"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Selfishness of the Passions

My last post (from a very long time ago) was an egotistical complaint about not feeling qualified to write an essay about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this post is an egotistical boast about what a good grade I got on my essay about Rousseau. As you will see from the transcribed essay below, I have condemned such egotism but have not yet learned to practice what I preach. Since I was so shocked to get a perfect score with lots of flattering comments from my Literature teacher I thought it would be a good idea to get a second opinion to bring me back to earth. So rip into it folks.
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A recurrent theme in life and literature is the conflict of control between our passions and our reason. On the one hand is the desire to gratify our wants and live in a constant state of satiety where every whim is instantly gratified. On the other is the sober analysis of the long term goal and the greatest ultimate happiness for life. There are obvious problems with the first mode of living: for one, it is not always possible to do what one feels like doing. In addition, the harmful effects of indulging every emotion can be catastrophic. While living according to a strict intellectual system also has its problems and has been criticized as a diminution of humanity, following the passions alone is a selfish, egotistical way to live. Jean Jacques Rousseau, as one of the great mouthpieces advocating for the passions, shows this in his autobiographical Confessions. We will investigate the inherent selfishness of Rousseau's embrace of the passions and its ultimate destructiveness by looking at the portrayal of this mode of living in Rousseau's Confessions and three stories from three different cultures.

To begin with, a definition of the terms passion and reason is in order. Passion is essentially the same as emotion. To be guided by passions is to allow feelings and hormones to direct what a person does. Reason, on the other hand, is the intellectual contemplation of a course of action: a weighing of the pros and cons; a cost/benefit analysis engaged in before making any move. The passionate person says: “I am hungry; give me a huge juicy cheeseburger.” The reasonable person says: “I am hungry, but I am already overweight so I will not eat this huge juicy cheeseburger today.”

Rousseau observes that the “common lot of humanity” is to feel before thinking (Rousseau 666). Truly, young children are known for not using reason. Their instinctive passions show just how selfish human beings are, even from birth. Augustine, in his own Confessions nearly 1500 years before Rousseau, recounts the selfishness and envy of a baby, “not yet able to talk, but it was pale and bitter in face as it looked at another child nursing at the same breast” (Augustine 49). In adults such envy and selfishness would be justly ridiculed because such angry passion directed at another's source of sustenance would be harmful if allowed to have its way. Everyone's passion operating against another--as would inevitably be the case in a world ruled exclusively by the passions and not by reason--would lead to terrible conflict. Passion against passion in a state of war. In the end, only the most passionate would survive and have their way.

Rousseau realized the danger of different passions coming into conflict. In order to avoid the inevitable confrontation of two people with opposing passions, Rousseau says: “I withdrew as far as it lay in my power, from situations which opposed my interests to those of others, and might, consequently, inspire me with a secret, though involuntary, desire of injuring them” (670). Maybe Rousseau had the selflessness to do this, and if so it is laudable, but the fact that he did is evidence that he thought something (peace, harmony, justice) of greater importance than indulging his own selfish passion.

The competing emphasis placed on passion or reason is not new to Rousseau's generation or our own. Even as far back as the Stoic and Epicurean schools of philosophy in ancient Greece they were wrestling with the same question. The Epicureans were the embodiment of the saying: “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” This selfish enjoyment of whatever the body and emotions craved, they thought, was the way to happiness. The Stoics took a different line of thinking by asserting that the ultimate good—and therefore the ultimate happiness--was to be found in virtue. For them, the physical body with its passions was a hindrance to virtue and therefore, something to be subdued. The passions, far from setting them free as Rousseau claimed, actually chained them. As Epictetus, one of the Stoic philosophers said: "freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men's desires, but by the removal of desire." (Epictetus 84).

This quote from a Greek philosopher is remarkably similar to Buddhist thought. For Buddhists too, Nirvana is found not by fulfilling desires but by removing desires. This is illustrated in the Chinese novel Monkey or Journey to the West by Wu Ch'Eng-en. The title character, Monkey, is a proud, impetuous creature who loses his temper easily and is always ready to rush off on a whim to gratify his own vanity and pride. The Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean says to Monkey: “you must learn to control yourself and submit to the will of others, if you are not to spoil all your chances” (Ch'Eng-en 22). Monkey's one desire is to follow his own passions. As he puts it, to “amuse myself as I pleas[e]” (Ch'Eng-en 27). The quest that Monkey and his master Tripitaka are on, however, is to find Buddhist scriptures in India, not amuse themselves as they please. The theme that figures large in the story is that there is a greater good (the “quest”) in pursuance of which, personal feelings (passions) must be ignored.

