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.

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