The Virtues: Be Passionate

The fifth of the Virtues is passion; in the ancient lists of cardinal virtues, it was sometimes referred to as diligence or zeal. In his famous list of virtues, Benjamin Franklin called it industry. All these terms describe basically the same quality. Passion is the opposite of laziness, apathy, and nihilism: it implies placing value on the right qualities, making the best use of one’s time, and being diligent and tireless in defense of the good.

There is substantial truth in the Bible’s injunction to be “cold or hot”, but not “lukewarm” (Revelation 3:16). The most important reason why evil and suffering still exist in this world is not the activity of the relative few highly motivated wrongdoers, but rather the complacency of the majority who hold the attitude of “it’s not my problem” and refuse to take effective action to work toward happiness and justice. There is far more need in this world than any one person could hope to alleviate, but if all people had a proper understanding of the importance of being passionate and were willing to work for the benefit of others, there would be more than enough motivation and resources to sweep away most of the suffering that occurs.

Being passionate means caring about the things that matter. The slogan “bread and circuses”, coined as a satire of how Roman emperors placated the masses, still has much relevance in our own time. There are still large segments of the population who care about little other than their own needs and their own entertainment, and are willing to settle for mindless spectacle and distraction. In the meantime, important information that affects all of us – scientific discovery, political developments, world affairs – is ignored because it is viewed as too complex, too remote from everyday concerns, or too “boring”. Being passionate means coming to the realization that these things matter far more, and affect us far more directly, than the endless and frivolous frenzy of pop culture.

Being passionate means being involved and making the best use of our time, our effort, and our lives. We human beings have a lifespan of only a few decades, perhaps a hundred years at best. Compared to the vast expanse of cosmic and evolutionary time, or even to human history as a whole, that is a fleetingly short time. And yet, within the span of our lives, we have an enormous, almost limitless potential to work change and affect the course of the future. To throw away that precious time and potential on activities of no importance is a tragic waste of breathtaking proportions, when there are so many worthy efforts that need our help.

Being passionate means devotion to what is right and good. A fearless willingness to defend those endeavors that increase human liberty and happiness, coupled with a firm refusal to ever compromise one’s principles for the sake of convenience or personal gain, is the only attitude a virtuous person can or should take when looking out at the world. There will always be temptations to do the wrong thing because it is easier – because it offers greater material rewards, more rest and luxury, more sensory indulgence, because it appeals to the ego or to one’s own sense of pride – but the virtuous person understands that these shallow pleasures cannot, in the long run, compare to the rewards of doing what is truly right.

Being passionate means standing up to wrongdoers. When we travel the path of right, there will always be others who try to stand in the way – whether through jealousy, malice, fear, or a simple desire to destroy those who would sweep away their corruption and stop them from benefiting from their own ill-gotten gains. Being passionate in defense of the good means opposing those who do evil with resolution, and if necessary for self-defense, force. It means not being cowed by bullies, and it means not backing down in the face of threats. To give in at the first sign of opposition, to alter one’s behavior in response to the demands of one’s enemies, only teaches those people that these tactics are effective. The virtuous person fights back, in order to show them that they cannot use this means to get what they want.

Other posts in this series:

Pro-Gay Christians, Wouldn't Atheism Be Easier?
The Maturing Secular Community: Fewer Personalities, More Good Deeds
Atlas Shrugged: Kinder, Küche, Kirche
When Rationalists Reinvent Religion
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.