The Importance of Passion

Sol Invictus © Janice Duke. Book cover art for Hawk Divine by Janice Duke.

The conatus of each thing to persist in its own being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing itself. – Baruch Spinoza

For me, the image above is a portrait of passion; my own personal passions as forces I must know and master. I do not see these forces as separate parts of me, but as the primal essence of me, the fuel that drives me; and like fuel, if handled badly, passions can be toxic and deadly. This idea is very much inspired by several philosophers I have studied.

The philosopher Spinoza believed our ‘conatus’ or ‘striving’ was the force that drives us, as the energy of all living things. He argued that this force utterly and compulsively compels us as our passions, unless we develop our intuition and through this become able to ride and direct our passions, thus becoming what Spinoza defined as virtuous.

For the philosopher Schopenhauer passion, as desire, was our ‘will to life’, and a futile, illogical, directionless thing, that was the cause of our suffering and pain. Alain de Botton has said of Schopenhauer that he spoke of passion, in the form of love and desire, with the kind of respect one might have for a tiger or a hurricane. For Schopenhauer desire is the force that drives us, but very much in a negative way and something we cannot control.

Schopenhauer greatly influenced the philosopher Nietzsche, who transformed this idea of ‘will to life’ into his infamous concept: the ‘will to power’, agreeing very much with Spinoza, that our passions are a force we can utilise through ‘self-overcoming’. Through this we may transform ourselves into the Overman, the man who overcomes man.

So, what we can see being played out here is the idea that passion is an overwhelming yet futile thing that only causes us pain, versus the idea that passion is a great power that can be harnessed for our advancement.

For philosophers like Nietzsche and Spinoza the individual has the potential to become sage-like, through self-awareness and self-mastery based on understanding and harnessing the forces that underlie us and the world: our passions. While for Schopenhauer our desires cause us nothing but suffering, from which we can seek to temporarily escape through aesthetic contemplation, which can allow us to fleetingly feel at one with the world rather than painfully separate. For him passion has no upside.

The misunderstanding of passion and reason, as if the latter were an independent entity and not rather a system of relations between various passions and desires; and as if every passion did not possess its quantum of reason. – Friedrich Nietzsche

Power, strength, energy, beauty, vigour, love, desire, craving, lust, pain, hate, violence, darkness, evil, these are all terms that one could use to describe passion. Whether spoken of as a positive or negative force, philosophers and spiritual types throughout history regard passion as a force to be reckoned with.

In Western European culture we have come to regard passion as opposed to reason. We speak of the head and the heart as though they are separate rather than working together within a whole system. We speak of passion and desire as irrational, unstable, bodily and even sinful, unlike our thoughts which are of course entirely rational, stable and untouchable, existing in some higher realm of logic.

Uh-huh. This is a deluded self-destructive hangover from the Enlightenment that we really need to get to grips with as a culture, because we have become neurotically sick with it. Before the Enlightenment the European worldview was very much defined by the idea that human beings were the centre of the universe, with our activity and beliefs as having vital importance in the grand scheme of things.

This may have been totally objectively wrong, but it was subjectively of great importance and had driven us for thousands of years.

With the Enlightenment the place of the individual in the European worldview became small and uncertain as the Earth and humanity was discovered not to be the centre of the physical, and therefore metaphysical, universe. We became trivial rather than vital. Our physical and spiritual world had been stripped of meaning.

In reaction to this, via thinkers like Descartes, a sense of certainty was sought in the mind. In the face of a meaningless physical universe that seems to have happened by accident, in which we seem to be ultimately insignificant and nothing we do really matters, we have retreated. We have taken an acute sense of painful separation and detachment from each other and the world and made it a positive value, elevating reason, while at the same time tending to view all things physical as mechanical, irrational and vulgar, our embodied passions became something to rise above and escape through our minds, in much the way Schopenhauer suggests.

