On passions & convictions

“The best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” (W. B. Yeats)

It was Ireland’s sectarian hatreds that provided the inspiration for Yeats’ famous line in The Second Coming, but suicide bombers, brutal left- and right-wing ideologues, religious zealots or fiery nationalists could all have been equal to the task. While it is not difficult to think of people who have committed terrible atrocities thanks to an intensity of commitment to a cause, no carnage has been created by hordes of the apathetic and indifferent. Can you imagine rousing a mob with the cry, “What do we want?” when the reply is “we don’t really know” or “we don’t really care”?

However, it would be a mistake to interpret Yeats’ insightful observation for an endorsement of apathy. Here we need to distinguish between describing and prescribing. The fact that ‘passionate intensity’ is the preserve of the worst can be as much a lament as a caution. For when only the bad have a fire in their bellies, the bad will prevail. Hence Edmund Burke’s famous dictum that “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.” If the best lack all convictions, they leave the path clear for the bad to do their worst.

The message to the good is therefore twofold: if they are serious about wanting good to prevail, they need to weaken the convictions of the evil or gain a bit more passion themselves.

The message could not be more timely, as Western democratic liberalism struggles with the challenge of extremism from religious quarters and nationalist minorities. We need to win the argument against fanaticism or, failing that, be prepared to defend our values with a bit more of the passionate intensity that we see in our foes. Otherwise, we face the prospect described by Yeats, where “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

(Adapted from ‘Should You Judge a Book by Its Cover?’ by Julian Baggini)


~ by irwin on February 9, 2012.

2 Responses to “On passions & convictions”

  1. You write very well, Irwin!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Liren! But I must say most of it is adapted from the book I mentioned in an earlier post! =D

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