Michael Metzger

We need better fireworks.

Americans can find them in The Federalist Papers. This is where several Founding Fathers expressed fear of lodging unchecked power in the hands of one person or one institution. They had a negative word for this kind of power—a word that’s become so commonplace today that any caution against it will likely set off some fireworks. That might be a good thing.

The word: unbounded.

James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote The Federalist Papers. These men were part of a broader culture that had a different take on human nature than we do today, according to Harvard professor Daniel Walker Howe. In Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, Howe writes that the colonists built a society with “a structure of bounded desires.” Americans “believed that if we kept our desires within certain bounds, we would be doing the best thing for ourselves as well.”1

The wisdom of hemming in human desires came from several sources: Renaissance humanism, Christian theology, Enlightenment science, and Scottish-American moral philosophy. These views came together in a cultural consensus calling for self-control as a moral imperative. It was rooted in an understanding of human nature as composed of moral, rational, and animal powers. The “moral and rational powers (because they partook of the divine nature) had precedence over emotional and inquisitive impulses (animal powers),” Howe writes. The moral powers included conscience and prudence.

Animal powers on the other hand were of a lower order. Yet if conscience or prudence became corrupted, they too became an animal power or an “unregulated faculty.” This animalistic faculty “was called a passion,” Howe writes. This was how the Framers tried to achieve the common good, by binding passion inside “a combination of conscience, prudence, and wise institutions.” It was a tough task, for “although conscience was rightfully supreme, it was notoriously the weakest of motives; the emotions (passions) were the strongest, with prudence somewhere in between. It was therefore essential to devise means to strengthen the conscience in the interest of preserving society—that is, in the interest of the common good.”2 The challenge, as John Adams sadly noted, was that “human reason and human conscience are not a match for human passion.”

This is why, in Federalist #51, Hamilton wrote eloquently about curbing and containing what he called (and feared) the “passions of the people.” The Founders created a bi-cameral legislature with a Senate conceived as “the saucer into which the nation’s passions are poured to cool,” a separate executive branch and an independent judiciary to “prevent the rabble from passing sweeping new legislation in response to some passion of the moment.” It was a way of binding passion (considered a vice) inside conscience, prudence, and wise institutions (considered virtuous).

This of course sounds like ancient history to modern ears. Howe writes that Americans have since reworked their sense of identity. Being bound feels bad today. Individualism is in, institutional authority is out. Conscience was next.

In the 19th century, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud set out to “cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of the Judeo-Christian culture,” Paul Johnson writes in Modern Times.3 The key was getting rid of conscience. “It has been discovered that in order to bring down tyranny it is first necessary to loosen conscience;” Philip Rieff observed in The Triumph of the Therapeutic.4 Darwin reframed origins—humans are not designed in God’s image. Hence, no conscience. Nietzsche reframed morality—no longer rooted in God but in power. Freud reframed wellbeing—no longer rooted in the theological but in the therapeutic. “Freud expressly asserted that the cultural tasks performed by Christianity could be taken over by science,” notes Antonius A.W. Zondervan.5 Without the binding force of institutions and conscience, prudence no longer had fixed points. Passion was loosed upon society.

That’s a problem. Passion is animalistic, as in Jeremiah 2:24, where the “wild donkey accustomed to the wilderness… sniffs the wind in her passion.” It’s a mark of the fall, as in Romans 1:26, when God gives fallen people over to “degrading passions.” Passion is powerful, as when Paul urged singles without self-control to marry; “for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” But only prudence can bind passion inside conscience and institutions. This became nonsense after Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud. Prudence was associated with being a prude. Passion was understood as being paramount. That of course caught the eye of marketing genuises. Passion became the new mantra of Madison Avenue.

Faith communities were once a contributor to the common good, or what is known as shalom. The Framers were right. It is essential to devise means to strengthen the conscience in the interest of preserving society—that is, in the interest of the common good. Conscience ought to be the forte of faith communities. They ought to be considered an expert in building institutions. They ought to celebrate the prudence of boundaries and demonstrate checks on unbridled individualism. There is no creativity without boundaries. There is no society either. In the face of a growing barbarism, such talk will likely set off some fireworks. But again, some better fireworks might be a good thing.