In our secular post modern culture, driven by science and technology, we are lead to believe that we are primarily reasonable logical creatures, capable of rising above our animal natures, rather than irrational emotional hairless apes, driven by passions and desires that we hardly acknowledge let alone try to understand. The latter seems, to me, a more accurate description, and if you disagree, I challenge you to imagine your most annoying relative or friend, now imagine spending a week living with them without getting wound up. We are not Vulcans or robots. We are human. We are complicated and often highly emotional. But in the face of a cold, meaningless universe, we tend to try to run away from these parts of ourselves and find some sense of certainty to cling to.

An attack on the roots of passion means an attack on the roots of life. – Friedrich Nietzsche

The mind has become the secular soul, at the expense of our passions, which we repress and ignore as irrational and insignificant (and scary). Our feelings, a large part of who we really are, this force we have within us that could drive us to greatness, that doesn’t just go away. But in our culture, rather than awaken it and aim it at greatness, it is unconsciously aimed it at hand bags and junk food and the general pursuit of stuff that leaves us ultimately empty. Passion pursues that which we find beautiful and in our current culture we are skilfully marketed images of products this way. Cars, yachts, tacos.

Contrast this with renaissance Italy. The leaders of the renaissance knew damn well that passion pursues that which we find beautiful. Truth and wisdom were actively and overtly invested in and promoted as beautiful through the arts and philosophy in renaissance Italy, glorifying qualities that it was believed would lead to a better world. The leaders of the renaissance saw a way to promote the highest human ideals by using lust, glamour and celebrity, the kind of thing we now use to sell phones and anti-wrinkle cream.

Rather than manipulating the passions of the populace for their own benefit they sought to awaken them and fill their lives with a sense of significance. They did this very much on purpose and quite successfully, so successfully the creative endeavours of the renaissance are still admired today. If they could do it then, why not now?

Not to cherish both the angel and the animal, both the spirit and the flesh,is to renounce the whole interest and greatness of being human, and it is really tragic that those in whom the two natures are equally strong should be made to feel in conflict with themselves. For the saint-sinner and the mystic-sensualist is always the most interesting type of human being because he is the most complete. – Alan Watts

We don’t have to consume what this culture offers us, we can overcome Man and create our own renaissance, by surrounding ourselves with beauty that serves and awakens us and by learning to understand and come to terms with our passions. Through art, and meditation and community we can understand and work with this primal force that drives us. Rather than retreating from it we must recognise and value it and the power it has, without succumbing to it and becoming its slave. Which is what we are when we deny and repress it. So how do we do that? Here’s what I think:

Through Art, either creating or appreciating, we can become very aware of our particular tastes and preoccupations. This shows us our biases very clearly, where our passions lie. By observing the way we observe our reality we can become aware that there are seemingly infinite ways to observe and so the possibilities for interpretation are endless. We gain more freedom in where we can focus our passions, and more understanding of where and why other people focus theirs.

Through Meditation we become able to quiet the mind and still our emotional compulsions and find ourselves in a very peaceful place. We can gain perspective on ourselves and through a lot of practice and patience we can turn that hurricane of our passions that Schopenhauer talks about into a laser beam. We can learn to become very focused within and that will have a profound effect on our outer lives.

Finally through Community we can feel connected to others and observe ourselves through others, as on our own we really only have an idea of who we are and what we feel. It is through interacting with other people that we really discover our passionate selves, because our reactions are in the moment and authentic. So, you might think you’re totally cool and reasonable and then you meet this fantastically attractive person and turn to a pile of goo. There are passionate parts of ourselves we can only experience and come to terms with around others and this brings immense satisfaction and significance that many today are missing out on.

In the face of a seemingly meaningless universe, with only a short span of time between birth and death, we can claim and use the passions that drive us to create a world rich in enjoyable meaning. We can transform ourselves and the world around us by embracing our passions and working with them. By confronting the forces within ourselves we can find all the value and meaning we’re missing out there.

From a talk I gave at Hive Dalston, London, November 12th 2015.

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