I Have a Dream: Passions as the Engine of Political Action

An approach and analysis based on Descartes & Aristotle

The following article serves as a socio-philosophical approach to a theoretical dynamic that influences the constitution of society, social movements, and political events. The proposed dynamic is based on the Passions' theories of René Descartes (1989) and Aristotle (1990), and will provide an explanatory analysis of this dynamic based on Martin Luther King's memorable speech 'I have a dream' (FlagerLive, 2019).

Image 1. René Descartes (Britannica, 2022)

René Descartes was a french mathematician, scientific thinker, and metaphysician. Among his most outstanding contributions are the development of the foundations for algebraic or analytic geometry, the vision of a natural world of matter that possesses fundamental properties that interact according to a few universal laws, which includes an immaterial mind that, for individuals, was directly connected to the brain. This led to Descartes' development and postulation of the dualist theory of mind and body (Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2008). He died in 1650 and in the years following his death, even until today, his natural philosophy has been widely taught and discussed.

Image 2. Aristotle (Wikipedia, n.d )

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and scientist, one of the most important intellectuals in Western history, covering most of the sciences and many of the arts including: biology, botany, chemistry, ethics, history, logic, metaphysics, rhetoric, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, physics, poetics, political theory, psychology, and zoology (Britannica, n.d). He is the father of formal logic and he made great contributions in the field of science and philosophy. His writings on ethics and political theory, metaphysics and the philosophy of science, continue to be studied until today, and his work remains as a powerful index in the contemporary philosophical debate (Britannica, n.d).

The text of Descartes that is going to be used in the present analysis is called Passions of the Soul (1989), where the author posits that most bodily actions are determined by external material causes, founded on the mind-body interaction dualism theories. According to him, the passions are mental phenomena originating in bodily changes, which are transmitted to the pineal gland through movements of the animal spirits without the concurrence of the will (Descartes, 1989).

Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric,19.02.2008,Smali

For Aristotle, the book used is Rhetoric (1990), which is a comprehensive treatise on the art of persuasive speech, I will focus specifically on chapter II where the author provides a detailed investigation of logos (for persuasion, relevant historical events are more useful examples than invented examples, and they work best as an illustration of enthymeme, rather than as proof in its own right), pathos (emotions that could be useful for public speakers, such as anger), and ethos (how age and fortune (as in luck) can affect the characters of men; a speaker can adjust his rhetorical style to appeal most to his target demographic) (Aristotle, 1990).

To begin to develop the analysis in relation to the postulates of both authors and the speech of Martin Luther King (FlagerLive, 2019), it's necessary to highlight that in Descartes' text, the passions are treated from a perspective focused mainly on the individual, on the "mechanism", while in Aristotle it expands towards the collective, to the interaction with others, to the effect that passions have in the community. That said, it is also important to point out that I will consider the concept of passions in Descartes and emotions in Aristotle as homologous since I understand both concepts as that which affects the soul and the body.

According to what has been pointed out before, it'd be appropriate to conclude that both theories complement each other in a certain way, and the reasons for it will be explained below.

In the case of Descartes, the passions could be understood as the space or the limit of the soul-body interaction. This means that they could be the sign that captures said interaction. Meaning, there would be an event that causes a reaction in the body, which is recognized and in turn causes a condition and, consequently, a reaction, or as the author points out, an action (Descartes, 1989). That recognition would occur in the soul and the affect would become the passion or emotion (Descartes, 1989).

From the author's perspective, directing and/or governing the passions is what distinguishes man from other species (Descartes, 1989). That is, controlling how one acts and reacts to a situation, an event, an external object, is what defines a man. In this way, it follows that said control would be the intervention of reason. Since emotions are oriented towards an object (real or imaginary), there is a triggering of desire, a target, and therefore actions and/or choices are originated to be carried out in pursuit of the "best" or what is good. Along the same lines, Aristotle points out: "Passions are certainly what cause men to become fickle, also in relation to their judgments, in that it follows sorrow or pleasure" (Aristotle, 1990, p.310).

Image 3. The Value of Speech (Mansfield, 2018)

In this way, according to this intervention of reason, an ethical theory could be derived from this channelling of the passions. This means that the rational control of the passions would allow for doing what is judged to be the best. This 'being the best' has direct significance with the recognition of another and, therefore, of the limit of the human condition and its relationship with others. In the same way, Aristotle points out that the use of reason over emotions can persuade the other to form a judgment (Aristotle, 1990). Thus, an approach to the concept of otherness can be seen in both authors. Otherness is understood as the finitude of man in his encounter with another.

Luther King Jr.'s speech is built on the anger, the injustice, and the discontent of a community that has felt violated throughout history. The speaker makes use of it to transmit a hopeful message for his community, but also to send a message to those who carry out said violation. In this way, it could be deduced that in the political sphere the passions (initially individual) achieve escalation and are reconfigured to create a movement against the ruling order. The social manifestations of discontent on the part of a group expose how the channelling of the passions that Descartes (1989) speaks of, borders on the effect that these have at the collective level that Aristotle (1990) points out. Luther King Jr. has been a victim of these injustices and because of this he has discontent and anger, which he has channelled in such a way that he has directed it at those who also feel the same way and pushes them to fight. At the same time, he realizes an accusation and request towards those who have allowed and perpetuated said violations, revealing his own emotions.

Image 4. Martin Luther King Jr. (Britannica, n.d)

Seen from the other side, those who have allowed and perpetuated such violations could also be analyzed from the perspective of the mentioned authors. In the case of Descartes (1989), the passions have surpassed control and reason, and that is why they have allowed it. They have perpetuated it, according to Aristotle (1990), because they have convinced others to do so.

Finally, the chosen speech (FlaglerLive, 2019) shows how indignation, which starts from the individual [Descartes], manages to configure itself and take root when knowing of the existence of others who feel the same emotion [Aristotle]. The control or lack of control of that emotion, according to Descartes, is going to dictate how one is going to act with respect to said indignation, resentment, anger. For Aristotle, all of this is around the moral offense felt by the individual and how they channel it and how they involve other individuals belonging to the group. This dynamic is what influences the constitution of a society, social movements and political events. Passions would always be the engines of conflict and the means of political action.


Aristóteles. (1990). En Q. Racionero (Ed.), Retórica. Gredos. Retrieved from http://www.hermanosdearmas.es/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/aristoteles-retorica-gredos.pdf

Britannica. (n.d). Aristotle. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aristotle

Descartes, R. (1989). In Stephen Voss (Ed.), Passions of the Soul. Hackett Publishing.

FlaglerLive. (21 January of 2019). We Cannot Walk Alone, We Cannot Turn Back. FlaglerLive.com. Retrieved from https://flaglerlive.com/16748/i-have-a-dream-speech-mlk/#:~:text=I%20say%20to%20you%20today,I%20still%20have%20a%20dream.&text=I%20have%20a%20dream%20that,the%20content%20of%20their%20character.

Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2008). René Descartes. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes/

Image References:

Image 1: Britannica. (2022). Rene Descartes. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Rene-Descartes

Image 2: Wikipedia. (n.d). Categories (Aristotle). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categories_(Aristotle)

Image 3: Mansfield, H. (2018). The Value of Free Speech. National Affairs, Retrieved from https://nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-value-of-free-speech

Image 4: Britannica. (n.d). Martin Luther King Jr. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther-King-Jr/The-Montgomery-bus-boycott

Cover Image: The Morningside Institute. (2019). A Defense of Rhetoric. Retrieved from https://www.morningsideinstitute.org/cal-fall-2019/2019/8/22/bryan-garsten-on-persuasion

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Dinka Hernández Avilés

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