By Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, Dean of IE Business School and President of IE University
“Nothing is so improving to the temper as the study of the beauties, either of poetry, eloquence, music, or painting”, wrote David Hume (Wikipedia ), one of the most influential philosophers of all times. His brief essay Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion (1),published in 1777, easily and quickly readable, is very recommendable, particularly for managers. The main tenet of this essay is that the cultivation of the liberal arts and the humanities leads to sound happiness and builds the necessary resilience to face the adversities of life.
To develop his point, Hume distinguishes between two types of delicacy that shape human’s personality. The first is delicacy of passion, which refers to the degree of emotional intensity experienced towards fortuitous events and misfortunes. Those with a higher delicacy of passion may feel much happier at joyful circumstances, and much sadder at adversities, than those with cool and sedate temper. The ‘passionate’ humans may forge ardent friendships at the smallest attention and value enthusiastically honors and recognitions. However, they may also become severely dejected and offended when criticized even slightly. On the opposite end of the delicacy of passion’s spectrum are the tempered and cool, who react with detachment when experiencing the ups and downs of life. Hume concludes that, all things considered, it is better to be tempered than passionate, given that life is filled with more sorrows and pains than pleasures and joys, and that the arrival of good or bad fortunes is not solely dependent on us.
The second type of delicacy proposed by Hume is the delicacy of taste, developed by cultivating knowledge and the liberal arts. Those with a deeper delicacy of taste are able to value and enjoy good literature or music, for example, and experience real emotional pleasure from this experience. On the other extreme, people lacking delicacy of taste may feel indifference and even dullness when exposed to works of art or poetry.
Hume goes on and states: “delicacy of taste is as much to be desired and cultivated as delicacy of passion is to be lamented, and to be remedied, if possible” (2). His conclusion is based on the fact that we can choose the objects of taste, while the ill or good fortunes affecting our delicacy of passion are uncontrollable by us. Moreover, the delicacy of taste can be cultivated and grown voluntarily, and philosophers have long defended that wise people place their happiness on those things that depend on themselves and not merely on chance or external circumstances.
The most interesting proposal in Hume’s essay is that the cultivation of delicacy of taste can counteract and even suppress the negative effects of delicacy of passion: “Nothing is so proper to cure us of this delicacy of passion, as the cultivating of that higher and more refined taste (…) a new reason for cultivating a relish in the liberal arts. Our judgment will strengthen by this exercise: We shall form juster notions of life: Many things, which please or afflict others, will appear to us too frivolous to engage our attention: And we shall lose by degrees that sensibility and delicacy of passion, which is so incommodious.” (3) At the heart of this is the ever-standing belief that education and the nurturing of knowledge improves one’s character and develops an autonomous and freer personality.
The reading of Hume’s essay commented here has practical implications for our lives that can be formulated in the following three takeaways:
–First, cultivating the liberal arts and the humanities may develop a balanced personality and skills like resilience, flexibility, humanity and temperance, all key to good management practice. I have written elsewhere about the idea of the “Illustrated Manager”, the model of leader who is knowledgeable, cosmopolitan , versed in the cultural contributions of different civilizations. I believe that illustrated managers of this sort exercise a more effective leadership in the long run than those having just pure charisma or passion, because they are able to motivate others more on rational grounds thus assuring a more sustainable commitment from them.
Obviously, achieving delicacy of taste is a lifelong journey: it would be ridiculous to expect instantaneous effects from just reading a classic or attending an opera. However, you may experience the benefits of cultivating the liberal arts as you go along and it is recommendable to track progression and keep records of your findings and experiences. Developing a plan to expand your wisdom, which may be changed and may derive to unforeseen topics, along with persistence in its execution is essential. I, for example, have a collection of notebooks where I write the insights from my readings, collect quotes, elaborate ideas or just include names and facts. This effort enhances the understanding and retention of the ideas and sentiments flowing from my readings, and I recommend that you follow this exercise, writing down thoughtful notes or filing them in your computer.
Expanding the delicacy of taste also improves cross-cultural management skills. In another of his essays, Hume explains: “You will never convince a man, who is not accustomed to Italian music, and has not an ear to follow its intricacies, that a Scotch tune is not preferable” (4)
–Second, I believe that the joint development of delicacy of taste with one’s couple, spouse and family members strengthens intellectual affinity and friendship among participants and contributes to a sustainable and durable relationship. In the words of Hume, “a delicacy of taste is favourable to love and friendship, by confining our choice to few people, and making us indifferent to the company and conversation of the greater part of men”. (5)
-Third, educational programs at business schools could ideally include courses on the liberal arts and the humanities to instill the delicacy of taste in students. I can tell that the experience of this practice over the past seven years at my business school has been amazingly positive, particularly in terms of the satisfaction of students.
Notwithstanding all of the above, I guess you will agree with me that a life without passion is dull and boring. I believe that Hume would have agreed with this too. Perhaps those who excel at delicacy of taste, being the more balanced, could also behave as the more passionate too.
(2) Ibid., DT 3
(3) Ibid., DT 4
(4) The Sceptic, in The Philosophical Works of David Hume, edited by T. H. Green and T. H. Grose. 4 volumes, London: Longman, Green, 1874–75, p. 217.
(5) www.davidhume.org/texts/etv1.html  , DT 7