I’ll start this post today with a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche which runs thus: “Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the superman – a rope over an abyss.” This statement appeals to me because it sums up the complexity which we human beings are. We are a complex mix between heart and head and, indeed this mix is oftentimes a hot boiling soup of passion and reason in a cauldron we call our bodies. Our passion pulls us one way (probably with varying degrees of force) while our reason tells us another thing (as you will see the verb I’ve used here, “tells”, is a weak one suggesting less of an influence). We have all heard of hot passionate nights, secret sexual liaisons and much worse crimes of passion.
Questions worth asking myself are: “What am I passionate about?” An even better question would be “Whom am I passionate about?” Answers that come to mind for the first question would be: “my poems”, “my books”, “my ideas”, “my music”, “my own space”, “my freedom”, “my peace of mind”, “my travelling” and most especially “my creativity” in all these matters, but as I grow older my passion for my job is lessening. I’ve used the possessive adjective over and over again here with purpose to stress my ownership and passion about these areas of my life. Who am I passionate about? At the moment there is no “lover” in my life, but I am passionate about “my close family” = “my brothers and mother”. Family still plays an important part in my day to day life while we each live in different houses and places. I am passionate about justice which to me really is a “who” rather than a “what” subject. By this I mean that I am passionate about my students achieving as best they can academically while being as successful as possible in their lives. Justice to me is not an object out there in Africa, but rather it wears the faces of my pupils in class. They come from a working class background and I’m passionate about inspiring hope, self-confidence and self-belief in them.
However, this last paragraph refers to what may be termed “good” passion for want of a better expression, a passion kept in check by the rules and laws (mores and norms) of society and also by the dreams and hopes of real peace (“The brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind” to be politically correct) which essentially is the work of justice. In short, that last paragraph refers to justice issues and real - if “hard” - love. Of course, there are also those times of “bad” passion as it were when human beings succumb to anger, lust, jealousy, bitterness, revenge, winning by all means and power at all costs. Needless to say unbridled passions lead to serious complications like disputes and worst still angry words and even angry actions and reactions. Brought to their ultimate conclusion, unbridled passions lead to war and much bloodshed.
In short, what I wish to express here is the fact that much of both Eastern and Western philosophy over the past 2000 years or so have been concerned with both these poles of human reality, namely heart and head or as I’ve described it in the preceding paragraphs, passion and reason. In fact they have seen these two extremes not as being in a healthy tension, but rather literally as being at war with one another. [I refer any interested reader to a recent book by Lou Marinoff, The Big Questions (Bloomsbury, 2004, p. 75 et passim)] The task of all types of philosophy then is to referee as it were the fight between the two, letting neither have the upper hand to sustain the metaphor I have being using. Or again to dress these polar opposites in different apparel, we might say that philosophy seeks to get them into a healthy tension with one another. Buddhism can be viewed either as a great World Religion or as a philosophy without any hint at another life after this one – there are two distinct branches – the religious branch and the agnostic branch. One of Buddhism’s central planks, as it were, is non-attachment or detachment from the things of this world. Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, taught his followers that this attitude was the key to ending all suffering. Learning to develop such an attitude of course was and is a lifetime’s work. Much meditation and much practice of compassion in one’s daily life are necessary to arrive at such a state of mind. Essentially what is at stake in Buddhism is learning to control the passions as it were, and thereby, allow the reason or reasonableness to come to the fore. In this regard we can see that Buddhism was always very much a practical philosophy and was indeed very psychologically sound. That’s why Buddhism has never ceased to be unimportant in profession psychological and psychiatric circles.
While I have always loved Nietzsche’s passion for his subject and then his great reason brought to bear on it, I always remind myself that poor old Friedrich was also a depressive who ended up going insane at the end of his life. His views are always a little sobering and often quite bleak. Therefore I should like to end this post on a positive note with a powerful quotation from one of the founding fathers of psychology, William James: “The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes.” In short we need not become slaves to our passions – we can always control them.
The above picture is one I took in Delphi a month or so back. It's a hedgerow tree that has been brutally hacked back. Destructive passions or what?