In the introduction to
The Autonomist's Notebook, under "The Cost of Freedom," I wrote:
"If you want to be free, it will be the most costly and difficult thing you will ever undertake. There are no shortcuts. No other individual or agency, especially not any government, can provide you freedom. You cannot "win" it, you cannot steal or cheat someone else out of it. If in the pursuit of your life what you get comes easy, or by luck, or without great effort, or without a clear complete understanding of how you acquired it, whatever you've gotten, it is not freedom.|
"You want to know where to begin? It must begin with an agreement with yourself to seek and follow the truth above all other things. Until you hold the truth above all other things, above all feelings, all desires, all allegiances or commitments, you can never be free and are doomed to perpetual servitude to any irrational feeling, whim, or passion to which you are willing to sacrifice your reason and therefore your will. The beginning of freedom is to free yourself from all those emotions, which uncontrolled, are demons which possess and control you, but under your control become your servants, providing you strength, enthusiasm, motivation, pleasure, and joy in every aspect of your life."
That is what our feelings should be, our servants providing us strength, enthusiasm, motivation, pleasure, and joy. Most people's experience is quite different and their feelings and emotions are a source of torment and unhappiness, and they have no idea why.
What Feelings Are
Our understanding of the nature of our emotions and feeling has been greatly corrupted by the pseudo-science, "psychology." Almost everything psychology teaches about feelings and desires is dreadfully wrong and very dangerous.
Essentially, feelings, which includes both our emotions and desires, are our perception of our body's physiological reaction to the content of consciousness, that is, what we think, what we value, what we believe, and what we are currently perceiving.
[Note: I have dealt with the origins and unscientific nature of psychology in the article, Psychology's Anticivilizing Influence on the West]
If it were not for psychology, the nature of feelings would almost be obvious.
When we think we've said or done something embarrassing, the feeling we call "embarrassment" is a physiological one, and sometimes even produces observable external (blushing for example) physiological reactions.
Fear is a complex emotion with many degrees, but the "feelings" of fear which may be experienced as a mild, "anxiety," (nervousness) to extreme, "panic," are physiological reactions which we perceive. The cause of those feelings, however, is what we are conscious of. The "anxiety" reaction may occur in anticipation of an upcoming examination, but only when we think about it and only if we are convinced there might be something we will dislike about it. Extreme feelings of fear like dread and panic only accompany the conscious experience of something we believe is very dangerous or potentially painful, or even fatal.
While the physiological aspects of many emotional reactions are apparent, like a smile, or involuntary laugh at something perceived as humorous, or tears when something is perceived as sad, many feelings are very subtle, and their physical nature easy to mistake for a mere "conscious" one.
What Feelings Are Not
Most of the things people mistakenly believe about feelings come from psychology, such as that feelings are caused by or occur in the brain. The brain is certainly involved in all conscious experience, but it is not the cause of them, because the brain itself is not "conscious." [Please see the articles, "Consciousness," and "Perception".]
Feelings, desires, and emotions are not inherited, not the result of evolutionary influences, and not caused by one's environment and experience. As Ayn Rand correctly observed, our feeling, desires, and emotions are developed by our own minds.
"Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are "tabula rasa." It is man's cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both." [The Virtue of Selfishness, "The Objectivist Ethics."]
What Can Affect Feelings
Everything we think and are conscious of will affect our feelings, and if one is healthy and rational and objective in their thinking and choices, the physiological reactions to what they think and perceive will alway be appropriate ones—they will not feel "fear" unless there is actually something perceived that ought to be feared, and they will feel calm and happy unless they perceive something truly disturbing or bad.
Nevertheless, because the feelings are physiological, physiological problems can affect the feelings, either diminishing them, as when one is ill, or exaggerating them, or even producing "false" feelings, when there are extreme physiological problems or hormonal imbalances, for example. These are purely physiological problems, however, not psychological ones.
What Feelings Should Be
When there are no physiological problems, the feelings will and do reflect the state of an individual's consciousness. If what one is conscious of is in agreement with one's values, and is understood to be beneficial, the feeling will be appropriately happy or joyous.
If one has recently lost a loved one, or suffered another kind of unexpected loss, such as a job, the feelings will be appropriately, "grief," in the first case, or a sense of "disaster," or possibly, "injustice," in the second.
Those less than happy feeling are absolutely appropriate in such cases. Our feelings ought to always reflect the actual state of things as we are objectively conscious of them. There would be a real emotional problem if one felt jubilant or happy in the face of real loss or tragedy.
How To Use Feelings
We cannot directly affect our feelings because they are automatic reactions of our physiology to the content of consciousness, but we can directly determine what we think and think about.
Though our feelings, when we are well in every other way, are a reflection of our thoughts, values and percepts, they are not knowledge. So long as our values, thoughts, choices and actions are objective and rational, the feelings that accompany those thoughts and choices will provide us the appropriate degree of pleasure and happiness, and our desires will be in agreement with what is best for us.
If our feelings are the result of thinking rationally and objectively, we might safely do, "whatever we feel like," but our feelings should never be the basis of our choices or actions, even when correct. All out choices and actions must be based on our best objective reason, even if that reason seems to be in total disagreement with our feelings. Whenever reason and feelings are in disagreement, the feelings are always wrong. Most, perhaps all, the bad choices men make are the result of following feelings in defiance of one's best reason.
Being free means being in charge of one's own life. So long as every choice and every action is guided by objective reason, one is free, because one is doing whatever they choose to do, and the reward will be the greatest feeling possible, the feeling of being completely free.