Passions (philosophy)

In philosophy and religion the passions are the instinctive, emotional, primitive drives in a human being (including, for example, lust, anger, aggression and jealousy) which a human being must restrain, channel, develop and sublimate in order to be possessed of wisdom. In religion and philosophy the same way of grasping passion does not always apply. The philosophical notion of passion, in contrast, is identified[citation needed] with innate or biologically driven emotional states regarded in ancient philosophies and the great religions as being the basis for deadly sins and seen as leading to various social and spiritual ills such as unstable relationships, broken marriages, lack of social integration, psychological disorders and other problems. In the philosophical tradition of the West passion is often placed in opposition to reason. Reason is advocated in the control of passion, something seen as desirable and necessary for the development of a mature, civilized human being. This is achieved by the cultivation of virtue. Four virtues in particular have long been seen as of especial value in this regard.

The majority of philosophies and religions advocate at the very least tempering the passions to keep them within acceptable bounds. However most of the great religions recommend both the restraint and the transformation of the passions to the point where they no longer arise. This is true of Christianity, Jainism, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism. The institution of the monastery within various religions is a means by which human beings may temporarily or permanently seclude themselves from circumstances exacerbating the arising of passion and provide a supportive environment for doing spiritual work.

Contemporary philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger has developed a view of the passions that disassociates them from human nature, and instead gives them a formless life that serve in our noninstrumental dealings with each other. Rather than the guiding force behind our relations with the world, they organize and are organized around the need and danger that is at the heart of our relations with each other. In this way, Unger rejects the traditional view of the passions as something counter to reason and which are associated with certain expressions, rather he sees them at the service of reason and their expression formed within certain contexts.[1]


The subject of the passions has long been a consideration in Western philosophy. According to European philosopher Michel Meyer, they have aroused harsh judgments as the representation of a force of excess and lawlessness in humanity that produces troubling, confusing paradoxes. Meyer sees philosophers as having treated the passions as a given expression of human nature, leaving the question of whether the passions "torture people because it blinds them, or, on the contrary, does it permit them to apprehend who and what we really are?"[2]


The seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Spinoza contrasted "action" with "passion," as well as the state of being "active" with the state of being "passive." A passion, in his view, happened when external events affect us partially such that we have confused ideas about these events and their causes. A "passive" state is when we experience an emotion which Spinoza regarded as a "passivity of the soul."[3] The body's power is increased or diminished. Emotions are bodily changes plus ideas about these changes which can help or hurt a human.[3] It happens when the bodily changes we experience are caused primarily by external forces or by a mix of external and internal forces. Spinoza argued that it was much better for the individual himself to be the only adequate cause of bodily changes, and to act based on an adequate understanding of causes-and-effects with ideas of these changes logically related to each other and to reality. When this happened the person is "active," and Spinoza described the ideas as adequate. But most of the time, this does not happen, and Spinoza, along with Freud, saw emotions as more powerful than reason. Spinoza tried to live the life of reason which he advocated.[4][5][6]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Unger, Roberto Mangabeira (1986). Passion: An Essay on Personality. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-02-933180-3.
  2. ^ Michel Meyer, Philosophy and the Passions, a translation of Le Philosophe et les passions *(Livre de poche), Penn State Press, 2000. Preface, introduction and translation by Robert F. Barsky, website
  3. ^ a b Benedict de Spinoza (1883) [1677]. "Part III: On the Origin and Nature of the Emotions: Definitions". Ethics. Translated by R.H.M. Elwes. Retrieved 2009-12-09 – via MTSU Philosophy WebWorks. By emotion I mean the modifications of the body, whereby the active power of the said body is increased or diminished, aided or constrained, and also the ideas of such modifications. N.B. If we can be the adequate cause of any of these modifications, I then call the emotion an activity, otherwise I call it a passion, or state wherein the mind is passive.
  4. ^ Phelps, M. Stuart (Feb 21, 1877). "Spinoza. Oration by M. Ernest Renan, delivered at the Hague, Feb. 21, 1877 by Translated by M. Stuart Phelps [pp. 763-776]". New Englander and Yale Review Volume 0037 Issue 147 (November 1878). Retrieved 2009-09-08.
  5. ^ "HOW SPINOZA LIVED". The New York Times. March 17, 1878. Retrieved 2009-09-08.
  6. ^ "NEW LIGHT ON SPINOZA -- Joseph Freudenthal's Book, Published in German, Gives Facts". The Chicago Tribune. Nov 19, 1899. Retrieved 2009-09-08.