All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.
A: There’s a certain discourse around that ties everything back to passion. ‘Follow your passion’, that kind of thing. To me, that sounds awful. It’s like you’re trapped in your own emotions, and nobody’s helping you get out of it.
B: Well, I’ve been thinking about that actually. I started working with this guy who is very lymphatic, like super calm and non-neurotic. And whenever I’m with him, I think about this quote from Hamlet: ‘Give me a man who is not passion’s slave, Horatio, and I will hold him to my heart of hearts’. That’s how I feel with him. It’s such a gift to be not passionate, but calm and rational. I think we certainly don’t value this kind of people enough!
A: Well I think… There’s this belief, this theory, it comes from neuro-linguistic programming, that passion, desire, is a pre-requisite for anything. If there’s a will, there’s a way. If you want something strongly enough, it will happen. And if you don’t want it, there’s a lot of chances it won’t happen. That kind of thing. It’s on Oprah too. And sure, you need an intention, but intention doesn’t lead to results, not necessarily. So, there’s this myth of passion as the driving motor. And when that plays out, it’s often in a situation that is not viable. You see that a lot in Japan. That if you’re motivated enough, you will succeed. That’s just not sustainable.
B: Do you remember this song from the 2000’s in France? I think it became an anthem for the Besancenot party, that left-wing group, whatever their name was. ‘Motivé, motivé, il faut se motiver’. It was in all the demonstrations too. And it’s a cool song, it’s great when you’re marching, but I always thought about it as a kind of… tautological stupidity. My etymology-nerds moment, sorry, but if you want movement, you need to get motivated, duh! It makes me think of communist propaganda, you know, Stakhanovism, Leng Fei, that kind of things. Let’s pump up enthusiasm so we can do big things together. And if you’re not motivated enough, that’s probably because you’re not the right kind of believer, or there’s something wrong in your ideology. Agitation over execution or strategy. It’s a dangerous form of dumbness. it’s actually killed a lot of people. And there’s this air of exalted morality about it. I find it rather scary.
A: Well, I like to say that a moral injunction only works in the first person. And always in the negative form. It’s about ‘I wont do that’, not ‘you do that’.
B: I was talking about communist propaganda, but there’s something I find very American about this discourse on passion, very moralistic, this passion for passion. You’ve got to be passionate or you’re a failure. It’s part of that whole authenticity thing. On the one hand, you’ve got to be yourself at all times, and on the other, you’ve got to be seen to do things. So, you need to be passionate, and if you’re not, well, pretend. That kind of stuff will drive you crazy. It’s something I experienced in my family, when I was a teenager. My parents had completely different ways of seeing the world, and they wanted completely different things from me. My mum was fine in a way, all she wanted was for me to get good marks and stay out of the way, and I could do that – it kind of made sense. My father, it came from a good place probably, but he wanted me to feel things all the time. And if I didn’t, I was just a ‘cold monster’. And I didn’t know what to say, but I was just sitting there thinking, you can ask me to do anything, that’s fair, but ask me to feel something, it’s not in my control. I can’t be responsible for my feelings. What do you want from me, lie about it? I mean, maybe that’s what it’s all about, like this quote from La Bruyere, hypocrisy’s an homage paid by vice to virtue. Except here, it’s like passion means virtue, and cold rationality means vice. I’m really not sure that’s how it works.
A: You know, there’s this concept of Ikigai that people have been bringing up lately. It’s that point of intersection between what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. Passion, mission, vocation, profession. And I think that’s completely disconnected from, say, the Confucian model, where it’s about your place in society.
B: This whole idea of society as an ‘alienating thing’ that you should ‘free yourself from’, it never made sense to me. Maybe that’s generational, maybe that’s what the Boomers had to do when they were young. But now, it seems just… I don’t know, made up. It’s like this American idea that you should always try and aim higher up. It sounds really tiring, and not particularly useful.
A: I mean, society as a source of alienation, that’s just a soft left-wing cliché. This idea that plain rejecting society is always a good thing, it’s this kind of punk position, and it’s just quite dumb. I mean, we were looking at passion as a value here. I’d say that it’s morally neutral. But then people often try to make it into a virtue, and that’s where it becomes dangerous. I’m thinking now about the way we talk about ‘passions’, and how it has a negative connection.
B: Well, if passion is the motor, it’s pushing you forward. And so, it’s out of your control. And now if intelligence is what’s allowing you to be rational, and being rational is what allows you to do something independently from passions, then there is an implicit opposition and intelligence. And so – yes – there’s something about it that seems just, a celebration of dumb.
A: So, is it important to be passionate? I’m not convinced. It’s about either something that makes you do more, or something that starts controlling you. It’s not a virtue, it’s not about the point of balance between two vices. It’s something else. It’s like it’s about chance, like a lottery. It’s about, have you found your passion. That’s, have you come across something that you like? If you can figure it out, or if you stumble upon it, you’re lucky.
B: Well, in Jesuit practice, we talk about the good and the bad spirit. You should closely listen to your passion, because that comes from God and it’s telling you what you should be doing. But when you’re hearing something, or sensing something, it’s never quite sure if it comes from the good spirit or the bad spirit. So, when you feel something strongly, you should always pause and ponder whether you should follow, or resist. So yes, look, this whole idea that passion is something you must look for, something you should pursue, it just feels dumb dumb to me. It’s not something you’re pursuing. Competence, virtue, it’s about discernment between the positive and the negative passions. And if that’s what it’s about, then consideration ‘passion’ as this one whole thing that you should aspire to, just like that – well, it’s a buzzword, but it’s just not properly thought-out, and it just doesn’t make sense.