St. John Henry Newman in his Lenten meditation on Good Friday contends that if a man feels strong sentiments of religion but fails to carry out the associated acts of religion, then he is not religious in any meaningful sense. Conversely, if a man carries out religious acts faithfully without experiencing the associated feelings, then his religion is at least highly defective in kind. The sentiments are then an integral part of the virtue of religion, or piety, reverence, and the other virtues. A constitutive part of virtue is a cultivation of the sentiments attached to the acquisition thereof through habits acquired via repeated right action.
A sentiment is an attitude, or a disposition of the mind, that governs the emotions of oneself with respect to a given matter. It is a posture toward the world that determines and regulates the kinds, degrees, and intensities of feeling one experiences in the face of life-events. Sentiments are acquired and trained through habits attained via practices. Such practices are often first studied within an institution. Sentiment might be best understood in terms of its propriety, which determines what is the appropriate attitude one is to have about something. Propriety is governed by wisdom or prudence with a view to what is good and real in the world, wisdom being a knowledge of the highest causes of things and prudence being the practical wisdom that determines how one is to act in the world to best attain what is known to be good for one’s flourishing.
The sentiments, as I have previously stated, must be trained through habits and cultivated through experience. It often happens that these experiences occur in institutional contexts within so-called “mediating institutions” such as the family, the church, clubs, the military, and other collectives where persons are trained so as to attain to some good or end, be it a generative adulthood, eternal salvation, the perfection of a craft, excellence in a sport, or victory in combat. Through instruction in how one is to attain these ends, one’s sentiments are appropriately educated in how to relate to certain events and situations, holding in view the end of their given institution as they are instructed in the tasks necessary to attain that end specific to the institution. To take a religious example, one is trained to feel sorrow and gratitude concerning the crucifixion of Christ, and gladness and joy concerning His Resurrection, with a view to the significance these things hold for the salvation of one’s soul. The training is carried out through the religious rites and observances of the Church through the liturgical year. The above two examples are manifest through the prayers and practices tied to Good Friday and Easter. To use a more widespread example, one is trained to feel grief and perhaps hope concerning the death of a loved one through the rituals tied to their burial and the mourning process more broadly so as to understand the importance of honoring those who have proceeded oneself. This cultivates filial piety and due reverence, rituals passed down through tradition being the ordinary set of practices that aid in promoting these virtues and their associated attitudes.
I would posit that, as these mediating institutions such as the Church and the family have deteriorated in modernity, so also has the sentimental education of the person that was carried out through them, resulting in a kind of impoverishment of proper emotion among the young today. We are not trained in what to feel, how to feel, and to what degree we are to feel it with respect to critical matters in life, chiefly matters of life, death, and ultimate meaning. There is a notion among some authors that sex and death, or religion and art, are the only things really worth writing about and discussing, and I rather sympathize with the idea. However, many were not clearly instructed about these matters through traditional rituals or practices, as these have eroded with the institutions in which they were established and maintained. So, given that there was no clear instruction because of a lack of ritual or practice as a result of the erosion of these institutions, one gets the sense that the supposedly critical matters do not in fact matter at all, and if they don’t matter, then it’s not clear that one’s attitude toward them is of much importance. Yet, when death strikes, or an opportunity for happiness arises, we are struck by virtue of the natural gravity these things hold for us as human beings. However, because of a lack of a proper sentimental education through the corresponding practices and rituals, one knows not what to do in the face of them, resulting in a kind of hopeless, fumbling confusion or numbness. The confusion then produces paralysis and a fatal lack of resolve.
The above picture of confusion or numbness constitutes the impoverishment of feeling or sentiment I referred to at the beginning of the essay, and it seems that the lack of sentimental education within mediating institutions has further produced a superficiality of feeling that has taken the place of more profound sentiments of those who were trained through the old institutions of times past.
Ernst Junger treats this topic in his essay On Pain in which he critiques modern liberal education, noting that the soldier and the seminarian, who are trained as “types” rather than as “individuals,” possess a resolve manifest in their hardened faces. They know their task, their end, and their corresponding sentiments as they have been clearly trained with regards to these things. The modern bourgeois, liberally educated man, however, possesses a face that is “soft,” vaguely confused, and irresolute on account of his approach to education not as a “type” but as an “individual” whose life lacks the resolve and the clarity of purpose of the previous two kinds on account of the multiplicity of options before him and his lack of serious commitment to any one of them.
Some lament that we live in an “emotional age driven by sentiment,” and in one respect this is correct, as the “cult of feelings” and the language of the therapeutic have become more dominant in our time. However, the hyperemotionality is chaotic and lacks a clear tie to an end, a task, or a grander purpose. Even when these things are present, they pale in comparison with those of our forebears. There is a lack of groundedness with this new emotionality; the feelings are directionless and thus more superficial, making them less profound, and thus less properly emotional, than the sentiments cultivated through such distinctively human experiences as religiosity, warfare, or close familial life. The enemy lies not in feelings or the sentiments as such but in a vapid and erratic sentimentality.
My contention is that for as long as the above mediating institutions are weak and the practices and rituals contained within eschewed, we will face this crisis of the impoverishment of sentiment, as the sentiments are properly trained, educated, and habituated by engagement with the practices maintained in these institutions. Moreover, the sentimental education is imperative in the moral life, as it is through the formation of the sentiments that one’s conscience is formed and strengthened so as to cultivate virtue, as one’s sentiments are often crucial in prompting and facilitating virtuous action.
If one does not form the sentiments by handing one’s body and mind over to an institution by intention, then that one’s sentiments will be formed through their own life experiences in an erratic manner, making for the superficiality of feeling criticized previously. The position of the man who submits to his church is in a preferable position to one who must make up his own mind about how he feels about religion because his parents irresponsibly told him he alone was to decide the matter by himself, implicitly indicating that the matter, if it required no guidance, was not actually of any importance.
The key lies in handing one’s mind and body over to the right institutions and practices, but this is made difficult on account of their general historical erosion. The university is of little help in this, as our curriculum and coursework is often decided on the basis of the individual interests of the student and the professor, and there is not here now a culture of shared experience between students that promotes the sentimental education stated above. One can opt into organizations and clubs that ameliorate this, but the problem still generally remains. There was a time when liberal education, moral education, and sentimental education all took place in the context of the university and other institutions of learning, but that time is no more with the increased fragmentation of our society.
In dissolving our received institutions with their practices, rituals, and traditions, we have crippled our capacity to feel strong feelings. As by telling the young to make up their own beliefs and practices as individuals without further instruction, we have indicated that the matters to which the practices pertain lack real import, rendering the young vulnerable when situations of natural gravity occur and they know not what to do or how to feel. The young “can’t even [function]” because they have not been trained in how to function by their authorities who have paradoxically disregarded the concept of authority at the expense of their children, and this is a tragedy.