1 Daniel Walker Howe, Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). p. 3.
2 Howe, American Self, p. 13.
3 Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991, p. 5.
4 Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006 Edition), p. 127.
5 Antonius A.W. Zondervan, Sociology and the Sacred: An Introduction to Philip Rieff’s Theory of Culture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005,) p. 7.


The Morning Mike Check

Don't miss out on the latest podcast episode! Be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast platform to stay up to date on the latest from Clapham Institute.


  1. Mike:

    I think your analysis here reflects an even older medieval view that the mind/heart had three components: reason, will, and appetite or desire. Reason should rule the will and will should rule the appetite. To get that out of order was the definition of insanity or sickness. Which is why love (appetite rules the will) is treated as a sickness in Shakespeare and others of that period.

    It might also be useful to note that the connotation of “passion” has changed somewhat over the past hundred years or so. It used to be associated–as you suggest–with animal passions: anger, lust, greed, etc. Over the last couple of decades, it has taken on a more positive aspect–having a sincere commitment to a goal, as in a “passion for excellence.” The founding fathers had something different than we in their use of that term.

    I think it is fascinating how the founding fathers seem to get so much right and build a government structure that could strike the right balance of freedom and government. Too much “freedom” and we get license and anarchy, ultimately being overtaken by tyranny. Too much “government” and we strangle individual and institutional possibilities in a web of control.

    It seems that we go back to that persistent question: what model best explains our experience? And again, it seems that Christianity seems (to me at least) to capture this constant struggle between the possibilities for good and evil in mankind. The struggle described by Paul between the old man and the new man or between the carnal mind and the mind of Christ seems to articulate the human condition well. And to form a government that attempts to strike the right balance between those extremes also seems to give us a turbulent, but workable, way of moving forward.

    Let us hope that the pendulum keeps swinging inside the boundaries and doesn’t swing so wildly as to break the whole mechanism.

  2. Bruce:

    You hit the nail on the head – the framers did know a great deal about human nature and yes, the meaning of “passion” has grown more positive (I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s wry observation that as society loses a sense of the divine, everything must go “positive”). Your comments also remind me of Richard Weaver’s observation (“Idea Have Consequences”) that there is a divine element in speech and those most facile with language are usually most adept at defining reality. So yes, the meaning of passion might have changed over the last 100 years (it has in fact) but the bigger story is how this indicates Christianity no longer defining reality as broadly as it once did….

    … which leads to me to Brody’s question…

    we hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the question is disconnected from how the Judeo-Christian tradition defines reality. The Bible only speaks of “applying” oneself to a problem or situation. You cannot “apply” conscience and prudence “passionately.” You can apply yourself to gaining wisdom by acting in good conscience – which is antithetical to acting passionately.

    God created with wise words – language. There is a divine element in our words and they do matter. To redefine reality in ways that do not correspond to reality is part of what Paul refers to as grieving the Spirit (c.f., Ephesians 4:29-32).

  3. Mike-

    You know I’m with you on virtually everything, but I just don’t think I can buy that gaining wisdom is antithetical to acting passionately.

    Surely, there are semantic issues here – and that might be the whole of it. But, I can’t find virtue – nor any evidence of non-puritanical success – in those who live without passion.

    Is it misguided to say that Jesus was “passionate” about doing the will of the Father?

  4. Brody:

    Here’s an idea: study every passage in scripture on “passion” and draw your own conclusion on how it is defined. We agree that we don’t get to define reality – we align with it according to how God defines reality. Do a study and see what scripture says.

    I would also suggest that you are feeling the effects of other definitions of passion. Ancient ideas like “enthusiastic” and “purposeful” deem to lose their luster next to this new definition of passion. That’s a loss for for our faith. Furthermore, yes, Jesus did experience passion. It has ben referred to as Passion Week and refers to his suffering – another definition of passion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *