Helvetius asserted in his book, De l’esprit, that more individuals are capable of great deeds than most people think. Most anyone, in fact, is naturally capable of achieving greatness in a field. The problem is that most people never tap into the the power of their Passion.
The achievement of greatness requires large amounts of study and practice– and not just the going-through-the-motions variety of study and practice– but intense, concentrated, fully-in-the-moment, giving-it-all-you-got kind of focused struggle. However, such long and arduous hours of preparation are not particularly fun for anyone, and humans possess a natural “disinclination to study.” Study and practice can often feel like irksome chores stealing us away from the pleasures of life which we might otherwise be free to pursue. To overcome the disinclination to study, the successful student or apprentice “ought to be animated by some Passion.” In truth, according to Helvetius, Passion is the ONLY way to overcome the tedium and hardship that can come with steady self-improvement.
As children, “the fear of punishment” is often enough of a motivator to get us to study. And the punishment does not have to be physical. It could be the threat that we must repeat the course if we fail, or the very real possibility that we will not be able to obtain a good job when we graduate if our grades our poor. However, later in life, as the consequences for lack of continued self-improvement appear more distant and shadowy, we need more incentive to continue putting ourselves through the pain and trouble of study and practice.
In the most general sense, Helvetius believed that “the love of Glory,” serves as the greatest, most fundamental motivator. Glory can be won in almost any field of endeavor, and let’s face it– we like the feeling of success and of being admired, or at least of being valued. And, for good or for ill, it is an undeniable human trait that our opinions of ourselves are partly dervived from the opinions which others hold about us. If others tell us that we are stupid or inept for long enough, we can begin believing it ourselves, when the truth is, we are all capable of greatness.
“The great inequality of genius observable amongst men,” wrote Helvetius, “depends perhaps on their unequal DESIRE of instruction.” And this unequal desire stems from an unequal accessibility to the Passions for improvement and accomplishment available inside every human heart.
Another important component of greatness is FOCUS. We cannot be good at everything. We cannot even be good at a several things. Basically, we have to follow our number one Passion, which means deciding what our primary goal is– and giving our all toward that goal, come Hell or highwater until success is achieved.
“The short duration of human life,” wrote Helvetius, […] “forces superior minds to limit themselves to one kind of study.” Perhaps it is the very ability to RECOGNIZE the need to channel our energies in order to achieve success which makes the superior mind superior.
Helvetius also is concerned that we recognize the difference between a true “Passion” and a mere “inclination”…
“We have a strong Passion when we are animated with a single desire, and all our thoughts and actions are subordinate to it. We have only inclinations when the mind is divided by an infinite number of nearly equal desires. The more numerous these desires are, the more moderate our inclinations; on the contrary, the less our desires are multiplied, the more nearly do they approach to unity, and the more do these inclinations become lively, and the readier to be changed into passions.”
Thus, one secret of success (not so “secret” to great men) –in any field– is the concentration of our powers in one, determined, and clear direction– what is called in political and military circles the UNITY OF COMMAND. Writes Helvetius… “It is then the unity, or at least the pre-eminence, of one desire over all the others that constituties Passion.” Split your energies, and you almost guarantee yourself mediocrity in several fields instead of greatness in one.
Because Passion is, according to Helvetius, the great divider between the Great and the merely Good, it is important that we are aware of the (sad) fact that our Passions do not burn with the same intensity over the entire course of a life-time. Helvetius believed that a person’s “Age Of Passion” usually lasts from about age twenty-five to thirty-five– maybe to forty if we’re lucky. That’s, at best, fifteen years of high-octane fuel which we must put to the best use while it lasts.
“It is therefore during the Age Of Passion, that is from twenty-five to thirty-five and forty, that man is capable of the greatest efforts, both of virtue and genius. At this age, men born for great things have acquired a proper compass of learning, and their passions have yet scarce lost any thing of their force; but, beyond this term, our passions decline, and, as this is the period of mental acquisition, no new ideas are then acquired; and whatever superiority there may afterwards appear in their works, it is no more than the application and display of the ideas acquired in the the time of the effervescence of the passions, but which hitherto had not been reduced to practice.”
After the Age Of Passion has passed, even a great man who has seized the moment and achieved spectacular success, begins to experience motivational changes. Realizing that a new generation of equally determined and energetic men are rising behind him, the older Passionate Man “discovers with horror, the tremendous abyss which opens before him.” His motivation then turns from one of ACHIEVING great things, to one of merely MAINTAINING his position. “This ambitious man,” explained Helvetius, “is then, by the fear of pain and the lassitude of indolence, kept in the course he entered from a love of pleasure; the desire of preserving succeeds the desire of acquiring.” If– or is it when— the Passionate Man begins to slip, those envious of his achievements will descend to insult and ridicule him, and “he will be the object of the contempt of his rivals”— a soul-shuddering situation for a man once accustomed to admiration and success.
Finally, in advanced age, as the Passions wane, the ability to achieve great things approaches extinction. “To destroy the animationg Passion in a man,” maintained Helvetius, “is to deprive him at once of all his capacity,” and “they who are justly ranked among illustrious personages, when no longer supported by the ardor of Passion, instantly sink into the class of the most ordinary men.”
Bottomline Helvetian takeaway? …We are all capable of great things, but we must find and follow our unifying Passion, and seize the day while we can.