This blog offers some high points from the second chapter of the book Wisdom: A Very Valuable Virtue That Cannot Be Bought (2022). The chapter involves managing and integrating emotion, emotional intelligence, integrating emotion with intellect, using both halves of the brain (figuratively, more than literally)—all in an effort to be wiser and live with more self-control, happiness, and satisfaction.
The main takeaway from this chapter is that wisdom modulates the extremes, and thus takes the best of what the two polarities have to offer. Wisdom must also manage different functions of the brain to the right degree as well as at the right times. This, essentially, is integration. In this usage, synonyms for integration include: assimilation, combination, amalgamation, mediation, incorporation, and synthesis.
As the critical thinking expert Steven Novella put it, “We are overwhelmingly emotional creatures. We have the capacity for logic and critical thinking, but they are skills; we’re not born as master critical thinkers.” We are not, indeed. However, managing and integrating emotion with the more “quintessentially cognitive” aspects of the brain can be a crucial part of being wiser and living with more equanimity, mindfulness, and success.
Emotional intelligence is actually rather popular these days, and for good reason!
The pioneering psychotherapist Sigmund Freud knew that we human beings are deeply emotional animals, and social critic Marya Mannes claimed that “the sign of an intelligent person is their ability to control emotions by the application of reason.”
Author of a book on wisdom Stephen S. Hall points out that when one surveys the long history of philosophy, “rational thought reigns supreme” and “emotion has traditionally been viewed not as informative, but rather, as either inconsequential or even a saboteur of pure reason.” However, a more modern take on psychological health and well-being indicates that managing and integrating emotion is better and more adaptive than a) merely living an overly cerebral lifestyle, or b) approaching the world with unregulated passion and emotion.
Indeed, as long ago as the eighteenth century, the philosopher of some renown David Hume famously wrote that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Around the same time, the intellectual titan Adam Smith opined on the role of emotions in the social lives of humans. In his influential A Treatise on Human Nature, Hume’s reference to “slavery” to describe the relationship between the supposedly subservient rational mind and the emotions, or passion, is pretty surprising.
The modern philosopher Julian Bagginni believes:
It is one thing to accept that reason is driven by emotion, but quite another to believe that it should be. But Hume was correct. He understood that pure reason is motivationally inert. Logic alone cannot give you a reason to do something or not. Through reasoning, for example, we can sometimes do utilitarian calculations to see which of a given range of actions would produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But that cannot tell us why we ought to want the greatest happiness in the first place.
Neurologist Antonio Damasio in fact noted that patients who have brain trauma or an organic brain dysfunction that stifles or quashes emotion are quite dysfunctional in their lives. This indicates that emotion does play a role in the lives of human beings—however, it can be problematic if managing and integrating emotion is not within the repertoire of the individual. He writes:
When emotion is entirely left out of the reasoning picture, as happens in certain neurological conditions in humans, reason turns out to be even more flawed than when emotion plays bad tricks on our decisions.
Indeed, the esteemed biologist Edward O. Wilson put it this way: “Without the stimulus and guidance of emotion, rational thought slows and disintegrates. The rational mind does not float above the irrational; it cannot free itself to engage in pure reason.” Emotion is more or less centered in the evolutionarily older, deeper regions of the human brain. This makes us more similar to non-human animals than we might like to think!
For better or worse, emotions have a great influence on human beings. They are either the most amazing qualities of human physiology and psychology, or quite a liability (depending on how one looks at it, and depending on the particular context in question).
Wisdom is a fine mediator between two polarities—in this particular case, the “left-brained” and “right-brained” cognitive functions, the passion and the rationality. It is generally closer to wisdom when one avoids extremes, and this is straight out of Aristotle. Wisdom lies in between, say, cowardice (on one end of the spectrum) and heedlessness, rashness, or outrage on the other.
Apropos of integrating different parts of the brain and different psychological manifestations of the mind, another very well-regarded psychologist, Daniel Goleman, popularized the concept of emotional intelligence. In his words:
Emotional intelligence encompasses such characteristics as being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think, empathize, and hope.
Vincent van Gogh said, “The little emotions are the great captains of our lives, and we obey them without realizing it.”
Goleman’s concept (that is largely about managing and integrating emotion) seems to contradict the Van Gogh quote; little emotions acting as “the great captains of our lives” would be considered emotionally unintelligent, as it were. Indeed, chimpanzees don’t run the circus and three-year-old children shouldn’t run households.
So, allowing emotions to demand obeisance from one’s rational mind is not taking proper advantage of wisdom’s strengths. At the end of the day, granting outsized power to the part of the brain that humans essentially share with lizards and chimpanzees is not our best bet in our modern societies. Unbridled emotion is a kind of a metaphor for an unbridled animal—one that is difficult to control. This is often the stuff that manslaughter charges are made of.
