Passions Revisited

I am just starting to reread Colin Gunton’s little essay entitled, Enlightenment and Alienation (Eerdmans. 1985). He uses the word “passion” in a most remarkable way that I completely missed without my Eastern Orthodox sensibilities.

He’s offering a brief history of the western understanding of perception from Plato, to Descartes, to Kant and beyond. His point (which he will be critiquing quite vigorously in the pages to come) is that the Western tradition has treated “perception” as a passive event and “reason” as an active event. Philosophers “tended to see the mind as functioning passively when it was related to the material world by means of the senses, but actively when it exercised thought” (p. 13). He continues in the next sentence:

This is a very important and influential distinction, and for the following reason. In sense experience of the barest kind, the human person is often depicted as being passive. Reality simply impinges upon him, a mixture of shapes and colours, textures, odours and sounds. … In every way the active exercise of reason was elevated at the expense of passive sensation.

That’s a truly succinct and wonderful overview of what’s wrong with the Enlightenment. But the next sentence practically jumped off the page:

Passion was a defective way of being related to the world, that in which we are under reality’s control.

My first observation is this: I have never associated “passion” with “passive,” although they obviously come from the same root. So from whence does the word come? It’s the Latin, passio, the past participle of the term, pati, “to suffer, to submit.”

Okay, that makes sense. Suffering is something that is forced upon us, in a similar manner that “we are under reality’s control,” according to Descartes.

But Orthodoxy turns this on its head. The passions are not reality exercising control over our senses, but rather our internal drives exercising control over our senses and thoughts, thus shaping (and more accurately, twisting) both our perceptions and our reason.

I’ve always thought of the passions, in Orthodox thought, as being very active and assertive. But it occurs to me that Gunton’s use of the term is accurate, even within and Orthodox framework. There is properly a distinction between the passions and the inner man. The passions are extrinsic, not intrinsic, to the inner man. And the fundamental human posture is indeed passive in the sense that we have to choose and allow what outside force is going to control us, to be our master: the passions or the Lord. When Eve, and then Adam (preceded by Lucifer, who became Satan as a result) said, “I will,” it was not an act of self-will as we often consider it. Rather, it was the voluntary change in loyalties away from God and toward “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16).

These are forces beyond our control every bit as much as God is a force beyond our control. In the face of either, we are necessarily “passive” and subject to the control of the one to which we surrender.


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