Reflections on Aphorisms #91

Today was a moderately successful day. I didn’t get as much physical activity or writing done, but now that I have classes (which I’m very much currently ahead on) I can justify that a little.

I also have been getting better at trying to spitball some of the writing I’ve been doing instead of waiting to perfect it in my head. I’ve been listening to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and trying to follow some of the advice there.

Aphorism 129

The passions possess a certain injustice and self interest which makes it dangerous to follow them, and in reality we should distrust them even when they appear most trustworthy.

François de La Rochefoucauld 

Interpretation

One of the things about emotion is that it tends to lead us toward things that further emotion.

If we want to feel good, we tend to lead ourselves in paths that gratify us, and we slowly develop an attachment to our own pleasure.

I forget who once said that we tend to continue doing whichever behaviors we reward in ourselves, though I’m sure that it’s a common sentiment enough that it’s been echoed and repeated to the point that you could lose yourself in a rabbit hole. Maybe Jung, or even Nietzsche? It follows some of the biological nature of the brain as a system that tends to follow both chemical processes and associations between neurons, and I’ve definitely heard it described in that language by someone who has been in the 21st century (Jordan Peterson?), though I feel like its origins may even be classical.

To a certain extent, one could also extend the idea to Rochefoucauld.

Passions are generally bad not because we should stifle our emotions and get rid of them, but because passions represent the emotion as the sole driver of our decision-making process. We need emotions so that we can prioritize things. Of course, emotion serves as a simplifying heuristic; “liking” or “disliking” something based on experience or prediction is much simpler than making a rational decision every time it comes up, but can often lead to equally good results. Going further, however, emotions are part of what makes the human experience worth living through.

Yes, emotions often include suffering, and passions are dangerous, but they’re also responsible for everything we perceive as good. Happiness in itself has no place on the scale of vice and virtue, but the purpose of virtue is to foster as much happiness as possible on a grand cosmic scale (even if it means sacrifice and struggle in the short-term) made possible through an understanding of truth and meaning.

Passions are often the result of seeking happiness above seeking virtue. It’s the desire to have the meal without the work, metaphorically speaking. There’s a children’s story in the vein of Aesop in which I believe a chicken (I should remember; animal symbols often carry archetypal significance) works to sow seeds of corn but the other animals do not help, despite being asked to help. Of course, when the harvest comes, everyone asks the chicken if they can share in the food, but the chicken keeps the grain for itself.

Without delving into the morals of the story, acting on passion is similar to desiring that which is unearned. Although passion is not necessarily innately wrong, since there are justifiable reasons for the actions that can be ascribed to passion flowing out of a desire for justice and righteousness, the fact remains that the passionate are prone to be deceived and preyed upon by those who can manipulate their emotions.

Worse, passions tend to undo the clarity of mind that would be needed to safely act upon them. Even if a wise person can rely on their feelings above the knowledge they have acquired and the counsel of peers and sages in a single instance, in repetition they wind up preparing themselves to act on passion when they believe they are simply considering the input of their emotion.

Resolution

Make emotion one counselor among many.

Avoid entitlement.

Don’t do something in an emergency that I would not do in principle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.