Monday 23 September 2019

Aquinas on emotion, pt. 2 (ST 2.23)

In a previous post I began a commentary on Aquinas' understanding of emotion (or "the passions") as it is laid out in the Summa theologica. In that reflection (on ST 2.22), the focus was on the nature of the soul's passivity in its appetitive part, a feature that inheres in the soul by virtue of the fact that it exists in potentiality rather than actuality. The soul's appetite is drawn toward its own perfection but is limited by the objects presented to it by the objects of sense as managed (or mismanaged) by the soul's intellectual powers. Having laid this foundation, in ST 2.23 Aquinas turns to a taxonomy of the passions in the soul.

The first point Aquinas makes here is to remind the reader of a distinction made earlier in the Summa (cf. ST 1.81.2) within the appetitive part of the soul--a distinction of the concupiscible and the irascible. The former is the soul's simple disposition to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, while the latter is the soul's more complex power to resist things that are either obstacles to pleasure or that will cause pain. The concupiscible power of the passions would make sense without the existence of the irascible power, but not vice versa. The irascible power is essential to the soul, however, because it is the ability of one passion to overrule another. To make a trite illustration: the irascible passion of the fear of becoming obese (and thus having a heart attack leading to premature death) can, at least in theory, overrule the concupiscent passion of joy I have in the consumption of ice cream. Lying beneath the irascible passion, then, is a deeper awareness of the soul's long range pursuit of the good.

The complexity of the irascible passions is illuminated further by consideration of the fact that these passions are not always definable by the mutually exclusive oppositions of pleasure and pain, good or evil, as are the concupiscible passions. For instance, the soul might actually be drawn toward some difficulty because it regards it as relating to, or causing, some good. This is the passion of "daring". At the same time, the soul might also consider the very same difficult object as an evil, something to be shunned because of its potential for harm. This is the passion of "fear". By contrast, the concupiscent passions regard a single object as either "good" or "evil". While Aquinas does not say it this way explicitly, it seems that the concupiscible power is oriented toward a single object in a single moment while the irascible power derives from the past and extends into the future, and thus relates  to multiple objects at once.

While it may seem that every passion, concupiscible or irascible, has its contrary, there is one very notable exception. There is nothing that can be said to be a contrary to the passion of anger. Anger is caused in the soul by a difficult evil that is already present and so cannot be avoided. In such situations, the soul must either succumb to this evil and experience sorrow, or the soul must attack the evil in anger. By contrast, if there is a (presumably ultimate) good present and obtained, the irascible passion ceases to move toward or away at all, and the soul can rest in the concupiscent satisfaction of the good.

The outstanding question for Aquinas in this section is whether there can be distinct passions in the soul that are complementary, and not contrary, to one another. He answers in the affirmative, due to three distinct motions that an object elicits from the soul: attraction, movement, and consummation. Thus the same perceived good may elicit the complementary concupiscible passions of (a) love, (b) desire, and (c) delight, while a perceived evil may elicit (d) hatred, (e) aversion, and (f) sorrow. In the realm of the irascible passions, there is orientation toward the difficulty as a good in (a') hope, (b') daring, and (c') [cessation of irascibility], and the orientation toward the difficulty as an evil (d') despair, (e') fear, and (f') anger.

It should be evident how within this schema how misfires may occur at the level of the concupiscible passions. The soul might be attracted in love toward something that is not, in fact, good. The soul would then move toward this object in desire. However, upon obtaining the good, the soul would discover itself to be in sorrow rather than delight. Of course, the reverse error might be the case: the soul might perceive some good as an evil, shun it, not achieve the object of delight, and thus find itself in sorrow. In both cases the error is due to a misapprehension of the good. Interestingly, what is not at all possible is for the soul to stumble into delight. If it does not perceive the good as a good it cannot progress toward it. If it perceives something evil as good it cannot help but pursue it.

Even the irascible passions appear to be no match for a misapprehension of the good. If the soul's response to difficulty is always to treat it only under the aspect of evil, then it will be in despair and fear, and its end will always be anger. At the same time, there is yet another interesting feature emerging in this section of Aquinas' account of the passions: it does not appear to be at all possible for the irascible passions of hope and daring to go wrong. Because evil is parasitic on the good and must ultimately pass away, the soul must learn to consider every evil within the context of what is real--the ultimate good. The soul's concupiscible passion(s) of love and its irascible passion(s) of hope must be trained by faith's contemplation of God.

Friday 20 September 2019

Aquinas on emotion, pt. 1 (ST 2.22)

The account of the emotions (or passions) serves an important role in the anthropology of Thomas Aquinas' Summa theologica, being situated between the treatment of human will and agency on the one hand (2.8-21), and the treatise on virtues on the other (2.49-89). These discussions all unfold, of course, under the heading of the human person's telos, which is eternal happiness in the vision of the divine essence (cf. 2.1-7). This, true happiness, is obtained through the turning of the self toward the one Object that will finally satisfy. For this reason Aquinas must consider the self in terms both of its rational intentionality and of its desire, or appetite, before finally considering the proper interrelation of the two in the formation of the virtues.