Indeed, managing and integrating emotion is somewhat analogous to a rider atop a steed (to take a cue from Plato); at times, one can just let the horse gallop freely. In these cases, when emotion is finding expression in a relatively unadulterated way, it can be thrilling. The parts of the brain that light up when flirting, driving fast, helping a person in need, besting a competitor, or outdoing an adversary are all decidedly emotional.
Yet, as Benjamin Franklin said, “If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins.”
By reason, Franklin is referring to the more rational aspects of the brain, mainly located in the cerebral cortex. Indeed, Stephen Hall writes, “In achieving emotional balance, emotional self-awareness, and emotional resilience, [these individuals] have mastered the art of coping…. [This] hints at the role of the prefrontal cortex in managing, steering, or otherwise herding the impulses of emotion.”
The foundation underlying all of this is (or ought to be) integration.
The pioneering philosophical counselor and author of Plato! Not Prozac, Lou Marinoff, counsels:
When philosophers use the word ‘reason,’ we don’t just mean logic. We are referring to the human ability to be rational, which comes from the Greek word ratio, meaning ‘balance’ or ‘equilibrium.’
Life is much richer when one listens to wonderful music, eats tantalizing foods, competes and wins in some hobby or avocation, spends money in creative and fruitful ways, and pursues a new love interest when appropriate. Yet, folks can overspend, overeat, become addicted to sex, be afraid of touching doorknobs, fight others for superficial reasons, and throw a book across the room in anger. Anyone who has raised a two-year-old knows how astonishingly rich and difficult to control emotions can be!
Still, the person who stuffs their feelings and tries to live the life of a sterile, hyper-rational Vulcan (in Star Trek terminology) will not flourish either. That would be taking the value of dispassion too far.
Indeed, the most successful people in regard to wisdom are those who can experience and make use of some emotion but not let it run away with them in damaging and potentially embarrassing ways.
Managing and integrating emotion is a skill the wise have practiced, and made a habit out of. And as Aristotle pointed out thousands of years ago, making a habit out of positive things is virtue, and a life that is based around virtue is the highest humankind can rise to. It is truly flourishing, well-being, and happiness—what he referred to in Greek as eudaimonia.
Thus, there is wisdom in knowing what one is truly like, and how one tends to react to the world around them (self-knowledge) and accentuating strengths and diminishing weaknesses. Emotional intelligence and successful coping with some of the oldest and most powerful parts of the human brain is not easy—especially in modern society. However, we can look to those who are wiser than we are for guidance, reinforcement, and encouragement.
To that end, I will end my summary of the main points of the chapter about half-way through, and move now to sharing some of the wonderful quotes about wisdom, emotional intelligence, and integrating emotion and logic that the chapter has to offer:
- The book is 390 pages, so this is just the tip of the iceberg! It can be learned about by visiting another page on this site, or by going to the book’s page on Amazon.com!
“Emotionally sound people are able to take risks. They ask themselves what they would really like to do in life and then try to do it even though they have to risk defeat or failure. They are reasonably adventurous (though not foolhardy); willing to try almost anything once—if only to see how they like it; and look forward to different or unusual breaks in their usual routines.” —Albert Ellis
“When our reason remains undisturbed by our irrational desires and continues to adhere to our ideals despite the constant changes we experience in daily life, we acquire wisdom.” —Judith Barad
“Our emotional mind will harness the rational mind to its purposes, with our feelings and reactions—rationalizations—justifying them in terms of the present moment, without realizing the influence of our emotional memory. …Feelings are self-justifying, with a set of perceptions and ‘proofs’ all their own.” —Daniel Goleman
“Willpower is just another name for the idea of choosing long-term outcomes rather than short-term ones.” —Antonio Damasio
“The healthiest way I know how to move through an emotion effectively is to surrender completely to that emotion when its loop of physiology comes over me. I simply resign to the loop and let it run its course for 90 seconds. Just like children, emotions heal when they are heard and validated. Over time, the intensity and frequency of these circuits usually abate…. Paying attention to which array of circuits we are concurrently running provides us with tremendous insight into how our minds are fundamentally wired.…” —Jill Bolte Taylor
“If you aren’t the one who is controlling your own thoughts, feelings, and emotions then you are one who is being controlled.” —Clyde Lee Dennis
“From what has been said, we see what the strength of the wise man is and how much he surpasses the ignorant who is driven forward by lust alone.” —Baruch Spinoza
“When I disagree with a rational man, I let reality be our final arbiter; if I am right, he will learn; if I am wrong, I will; one of us will win, but both will profit.” —Ayn Rand
“In humans, emotional control largely depends on the ability (and will) to think rationally. As Aristotle stressed, when your reason habitually directs your thoughts, actions, and emotions, you have a good shot at living happily.…” —Elliot D. Cohen
“Man as scientist has come to know a great deal. But man as human being knows love, ambition, poetry, and music. The heart and mind reach deeper than the power of reason alone.” —Jacques Barzun