Shepherding the Passions

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

A strange thing happened to reason on the way to modernity.

According to “Enlightenment” philosophy, reason is a tool for better securing the “interests” of men or societies.

A rational agent, in this view, is one who studiously ignores emotional inputs in order to seize upon the most efficient means of realizing his ends.

To further the façade of objectivity, these ends are invariably expressed in mathematically measurable units such as dollars, votes, “likes,” or numerical rankings.

There is, however, a contradiction at the heart of this rationalism. For no matter how one measures one’s interests, the units have no value apart from desire. Yet the premise of this mentality is that desires are fundamentally irrational.

When reason slavishly serves the passions it pretends to despise, then reason itself turns out to be unreasonable. Not surprisingly, an Enlightenment based on reason so-defined leads to darkness.

The only way out of this madness is to recover the old-fashioned view that reason is a sort of sheep dog of the passions.

All the animals involved in this metaphor are aiming at one thing: what is actually good. The sheep are not idiots. They have some idea where to find green pastures. But the canine has a firmer grasp of how to navigate the necessary terrain.

This is especially true when the loyal creature is at the service of the one and only Shepherd of our souls (1 Peter 2:25).

The art of being reasonable is to train one’s mind as well as possible to know what is good and how to achieve it; and then to apply this knowledge diligently to monitoring and steering one’s emotions accordingly.

Virtually the opposite of what our contemporary philosophes recommend.

The result of heeding their smug directives is nicely captured by Handel in this clip from his Messiah (the poor video quality is more than made up for, I think, by the exquisite performance of Luks’s ensemble, whose mastery of mind and emotion are unparalleled):

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