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The Perilous Slide From Sentiment To Sentimentality

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By DONALD DeMARCO

A sentiment is an emotion or a feeling that can be the basis of an idea. Sentimentality is an emotion or feeling that is closed in on itself. The sentimentalist is locked up in his own feelings, severed from a world which may be perceived as too harsh.
Synonyms for sentimental include “gushy,” “sugary,” “cloying,” “maudlin,” and “mawkish.” Sentimentality is fine as far as it goes, but it should not go very far. One cannot build an adequate philosophy of love on pure sentimentality. Love soon encounters practical imperatives. And yet, this attitude of sentimentality can be highly seductive.
Consider the seventy-third Quatrain of Omar Khayyam’s immortal Rubaiyat:

Ah Love! Could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits — and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

The world is a nightmare of madness and misery. Would it not be wonderful if we could create a new order which is congruent with the ecstasy of love that we experience this moment? If only this moment could last forever! We are not happy with the world that was given to us. Let us remake it in accordance with our wishes.
This quatrain is elegantly expressed and is worthy of its acclaim as a truly beautiful example of poetry. One has no quarrel with the sentiment it evokes. But if taken too seriously, it degenerates into sentimentality. The reason for this is twofold. First, recreating the world according to one’s wishes is not possible. Sentimentality, being essentially a dreamy wishfulness, cannot cross the bridge that takes us into a new reality. Feeling apart from reason is incapable of building a better world.
The second problem is that it represents either a rejection or a denial of God. Beautiful as the poem is, it is set in the context of Fate. God either does not exist or He is a very inadequate Creator. If He does exist, why did He not create a world closer to our hearts’ desire? If He does not exist, then there is no hope for any of us.
Atheism lies at the bottom of the slide from sentiment to sentimentality. People reject God because they reject a world that contains too much suffering and does not mirror their feelings. But in its rejection of reason, sentimentalism remains trapped within those feelings. In rejecting reason it rejects the key that unlocks the prison house of sentiment and opens wide the door of reality. Reason is panoramic, feeling is circumscribed.
We have ears and there happens to be sound. We have eyes and there happens to be color. We have lungs and there happens to be air. We have hunger and there happens to be food. There is a French aphorism stating that the best proof for the existence of water is the existence of thirst (la preuve la plus croyable de l’existence de l’eau est l’existence de la soif).
Consequently, the human desire for perfect justice, abiding peace, lasting happiness, and other intangibles also implies the existence of their proper object, which is God.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was a naturalist as well as a philosopher, remarked, “I do not doubt that there is life in the hereafter because it is in the order of nature that an entelechy cannot disappear.” “Entelechy,” a word derived from Aristotle, refers to the “end” (telos) for which each agent is inclined by nature. For Aristotle, the end is just as real as the beginning, an insight that was affirmed by St. Thomas Aquinas.
The desires we have for justice, peace, and happiness are undeniable. But the longing for them that stirs our souls would never have been present without the existence of their corresponding objects of fulfillment. God is the ultimate object of our inborn desire for perfection, a perfection that we cannot find in this world.
When Pascal stated, “I would not have sought Him had I not already found Him,” he was restating the Aristotelian position and applying it directly to God. How could anyone have the urge to look for something that does not exist? The existence of God is like a pulley that draws human beings to Him. That urge was placed in the heart of man by God Himself.
The religious impulse gets short-circuited when it is stymied at the level of sentimentality. The world in which we inhabit may not be the one we would have created, if we had the power to do so. Yet, as finite beings, we are in no position to question that which transcends our capabilities. God may be inscrutable but He has not abandoned us. He has left His mark on our souls. Our duty is to utilize that mark and understand how it leads back to Him.
Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach parallels Khayyam’s fatalism when he centers two lovers in the context of an insane world: “Ah, love, let us be true to one another! for the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new, hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”
Here, again, is a very beautiful poem that evokes a strong sentiment. Yet, it is Godless and offers no hope.
Poetry justifies itself by describing in a rich and imaginative way even things that are hopeless. Philosophy, on the other hand, has the burden of leading us to wisdom. Yet poetry can be seductive in that it can satisfy us on the level of feeling without urging us on to something higher. Our feelings are immediate. Philosophy is a journey.
Nonetheless, we do not want to be locked in the enchantment of feeling. We must awaken and follow the signs that God has provided so that we can journey back to Him.

  • + + (Dr. Donald DeMarco’s latest book is Why I Am Pro-Life and Not Politically Correct, available through Amazon.com.)
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