Helvetius was convinced that great men– all great men– are produced by one, and only one, thing… great Passion.
It is only Passion, said Helvetius in his book De l’esprit, which can stir us from the general tendency to gravitate toward routine, comfort and lethargy.
“It is the strong Passions,” wrote Helvetius, “which, rescuing us from sloth, can alone impart to us that continued attention productive of superior intellects.”
Unlike the Man Of Passion, “indolence is always the predominant quality in a Man Of Sense.” The Man Of Sense “has nothing of that activity of soul by which the great man in power forms new springs for moving the world.” The Sensible Man, “incessantly actuated by strong Passions, will always prefer the torments of ambition to the insipid calm of tranquil life.”
To the Man Of Sense, the Man Of Passion– before he proves successful in his endeavors– appears as a romantic dreamer, or as a ridiculous– even insane– man. The Man Of Sense “cannot conceive the existence of the means great men employ in the execution of great things,” and so they assume that the Passionate Man is naive and his worldview unrealistic.
True, said Helvetius, the Man Of Passion is somewhat blinded by his own enthusiasms. But this comes with the benefit that he therefore does not see the obstacles to great deeds which cause the Mediocre Men to draw back. Or rather, the Passionate Man may spot the obstacles, but he does not perceive them as overwhelming or insurmountable.
Writes Helvetius… “It is the passions which, having strongly fixed our attention on the object of our desire, causes us to view it under appearances unknown to other men, and which consequently prompt heroes to plan and execute those hardy enterprises which, til success has proved the propriety of them, appear ridiculous, and indeed must appear so to the multitude.”
Another advantage held by the Man Of Passion and which is often not recognized by the Sensible Man is that the Man Of Passion can often CONVEY his Passion to others. The value of this skill can hardly be overstated. Because the Passionate Man has accessed the deeper recesses of his heart, he is capable of tapping into those same recesses in the hearts of others, and of “kindling the fire of enthusiasm” in those around him– whereas the Sensible Man suffers a “want of knowing” when it comes to these deeper parts of the human heart… He cannot fathom the true power which can be unleashed by access to the Passions, and if he could gather a vague notion of the existence of such powers, he would know how to access them in others, for he has not accessed them in himself.
The Man Of Sense’s ignorance of the true powers and resources at the disposal of the Man Of Passion means that “great men must, of consequence, be derided til they excite admiration.”
Not infrequently, the sheer unfathomableness of the Man Of The Passion assists him in conquering the unconquerable. His self-assurance, drive, and determination produces an audacity which gives birth to actions which catch by surprise anyone standing between him and the accomplishment of his goal. This sort of audacity– a workable, and thus ultimately correct, boldness– Helvetius calls “a wise temerity.”
Because the exercise of wise temerity by the Man Of Passion often succeeds in “disconcerting the foresight of Common Men,” it sometimes follows that the very boldness of a seemingly rash enterprise of the Passionate Man is what secures its success. In such cases, says Helvetius, “the highest boldness is the highest prudence,” and the Man Of Passion succeeds in a task which “would have been too difficult for any Sensible Man.”
However he may wish to emulate the successful Man Of Passion, the Man Of Sense “would never be happy in the application” of the Passionate Man’s methods, stated Helvetius, for Sensible Men “must follow beaten paths” or else “bewilder themselves.”
Men Of Sense “are ever-confounding” the Extraordinary with the Impossible. “Not being animated by strong Passions, these Sensible Persons never rise above mediocrity.”
One of the many, many anecdotes related by Helvetius is the one concerning Alexander The Great (a man motivated by great Passion), and his advisor, Parmenio (a man of skill, foresight, and good sense). Parmenio was a capable man, but he was no Alexander. As Helvetius tells the story, when Parmenio was urged by Alexander to deliver his opinion on Darius’s proposal of peace, Parmenio responded, “Were I Alexander, I would accept them,” To which Alexander replied, “I would also… were I Parmenio.”
Helvetius compares a Passionate Man to a volcano– “whose sudden eruptions alter the channel of the river”— whereas he compares Sensible Men to hardworking laborers who could only re-route the river after “great time and prodigious effort.”
The Common Man– even those numbered among the wisest, most talented, and hardest working– are typically limited to those endeavors approved by Reason. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and Helvetius indeed believed that we should use Reason in our decision-making– but not too much Reason.
“Let Reason direct us in the important affairs of life,” he wrote, “but let us abandon the little affairs of it to our tastes and our Passions.” Helvetius felt that the average man, incessantly employed in consulting Reason as to what what he “ought” to do, ends by never doing much of anything. “He will always have before his eyes the possibility of all the misfortunes with which he is surrounded.”
Of course, it is inevitable that the Passionate Man, eschewing the Reason-dominated life life and partially blinded by his own enthusiasms and self-confidence, will make mistakes. In fact, his mistakes are likely to be more egregious than those made by the Sensible Man.
“The Passions lead us into error,” wrote Helvetius, “because they fix our attention to that particular part of the object they present to us.” In other words, when we are obsessed with a certain person, place, or thing– we see what we want to see, what enables us to continue pursuing our goal with confidence. We tell ourselves that we have evaluated the situation adequately– that we have NOT been blinded by our Passion. But the reality is that “we deceive ourselves when we pretend to judge of an object from one side only, to which our attention has been fixed by our passions.”
When a Passionate Man makes a grand mistake– and grand mistakes are inevitable with the Passionate Man– certain Men Of Sense take great pleasure in rubbing his face in it. Helvetius was convinced that much of the venom contained in such attacks is motivated by envy. Smaller men are held back from attempting great deeds for fear of great failure. Sticking close to the herd, to normal herd behavior, and to accepted herd mores, the average individual reduces the chances that he will find himself alone and vulnerable to attack. For the Sensible Man, wrote Helvetius, “mediocrity is now become a protection.”
Helvetius lamented that the fear of calumnious attack at our least mis-step engenders fear and discouragement in even the strongest men. He felt that “the fear of an error ought not to deter us from proceeding in the search of truth.” Citing Fontenelle’s opinion on the matter, Helvetius compared a great man’s great failure to a ship-captain’s collision with a jagged reef– such courageous adventurers, in their catastrophic mistake, point-out the rock to the others by their shipwreck– that is, the trips-and-falls of the brave and adventureous man can benefit the world more than the safe steps made by the timid along the well-worn paths.
Helvetius acknowledged that the strong Passions of great men “sometimes render their conduct irregular,” and that they can be led into making moral, as well as tactical, mistakes. But he maintained that, despite the fact that the Passions can be “the sources of the vices and of most of the misfortunes of men,” this “does not warrant moralists condemning the Passions,” for Passions “are the celestial fire which vivifies the moral world,” and it is “to the Passions that the arts and sciences owe their discoveries, and the soul its elevation.” Passion “equally produces great vices, great virtues, and great talents.”
In other words, Passion is a coin with one brilliant, shiny side, and one dark and dangerous one… and it’s the most valuable coin in the world.