A will to tame the emotions

The Vehement Passions
April 18, 2003

This provocative study presents a stimulating account and analysis of the changing place of the passions in western culture. At its centre, and as a kind of organising principle for its analyses of thinkers from Aristotle to John Rawls, and writers from Homer to Herman Melville, stands the powerful idea of a "legislative vocabulary". A legislative vocabulary defines our stance or attitude towards events in advance of our experience of them, thus acting as a constraint on their interpretation.

When, as today, vehement passions such as anger or grief are represented from the beginning as excessive, and always tending towards the abnormal and the pathological, it becomes difficult to see anything positive or constructive in them. Fisher's study sets out to contest this representation, and does so by a careful survey of key moments in the shift in western thought from a concern with the passions to a focus on the emotions. It starts with the deliberate attempt at displacing the passions articulated in Stoic thought - a move that Fisher argues culminated in Kant's thorough pathologisation of the passions in the Critique of Practical Reason.

According to Fisher, the Stoics were the first "to notice the extent to which language is an act of the will by means of which we built ourselves into the world so as to intercept it at a fixed angle". At the centre of the Stoic vision is language's capacity to create a self-conscious and divided self, one that "overlaps with its situations while remembering that it is distinct from them". In the Stoic reframing and renaming of the world, all loss becomes change, impersonal and consequently unregrettable.

It makes Hamlets of us all as we give up the undivided consciousness characteristic of someone properly in the grip of a vehement passion such as the desire for revenge.

As Fisher argues, it was the growing emphasis on the reflective capacities of self-consciousness that established the triumph of socialisation over the passions. What started as a deliberately distancing and self-protective perspective on the passions in Stoic arguments, became, with Kant - with his stern call for their uprooting in the name of moral duty - a total assault on them. By the time of Darwin and William James, any talk of the passions had come to sound old-fashioned, and a new and milder term - emotion - came to frame the understanding of human experience and response.

Animating Fisher's account is a sense of what has been lost in this displacement - and related denigration - of the passions. For example, he describes how the passion of anger played a positive role in Aristotle's theory, just as it did in Homer's social imagination. For both, vehement anger was the sign of an active will, the expression of the aristocratic sense of self-worth exemplified by Achilles' wrath. For Fisher, the passion of anger still has a useful and constitutive role to play in the modern democratic world. It marks the boundaries of the will not only in heroic, but also in everyday life. Indeed, it is in the everyday disputes about those boundaries that Aristotle's martial sense of honour remains essential: not to experience injury at the slights offered by others "would be a sign of having no self-worth to be militant about".

More broadly, literature as a whole exists to remind us where Kant - and the influence his pathologisation of the passions still exerts - went wrong. "Novels and stories are accounts of my own world or of someone's world, and not of the world per se," he points out; literature is "our most important anti-Kantian domain, because in literature universality and reciprocity are structurally excluded. Narrative is immediately perspectival in time and circumstance."

At this point, two significant omissions are likely to come to mind. First, the striking absence in the book of any discussion of love, perhaps the most vehement passion of all; and second, the lack of reference to the tradition most sympathetic to Fisher's general claims: the "civilization and its discontent" tradition that stretches from Hegel, through Marx and Nietzsche, to Jacques Lacan, Theodor Adorno and Michel Foucault.

In any case, such omissions may be better regarded as just two of the possible connections suggested by this stimulating and provocative book, whose strength lies precisely in the compact selectivity with which it argues its case for the vehement passions.

John Higgins is professor of English, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

The Vehement Passions

Author - Philip Fisher
ISBN - 0 691 06996 4
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £18.95
Pages - 304

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