Efface your imagination!” exclaimed Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, circa 180 AD. “Cease to be pulled as a puppet by your passions, and you will be saved.” Because passion is a faculty of the soul and not of reason, it often makes us do things contrary to our well being—or so the stoic creed ran. The very nature of the word suggests affliction: the Greek word “pathos” literally means “what befalls one,” and its Latin adaption “passio” means “suffer” or “endure” (hence the “Passion of Christ”). The same holds true across languages of non-Latin origin: the Russian “strast” and the German “Leidenschaft.” The word’s modern connotation of “strong liking, desire, and enthusiasm” wasn’t recorded until the seventeenth century. But that development couldn’t absolve passion of its underlying, darker meaning. Rather, it augmented it.
A casual look at the history of Western civilization yields plenty of arguments supporting Marcus’ point: Romeo and Juliet would have been better off, had they tempered their passion; Italian astronomer Giordano Bruno’s unequivocal belief in the infiniteness of the universe led him to the stake; Oscar Wilde’s refusal to leave the country after being convicted of homosexuality (a crime at the time) led to his imprisonment, exile, and untimely death. In a less dramatic, everyday context, passion still wields the same destructive power: When a mother of two locks herself up in her study to write a poem or create a sculpture, her family life suffers. But people pursue their passions–contrary to reason, through the thorns, and often alone–but why?
The answer can be decoded by looking at the word itself: we don’t choose what befalls us. The word “befall” is not a happy one, as it is most frequently followed by calamity, misfortune, or illness. Like other ailments, passion comes with its own roster of symptoms: drive, relentlessness, enthusiasm, but also single-mindedness, rigidity, and overconfidence. Passionate people have the reputation of being insufferable. That same Giordano Bruno was known for insulting his colleagues, and, some maintain, it was his temperament that contributed to his violent death, not his beliefs. More recently, Steve Jobs, having brought forward an assemblage of the world’s most beloved products, was repeatedly called egotistical, uncompromising, and unpleasant. One thing is certain: Passionate people don’t make it easy for themselves.
This could be due to the nature of the condition itself. Unlike most chronic diseases that can be kept in check with proper treatment, passion is always acute and all-consuming. Are passionate people mad? Quite possibly, for where passion reigns, reason retreats. One cannot help but think of Van Gogh and his contempt for his own body parts; of Virginia Woolf filling the pocket of her coat with river stones and drowning herself; of Dostoyevsky, hurriedly finishing his novel, Crime and Punishment, to pay finance his gambling compulsion.
In addition to threatening one’s health, passion can cause some curious distortions to one’s value system. John Gardner, a novelist and the author of the foremost text on the craft of fiction, The Art of Fiction, recounted a story about stumbling upon a car accident in which a nine-months pregnant woman had been impaled through the abdomen, and how during his efforts to extract her from the car he was gripped by neither pity nor terror, but the “inhumane” desire to remember the minute details of the scene: how the flesh puffed up around the wound, the way the blood pumped, etc. Appalling as it sounds to the rest of the world, and to Gardner himself, this detachment of the mind is nothing but a consequence of his passion for a vivid, detailed narrative. Passionate people can’t stop focusing on what’s important to them even when the world seems to be coming to an end. Not surprisingly, such dedication comes with strings attached.
Even the notion of passion as desire, its happier synonym, has a negative connotation. A brief reflection on the nature of desires, and the contradiction becomes apparent. One can only desire what one doesn’t already have. If viewed through this lens, passion is nothing but an unsettled conflict between our expectations and reality. To resolve it, to get ourselves to our happy state, we push ourselves, and we do it hard. The frequent companion to that acute mental restlessness, discontent, and suffering, is creativity—the very imagination that Marcus Aurelius called for us to efface. Think of the world’s great masterpieces that were created by people with a stark impediment, physical or otherwise: blind Homer, deaf Beethoven, wheelchair-bound Stephen Hawking, even Mozart had a well-documented yearning for living up to his father’s expectations. We yearn, therefore we act.
What does this mean for those who, unlike the Roman Emperor, admire, foster, and hold passion as a virtue? As passionate people, are we barred from happiness by the very nature of our pursuits? Yes and no. The reason passion has been extolled as vehemently as it was condemned throughout centuries is that it, along with torments and thorns, brings to those afflicted with it the rare moments of inconceivable happiness that come from glimpsing the eternal. One day, the words fall into a pattern and a novel is written; the molecules fuse the right way to give the world a malaria vaccine; and Venus emerges from where others saw only an ugly slab of stone. Even when experienced only once, the sensation is impossible to forget.
But the light from these epiphanies is more akin to zigzags cutting through a stormy sky than to a constant glow. Along with the amazing clarity it brings, it subjects us to the same danger as standing in an open field during a raging thunderstorm. To be “in the zone” and to walk the path responsibly, we must take precautions. By being aware of the contradictory nature of passion, we can channel it better, smoothing the rough edges our pursuits impart on us. By listening, and never disguising poor temper or arrogance as passion, we can trust those who care about us to administer an emergency shot of honesty when our passions push us toward destruction. There’s always hope. We’ve solved many of the struggles of a century ago: tuberculosis is now curable, childbirth has become manageable, almost routine, and feminism much more widely accepted. Passion doesn’t have to be fatal. As for eliminating it all together, let’s face it: Marcus Aurelius never had an iPhone. We have, so it is up to us to figure out the way to turn our passions into something profound, and not always fatal.