Thursday, October 2, 2008

Vehement Passions

Breaking off the ordinary flow of experience, the passions create a state of exception. In their suddenness and intensity, they map a personal world, fix and qualify our attention, and impel our actions. Outraged anger drives us to write laws that will later be enforced by impersonal justice. Intense grief at the death of someone in our life discloses the contours of that life to us. Wonder spurs scientific inquiry.

The strong current of Western thought that idealizes a dispassionate world has ostracized the passions as quaint, even dangerous. Intense states have come to be seen as symptoms of pathology. A fondness for irony along with our civic ideal of tolerance lead us to prefer the diluted emotional life of feelings and moods. Demonstrating enormous intellectual originality and generosity, Philip Fisher meditates on whether this victory is permanent - and how it might diminish us.

From Aristotle to Hume to contemporary biology, Fisher finds evidence that the passions have defined a core of human nature no less important than reason or desire. Traversing the Iliad, King Lear, Moby Dick, and other great works, he discerns the properties of the high-spirited states we call the passions. Are vehement states compatible with a culture that values private, selectively shared experiences? How do passions differ from emotions? Does anger have an opposite? Do the passions give scale, shape, and significance to our experience of time? Is a person incapable of anger more dangerous than someone who is irascible?

In reintroducing us to our own vehemence, Fisher reminds us that it is only through our strongest passions that we feel the contours of injustice, mortality, loss, and knowledge. It is only through our personal worlds that we can know the world.

"Aristotle's inclusion of those close to us, our friends, family members, and certain others, in the structure of the passions themselves is one of the most important and accurate details of his work. It is also a detail neglected by all modern scientific work on passions, which seemingly establishes the egocentric role of the passions in advance by studying fear, anger, or delight only in relation to things happening to the subject himself. From Aristotle to Hume the philosophical account of the passions always included the idea that the passions are incited by what occurs within a world of care and concern - parents, children, friends, those loved or close to us - as well as by what happened directly to us.

After Kant and Rousseau we find a different division of the world, along with a new attention to sympathy and pity as the first and only passions that reach outside the freestanding self to exhibit concern with the sufferings of others. But pity, we need to stress, extends the passions to strangers. It universalizes a generosity within passion that, in the modern view, is otherwise self-interested and stops at the boundary of the ego. This extension to all others, to persons unknown to me, is a significant part of a modern analysis of feeling. It lies at the heart of sentimentality, as well as of the democratization and universalization of what came to be known as "feeling of humanity" after the eighteenth century. At the same time this extension to strangers in pity and sympathy had profound importance in explaining how in works of art we feel deeply the joys and sufferings of persons not known to us in our everyday life, in fact, fictitious persons.

But only in modernity do we contemplate a world made up of myself and what we call "others." The passions, as we find them described from Aristotle to Hume, are never universal in the Kantian sense. They do not concern my conserving for myself only what I will grant freely to all others. Still, the passions do concern a wider field of action than the isolated self. What happens to me and to mine, what happens within my world, is the subject of the passions, as Aristotle makes clear with his phrase "to me or to one of my friends." And it is in this same line that Aristotle claimed determined whether, when we see something terrifying about to happen to someone else, we feel pity (if the person is a stranger) or fear (if the other person is a friend or someone close to me)."

As I will argue later, it is by no means of the passions that we come to know the periphery and characteristics of what we call "my world," as opposed to "the world," and come to know precisely who makes up the set of "those close to me." The passions concern two quite different peripheries that they both mark and reveal: first, the radius of my will; and second, the census of my world along with the exact contour of the phrase "me and mine."

... The Vehement Passions, Philip Fischer

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