they operate in a social and emotional environment that clearly limits and weakens their appeal and resonance.

8What further distinguishes such subcultural practices from the elite culture is the latter’s influence on social institutions. Even though “men of honour” did not predominate in numbers, they had a firm grip on institutions like the courts, universities or the army. As long as respective social practices and feelings were enshrined in professional codes of conduct, they enjoyed high social visibility and an aura of importance that lower classes or marginal styles could not even dream of attaining.

9Institutions also played a part as essential amplifiers that helped to disseminate emotional norms and rules. It was one thing to write and publish religious texts, advice books or novels that informed readers about what to feel and how to express their feelings. Educational tools and mechanisms were needed in order for this information to capture people’s imagination and translate into social practices. Institutions like family, church, school, the military, the workplace and politics served as “schools of emotions” that shaped the self-perception and outlook of generations of respective students.

10This does not imply, however, that curricula remained invariant. Just as honour practices like duelling vanished from the twentieth-century military and academic agenda, pedagogical institutions came to reassess the role emotions played in teacher-student relations. Families negotiated and altered gendered practices of emotional investment, and today’s business world values CEOs’ emotional literacy. Yet, what emotional literacy (or intelligence) means varies considerably. Modern institutions did not and do not all follow the same emotional script; rather, they pro-vide distinct, sometimes divergent, expectations and propositions. As individuals constantly rotate between institutions and switch from one code of conduct to the other on a daily basis or during the life course, they have to deal with numerous feeling and display rules. How to navigate between them and accommodate one’s personal needs and tastes becomes a major challenge in multi-layered, globalised societies.

11The book’s focus was not so much how individuals cope with that challenge but rather how institutions frame their emotional provisions and requests. The latter reveals a lot about the role emotions play in modern societies, how they are valued and endorsed. It also sheds light on how they are defined, regulated, and monitored. It could be argued that emotions, above all social or “relational” emotions, are deeply cultural. Although clearly resting on a physiological basis grounded in human (and animal) biology, they acquire culturally specific forms and meanings.

  • 2 Boltanski, Distant Suffering, p. xiv.

12Consider empathy, for instance. The fact that human beings are naturally equipped to feel what others feel does not mean that they always do. They might just turn away and act indifferent. Or they might choose to combine empathy with Schadenfreude when watching others suffer in pain (or they might feel jealous when seeing other people thrive). To transform empathy into pro-social emotions and behaviour, people seem to need incentives and encouragement. They depend on educational inputs and social institutions that reinforce and amplify moral claims to compassion. How far compassion reaches and where it ends is equally dependent upon social, cultural and political factors. There might be situations and circumstances which restrict compassion to small circles of like-minded peers. In other instances, people extend compassion to distant sufferers regardless of causes or qualities. In any case, compassion needs explicit translations between those who suffer, and the “sensibilities” of those who may organise support.2 These mediations occur through culture, i.e. through public media, associations and movements activating traditions, aligning interests, and legitimising feelings and actions deemed appropriate.

13Emotions are thus framed within an economy that depends on, and answers to, cultural expectations and social needs. They become nurtured and cultivated on certain occasions, or otherwise repressed and sanctioned They are subject to processes of education and formation which operate on an institutional as well as on a personal level. As a rule, emotions are inevitably personal and individual; a group, a community or an institution, for that matter, cannot by nature have emotions. But they can, and do, influence and coordinate how and what their members feel and how they may express their feelings. They can encourage and discourage them to feel shame, pride or honour; they can support them to show or withhold rage, hatred, and compassion.

14They also have a say on how emotions are gendered and if (and to what extent) men or women are supposed to feel (and act) differently. As for empathy, women have long since been credited with a particular ability to feel with and for others. Nineteenth-century physicians, psychologists, and other learned men believed that a “special anthropology” applied to women, which rendered them capable of effortlessly sharing other beings’ sentiments and ailments. Emotions became naturalised in a way that had a crucial bearing on modern ideas and practices of empathic conduct. On the one hand, this allowed women to play a major role in associations and movements concerned with philanthropy and social reform. This was an important step at a time of hard efforts to confine women to the private sphere of family and friendship. More and more middle-class women took this step thus entering the public sphere and working side by side with husbands, brothers or cousins for the improvement of social welfare.

15On the other hand, empathy was not held to be women’s monopoly. As much as sympathy and compassion were seen as essential resources of modern society, all citizens had to embrace it and to develop attitudes beyond self-love and self-interest. Men’s social status depended on their faculty to sympathise with others, and so did their ability to interact and cooperate in the fields of work and politics. According to public opinion, however, men’s inclination to feel and enact sympathy differed from women’s in an important way: it was far more pro-active. Even if women allegedly harboured more intense and gentle feelings, they were not thought to be able to turn them into appropriate behaviour due to physical and moral weakness. Men, in contrast, were deemed strong enough to let actions follow sentiment.

