Skip to main content



PASSIONS. In the twenty-fifth of his Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733), Voltaire took on the defense of human nature against the seventeenth-century philosopher Pascal's misanthropic vision, which was centered around the notion of original sin. Intellectual acuity and strong passions, said Voltaire, go together. Human beings have been given passions as a basis for action, and reason is the faculty that guides those actions. In particular, Voltaire defended the passion of self-love, duly channeled by the law and religion, as the basis of natural sociability.


Since early Christianity, the passions had, at least in part, been strongly associated with suffering and sinpassiones peccatorum, passiones carnales reflecting the term's derivation from the Latin pati, 'to suffer or undergo'. Voltaire's criticisms were emblematic of a certain shift from a dualistic Christian view in which man can only escape his fallen state through redemption, to an optimistic, secularizing view of humanity, based on notions of liberation, fulfillment, and happiness, and in many ways typical of Enlightenment thought. Attitudes toward the passions certainly changed very significantly in the early modern period, but there were also continuities. The Stoic notion that wisdom consists of rising above the passions and being unaffected by them remained influential, and when Voltaire spoke of the passions as the ground of human activity, but as a force still requiring the regulation of the will, he was not as far as one might think from Thomas Aquinas's vision. Throughout the periodalthough this picture may have been fading in the eighteenth century as the power of dualism wanedthe passions occupied an intermediary or transitional position between the body and the soul, a position that they shared in some respects with the imagination.

For the Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas (12251274), who with Aristotle was at the heart of the Scholastic teaching that the young René Descartes received from the Jesuits in the early seventeenth century, the passions, together with sense perceptions, were modifications of the soul resulting from its union with the body. The seat of the passions was the sensitive appetite: the passions were the body's attraction to and repulsion from objects that were useful and harmful to it. In themselves, they were neither good nor bad: they represented the matter on which the virtues were exercised. The philosopher Étienne Gilson emphasizes that Thomism (the doctrines drawn from Aquinas) differs from Platonism in its "energetic affirming of the physical nature of the soul."

Descartes's Treatise on the Passions of the Soul, published in 1649 shortly before his death, can be seen as a crucial text, marked by Scholasticism but looking forward to future transformations. As for Aquinas, the passions were for Descartes the vector of the human animal's response to and manipulation of its environment, and reason had to play a role in regulating them. The etymology of the term remained visible in Descartes's distinction between the actions and passions of the soul: actions were initiated by the soul and therefore belonged in the sphere of human will and freedom, whereas passions were movements to which the soul was subjected by the body. Descartes's dualism and rationalism were visible in his general position that the will and rationality were always capable of triumphing over the passions.

Enlightenment political and moral philosophy did not speak with a single voice on the passions. The influential Scottish philosopher David Hume (17111776) defended the provocative view that "reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions," an antirationalist position deeply at odds with Descartes. A strand of thought running from Thomas Hobbes (15881679) to the French materialists Claude-Adrien Helvétius (17151771) and Paul Thiry, baron d'Holbach (17231789) saw the question of the passions essentially as one of self-interest. Human beings are naturally selfish, and the task of law and morality is to engineer society in such a way that human egoism is channeled into socially useful activities. Private vices can constitute public virtues, as Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees (17141728) put it. The relevance of this to the emergence of laissez-faire economics is obvious. On the other hand the moral sense tradition, initiated perhaps by Francis Hutcheson (16941746), believes that human beings have an inbuilt sense of moral rightness and benevolence toward others. Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) made greater concessions than Hutcheson to self-interest as a social motive. But both writers represented a very important eighteenth-century movement: the belief that human society was crucially built on feelings of sympathy and benevolence that were natural and in some sense involuntary. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (17241804) saw the attempt to base morality solely on affections and sentiments as destructive of true morality. His categorical imperative was an attempt to base ethics on a universal principle of rationality.

If it is possible to generalize about the changing philosophical meaning of the passions over the early modern period, then it appears that empiricism, generally traced back to the figure of John Locke (16321704), was a turning point in that it rejected the Scholastic notion of innate ideas and tempered the Cartesian dualism of soul and body. In the eighteenth century, human nature appeared as a reactive potentiality rather than a set of givens, and the passions were part of that zone of reactivity that included the senses, imagination, symbolic thinking, and reasoning. In particular, the Enlightenment was interested in the social passions: sociability was what was natural to human beings. The other very significant change was that the notion of subjection inherent in the etymology disappeared. This was related to the decline of certain conceptual hierarchies within which the passions, as emanations of the body, occupied a lowly position: the gap separating the reigning categoryReason, Godfrom the human animal was reduced or canceled. Immanence replaced transcendence in a movement of secularization.


