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Beyond The Reign of Reason?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

In liberal political and constitutional thought, the passions are feared and often decried. The constant appeal is to reason: rational thought, rational debate, and rational solutions to problems. Even in the work that we do in CommGAP, the ideas we are committed to include: 

1) Rational debate and discussion in the public sphere (inclusive and democratic) focusing on the leading challenges facing the political community; and

2) Informed public opinion arrived at through a process of open debate and discussion, where relevant information is available to citizens, and all sides to the issue are fully canvassed by proponents. In all that, the appeal is to reason. 

To be fair, the role of the passions in politics is feared and denounced for a good reason. The uglier passions of humankind have done incredibly damage in the politics of nations, and continue to do so. We all know what damage nationalism run amok has done and continues to do. In many developing countries, as we all know too well, ethnic and sectarian sentiments all too often lead to conflict, and severely hamper the capacity of political communities to work together to solve pressing problems. Even in the post-industrial societies of the rich West, the passions of identity politics are causing all manner of problems. Racism is far from dead; and the presence of large immigrant communities is leading to the rise of political parties that cynically appeal to the worst instincts of citizens: the hatred of The Outsider. So, the passions have a bad reputation for a reason.

But according to a thoughtful, important book that I have just read, perhaps we need the passions more than we realize. The book is The Trouble With Passion: Political Theory Beyond the Reign of Reason by Cheryl Hall. For those of us trained in the classical tradition of liberal political and constitutional thought, it is a compelling introduction to a complementary tradition of thought…one that focuses on Eros, not logos. The argument of the book is that the passions are vital to personal and political empowerment. According to Hall, the useful role of the passions can be captured as follows: ‘desire for an envisioned good’. The envisioned good can be to better your lot as an individual and you pursue your projects… passionately. The envisioned good can be to improve your community, your country, the world, and you pursue the objective… passionately. 

This is critical for the so-called demand side of good governance: citizen activism and the insistence on good, accountable governance. Says Hall:

`Passion is a particularly important force in political movements working for change. Resignation and disaffection keep people docile and obedient to the dominant political order. Indeed, apathy may support the status quo better than any repressive institution.  The motivating power of a desire for a better world is thus crucial to the ability to challenge existing political arrangements and policies. Passion, the enthusiasm for an envisioned good, works against the alienation and hopelessness of those who have not had equal power to determine the circumstances of their lives. It encourages them to fight for what they want, to try to bring their dreams into being.` (page 126).

Once more , then, and now with feeling!

Photo Credit: Flickr user Joe Athialy

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Submitted by Fikayo on
Indeed, can reason alone attain any reasonable level of success (and for a satisfactory length of time)? Reason always needs passion in order for its goals to be pursued and sustained. A passionate operator will typically outperform the cold rational technocrat especially for medium and long range pursuits. That's part of what separates us from machines. Problem is, passion is such an unstable entity wont to fly off in unintended directions - and that without warning. So, the task is to arrive at a system that fully incorporates passion (with inbuilt ability to manage its excesses) without sacrificing the leadership role of rational input. The leadership preparation and selection process must make intentional provision for "passion" attribute in the factors that influence who is to be entrusted with responsibility.

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