Passion vs. Duty

Should work be construed in the terms of passion or of duty? This is the question posed by a recent piece in the New York Times. The author, a philosopher by training, suggests the Stoic wisdom of Seneca as an antidote to our culture’s obsession with finding meaning through work. If we approach work in terms of duty, as Seneca advised, rather than as an expression of one’s passions, we will be less likely to fall prey to the threat of what another writer has described as “the religion of workism,” and the accompanying burn-out that could eventually develop.

Americans have come to see work as a source – perhaps the primary source for many people – of meaning in their lives. When we encourage students to “find their passion,” we are contributing to this unhealthy (because unrealistic) culture of “workism,” this argument would seem to suggest. As other posts here have explored, we have good reasons to be concerned about burn-out. The advice to “find your passion” may be misguided, because it can correlate to a fixed mindset about the future.

You may have spied Oprah Winfrey’s new book, The Path Made Clear, in a bookstore this summer. It exemplifies the “find your passion” approach. In this handsomely bound book, Oprah has compiled snippets from her conversations with various celebrities about how they discovered their direction and purpose.

Each section is introduced with Oprah’s observations based upon experiences from her own life (and to my mind these are the most interesting parts of the book). Quotations from Oprah are also interspersed throughout. For example, towards the end of the book, on a page featuring a picture of Oprah running with her two dogs and a beautiful view of the ocean in the background, are these words of advice:

Nourish what makes you feel confident, connected, contented. Opportunity will rise to meet you.

Oprah Winfrey, The Path Made Clear: Discovering Your Life’s Direction and Purpose (188).

Indeed, and perhaps because the collected insights are from people celebrated and recognized for their public success, there is a kind of prosperity gospel that runs as a current through the book, an assurance that all will be well if only one finds and follows one’s passion.

Contrast that with the advice that Seneca offers to Serenus, a Roman official who is frustrated by the lack of fulfillment in his position:

Seneca’s advice to Serenus is to focus on doing his duty. He must perform the job he is best disposed and able to perform, as determined by his nature, and the needs of those around him. And he must forget about glory or thrill or personal fulfillment–at least in the near term. If he performs his duty, Seneca explains, fulfillment will come as a matter of course.

Firmin DeBrabander, “Should Work be Passion, or Duty?” New York Times, September 2019.

According to the Stoics, we should study ourselves (and be honest about our strengths as well as our limitations). But we also need to study the needs of those around us; this should serve as the basis of what we do and where we apply our skills.

Seneca Advising Nero (detail from sculpture by Eduardo Barrón); the Prado, Madrid.

Stoicism seems to be making a come-back, in part because of the work of Massimo Pigliucci and his serial teachings on “How to be a Stoic.” (Click here for a short TED talk by Pigliucci that introduces Stoicism). I’ll leave it to others to speculate as to why that might be, although I think it’s an interesting question. Chiara Sulprizio suggests that Stoicism offers a palatable form of atheism, one that coheres well with an interest in mindfulness – see her “Why is Stoicism Having a Cultural Moment?” Sulprizio mentions an essay in Forbes from 2012, entitled “Five Reasons Why Stoicism Matters Today.” Reason number 1: Stoicism was “built for hard times.”

Juxtaposing passion and duty is a useful exercise, one that can help us think more carefully about what we are promoting when we talk about discerning, and then pursuing, a calling. But like most dichotomies, it can flatten the nuances and complexities of a subject. Perhaps moving beyond the dichotomy points us toward something more akin to what we mean by “vocation.” I hope to take up that line of thought in a future post.


Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015). Currently the Online Community Coordinator, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. 

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