There are moments when I could imagine being a lexicographer. One of the most interesting stories of the last few centuries must be how rapturous intensity of feeling came to be regarded as a good thing rather than a bad one, and the terms we use to describe it became words of praise.
This is especially true of the word “passion”: “I just love your passion for your work.” “The applicant is passionately committed to his studies.” “Senator Fogbound has the rare ability to arouse the passion of his followers.”
Contrast that last line with the view of the American Founders, who thought of passion as the great danger of republics. Among their chief goals was to make legislation so slow that any passion which does arise will have ample time to dissipate.
Understand me: Emotions aren’t bad in themselves, as the Stoics morbidly thought. But to be good, they have to be regulated. Until very recently in history, almost all wise men agreed that such feelings as fear, confidence, appetite, anger, pity, pleasure, and pain may be felt both too much and too little. What if I am so fearful that I cannot face danger, or so fearless that I cannot learn caution?
Unfortunately, when we praise someone for being passionate, we don’t mean that he feels his emotions at the right times, toward the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way. We merely mean that he feels them intensely – that he is always either in the grip of an excitement, revving up to an excitement, or coming down from an excitement which we happen to find attractive ourselves.
Even science museums and children’s indoor play centers strive for sensory overload. Love lyrics sound as though they were written by sociopaths and stalkers; they are so often about losing one’s mind, or losing control. The unforgivable sin in politics isn’t to be wicked, but to be boring.
There is a lot of cultural blame to go around. The day the poet Shelley rhymed “madness” with “gladness,” he committed a fatal error. But the philosopher Hume was just as mad when he described reason as the “slave” of the passions. If that were the case with his own reasoning, then why should anyone suppose that his views could have merit?
I have been promising my readers to try to end on upnotes, and I can. The one good thing about frenzy is that it takes far too much energy to maintain. If we can keep ourselves and our loved ones from succumbing, this too will pass.