A sociology PhD candidate and fellow blogger whom I follow has written a couple of posts on the definition of ‘passion’ and its contemporary significance.
The etymology of passion is one of my favourite examples of how our culture has lost or forgotten its ancient bearings. We generally encounter passion as ‘excitement’ or ‘enthusiasm’ or strong emotion. Only in the arcane religious context of “the passion of the Christ” do we catch a glimpse of the full context of the original word.
In brief, the strands of Greek philosophy that were retained through Christendom and thereby shaped the modern world observed a dichotomy of activity and passivity in things. To use a rough example: when fire heats water, the fire is active and the water is passive. That is, the fire causes change while the water undergoes change. Heating is, in this sense, an action of fire and a passion of water.
In a human context, passions are what we now tend to call emotions, yet the word ’emotion’ is comparatively recent and carries the original meaning of ‘stir up’. By contrast, passion originally meant ‘to suffer’, yet suffering in turn does not refer only to painful or harmful changes, but to changes generally, or rather to things ‘undergone’.
Our emotions are changes wrought in us by external circumstances, objects, and considerations, as well as our own thoughts and ideas about such considerations. We are ‘passive’ in regard to our emotions insofar as they are changes ‘undergone’ by us.
In contemporary language people say things like “I’m passionate about the environment” to signify that they care enough about such issues as to undergo emotional changes in response to them. The original meaning of passivity is implicit here. But the meaning is entirely lost when the language shifts and people say things like “I guess the environment is my biggest passion”.
Does the original meaning matter? Apart from being able to understand that “the passion of the Christ” refers to his suffering and undergoing change rather than Christ being really enthusiastic about dying on a cross, there are also aspects of ancient anthropology or psychology that have informed our present civilisation and still make sense if we take the time to unravel the knots and tangles that our culture has made of them.
For example, various schools of Greek philosophy valued reason to such an extent that it took on divine or transcendent qualities. Yet, like the classical theistic understanding of God, reason is not passive. Reason does not undergo change through the influence of other entities or forces. Understanding both reason and/or God as perfect, as beyond change or growth or the fulfillment of potential, this perfection is in some sense available to humanity insofar as we can embody reason in our own souls.
Yet as experience attests, our adherence to reason is challenged most significantly by the passions and the power they exert over us. Depending on the particular philosophy, humans were viewed as enslaved by the passions through the lower appetite, or enslaved by the passions through the influence of false and irrational beliefs. A rational and virtuous man is not controlled by external objects, and not susceptible to the demands of his passionate nature.
In this sense, the passion of the Christ is significant not because a God-man went through some painful experiences, but because it is (or should be) metaphysically impossible for God to suffer in the first place. This is, I think, a good example of how even a middling knowledge of metaphysics underscores the significance of Christian doctrine in a classical theistic context.
Or to put it another way:
“ the humble is the stem upon which the mighty grows, the low is the foundation upon which the high is laid.”