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Civilization and its Fundamental Passions

“To describe a culture is to describe the structure of its institutions.”
— Joseph Tussman


In his book The Burden of Office, the educator and philosopher Joseph Tussman, who brought us profound wisdom, does a remarkable job, in just a few short pages, of describing one of the fundamental truths of human life: The same things we cherish are also the things that destroy us. It is exactly the qualities which give us vitality that create our problems. This is a fundamental truth. (Gary Taubes made a similar point recently, calling the thirst for knowledge a tightrope walk.)

Tussman breaks down the fundamental passions into five areas: Eros (Love), Indignation (Moral Righteousness), Curiosity, Acquisitiveness, and Pride. These are the things which bless and bedevil us, as Tussman puts it.

On Eros:

Powerful, necessary, the root of self-transcendence, of the varieties of love and all that we value flowing from that. And yet, a source of anguish, of misery, of torment, of unhappiness, of conflict, madness, murder, war. Half of wisdom is learning to tiptoe in the presence of eros.

On Moral Fervor:

A deeply instinctive reaction to something that threatens us, the social group, the basic human unit. Its absence–indifference, genuine carelessness–is a fatal disease. Its moderate presence supports the justice that makes trust and cooperation possible. Its raging presence brings fanatical or holy war, the horrors of unslaked vengeance, the interminable feud.

On Curiosity:

Without it, no knowledge, no science, no arts, no power. But feared today as the human passion that may bring us to the end of the world. In its grip we stop at nothing recognizing no forbidden fruit, undeterred by decency.

On Acquisitiveness:

If we do not leap to a pejorative sense, we see that it begins as a kind of prudent concern to get what we need to satisfy our wants, now and in the future, to provide for ourselves, our families, our friends, our fellows […] But carried away, we can become misers, acquire the Midas touch, turn ugly with greed, cupidity, avarice–transforming a virtue into a destructive vice.

On Pride:

At one end of the scale we find something desirable and necessary–proper pride, self-respect, a sense of dignity, the capacity to know shame, to feel disgrace. At the other end we encounter the thirst for fame, for status, for glory–the arrogance, the heedless autonomy, the pride that goes before a fall.

Civilizing Passion

In the face of these two-faced passions, the whole point of human civilization and culture is to harness them into being useful and safe. This reminds one of the English saying that Politics is the art of marshaling hatreds. In other words, we build our culture knowing full well what the passions are and what they're capable of.

Some people, of course, hate the rule-making and the institutionalizing of passions. We all probably do, from time to time. Many political campaigns have been run on the idea that society is reigning in the glorious individual too much.

But rarely do we give society much credit for what it accomplishes by creating useful institutions to marshal our passions. Tussman points out a few that have been especially useful. The first one being the modern legal system, which provides a great example of how we tame the passion of moral fury for the sake of civilization.

Moral indignation gives way to legal argument; fury is tied in legal knots–trapped, confined, restrained, transformed, tamed. The passion finds itself institutionalized, learns to express itself in a set of appropriate habits. Impulse and intuition give way to bureaucracy. Morality bows to legality. War gives way to the rule of law. We become civilized.

The story of fury and its taming into law is the story of all the great passions. We develop the forms within which they are both recognized, acknowledged, satisfied, and nevertheless, banked, kept within limits, restrained.

We do this with Eros too — we find ways to tame and institutionalize love, one of the most fundamental biological passions of humanity:

In its most assertive mood, the institution of marriage aspires to a total monopoly of legitimate sexuality. A rather daring claim, not unlike the claim of the institutions of the sovereign to a monopoly of legitimate coercive power, honored only to a degree. But the point is that marriage and its ancillary institutions are cultural attempts to tame eros into a benign form The pattern may vary from culture to culture and time to time, but every human group will erect its temples to this deity.

It's even true with the passion for knowledge — something we'd all consider a fundamental right and generally a positive passion for the world. It's given us so much. But we rein it in all the same, recognizing its power to mislead.

The passion for knowledge might not seem to belong in this fevered company, and may not seem to need restraining. At least it may not seem so in the academic world where we commonly worry more about kindling the passion than dampening. But there is a long tradition of the fear of the mad scientist with his unquenchable thirst–Faust and all those restless probing minds uncovering the secrets of the atom, of the genetic code, of the mind, of the soul, of all that heady fruit the taste of which may threaten what remains of innocence. In spite of bold claims to freedom, however, even the pursuit of truth is subject to social and political constraint. Much of it could not even go on without governmental sanction and support.

Yuval Harari makes similar points in his awesome book Sapiens: There is a long marriage between governmental and capitalistic institutions and the pursuit of knowledge. These pursuits don't exist independently of each other, but work as complements. Karl Popper also wrote deeply about the need for an Open Society–the need for proper institutions to support the growth of knowledge, which can be suppressed under the wrong conditions.

In the end, says Tussman, we are the sum of our passions and our institutions — every culture answers this problem in its own way.

Civilization requires the institutionalization of the necessary but dangerous passions. Any civilization is a particular way of doing so, achieving–growing into–its complex forms more or less by happy accident. To describe a culture is to map its institutions. To criticize or evaluate a culture is to judge the adequacy of its institutions in light of some conception of how the various passions can best be expressed or shaped or harnessed to serve a variety of human purposes.


Still Interested? Check out Tussman's brilliant quote on understanding the world.