Let us turn now to the literary representation of the passions and their place in cultural and social history. Leaving aside the Passion of Christ, the most obvious kind of passion to be represented in literary texts is that associated with love and sexuality. It is probably anachronistic to speak of "romantic" passion before the second half of the eighteenth century, but as a literary theme it clearly stretches back as far as the courtly love of the Middle Ages and finds expression in Renaissance poetry (Pierre de Ronsard [15241585]), Shakespeare, and in the ethical conflicts between love and duty dramatized by the classical French playwrights of the seventeenth century. From the late seventeenth century onward, passion emerged as one of the central themes of the novel, including the novel in letter form or epistolary novel. The rise of the novel was linked to the spread of literacy and contributed to a certain democratization of subjectivity: reading novels was partly about sentimental education and self-exploration, perhaps especially for women. The passion of love was also linked to individualism and democracy in that it was frequently represented, especially in the eighteenth century, as a choice of the individual that defied parental strategies and cut across class boundaries and was therefore a progressive force. Even when, as in Rousseau's Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), passion was finally tamed and social order restored, passion still reverberated as the central poetic message of the text. The dark side of sexual passion was not absent from the eighteenth-century view. The libertine heroes and heroines of French novelists like the Marquis de Sade (17401814) and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (17411803), manipulated the passions of others for their own pleasure.

It was argued above that the sense of subjection inherent in the etymology of the word "passion" disappeared as we approached modernity. This now requires qualification. While passion came to be positively valued for its intensity and its role as a spur to action and was no longer seen as a base usurper of the prerogatives of the rational soul, it was in one sense still associated with passivity. Lovers did not love out of rational choice, but because it happened to them; and sentimental discourse gave a huge role to the topos of misfortune, dwelling endlessly on the moral status and internal life of victims. The Enlightenment was deeply interested in prelinguistic, nonrational and involuntary states, which appeared quintessentially human because they revealed the bedrock of sense experience upon which sociability and ethics were built. Victims were temporarily in such a state, while it was a more permanent condition for nonrational subjects like children, the lower classes, and still, in some Enlightenment views, women (hysteria is precisely a case of loss of rational control of the body). A consequence of this was that if passion could not speak, it had to be read. Sentimental discourse was full of gesture, facial expression, and inarticulate cries: the work of the Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater (17411801) and the Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (17361783) reached back to the theories of the French painter Charles Le Brun (16191690) and to Renaissance attempts to find animal analogies to human types.


Significant tensions underlie our understanding of the passions in early modernity. In one view, modernization had to do with the liberation of human potentiality, an unfettering that released, among other things, the passions. Another less optimistic view, associated most of all with Michel Foucault, emphasizes the growth of controlling and disciplinary procedures. According to this view, the whole investigation of interiority was a prelude to the medicalization of the passions in the form of psychiatry. Norbert Elias also emphasizes the increased control of the internal life associated with modernization: the social changes of the early modern period involved the privatization of affects and, consequently, a strategic need to read the external signs indicating the feelings and intentions of competitors and adversaries. Finally, we may note a current in contemporary moral philosophy that criticizes a disembodying of humanity supposedly brought about by the philosophy of modernity and seeks to recover more integrated and holistic models, including Aristotelian ones.

See also Aristotelianism ; Cartesianism ; Descartes, René ; Empiricism ; Enlightenment ; Hume, David ; Pascal, Blaise ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Scholasticism ; Sexuality and Sexual Behavior ; Smith, Adam ; Theology ; Voltaire .


Denby, David J. "Amour sentimental, démocratie et universalisme." In Sexualité, mariage et famille au XVIIIe siècle, edited by Olga B. Cragg and Rosena Davison, pp. 279289. Quebec and Paris, 1998.

. Sentimental Narrative and the Social Order in France, 17601820. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Descartes, René. The Passions of the Soul. Translated by Stephen H. Voss. Indianapolis, 1989.

Dwyer, John. The Age of the Passions: An Interpretation of Adam Smith and Scottish Enlightenment Culture. East Linton, U.K., 1998.

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Oxford, 1994 Translation of Über den Prozess der Zivilisation. Basel, 1939.

Foucault, Michel. "What is Enlightenment?" In The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow. New York, 1984.

Gaukroger, Stephen, ed. The Soft Underbelly of Reason: The Passions in the Seventeenth Century. London and New York, 1998. Especially useful are Gaukroger's introduction and Peter Harrison's essay "Reading the Passions: The Fall, the Passions, and Dominion over Nature," pp. 4978.

Gilson, Étienne. The Christian Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas. Translated by L. K. Shook. New York, 1956.

Hirschman, Albert O. The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph. Princeton, 1977.

Hutcheson, Francis. On the Conduct and Nature of the Passions with Illustrations on the Moral Sense. Edited by Andrew Ward. Manchester, U.K., 1999. Originally published in 1728.

Penelhum, Terence. "Hume's Moral Psychology." In The Cambridge Companion to Hume, edited by David Fate Norton, pp. 117147. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg. "Descartes on Thinking with the Body." In The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, edited by John Cottingham, pp. 371392. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

Voltaire. Letters Concerning the English Nation. Critical edition by Nicholas Cronk. Oxford, 1994. The French version, published in 1734, is entitled Lettres philosophiques.

David J. Denby

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Passions." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 18 Jan. 2019 <>.

"Passions." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . (January 18, 2019).

"Passions." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved January 18, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.