 In the coming weeks I will isolate, and attempt a brief commentary on, Aquinas' account of the soul's appetitive faculty--the passions (2.22-48). Today I start with Summa theologica 2.22.

Aquinas sees the soul as being "passive" in three ways. The soul is passive in its general receptivity. It is passive in its ability for change that occurs through its innate receptivity; the soul can be moved. Most directly, it is passive in that the soul's change moves it from a better state to a worse state. It is in this final sense, especially, that we are to understand the soul's passions. The soul, while theoretically incorruptible in itself, is passionate because of it being part of a soul-body composite that is subject to time and decay.

The reason that the soul's passions are said to be affective and moved, rather than apprehensive and active, is because of the fact that this faculty of desire is malleable, full of unrealized goals--"drawn to that which belongs to the agent" (2.21.2). In other words, the human soul belongs to "defect" rather than to "perfection", which is to say that it is in potentiality rather than in actuality, and therefore is driven forward to its perfection in the first principle with an intensity. It is internally moved toward its own realization or perfection and thus is, we might say, a form of involuntary yearning--a sort of passive activity, a type of suffering that originates from within.

Quoting St. John of Damascus, Aquinas says that "passion is a movement of the irrational soul, when we think of good or evil". This yearning faculty of desire that is passion is moved by the objects presented to it by the means of the senses, the "corporeal organs", whose foci are themselves managed by the intellect. The passions are therefore beholden to the objects and manner of the intellect's contemplation. The proper function of the passions, then, is that they "suffer Divine things" (Dionysius), meaning that the Object(s) to which they are united are God and all things in God. Yet, by themselves, they are corruptible, and can lead the soul to become attached to things in a wrong manner.

In sum, the passions or emotions represent the soul's inherent incompleteness, and thus need of perfection. The soul is not merely passive and irrational it is also, by virtue of the intellect (or will), active and rational. The human soul is thus a composite of receptivity and activity, a potentiality in motion toward actuality. This creates a stark contrast with God, who is simple and entirely actual, and who thus has no passions or emotions. One might say it this way: when God loves his love is never general, corruptible, or intense. He already knows what he loves, loves it perfectly, and possesses the object of his love--namely, Himself.

Thursday 19 September 2019

The Suffering of Love

There is something uniquely eternal about love. After all: "and now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor 13:13), and "God is love" (1 Jn 4:8). Love, unlike faith and hope, is uniquely conceivable without a temporal dimension. Love cares for what has come to be--what is--and not for the formless possibility of what might be in the future. This is why love is tortured by time, which continually threatens the objects in which it rests. Only love can, and must, suffer, while faith and hope do not.

Human agency is the agency of love, the operation of this most divine longing. Yet the opportunities for the action of love are too often inaccessible to us. The more aware we are of the world, the more love is awakened within us and the more incompetent we find ourselves to be in uniting with the loveliness within objects. There is literally not enough time for our love. We have not the skills needed to enact it. When we seem to have succeeded in some small measure, it is at the painful cost of neglecting some other loveliness. The byproduct of love in the midst of temporality is always grief and regret.

To be temporal is to suffer, not because time is evil but because there is something timeless at the core of our being: "he has placed eternity in their hearts" (Ecc 3:11). This is why the physical ailments we term "suffering" are so insufferable: because they eat away at the already-too-little time and energy we have for love. And perhaps this explains the most suffocating forms of depression: an oppressive sense of dread as our fallen and finite capacities encounter a world of infinite loveliness. Whether diagnosable or not, species of these sufferings are the inevitable price of a life that is lived in a temporal world that is "charged with the grandeur of God". 

The ultimate realization of temporal suffering is the final loss of agency in death, for there the possibility of love is at an end. Death thus makes the task of love infinitely more urgent, but at the same time it renders love's meaning questionable in the extreme."The afterlife," conceived simplistically as an indefinite continuation of this form of temporal existence, would only exacerbate this problem. Love would never find its home. Its sense of loss would mount infinitely with the coming into being and passing away of the objects (and moments) of love. In light of this perplexing antinomy, we must conclude that death itself is some form of mercy, precisely because it is the necessary presupposition of the possibility of some other, better, form of love's existence. 

"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24). The scriptures speak of death neither as love's total cessation, nor as an intrusive but ultimately temporary obstacle in love's infinite march forward. No, death is somehow the doorway to love's home. One dies in order to live in a new mode, one in which all of love's objects, one's own and those of others, are present to one all at once with their true depth of loveliness, its Source, now apparent. No longer must one object and its loveliness give way to another in a cruel zero-sum game; now all serve as factors in a multiplication whose product is innumerable. This is the hope of resurrection, and this is why love must take up its cross and suffer. 


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.