Rousseau in his Confessions, however, feels that the greatest good is to amuse himself as he pleases. It is in this unfettered “state of nature” that freedom and happiness are possible. Just like the early Monkey in Ch'Eng-en's story, Rousseau states: “I worship freedom; I abhor restraint, trouble, dependence” (Rousseau 669). Unlike Monkey, he does not learn that this attitude hinders his journey to enlightenment. Rousseau is a man who looks “upon plans, which need considerable time to carry out, as decoys for fools... the least trifling pleasure which is within my reach tempts me more than the joys of paradise” (Rousseau 672). In other words, he does not have the prudence to look ahead and pick the best longterm choices but instead does whatever his feelings dictate at that moment.

This aspect of the passions—that they are irresponsible—is a major theme of the Japanese short-story Bewitched. Written by author Ueda Akinari in the Eighteenth century, Bewitched (also called A Serpent's Lust), tells the story of a young man who falls in love with a devilish woman. A case of “love at first sight” only without the happy ending typical of such stories, the hapless hero Toyo-o is enticed into pledging his love to the she-devil. Giving in to his lustful and immature passion for a woman he knows nothing about rather than contemplating his action or seeking advise, Toyo-o brings horrifying consequences on himself and others. Ignoring the reality that he is, “still dependent on my parents. I have no property of my own except the hair on my head and the nails on my fingers. I have no power to earn my own living. How could I support you? I feel wretched in my present situation. But... how can I help but overlook my filial obligations and sacrifice myself for your sake?” (Akinari 636). Although reason tells him that he cannot support the strange woman and should learn a little more about her before making a rash promise, he does so anyway because of his passion rather than his reason. This selfishness on Toyo-o's part is destructive because it opens the door for himself and others to be harmed by the consequences of his passion.

Rousseau was aware of the harmful possibilities in his espoused philosophy. Rousseau says: “my passions have made me live, and my passions have killed me” (676). A tacit admission that, though in his view he has been able to experience human existence to its full, he also has been harmed in the process. Again he says that, “my soul was ever in a state of agitation; I was devoured alternately by desires and fears” (677). Who would wish to live constantly in this state of mind? The irresponsible nature of giving in totally to the passions is shown when Rousseau says: “while I am stirred by them nothing can equal my impetuosity; I forget all discretion, all feelings of respect, fear and decency; I am cynical, impudent, violent and fearless; no feeling of shame keeps me back, no danger frightens me; with the exception of the single object which occupies my thoughts, the universe is nothing to me” (Rousseau 669).

The emotionally devastating nature of selfishly followed passions is further illustrated in Anton Chekhov's short story: The Lady With the Dog. Adultery—one of the most selfish and stereotypical examples of passion--breaks Anna's spirit and leaves her “ever in a state of agitation.” Her passion overcomes her so that, “I could no longer control myself, nothing could hold me back” (1527). Rather than bringing her happiness, however, she comes to despise herself and lives constantly in remorse (1527). Remorse too is a passion but not one most people would like to live with. At the end of the story, when their relationship had brought them nothing but unhappiness, Anna silently asks herself: “was not their life a broken one?” (1534).

This is a good question to consider in a discussion of the passions. While some passions are harmless and some may even better the world, too often, as these three stories have shown, passions divorced from reason will bring pain and unhappiness into the world. We have seen that even Rousseau realized this to some degree, although he was not able--or willing perhaps--to mellow his passion with the exercise of reason. Of Rousseau we might ask: was not his life a broken one? Controlled by his passions like the characters in these stories, he brought harm to himself and--despite his naturally gentle disposition—who can doubt that others were hurt by his selfishness more than if he had considered the happiness of others rather than following his own passions.

Works Cited

Akinari, Ueda. Bewitched. The Norton Anthology of World Literature: 1650-1800: Volume D. Ed. Sarah Lawall and Maynard Mack. 2nd ed. W.W. Norton Company, 2002.

Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Trans. John K. Ryan. Image Books, Garden City, New York. 1960.

Chekhov, Anton. The Lady With the Dog. The Norton Anthology of World Literature: 1800-1900: Volume E. Ed. Sarah Lawall and Maynard Mack. 2nd ed. W.W. Norton Company, 2002.

Ch'Eng-en, Wu. Monkey. The Norton Anthology of World Literature: 1650-1800: Volume D. Ed. Sarah Lawall and Maynard Mack. 2nd ed. W.W. Norton Company, 2002.

Epictetus. Discourses: Books 3 and 4. Translated by Percy Ewing Matheson. Courier Dover Publications, 2004. http://books.google.com/books?id=1pDMSCUMNIgC&printsec=frontcover#PPA84,M1

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Confessions: The Norton Anthology of World Literature: 1800-1900: Volume E. Ed. Sarah Lawall and Maynard Mack. 2nd ed. W.W. Norton Company, 2002.

1 comment:

Jonathan Marshall said...

Good thoughts man. I'd love to see you tackle how reason can have the same flaws, but this was a great handling of the one side of the issue.