Passion: Promise & Peril

A suggestion for some judicious deflating of the word 'passion'



Passion is trending! There’s nary a resumé in which the applicant doesn’t tell us “my passion is…” nor an author’s bio-sketch that doesn’t confide that “______ is my passion.” A precedent: David Hume admitted that literary fame, not philosophy, was his ruling passion. Whatever the passion be, a promise comes with it. “Make room for my passion. I’ll be brilliant!”

Some people are brilliant. (Many a parent testifies to the brilliance of a child.) More of us, I suspect, are just driven. But if we are driven, then we are not in the driver’s seat. Perhaps the passion we’ve touted is at the wheel, but that’s not a promised realized, it’s a peril to be suffered.

“Passion” stems from the Latin patior, “I suffer.” And we often suffer from our passions. A crime of passion is nonetheless a crime. Both the perpetrator and the victim suffer from its commission. Sometimes war amounts to little more than a crime of passions. During the Spanish Civil War, Dolores Ibárruri, La Pasionara, spoke passionately in defense of Madrid. “No pasarán” (“They shall not pass”), she said, referring to Franco’s troops.

But La Pasionara also said, referring to the anarchists of Barcelona, “In normal times it is preferable to acquit a hundred guilty ones than to punish a single innocent one, [but] when the life of a people is in danger it is better to convict a hundred innocent ones than to acquit a single guilty one.”

So what are we to make of passion? The Stoics taught that we should eliminate the passions. Following Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas thinks otherwise. He writes, “When a passion forestalls the judgment of reason, so as to prevail on the mind to give its consent, it hinders counsel and the judgment of reason. But when it follows that judgment, as through being commanded by reason, it helps towards the execution of reason’s command” (ST I-II, q. 59, art. 2, ad. 3).

For Thomas, the person is integrated. A human being without emotion, without passion, is radically incomplete. Oftentimes to act without emotion is to fall far short of acting as a whole person. A dispassionate friend is no friend at all. A dispassionate lover is no lover at all. A dispassionate believer might assent to the Creed but does not touch the wounds of our Savior.

Yet without reason our emotions and passions are, at best, like an orchestra without a score, without even a conductor. Cacophony displaces harmony.

The times, we know, are evil. The center seems not to hold, and things fall apart. But again there is precedent. Addressing both the early Christians and us as well, St. Paul urges that we “redeem the times, since the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16).

Part of redeeming the times, albeit a humble part, is linguistic upkeep. John Locke wrote that his contribution to philosophy was mainly clearing away some underbrush. In that spirit, let me suggest that we do some judicious deflating of “passion” as a trend. Please consider, as does the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, “predilection” as an alternative. Even “keen interest” will do quite well. Give it a try!


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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