“The problem for us is not are our desires satisfied or not. The problem is how do we know what we desire? There is nothing spontaneous, nothing natural about human desire. Our desires are artificial. We have to be taught to desire.” – Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, 2007
Back in December I gave a talk about passion as a basis for self and cultural transformation and said I would be exploring that topic more here. Well… the blogs I wrote with that in mind have turned into something book length, so, instead of publishing that here, I will be putting that book together, along with a number of others, over the course of this year. It will be my second philosophy book, as I already have a draft for another and now I’m unsure which to publish first! For now, I will give you an overview of the ideas in brief.
Our perception of reality is completely defined by our taste – by our sense of what is beautiful. Our sense of what is beautiful, what is not and what simply never registers, is entirely compelled by our desires, as our desires shape how and what we sense in the world around us, what we think about, and how and why we live our lives. Our desires drive every aspect of our individual and cultural existence. These driving desires are our passions.
The Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino argued, quite rightly, that if we wish people to love something, we must first make it beautiful, and that beauty always begins in sexiness. Ficino saw a way to promote the highest human ideals by using lust, glamour and celebrity to manipulate human desire. The kind of thing we now use to sell phones and anti-wrinkle cream, Ficino sought, through art and very much on purpose, to use to make concepts like Truth, Beauty and Wisdom sexy, therefore desired and loved, and so sought after by the general population. This was the basis of the Renaissance.
We all have some essential, primitive desires in common that we are born with. We desire to survive and we desire to reproduce. All other desires are manufactured from these or distortions of them. All cultures manipulate these desires to influence the behaviour of individuals within them. Our passions are our most volatile quality and yet also our most essential and defining one. The base matter of our being.
The philosopher Schopenhauer saw our passions as the source of our suffering and something to be escaped from, if only temporarily. A tragic, submissive and pessimistic view of them. The philosopher Spinoza saw them as our ‘conatus’, our ‘striving’, the force within us that can become the basis of virtue. The philosopher Nietzsche very much agreed with Spinoza, viewing our passions as a force we can utilise through ‘self-overcoming’, transforming ourselves into the ‘Overman’, the man who overcomes man. Like Ficino, these philosophers saw the base matter of our passions as something that could be transformed into the gold of wisdom.
I contend that this is done through understanding and transforming individual and collective perception, which is rooted primarily in the passions. Our most rational problems can only be addressed by facing our most irrational parts. By cultivating inner awareness via a number of methods and through exposure to the appropriate outer aesthetics, we can change ourselves and our society consciously in any possible direction we choose to desire.
Terrence McKenna talked a lot about wanting an Archaic Revival. I want a Renaissance Revival. We must stop consuming what this culture offers us. It is in desperate need of the conscious purposeful cultivation of meaningfulness and benevolence to awaken it from the vacuous dreams and paranoid delusions that have us collectively sleepwalking into destruction. This is not “just how it is” this is how we have allowed it to become, and no-one is coming to save us from ourselves – but ourselves.
What we make desirable has a huge impact on society at large. And what we make desirable is within our power to choose. In the face of a seemingly meaningless universe, with only a short span of time between birth and death, we can claim and use the power to create a world rich in enjoyable meaning. Through the collective pursuit of that which is worth making desirable, we can focus upon things like friendship, integrity, humility and kindness as sought after and prized, rather than money and yachts and handbags. Through passion we have the power to change ourselves and our world.