16This was what and how numerous contemporaries thought and felt about the gendered economy of emotions. Their ideas were not just personal beliefs, but social scripts embedded in institutions like family, school, university, professional associations and organisations. They translated into feeling and display rules confronting men and women with strong expectations and sanctions. Yet, those expectations were not set in stone. They could be reviewed and negotiated, as it happened in social reform movements like abolitionism, engaging both genders and letting women take an active stance as much as men did. They could be questioned, criticised, rejected, and subverted by individual men and women who might become role models for larger groups and movements. Emotional norms, just as any social norm, were always in flux inviting individual agency as well as collective bargaining.

17How this has worked throughout history is a fascinating research topic. Recently it reappeared in historiography and social science, which, after an early and short-lived phase of academic interest, had dismissed emotions as trivial and without explanatory value. “New” cultural history and sociology have taken them on board stressing their relevance for economic development, political communication, and social relations as well as for the construction and framing of subjectivity. Modern societies have come up with economies of emotions that match institutional arrangements and personal identities, buttress certain forms of social interaction and delegitimise other ones. To “find” emotions in history means to pay tribute to those economies and reconsider their impact on social and political conflict, cohesion and development, as well as on individual self-concepts and behaviour.

18“Finding emotions” also means exploring the dynamics and trajectories that allow for some emotions, like honour and shame, to get lost and other ones, like empathy and compassion, to gain momentum during the modern period. The concept of “lost” emotions is somewhat problematic, though. According to the physicists’ laws of conservation, nothing is ever lost in history. Cultural memory allows us to store ideas and concepts that have lost their practical appeal, and enables them to reappear in different forms, guises and meanings. In the case of acedia, melancholy and depression discussed in the first chapter, feelings of laziness, sloth and inertia might have travelled across cultures and periods. It is difficult to draw a strict line between acedia and melancholy, or between melancholy and depression, since they all share certain features. However, the language and manner in which they were framed varied greatly, and they applied to particular groups with very little in common. They were also explained and treated differently—which suggests that the way in which laziness, sloth and inertia have actually been felt and experienced by distinct groups and generations has changed considerably.

19As for honour and shame, the case is slightly different. Given that the words are still in use, we might think that we know what honour and shame felt like one or two hundred years ago. But history proves us wrong. Just as the actress Hanna Schygulla could not understand and empathise with Effi Briest’s feelings of shame, male middle-class Europeans nowadays will find it hard to enter Baron von Innstetten’s feelings when learning of his wife’s infi delity. Today’s husbands would probably experience fits of jealousy and anger at having been deceived; they would not, however, feel insulted in their personal honour and they would not call out the person who had insulted them.

20In sociological terms, this can be attributed to honour losing its grip in and on modern society in the course of democratisation and increasing plurality. Honour usually works successfully with segregated groups and circles that want to remain apart from others and cultivate distinct emotional styles. As long as those groups remain marginal and liminal, they can do this without challenging civil society’s overall values and commitments. As a privilege of elite groups claiming social superiority, however, honour could not survive since it radically challenged and undermined the pluralistic, anti-hierarchical fabric of democratic systems.

21Hence, we can argue that the emotional or “internal” disposition of honour was lost, it became obsolete, and was succeeded by both a general sense of human dignity and a meritocratic notion of “external” honour(s). Modern society thus worked to continuously shift and redress the range and rules of its emotional economy, discarding some passions and inciting others. The latter held true for empathy and compassion. Although pity and compassion had been present in premodern times, they have been substantially reframed and have gained new momentum since the eighteenth century. In this book, they therefore figure as “found” emotions: they were found to be crucial and indispensible for modern society, they found theoretical attention and acclaim as well as practical encouragement and institutional support. As social emotions, they conspicuously entered the public arena, while honour faded into the background. But as much as they promised a new utopia of universal humanity, they encountered real-life obstacles, structural dilemmas and blockades.

  • 3 New York Times, February 28, 2011 (Articles selected for Süddeutsche Zeitung), p. 3.

22Exploring those counter-forces helps us to understand how emotions are embedded into social and cultural environments, how they are stirred, mobilised and silenced. This is as much a historical question, as it is one that concerns us as citizens. “Empathy,” in the words of Piotr Cywin´ski, the current director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, “is noble.” But “it is not enough to cry” over past suffering. Instead, we should feel a “responsibility to the present.”3 The history of emotions informs us how to handle such responsibility and what to avoid along its path.


1 (last access: Jan. 30, 2011); Stearns, Peter N., American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style (New York: New York University Press, 1994); Geiger, Annette et al., eds., Coolness: Zur Ästhetik einer kulturellen Strategie und Attitüde (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010).

2 Boltanski, Distant Suffering, p. xiv.

3 New York Times, February 28, 2011 (Articles selected for Süddeutsche Zeitung), p. 3.

© Central European University Press, 2011

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