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Reading Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy , and in one of the first chapters on the rise of the Greek civilization, is a wonderful exposition of prudence vs passion.

First, prudence, or forethought, a key aspect of civilization from the earliest civilized societies to our present day:

The civilized man is distinguished from the savage mainly by prudence, or, to use a slightly wider term, forethought. He is willing to endure present pains for the sake of future pleasures, even if the future pleasures are rather distant. This habit began to be important with the rise of agriculture; no animal and no savage would work in spring in order to have food next winter, except for a purely instinctive form of action, such as bees making honey or squirrels burying nuts. In these cases, there is no forethought; there is a direct impulse to an act which, to the human spectator, is obviously going to prove useful later on. True forethought only arises when a man does something towards which no impulse urges him, because his reason tells him that he will profit by it at some future date. Hunting requires no forethought, because it is pleasurable; but tilling the soil is labour, and cannot be done from a spontaneous impulse.

Civilization checks impulse not only through forethought, which is a self-administered check, but also through law, custom, and religion… On the one hand, the purposes of the community are enforced upon the individual, and, on the other hand the individual, having acquired the habit of viewing his life as a whole, increasingly sacrifices his present to his future.

The civilized Greek society had its detractors, and one of them was the cult of Bacchus – worshippers of the god of wine, intoxication and spiritual ecstasy. It is in the context of this group within civilized Greek life that Russell contrasts passion against prudence

The worshipper of Bacchus reacts against prudence. In intoxication, spiritual or spiritual, he recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence has destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of every-day preoccupations. The Bacchic ritual produced what was called “enthusiasm”, which means, etymologically, having a god enter into the worshipper, who believed he became one with the god.

Much of what is greatest in human achievement involves some element of intoxication (mental intoxication, and not intoxication by alcohol), some sweeping away of prudence by passion.

Which one is better then – A prudent life? or the passionate life?

Without the Bacchic element, life would be uninteresting; with it, it is dangerous. Prudence vs passion is a conflict that runs through history. It is not a conflict in which we ought to side wholly with either party

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