W. B. Yeats vs. the Passionate Mob

(Portrait of W. B. Yeats, 1908 | John Singer Sargent)

(Portrait of W. B. Yeats, 1908 | John Singer Sargent)

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

What can be learned from reading "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)? Written in 1919, after the first World War, it expresses a general anxiety — not only on the scale of the larger world but also on the individual. After all, things that shake the world initially start out small.

The exact meaning of the poem has been up for debate, but some general observations are pretty clear. There is first the concept that we can never stay the same, things either grow or decay. We are either building or tearing down.

The second is the fear of actions divorced from reason. (Societally and personally.) When we feel passionate or emotional, our gut instinct is to run with it. But is that passion inherently just?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Without reason, passion becomes a dangerous flame. Blind by passion. Reason gives sight.

If we look at the arc of history, some of the worst atrocities arose from passionate people who were convinced that what they were doing was right. Their passion, not their logic, told them they were right. There are crimes of passion, but no crimes of reason.

"Gyre" is a cycling of dualistic periods of time: order and growth, chaos and decay. The period of chaos ensues when we begin to disconnect. When the gyre widens, things spin too fast, spinning outward; and we forget our past, our origins, our central virtues. The mind detaches from the body, and everything falls apart. When the body can no longer hear its head, rather than the rational individual, there is a passionate mob.

"Innocence is drowned." There is suffering.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

No longer reasonable individuals, we become mindless beasts. Acting on impulse, directed by other mindless beasts. Shaped like men, but our gaze blank and pitiless. Destruction follows us wherever we go.

("Victim of Fanaticism" circa 1899 | Mykola Pymonenko)

("Victim of Fanaticism" circa 1899 | Mykola Pymonenko)

Rather than true justice, we seek (internet) mob justice. Rather than seeing all the facts, we look for facts that justify our actions. Rather than doing what is right, we do what we feel. Rather than truth, we rely on support from our in-group. Without reason, we see what we want to see.

Passion without reason has a hot head with a cold heart. Passion with reason has a cool head with a warm heart. For this, passion needs reason.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

You may not be able to control others, but you can control yourself. You may not get others to listen to reason, but you can be reasonable. If everyone managed their own minds, controlled their own individual behaviors, "darkness" would not drop.

We spend too much time trying to control how others think; rather than spending that same amount of time sharpening our own thinking. When presented with an error, what do we do? We instinctively use it to show others how they are wrong. ("You're being illogical," rather than asking ourselves, "Am I being illogical?") The point of recognizing bias is to see it in ourselves; that's the reasonable thing to do. To use it against others is a matter of impulse and ego.

Projecting our senselessness onto others only escalates the chaos; where everyone is fixing everyone else, rather than working on themselves. Everyone is talking, but no one is listening — especially to their own contradictions and hypocrisies.

We become that falcon who cannot hear their falconer (reason). "The centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."

"The best lack all conviction," they know that there is much they do not know, they know their limitations. "The worst are full of passionate intensity," and fanatically certain.

"Agency" is a psychological term, it means to be able to control your own thoughts and behaviors — to be independent agents. (The primary lesson of kindergarten.) If we as individuals can maintain our cool heads, our own agency, then there can be no mob. If we are calm, there can be no chaos.

I am reminded of the airplane analogy: put your mask on first before helping others. Since it's a matter of life and death, we can remove all the bullshit and stop pretending all solutions are equal. Work on yourself first; otherwise, you'll harm everyone, including yourself.

Resist impulse, ignore your gut (it's full of shit), remain calm, and put your mask on first.

We are told it's bad to doubt yourself, but it's even worse to never doubt yourself. No one knows they are in a passionate mob. Those who are wrong believe they are right. Free yourself from illusion. Have a sharp and realistic sense of your own fallibility. We think only the stupid should think about their actions. But, in fact, the opposite is true, only the stupid would avoid thinking about their actions.

Terrible things that shake the world initially start from a little bit of hubris. Only the worst are without doubt and hesitation, how else could they do the things they do? In small or big ways, we've done this before. "The Second Coming" is the fear we might do it again.

We've been wrong in the past. Reason learns from our mistakes and sees the possibility of fallibility. Passion takes each mistake as justification that this time, we must be right.

Bertrand Russell said:

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.

If a fool knew he was a fool, perhaps he would be full of doubts. But a fool is too foolish to know he is a fool. He would be certain he wasn't. (And if you are without any doubt, that should tell you something.)

We need reason to prevent mistakes and passion to overcome failures. However, they are not equivalent. Reason by itself can be mundane. Passion by itself can be deadly. There is too much emphasis on passion and not nearly enough for reason. But the exciting has always been more enticing for the masses. (Gladiators are much more favorable than a chess match.)

W. B. Yeats wrote "The Second Coming" to warn against another World War. On the same year Yeats died, 1939, the world fell into another war. The anxieties of Yeats became a reality. A leader surged to power, cheered on by the frenzied masses. (The same happened in Russia.) Many who found politics boring, were excited by this political change. A rough beast's hour had come at last; he rocked the cradle, and people awoke to a nightmare. The beast slouched toward bedlam. Cities burned. World War II. Holocaust...

Yet we survived. The gyre brought a time of development and growth. Yeats uses the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ as symbolic allegories. Embedded within is the dread of what would happen if cooler heads did not prevail — only able to watch and record the events for future generations. (So that hopefully they may learn from our past mistakes.)

In Man's Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl (1905-1997) writes about his time in the concentration camps:

For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.

And that's on us. The world spins with the combined strength of each individual action. We are all bound. Just as cooler heads have a duty to stop passionate intensity, those passionate and intense are still responsible for their own actions.

No one can affect change in us like we can for ourselves. Change blooms best from within. We are our own unique responsibility. Don't wait for a hero; it is up to us to save ourselves.

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