Robert Pfaller


An inquiry into passion

The most striking distinction between the erotic life of antiquity and our own no doubt lies in the fact that the ancients laid the stress upon the instinct itself, whereas we emphasize its object. The ancients glorified the instinct and were prepared on its account to honour even an inferior object; while we despise the instinctual activity in itself, and find excuses for it only in the merits of the object.

Sigmund Freud (

[1905d: 149])

Pleasure, sovereign master of men and gods before whom everything recedes, even Reason itself: you know how my heart beats for you, and what sacrifices it’s brought you! Unsure if I deserve to mingle my voice in your praises…

Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1987)

Powerful passions impress us mainly from the far reaches of occidental culture; such as the wrath of Achilles, the citing of which begins Homer’s Iliad. This passion is so powerful that as Peter Sloterdijk points out, one must grasp the possessive “of Achilles” as a quasi genitivus objectivus (objective genitive). Achilles does not have anger, but the other way around—the anger has him. Achilles is not the possessor, but the possessed; the hero is no more than the medium, the vehicle so to speak (as Marshall McLuhan would have put it), a “servo-mechanism” of his affect, which is precisely what comprises its horror and greatness. “Just as the singer could be the mouthpiece of a singing force, the hero feels himself the arm of rage, the rage that achieved the noteworthy actions,” writes Sloterdijk.

What appears characteristic of the passions, first of all, is that people are not simply motivated or inspired by them, but positively seized, possessed, and, as the Stoic Chrysippus is meant to have formulated it: carried away. In the face of this seemingly quite threatening likelihood, it thus appears only logical that a great part of ancient philosophy was dedicated to investigating methods to control the passions. Subsequently arising were also a series of educational and political institutions, as in the end, it was necessary to slow down a bit and introduce a few traffic rules to avoid having speeding vehicles of holy wrath, divine lust, aggressive drives for recognition, and all out delirious love constantly crashing into one another. This might explain why the powerful, raw passions are a part of our culture’s past. Their disappearance is, accordingly, considered part of a “civilizational process,” and the fact that they can no longer carry us away, as they could the ancient heroes, is seen as a good thing. What follows will counter these two views.

Naturally, there have been massive changes in dealing with the passions in occidental culture, and it would be no great exaggeration to say that seminal theorists from the late nineteenth century on have grappled with the issue of these changes: Friedrich Engels in his study on The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State; Friedrich Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals; Max Weber with his analysis of “disenchantment”; Sigmund Freud in his contemplations on “civilized sexual morality” and also on Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices and Civilization and its Discontents; Wilhelm Reich with his theory of the Invasion of Compulsive Sex-Morality; Johan Huizinga with his reflections on play as the originator of all culture, and also its disappearance from culture; Ludwig Marcuse with his reconstruction of a philosophy of happiness; Georges Bataille with his thoughts on transgression and sovereignty; Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari with their search for a way out of an “oedipalized” culture; Michel Foucault in his archeology of The Use of Pleasure without the compulsion to confess; Richard Sennett with his analysis of  The Fall of Public Man; Alain Ehrenberg in his investigations of The Weariness of the Self; Peter Sloterdijk with his reminders of the lost “thymotic” qualities, such as pride and wrath; Slavoj Zizek with his diagnosis of Passion in the Era of Decaffeinated Belief and A Plea for Leninist Intolerance. Significantly, almost all who have posed this question have found the corresponding, apparently “civilizational” cultural developments—regardless of the differences in their descriptions and explanations—to be detrimental.

The Stoic philosophers—especially the late authors, such as Seneca, Plutarch, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius—are commonly seen as the first theorists to make an effort to control the passions (whereby, of course no answer is given as to whether the cultural developments adverse to passion took their start in theory, or instead in everyday practices of behavior, education, and training, etc.). Currents such as Christianity, with its demonization of sex and crime, were thus able to establish on the basis of this preparatory work. The Stoics were therefore an enterprise deadening the passions. For that reason, Shakespeare had Tranio call out, “Let’s be no stoics, nor no stocks…”

However, when we look a bit more closely, there is clearly something that requires differentiation here. What the Stoics were battling were not drives, desires, or passions, but rather, illusions. One can take a hands-off approach to the drives, they are not all that important; however, as Marcus Aurelius writes, one shouldn’t add on to them the “opinion” that they are something good or evil. And “Wash away the illusions. Put a halt to being torn back and forth.”

A crucial matter is revealed here: people are not endangered by their sensual “weaknesses.” They are not capable of being “carried away” in the sense of Chrysippus or seduced because they are hungry, angry, addicted to pleasure, vain, in love, or sexually excitable. The danger for people arises simply through their attachment of grand ideas to small, sensual (or also other) moods, and their consideration of them as something magnificent, unconquerable, or even absolute. This turns their little emotional drives into severe passions (or, as the philosophers say: “affects”), which even almost appear to them as “strengths.” In this way, people not only grow possessive, become interested in erotica, and have vulnerable egos, but also become greedy, addicted, and furious.

