The strong current of Western thought that idealizes a dispassionate world has ostracized the passions as quaint, even dangerous. Intense states have come to be seen as symptoms of pathology. A fondness for irony along with our civic ideal of tolerance lead us to prefer the diluted emotional life of feelings and moods. Demonstrating enormous intellectual originality and generosity, Philip Fisher meditates on whether this victory is permanent-and how it might diminish us.
From Aristotle to Hume to contemporary biology, Fisher finds evidence that the passions have defined a core of human nature no less important than reason or desire. Traversing the Iliad, King Lear, Moby Dick, and other great works, he discerns the properties of the high-spirited states we call the passions. Are vehement states compatible with a culture that values private, selectively shared experiences? How do passions differ from emotions? Does anger have an opposite? Do the passions give scale, shape, and significance to our experience of time? Is a person incapable of anger more dangerous than someone who is irascible?
In reintroducing us to our own vehemence, Fisher reminds us that it is only through our strongest passions that we feel the contours of injustice, mortality, loss, and knowledge. It is only through our personal worlds that we can know the world.
At the heart of the human experience lies anxiety caused by the realization that the world is unknown, forever eluding our control. And out of this anxiety arises the master passions of ambition and envy, which we repress to mask their power over our lives. Discussion of the role of the emotions in our lives is not new, but Mihnea Moldoveanu and Nitin Nohria go much further, showing how these passions shape not only our individual lives but our social and organizational culture as well.
The master passions are not pretty, and so we cover them with the more socially acceptable faces of reason and morality. Moldoveanu and Nohria guide the reader in revealing the real impetus behind such actions as firing a friend, leaving a lover, or even pillaging your own people. Below the rational explanation, they show, often lies a willingness to hurt or even destroy others to fuel our own ambitions or quench the fires of envy. The authors offer intriguing thought experiments and examples from their own lives as they expose the power of the master passions. Deftly weaving ideas from psychology (Sigmund Freud), sociology (Max Weber), literature (William Shakespeare, Albert Camus), and philosophy (David Hume, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche) with the personal, they build a strong argument that society would be much healthier if we faced the deception and self-deception that pervade our lives.