Why hatred is easier than reason

I used to spend quite a lot of time in Italy and marveled, as many foreigners do, at the way in which Italian political ideas can seem entirely defined by the individuals who espouse them.  As a consequence, you don’t so much agree or disagree with, say, deregulated markets or decentralized government as you love or hate Silvio Berlusconi; the ideals flow from the man rather than the reverse.

This is not uniquely Italian: tabloids everywhere rely on precisely this Manichean division of the world into things to be hated or feared and things to be defended or sanctified.   Tim Parks writes often (and well, in my opinion) on things Italian and now has a compelling post on the New York Review of Books blog about tabloid-style headlines and how they often misrepresent the views expressed in the associated article.  The post is worth reading in its entirety, but I especially found interesting this quote from the close:

I could finish here, but in the hope that someone may have the time and interest, here is an extract, dated October 1821, from the notebook of Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, that may throw some light on the matter:

The power of nature and the weakness of reason. I’ve said elsewhere that for opinions to have a real influence on people they must take the form of passions. So long as man has anything natural about him, he will be more passionate about opinion than about his passions. One could quote endless examples to demonstrate this point. But since all opinions that aren’t, or don’t seem to be prejudices, will have only pure reason to support them, in the ordinary way of things they are completely powerless to influence people. Religious folks (even today, and maybe more these days than ever before, in reaction to the opposition they meet) are more passionate about their religion than their other passions (to which religion is hostile); they sincerely hate people who are not religious (though they pretend not to) and would make any sacrifice to see their system triumph (actually they already do this, mortifying inclinations that are natural and contrary to religion), and they feel intense anger whenever religion is humbled or contested. Non-religious people, on the other hand, so long as their not being religious is simply the result of a cool-headed conviction, or of doubt, don’t hate religious people and wouldn’t make sacrifices for their unbelief, etc., etc. So it is that hatred over matters of opinion is never reciprocal, except in those cases where for both sides the opinion is a prejudice, or takes that form. There’s no war then between prejudice and reason, but only between prejudice and prejudice, or rather, only prejudice has the will to fight, not reason. The wars, hostilities and hatreds over opinions, so frequent in ancient times, right up to the present day in fact, wars both public and private, between parties, sects, schools, orders, nations, individuals—wars which naturally made people determined enemies of anyone who held an opinion different from their own—only happened because pure reason never found any place in their opinions, they were all just prejudices, or took that form, and hence were really passions. Poor philosophy then, that people talk so much about and place so much trust in these days. She can be sure no-one will fight for her, though her enemies will fight her with ever greater determination; and the less philosophy influences the world and reality, the greater her progress will be, I mean the more she purifies herself and distances herself from prejudice and passion. So never hope anything from philosophy or the reasonableness of this century.


Leave a Reply