Precisely for that reason, however, pleasure is not the only thing that can seduce them. As Brecht clear-sightedly says: “Don’t let yourself be seduced/To drudgery and emaciation.” People let themselves be seduced just as much by unpleasure as by pleasure, including not only low pay and precarious work, but also, for example, dull food, unattractive amusement and parties, degrading security controls, patronizing warnings—provided that they are baited with a cheap, higher ideal (such as health, security, or sustainability). As Blaise Pascal remarked, this leads us to the point that we are even willing to give up our life, with pleasure, if someone simply talks about it.

Now, however, it is possible to contradict the first misinterpretation about cultural development. The passions have not disappeared and yielded, for instance, to rationality. They have simply been replaced by more powerful passions, which are furnished with firmer, more impressive, pseudo-rational ideas. However, a decisive difference is revealed in these new, apparently rational passions as compared to the earlier ones: they can no longer be experienced as pleasure. Benedict de Spinoza developed a term for them: “sad passions.”  One is not pleased by the frugal meal, but rather, the secret feeling of making a sacrifice for the environment, or for poor people, or even for an invisible god. And one becomes jealous of and aggressive against those who prefer to eat more luxuriously. Such hatred of others distinguishes today’s pseudo-ascetics from the true saints of ancient culture, whom we, Western consumption idiots, would not stir to bouts of aggression, but at most, a pitying smile.

In the catalogue of passions, one must therefore include also an entire series of current cultural phenomena that at first glance appear to be their opposites: the enthusiasm for abstinence, demonization of former indulgences, sensitivities, and the development of products or practices in which the typical “bad” element is eliminated, such as beer without alcohol, whipped cream without fat, and sex without skin contact (for example, in the practice known from more recent Hollywood films of so-called “dry humping”). Included here are also current efforts at self-optimization, and self-recruiting as holy warriors.

Characteristic of all of these contemporary “ascetic” passions is not only a connection to a higher ideal, but also the feeling of those possessed and carried away by them, of being insanely important (through identification with these ideals): they save the world on their plate or become entirely optimal selves with top body-mass indexes and highly efficient sleep patterns.

This consideration of oneself as important also leads to the current situation in which an incredible amount of things are considered disturbing. The fact that other people in a housing settlement are barbecuing in the yard seems to be an unbearable provocation. That people smoke in a bar appears entirely unreasonable—especially to people who would never want to go in that particular bar, anyway. When people make jokes about someone or describe them in a way that is considered unacceptable, police intervention is called for, and comprehensive administrative measures. The sad passion of complaining about all of these disturbances is taking hold of ever more areas of the population. A rather simple circumstance, by the way, shows that there is a pleasure concealed therein that is not experienced as such: namely, almost all occasions that are considered an annoyance nowadays, could just as easily be associated with pleasure: It is actually kind of nice when festive people in a party mood take over the abandoned yard; it might be pleasant at times to go into a dark bar where there is whisky, jazz, and thick clouds of tobacco smoke; and maybe it is possible to have entertaining conversations with jokesters, especially when you counter them with a few jokes about themselves. The fact that in today’s culture, so many sensibilities have surfaced that seem invincible to their bearers, is not the result of skin that has grown thinner, but rather, a self whose self-esteem has grown greater. Since, by the way, sensitive people are not very demanding and avoid (not only) solidarity with others, they are entirely welcome in an ever more repressive neoliberal society. Rampant administrative bureaucracies, which use politics’ weaknesses for their own proliferation, thus gladly register sensitivities, if not cultivate them. On the occasion of minor disturbances, rather than signaling to individuals like the Stoic Epictetus, “Don’t wet your pants. You’re an adult. You’ll survive.  And, apart from that, you are going to die at some point anyway—so make sure that at least you have a life, now,” the administration keenly and deviously imposes “protective” prohibitions and warnings. Here, we can now also contradict the second misinterpretation: replacing the earlier passions with new, sad ones—such as sensibility—is not good for us; neither ethically nor politically.

In order to overcome the sensibilities that currently draw us away from personal pleasure as well as political achievements, which we would have to defend and fight for, we have to again learn to refrain from taking ourselves so seriously. Helpful in this regard might be a bit of practice in handling happiness. We would then no longer excessively optimize or moderate ourselves, but instead, indulge in a bit of pleasure once in a while—fully aware that while it is not everything, neither are we. As the ancient philosopher Aristippus remarked:

The one to master pleasure is not he who abstains but he who employs it without being carried away by it—just as being a master of a ship or of a horse is not abstaining from using them, but directing them where one wishes.

Thus, in place of being simply swept away, we will not simply remain fanatically stuck in one position, like now. Perhaps we will let ourselves be carried away a bit—well aware that before, too, we weren’t at the center of the world; and to be happy, we don’t have to be.

– – –


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/ Translation from German: Lisa Rosenblatt