A reflection on Plato’s Phaedrus

Although I have examined emotions singularly, I have yet to look specifically at the impulse which drives humanity to strive and achieve passion. Although passion is commonly thought of as a positive thing by the mass of humanity, it also is passion which drives people to commit atrocities, crimes and horrendous violence. With this in mind, I will consider what passion is, whether its absence is a desirable state, and what we should do with it in our own lives.

Our first act is to attempt to define passion. Passion is not necessarily loving, which is the selfless desire to better another (see on Love), but instead the emotional impellent that drives us to follow a specific path. Neither is it desire, which draws us to a particular act to achieve pleasure (see on Pleasure). However, both love and desire can be aspects of passion. In this sense, we can have passion for following a particular lifestyle, whether or not such lifestyle is positive is another question altogether.

To examine passion more closely we should take to the extreme. In this case, a person will pursue their passion to the detriment of all else. As opposed to desire, the impulse in question will overrule the instinctive drives: hunger, thirst, tiredness and procreation. Even if faced with physical destruction the impassioned person will cast aside their own mortal life as nothing in comparison to their goal. In this sense, the passionate life is fitting to the Martyr, a person who devalues their own existence in contrast to their convictions (see on Martyrs). This can obviously be a negative thing, especially when the object of passion something terrible.

So facing the danger of a passionate life, we may feel obliged to attempt to expunge the offending impulsion from our existence. However, in this case, we should examine the impact of living a passionless lifespan. If we excise the drive to achieve an object, we become an emotionally and intellectually dead husk. Without passion, there is no reason to better oneself, no motive to challenge one’s comfortable beliefs and assumed opinions. In this regard the passionless life is infinitely worse than the passionate; although the passionate person may stray and do wrong, there is no situation in which the passionless person can improve.

So, if passion is something that is necessary to a good life, we must instead focus on ensuring that the goal of our passions is correct. The drive is something we must embrace, but we must not allow our impulse to obscure the target, and to drag us away from noble pursuits. This, however, leads to a far more difficult question beyond the aspect of this reflection and which I only began to touch previously (see on the Good). In the absence of a perfect goal I can make but one prescription – strive to improve your understanding of the good, and use passion to act according to your current perception. Imperfect comprehension does not excuse paralysis of action.

Original text

Plato’s Phaedrus

Painting

The Youth of Bacchus, William Bouguereau, 1884

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