Passions unchained and the power of the imagination. Descartes on vanity, love and joyMost seventeenth-century moralists and philosophers, such as Pascal and Malebranche, commonly describe the passions and the imagination as symptoms of the corruption of human nature. Descartes is not an easy fit in this general framework, especially since most studies of his account of the passions read him rather univocally as committed only to a scientific investigation of certain phenomena that properly belong to the soul but do originate in bodily movements. In this paper, it will be argued that Descartes’ account of the passions is more complex. Namely, by suggesting, on the one hand, that the passions are all good in themselves and, on the other hand, that the passion of generosity is the highest human virtue, Descartes seems at a remarkable distance from many of his contemporaries. Yet, Descartes equally warns against the potentially dangerous effects of the passions, particularly when the passions and the faculty of imagination collaborate closely. The representation of the object of a passion is often illegitimately and excessively esteemed by the imagination. This inclines the human soul to assume the images represented by a passion as real and then willingly attributes a disproportionate significance to these. As such, the human soul is necessarily at the mercy of error and deception. This nuanced appreciation of the passions will be illustrated in reference to the passions of vanity, joy and love, which are the three fundamental passions that determine the relationship of the soul to itself and the external world. If the representations of these passions are exposed to the influence of the imagination, they potentially turn into the source of all human errors and immorality. Descartes also emphasizes, however, the positive use of the passions which is enabled by retaining the possibility of free will. What is more, the use of free will can even turn the most dangerous passions into virtues if the representation of their objects does not seduce the soul to deception.
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DOI 10.5117/antw2017.2.vand
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