Passion Versus Reason: Phaedra and Confessions

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Updated: Oct 20, 2021
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One of the most important debates through out literature is the theme of passion versus reason. By analyzing the appearance of the debate between passion and reason in Racine’s Phaedra and Rousseau’s Confessions, one can deduce that Phaedra encourages readers to exclusively follow reason and scorn passion while Confessions shows passion and emotion as important.

The first way that the idea of reason being superior to passion appears in Rousseau’s Confessions is in the depiction of passion as leading to disaster. This is evident in Oenone’s words, “To what dread purpose is your heart inclined? How dare you make attempts upon your life, and betray your most unhappy children, Bending their necks yourself beneath the yoke? That day, be sure, which robs them of their mother, Will give high hopes back to Hippolytus” (Racine, Act 1 Scene 3) In stating that Phaedra’s heart, alluding to the idea that following passion is listening to one’s heart, is creating a horrible scenario in which Phaedra’s children are robbed of the throne, the play shows that passion is destructive to one’s life and goals. The main tragical events of the play are caused by passion, shown in the words, “Scarcely had I Been bound to Theseus by the marriage yoke…When… A mist obscured my vision,…Venus I felt in all my fever’d frame… my heart adored Hippolytus, before me constantly…” (Racine, Act 1, Scene 3) The metaphors of the mist and Venus’s will describe Phaedra’s succumbing to passion. This leads to the disastrous climax of the play. Finally, Theseus is quick to punish Hippolytus based on anger, emotion, and passion in the words, “Traitor, how dare you show yourself before me? Monster, whom Heaven’s bolts have spared too long! Survivor of that robber crew whereof I cleansed the earth. After your brutal lust Scorn’d even to respect my marriage bed, You venture—you, my hated foe—to come my presence, here, where all is full Of your foul infamy… great Neptune, I appeal Avenge a wretched father! I leave this traitor to thy wrath; in blood Quench his outrageous fires…” (Racine, Act 4 Scene 1) Phaedra’s accusation is later discovered false, showing that Theseus’ punishment was without reason. By depicting passion as always leading to tragedy, Racine guides readers to conclude that passion is a force of destruction and should not be followed.

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The second way that the idea of reason’s superiority is promoted in Racine’s Phaedra is through depicting reason alone as leading to truth and right. This idea is mainly expressed in the climax in which the treachery of Phaedra against Hippolytus is unveiled. After hearing the cryptic words of Aricia, Theseus states, “A secret pity troubles and alarms me. Oenone shall be questioned once again, I must have clearer light upon this crime… Too soon I lifted cruel hands, believing lips That may have lied! Ah! What despair may follow!” (Racine, Act 5 Scene 5) This suspicion is based on reason, and eventually leads Theseus to uncover the truth. The play implies that if he had followed reason, it would have spared Hippolytus and given Phaedra and Oenone rightful justice. This is shown by the suicide deaths of Phaedra and Oenone, who sought to bring an end to the suffering caused by their passion, but only after reason shed light on their crimes. This depiction of reason and ration as a source of truth and a stable guide characteristic to the Enlightenment period imparts to the reader the idea that one should follow reason and not be led by passion into falsity.

While Racine’s Phaedra promotes reason, Rousseau embraces passion and emotion in Confessions. One way in which this concept appears is through Rousseau’s descriptions of childhood as one of the most important times in life, a core Romantic value connected to passion. The importance of childhood first appears in the words, “I do not know how I learned to read; all I remember is what I first read and its effect on me… (Puchner, 389) Rousseau attributes his love of reading and writing to his childhood love for books, reflecting his view that childhood was important to adult life. This is stated by the editor in his words, “Rousseau departed from convention, too, in his insistence on the importance of childhood memories as essential to the formation of adult personality.” (Puchner, 385) The importance of childhood in the development of adult characteristics is shown again in the quote, “I am convinced that it is to her that I owe the taste, or rather passion, for music developed in me fully only much later.” (Puchner, 391) This quote directly relates Rousseau’s emotions as an adult to his childhood emotions. This value of childhood emotion guides readers to likewise embrace passion. Rousseau attributes nearly all of his adult ideals to childhood. This can be seen in his words about some of his time with Mlle de Lambercier, “Who would have thought that this ordinary form of childhood punishment, meted out to a boy of eight years by a young woman of thirty, should have decided my tastes, my desires, my passions, my whole self, for the rest of my life…?” (Puchner, 394-395) This quote reinforces Rousseau’s beliefs about childhood. Finally, in connection with another value used to express passion in Rousseau’s Confessions, the words “The countryside was so new to me that I never tired of enjoying it. I came to love it with a passion that has never faded…” (Puchner, 392-393) This expression of Romantic values as well as emotion guides the reader to similarly express emotion and act on passion.

The other main method in which Rousseau’s Confessions takes the side of passion in the debate is through the novel writing style begun by Rousseau and continued throughout the Romantic movement’s return to passion. First, the very idea of the autobiography leans toward the value of passion. Autobiography gave authors a chance to express their individual, ordinary emotions which can connect with the ordinary populace. This is described by the editor in the words, “But they had never seen anything quite like a modern autobiography. For the first time, an author’s intimate emotional life became the subject of his work. The Confessions therefore helped to revolutionize notions of what a life was and what it meant. This was a text that took the uniqueness of individual feeling more seriously than any text before…” (Puchner, 385) This analysis confirms the ideas of valuing emotion and expression which Rousseau’s Confessions created a paradigm for.

By the same token as the editor’s words, the second part of the style of writing which expresses the value of passion is the expression of emotion itself. This is stated first and foremost in the author’s introduction to the Confessions in the words, “ I have told the good and the bad with equal frankness… I have shown myself as I was, contemptible and vile when that is how I was, good, generous, sublime, when that is how I was; I have disclosed my innermost self…” (Puchner, 387) By stating this, Rousseau introduces the fact that Confessions expresses his emotions. This expression marks Rousseau’s tendency toward passion and emotion in the Confessions. Furthermore, the editor describes these writings as “a celebration of the whole range of emotions, from passionate love…to… harrowing grief” (Puchner, 385) By stating that Rousseau’s work depicts life in an emotional manner, the editor lends credibility to the idea that the Confessions celebrates passion and emotion. A last important aspect of Rousseau’s Confessions can be found in the quote, “Assemble about me, Eternal Being, the numberless host of my fellow-men; let them hear my confessions… Let each of them, here on the steps of your throne, in turn reveal his heart with the same sincerity; and then let one of them say to you, if he dares: I was better than that man.” (Puchner, 387) These words seem to beckon the reader to follow Rousseau in expressing emotion and following passion, clearly showing the side of the debate which the Confessions take and imparts.

In conclusion, Racine’s Phaedra supports Reason while Rousseau’s Confessions encourages the expression of passion. I believe that reason is superior to passion as I find that following reason leads to rational, good decision making whereas passion can lead to, as in Phaedra, disastrous and undesirable results.

Works Cited

  1. Racine, Jean Baptiste. “PHAEDRA.” Translated by Robert Bruce Boswell, Phaedra, by Jean Baptiste Racine, Project Gutenburg, 30 Oct. 2008,
  2. Puchner, Martin, editor. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 3rd ed., vol. 2 2, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.
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