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Taming ‘the terrible passions’

05:04 AM August 15, 2017

While Donald Trump’s mighty guns of August are “locked and loaded,” this piece will try to revive the protracted duel between reason and emotion.

It’s a debate that never dies: What defines and animates humanity? Is it calculating reason that invented the tools and amenities of civilization, or what the painter Vincent van Gogh called “the terrible passions” that drove us to where we are now?

If we survey the events of history all the way to that fateful day a wily serpent tempted an innocent Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, it is undoubtedly the passions that largely rule our behavior. Rationalists may declare with certitude the unstoppable, onward march of reason to the “omega of human evolution,” but immortal myths and facts on the ground tell a more convincing story of an untamable animal spirit that drives human thought and action: the lust for adventure, the inordinate appetite for fighting, hurting, and dominating others — in short, the desire for mate, love, revenge, power and glory.


Think of the wars, great and small, that have been fought because of matters of emotional fury. Think of the mythical thousand ships launched by the Greeks to bring back the beautiful Helen from the arms of Paris in Troy; think of the mesmerizing beauty of the Taj Mahal built by the grieving emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his beloved wife Mumtaz; recall the hundreds of millions of people who lost their lives in numberless killing fields throughout the world; and more recently, dance to the irresistible beat of “Despacito” which briefly united us in over four billion views. Finally, think of the staying power of the great religions of humankind, and you get some insights into human passions in all their mystery, splendor and savagery.

Sadly, the marvels of science and cybertechnologies that have reduced Earth to a small village of competing tribes have not freed humanity from its Neanderthal moorings. As in the past, it’s swords, guns and bombs, not plowshares and classrooms, that make the difference.

And so, unsurprisingly, we find lunatic nations like North Korea, enamored of their newfound nuclear toys, and great powers like China and America, playing out their existential imperatives on the world stage, while a fearful humanity holds its breath, knowing that any miscalculation could lead to nuclear war and global catastrophe.

Is reason really impotent when besieged by the passions? If there is one big lesson to be learned from human frailty, it’s that we have not learned from history. Barbara Tuchman inferred in her classic “The March of Folly” that governments throughout millennia have never learned how to tame the passions. Thus, since government’s advent in 2000 B.C., there has been no marked improvement in it as an instrument for the rational and just management of human society. And if we cannot learn from our mistakes (follies), we are certainly doomed to repeat them.

Serious students of human behavior conclude that while the sciences have progressed by leaps and bounds, government has been at a standstill — no better conducted now than 4,000 years ago.

David Hume believes that “reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Translation: Passions, not the cold logic of reason, motivate human action. Thus, in our world of dizzying technological developments, beware of the many disguises of the passions used by those in power to make their lies appear palatable and reasonable.

In the Philippine context, that could mean that propaganda — its arsenal of alternative facts, half-truths, and post-truth that flood social media — actually speaks the language of reason even when its aim is to fool people because its authors know that their real target is the passions. That’s what makes it so dangerous to a gullible, undiscerning public.

If there is a moral to this piece, it is that we must realize we live in a maddening world where real truth is often stranger than fiction; that in a larger sense, the conflict between the passions and reason has barely begun. The passions and reason are what make us uniquely human. They are inseparable and need each other, for good or ill.


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Narciso Reyes Jr. ( is an international book author and former diplomat. He lived in Beijing in 1978-81 as bureau chief of the Philippine News Agency.

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