A Passion for Knowledge (Questions from Crown 4!)

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Even in the heat of battle, the best soldier is a thoughtful soldier.

As reading any news thread shows, passion can provoke problems, God help us. The better news is put to proper use, passion can also speed us toward knowledge. Like most of us, when passion controls me, I make dumb (or worse than dumb) decisions, but when my reason uses passion to get things done, lots of good things I might not complete, become possible.

One reason we train for high stress situations is so our passions can drive us correctly in a moment where we do not have time to do much reasoning! My military friends say one advantage the US Army has is that our soldiers are smart. We are trained to do the reasonable thing and not the passionate thing. A movie audience might want a fighter to charge while shouting a clever quip, but a good soldier uses his passion to execute training. . . or so I am told.

Though I have faced nothing as high stress as taking incoming fire, the stressful situations I have faced go better if there has been some previous thought about what is best to do in that situation. There are times of the year when Hope and I know we will be under work stress and so we avoid making big decisions about other areas of our life. The end of the semester is a bad time to think about our marriage! This previously chosen rule, found by reason, helps us guide the passions produced by stress into more productive places than fights with each other!

If I am sad, I try to use that sorrow to do something productive to help other people. The greatest passion of all, love, is most useful for doing good, though as a result, misused and turned into mere desire, it can cause great harm.

Recently, I spoke at Crown College and a student asked:

Don’t our passions drive our thirst for knowledge? Does Plato believe that our knowledge drives our passions, or how would he address this?

For Plato, passions drive everything we do . . . reason must harness them or be impotent. The two best places to look for his views are Phaedrus and Symposium. Passions must be educated or they tend to simple pleasures: getting is easier than giving, more immediately fun, and so children or immature oldsters prefer getting to giving. Saying “no” to desire for some better or higher object, and this can be as simple as saving for retirement as opposed to a latte today, has a smaller payoff than other things.

Traditional cultures, picking up on Plato’s clues, often help younglings by teaching them restraint through manners or social norms. It is not actually “evil” to burp at the table, some cultures favor it, but a rule such as this helps teach us that we do not have to do just what passion immediately demands. This comes in handy when faced with a real moral choice: should I take this money from the counter or not? The person trained in restraint will generally have an easier time of it.

More important, Plato thinks, and I can confirm from experience, that often we can turn our passions to better ends. If I want something, and I cannot have it, then I can often turn that desire into energy for something higher than the original passion. I struggle with eating more than is good for me and am able to master this (as I can) by using that desire to do other work . . . often getting some snacks for other people that need the food more than I do!

All of this is to ready my soul (as Plato would say) to go for the Good. There is nothing better, more rewarding, or appropriate than that and putting aside childish pleasures for it is a sign of adulthood. I aspire to that state. . . and the good news is that anyone can join the quest!

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*The remarkable chair of the Honors Program had some questions for me based on my book When Athens Met Jerusalem. If I get to them all, there are twenty-two questions. Here is: 1, 2, 3, 4.

 


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