Ancient-Modern Arguments That Passion Is Overrated in the Pursuit of Long-term Flourishing (&Read Some Older Books!)

“Not to display anger or other emotions. To be free of passion and yet full of love.”
–Marcus Aurelius

“The belief that the world owes you the perfect role for your special unique personality is myopically self-focused and ill-suited to hard times. The alternative notion that the world needs you to offer all that you can is comparably liberating.” –Cal Newport 

Concerning the popular focus on finding one’s passion, I appreciate the discernment recently expressed (and partly excerpted above) in Cal Newport’s post on “Ancient Complications to Modern Career Advice.” 

As a high school English teacher and community member who interacts with a wide-range of age groups, I’ve been concerned about the popular and somewhat narcissistic emphasis on advising persons of all ages to discover their passion so that they can flourish. Often, I’ve felt a bit awkward downplaying or challenging the focus on passion in discussions with others. 

For a while now, Newport has laid out some clear indicators of this trend from about the 70s onward. On my “Read Soon List” goes his 2012 book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. In his post, Newport refers back to his book and notes that one of the prevalent examples of the passion emphasis is found in Richard Bolles’ career advice book What Color is Your Parachute? Although I’ve seldom given the book much attention, I must confess that I’ve invoked the parachute metaphor a few times in the previous month as I thought through issues of the busyness of school culture during so-called “normal” times and my foreseeable future retirement (more likely a transition into all sorts of part-time work and project endeavors). Although I’ve been jesting about the parachute connection, reading Newport’s analysis I’m feeling a tinge of conviction about my own sense of responsibility and purpose at this point in my life.

Additionally, Newport’s focus on the mythologist Joseph Campbell’s popular slogan rings especially true for reflections on my experiences. In the late 80s, I remember enjoying the Bill Moyers interviews with Campbell and the theme of “following your bliss” (a.k.a follow your passion(s)) in the PBS series and the related book The Power of Myth. I also remember that I soon learned several counter-balancing lessons about that theme. 

First of all, Campbell’s scholarship received much criticism from many thoughtful university professors in the fields of comparative literature and mythology. They rightly noted that Campbell conveniently ignored many specific features of culture and anthropology that didn’t fit his monomyth model. Second of all, I increasingly found that much of the dysfunctional living in folks around me (and in myself) came from following my bliss (or my passions). 

Newport suggests a shallowness of Campbell’s catch-phrase and notes that it misconstrues the ancient text that Campbell draws from. Here Newport references Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life that closely examines insights about problems with passions as suggested by the Hindu scripture of the Bhagavad Gita. Basically, Newport and Cope share admiration for the Gita’s focus on sacred duty as the driving force for one’s life. Sacred duty is very different from following one’s bliss or passion–however one may word it. 

I am struck by how such a sense of responsible calling for one’s life comes from so many different times and places. Along with the Gita and texts connected to Buddhism, my mind goes to ancient western Judeo-Christian themes and to Martin Luther’s notion of vocation. For Luther, one implication of the doctrine of vocation is that every person at every level of society always has meaningful work to do in service to others.  As I pull at these threads of wisdom, I’m reminded of something that philosopher and theologian Peter Kreeft said often, “We are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. If we see more than the ancients, it is only because we have the humility to jump up on their shoulders first.” 

I’m intrigued by how much concord one can find from different thinkers across the cultures and across the ages about training our passions rather than merely following them. Thinking over the span of wisdom, I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ name for such responsible wisdom as expressed in The Abolition of Man: The Tao. Lewis adopted this term for the perennial and transcendent principles of wisdom and responsibility that he saw occurring in many different cultures at various times.  

Lewis also warned against our complacent view of our time as having life all figured out–as superior to any time in the past. He called it chronological snobbery. He recommended that we read older books as well as newer ones to help us find our blind spots while also recognizing the blind spots of the past writers and cultures (a healthy perspective for our conflicted times). He conveys some helpful and relevant wisdom for our time:                                 

“None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”

From Lewis’ “On the Reading of Old Books”

That sounds like a good prescription for some summer reading.

As a side note, we should not be so naive as to think we can read such old books and not see blind spots and biases of past writers and cultures. If we ignore Lewis’ challenge based on that hangup, we miss his point about perennial blinds spots and merely replace the prejudices of the past with our own. This qualification bridges the sort of nuance that can be found in the liberal arts and humanities traditions adapted for our time, and that sort of adaptation warrants much more treatment in future posting. If you’re finding it a heartfelt concern, for now it might be prudent to explore a post that I find admirable for its sense of adapting the liberal arts and humanities traditions for our difficult times: “Humanities and the liberal arts: Creative thinking for fractured times.”

Invitation to Reflect and Consider: 

  1. Do you agree that passion is overrated? Why or why not? 
  2. What popular modern advice for flourishing do you think needs scrutinized? 
  3. How might writers of the past help us with our blind spots about flourishing and the human condition?
  4. How are you with reading old books? What topic of wisdom and the human condition might be of interest?
  5. Have you tried audiobooks? (They count too!) 

For Further Listening, Reading, and Reflection:

Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life, (audio course) by Rufus J. Fears

A Summer Reading list that C.S. Lewis would likely recommend, by CSLewis.com

Great Books, by David Denby

40 Classic Books & Why You Should Read Them, by Richard Davies at AbeBooks.com

The Harvard Classics in a Year: A Liberal Education in 365 Days, Charles Eliot and Amanda Kennedy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: