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D. S. Heersink
- Published on Amazon.com
Solomon's "The Passions," for me, was a life-changing read. In many ways, he anticipates and correlates psychologist Rollo May through his synthesis of philosophy, psychology, and literature into a seamless existentialist whole. While borrowing heavily from existentialist thought, Solomon does not limit himself only to that vein of philosophy, but borrows heavily from all periods of philosophical history. Even though he admits to having been schooled in the often arcane mode of Anglo-American philosophy, neither he nor his readers would know it by his mellifluous prose. And, while he opens himself up to Continental philosophy, especially Heiddegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre, he recognizes that this tradition is largely an ideological rather than experiential framework. The resulting work is compendious.
Solomon starts with the dominant paradigm in Western history of philosophical thought: Plato, especially the metaphor of the charioteer and two steeds (in the "Phaedrus"). According to Plato and nearly every thinker subsequently, "reason" and "emotion" are each of the two steeds, while the "soul" (i.e., mind) is the charioteer. The purpose of the charioteer is to extol reason and depreciate the emotions. And, for most of the intervening 2,500 years, most sages have depreciated the passions (i.e., the emotions) in favor of extolling reason (i.e., ratiocination). Even the early Stoics had an aversion to all things emotional. Boethius define humans as "a rational animal," a coinage that has remained unchanged for millennia. And as late as Freud, this dualism persists in the "ego" and the "id." But is that really how things are?
Solomon insists this whole tradition is bunk. His thesis is that reason and the emotions, while uniquely different aspects of the mind, are essentially and incontrovertibly united. I'm not sure that a conflationary claim can be defended against some of the insights of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. But, he's not claiming these aren't different aspects; he's only claiming that the emotions and reason are intimately conjoined. The two are not separate and distinct, as Western tradition would have us believe, but that the two are integral to our very being. Indeed, it's their conjunction that gives "meaning to life," and without both of them together, our lives would be sterile and inchoate. And this thesis, I believe, he can defended.
When one looks back over one's life and recalls the most significant (and even the less significant) events, they all entail our emotions: Fear, hope, love, jealousy, revenge, lust, anger, etc. Nothing remotely "rational" alone stands out among the pinnacles of life. Yes, there is an occasional ratiocinative "eureka," but even then it's our pride in discovery that's controlling our pleasure, not reason alone. Indeed, all our interesting and engaging moments involve our emotions (or "passions"). Convincingly, I could not find a counter instance in my life to refute this claim. The "function" of reason is to prioritize, analyze, and utilize these emotions to our maximal benefit. It's only when we won't allow reason a mediating voice in our emotional experiences that things may go haywire, e.g., being consumed with so much rage that we self-destruct or kill others.
Again, this important insight about life has largely gone unnoticed. I was surprised that this book was written over 30 years ago, and still yet how so few people know of it (N.B. This second edition is much revised from the first.) Equally surprising is how accessible and insightful this simple thesis is, including Solomon's presentation of it, yet how out of touch so many of us are with its central thesis. Being a WASP, the subordination of all things emotional to reason was a "no-questions-asked" premise to life. How utterly wrong that premise and rule is. Consequently, I've discovered how truly enlivening the passions allow us to be, and fruitful when we allow reason to prioritize, analyze, and utilize them for maximal gain, and not spend useless hours wishing "things were otherwise." Highly recommended.