On the Passions

“Love is blind,” they say. The same, however, might be said just as surely about anger, envy, indignation, and above all, fear. Any passion, if allowed to become dominant in the soul, causes blindness. For by highlighting an object exclusively so as to make it appear overwhelmingly preeminent within its context — which is in effect to remove the object from its proper context as such — the passions make true believers of us, in one way or another, which is to say they become final answers unto themselves. Passions thus build a fortress of emotional indubitability or unassailability (positive or negative) around the objects which inspire them, thereby obviating and prohibiting all further inquiry, all rational doubt, all sober reexamination.

The political activist, his mind become impenetrable to alternative views, and full of fury to vent against anyone who dares to disagree or even question his interpretation of the facts, is blinded by passion — and in the case of the “youth activist,” this passion is manufactured artificially, as his elders fill his mind with interpretations presented as facts.

Likewise the political partisan, invested in the truth and victory of “his side,” becomes blind to all the nuances of practical life and choice, and — at times, most dangerously — unable to perceive or acknowledge corruption, and even reversal, within the leadership of his own party, so all-encompassing is his tribal desire for winning and his corresponding and consubstantial animosity toward anything perceived as standing opposed to his tribe.

The indignant moralist, whether as religious reformer or schoolyard gossip, sees outrage and wrongdoing around every corner, is unwilling even to grant an audience to exceptions or extenuating circumstances, and above all is categorically unable to look at himself and his own sense of righteousness in an objective, ironic, or self-critical light.

The socialist revolutionary, seething with envy toward the (materially or spiritually) wealthy, sees social injustice and personal offense in everyone else’s achievements and joys, and reflexively lashes out with blind rage at any suggestion that outcomes must be earned, or that opportunity is no guarantor of success in life.

The spiritually diminished and morally enslaved citizenry, awash in the incoherent fears of the inexperienced and narrowminded, becomes the blind critical mass for any leader or ideology that promises to protect them from the vague sources of their fear, or to “make it all go away.”

So much, then, for the old-fashioned romantic dream of a life ruled by passion. Such a life is expedient for making choices and taking action, but these will normally be poorly-considered choices, leading to ill-conceived actions. In other words, the life ruled by passion is a fool’s life.

Nevertheless, the passions are natural, and therefore all attempts to train them out of the soul — whether on religious, stoic, or progressive indoctrination grounds (à la Brave New World, the last word on the true meaning of progressive moral education) — constitute a radical assault on human nature. Our development depends on our ability to experience the passions, which by definition means to experience them as compelling forces within the soul, not as abstractions or mere hypothetical inclinations. In particular, there are contexts in which some of the passions are positive necessities for our proper functioning as material (i.e., potential) beings with essential needs — and not only bare survival needs, but also, and most importantly, needs related to self-discovery (i.e., actualization).

Reason, however, is also natural, and moreover defines the ruling element of our existence, aligned with actuality as the passions are aligned with potency. Therefore, in the well-governed soul, reason will assert its aristocratic authority to restrain and moderate the passions — not eliminating them at their source, but holding them in check like horses restrained by the good rider’s hand, not stifling their will to run but conserving and guiding their propulsive force for purposeful long-term effort. Or think of nuclear energy, held in reactors containing enough power to destroy life as far as the eye can see, but this power harnessed to bring light to whole cities. So, likewise, the rational soul is not the one rendered incapable of experiencing the passions, including the most dangerous of them, but rather the one in which these are subdued and directed — sublimated, if you prefer the classical language — to serve the defining endeavors of human life, thinking and producing.

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