'The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity’
These powerful lines from Yeats poem 'The Second Coming’ have bothered me for nearly 30 years. My anxiety is based on the possibility that they offer a resounding truth about us, all of us. 'The worst are full of passionate intensity.' I have lived my life surrounded by passionate family, friends and colleagues. Yeats’ words agitate me like an ear worm.
On reflection, the people I admire most have been passionate. I have behaved 'passionately’ many times, but to be frank, some of my biggest mistakes and moral errors have been motivated by passion. The remarkable Jo Cox has been described as 'passionate’ by all who knew her. Yeats is wrong, he must be wrong. But still, his damned lines torment me. So, perplexed, I’ve had to do some serious thinking.
Like everyone else in Scotland, I was aware of the 'passion’ during the protracted Scottish referendum campaign. 'Passion’ was the watchword. All sides, particularly the Yessers, were 'passionate’ sometimes to the point where politicians were hounded in the streets, and Twitter began its torrid journey from a fun way to communicate to the ugly medium it has become. 'Passionate intensity’ has become a political and social virtue.
Let’s fast-forward to the EU referendum campaign: a humiliating (to any reasonable man or woman) catalogue of grotesque ugliness. On the Marr show yesterday, Michael Gove, the justice secretary, in justification of the infamous UKIP poster of refugees, said that free speech is central to our democracy in order that people can 'express themselves freely with passion and force’. No mention of reason, persuasion, tolerance that underpin civilised debate.
In the public sphere and in political discourse generally, you cannot escape the 'P’ word and its various grammatical guises. It litters all modern politicians’ pronouncements as a noun, adjective or adverb. Each and every one of them claiming to be a 'passionate’ advocate or defender of this, that and the next thing. So much so, that if there were a moratorium on this verbal tic, most politicians would struggle to replace it. Passion, the mollycoddling cover for some of our worst instincts, is now the ultimate justification for all manner of things and behaviour. But recently, there has been a desperate escalation of its use, for example in the dreadful US presidential campaigns, Orlando, the repugnant EU referendum and of course, a blasted football tournament. I say 'desperate’ because, again, ‘passion’ has become exculpating, the last refuge of the extremist. If you’re passionate, you can be excused verbal excess, raw unreasoned desire – even violence.
But its toxic nature has been brought home in the most brutal manner imaginable – Jo Cox’s murder. The passionate intensity described as ‘hate’ of a white, middle-aged man – has somehow led this wretch to politically motivated murder/terrorism (intersectional identity theorists are having a field day). The details of the manner of her death are unbearable and reflecting on the pointlessness of her killing is the road to despair. But the point here is that passion has become dangerous. The sleep of reason indeed produces monsters. Passion itself has become monstrous. This is not new in human history.
The delicate, intimate and complex relationship between reason and passion has exercised philosophers throughout the long history of ideas. Two major thinkers – Plato and our own David Hume – had a lot to say about it. Hume’s 'reason is the slave of the passions’ is one of his most famous quotes, but the Platonic (or Socratic) view is more interesting in the current context. And it is this: that we only think rationally to the extent that it serves our desires or passions.
We don’t think spontaneously. Our thinking begins when we have a problem to solve, and these problems are always related to some desire that is, at least temporarily, frustrated. In everyday life this means that our desires and passions place a ceiling on our rational capacities, and on what we can know, because we will think only until our desires have been satisfied, and rarely further. So if your fundamental desires are for wealth accumulation, say, then your intellect will be put to work with this aim in mind, and it will find as much reality as is necessary to serve wealth accumulating interests, and no more.
If your fundamental desire is for honour and reputation, then again, your intellect will be put to work with this aim in mind, and you will find out as much about reality as is necessary to fulfil this desire, and little more. The result is that intellect takes an interest in reality, not as it is in itself, but to the extent that it serves our interests. We keep our minds working on a 'need to know’ basis. This is the dark side, the now very dark side, of political rhetoric. When we engage in debate on political issues our 'reasons’ are inevitably self-serving, and we blind ourselves to, and wilfully ignore, aspects of reality that do not serve our interests.
Plato’s hope was that there are some whose fundamental desire is to know the truth of things. Only if you have this as your fundamental desire will your intellect be directed to things as they really are, and not distorted through the lens of passionate self-interest. But as Nietzsche pointed out, such people are extremely rare (but needed now – right now – more than ever) and as he was wont to comment, there is only so much truth humanity can take.
Recently, 'passionate intensity’ has taken a more sinister turn. Yeats’ again, is instructive. He writes earlier in that powerful verse when 'things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’, chaos ensues and when 'the centre cannot hold’ extremes emerge, 'innocence is drowned’ and 'the worst are full of passionate intensity’. Currently we are fixated on inflaming terms such as 'hate’, 'traitor’, 'racist’ and the rest. But the real culprit is 'passion’. Listen for it. It is not a value-term, it is empty of value and when misused, extremely dangerous.
Most politicians and activists exploit it, and its use copied and utilised too often, to legitimise appalling behaviour. Right now, the centre isn’t holding: reason, moderation, messy compromise, negotiation and trying to understand others, is collapsing. We need to be on guard. Surely humanity can take just a little more truth and spare the passion? We owe it to Jo Cox to try.
The Second Coming by W B Yeats
'Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.'