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Passions and Virtues in a Time of Distress

I would like to speak a little about how St. Thomas can help us understand our passions in this difficult time, and how we can guide and direct our passions with the help of reason and grace, so that we can grow more in virtue and holiness throughout this time of trial and beyond.


We are called, as Christians, to enter into God’s own Trinitarian life by knowing and loving Him by means of the theological virtues of faith and charity (that is, just as the Son proceeds from the Father as His eternal Word, so He likens us to Himself by illuminating our intellects in wisdom, which is understood in terms of faith in this life and the Beatific Vision in the next, where we shall see God as He really is; and just as the Holy Spirit is spirated, or breathed forth in love by the Father and the Son, so we are called to be assimilated, or likened to Him in the virtue of charity, and in this way, the Son and the Holy Spirit lead us back to the Father) , and so we can grow in this participation in the Trinitarian life by God’s grace through the practice of the virtues, as well as by the actuation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us, and in prayer, particularly in contemplation, that loving knowledge of God, in which we enter more deeply into the Mystery of the Trinity, enlightened, again, by the Son who is the Word spoken by the Father in knowing Himself, and inspired to love by the Holy Spirit. But one might ask here what role the passions play in our being led back to the Father. After all, Aquinas notes that God works in each thing according to its nature. And the human being is defined by Aristotle and Aquinas as being a rational animal. Insofar as we are animals, we naturally have bodies and passions.


In addition, we all know that there are times when prayer, as well as the virtues, become particularly difficult to practice, due to the fact that our human passions, or emotions, begin to exert a great deal of force or control over us. And I think that this time of distress that we are experiencing now is a good time to study the passions, and see ways in which we can try to moderate and direct them more fruitfully with the aid of our human reason and grace.


The first point I would like to make is that, for St. Thomas, the passions, as he calls them, are NOT of themselves either good or bad. Of themselves they are neutral. What makes them good or bad has to do with whether or not they are guided by the reason, consented to by the will, and moderated by the virtues to appropriate objects. For Aquinas the passions are located in what he calls the sensitive appetite. Since human beings are rational animals, we share the ability to sense with other animals, and thus we also share certain passions, or feelings, with the major difference, however, in that we are able to guide and direct these passions, at least to some degree, through our reason and will. That is, we are not merely subject to the passions as other animals are subject to instinctual behaviors like fight or flight. We can, to some degree, rise above the passions, without, of course, becoming Stoics, by attempting to deny them completely. On the contrary, and this may appear surprising, but Aquinas actually says that the passion of sensitive love (amoris) can actually be used by God to attract the person to himself, such that “a human being can tend to God better through sensitive love,… than his own reason can lead him to God” (ST I-II, q. 26, a. 3, ad 4). In other words, we are not angels; we are not pure spirits. We have bodies and passions. Of course, we the fall into original sin, our passions have become rather disordered, so we cannot let them completely lead us either; they need to be ordered by reason. But they still play a role. God has the power to draw us to himself by sensible means which exceed the power of human reason (see Robert Miner, 95).


So Aquinas locates the passions in what he calls the sensitive appetite. What does he mean by appetite? The Latin term, appetitus, is a certain natural inclination I have towards something that I apprehend or perceive as desirable, and therefore, good, for me. It is a kind of movement towards what I think is good for me.


Human beings have three kinds of appetites: 1) a natural appetite, which human beings have in common with all things, and the natural appetite is just a creature’s natural tendency toward what is fitting to its natural form (even inanimate things have a certain natural way of acting in accordance with the way they are directed by God according to their nature—Aquinas gives the example of heavy things that have a natural tendency to move downward unless otherwise impeded, or nowadays, one might think of a chemical reaction that always or for the most part takes place under particular circumstances); 2) a rational appetite, which is particular to human beings, that is an appetite moved directly by reason, and this is commonly called the will. The will is a rational appetite, because it is naturally inclined to what the intellect perceives as good in general, but it is also free to choose from among various types of goods. 3) Finally, there is the kind of appetite which human beings share in common with other animals (since we are rational animals), and this is what we are discussing with regard to the passions, the sensitive appetite. This appetite is based on the senses and is a natural response to what we perceive by our senses as good or bad for us.


Again, however, unlike non-rational animals, human beings have the capacity of training the passions, as it were. I believe it is Plato who first uses the allegory of the chariot, which I am going to venture to re-interpret here. If you imagine a chariot with a driver who has at the end of the reins two wild horses that he is trying to steer. For Aquinas, there are two major groupings of passions: the concupiscible passions and the irascible passions. One could imagine each of these as one of the wild horses which the chariot driver, the human reason, is attempting to guide by use of the reins, or will, and through making particular acts, which could be likened to the bits in the horses mouths, by which one attempts to habituate the horses to follow certain commands. Of course, it is not so easy, especially at first, and takes a long time to calm the passions, these wild horses, enough to allow themselves to be guided by reason and will and by repeated good acts or virtues, but in the saints, although the passions may still sometimes seem to have their own mind, they are more and more trained to cooperate with and sometimes even help the soul toward good action.

So what is a passion? Aquinas describes the passions as a kind of motion or movement that I experience or undergo, due to some object. That is, it is not a motion in the sense of locomotion, or movement from place to place, but it is a motion here in the sense of a change or alteration that happens to me. The word passion is related to the verb, pati, in Latin, which is to suffer or undergo something. In other words, I am affected by something which causes a physical, as well as psychological, response in me, and since I am a unity of body and soul, this can, of course, affect me spiritually, as well. But it begins with the senses, both internal and external. So just a brief explanation: the external senses for Aquinas, are what we generally term the five senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. The internal senses are what he calls the common sense (the faculty which is the “root and principle of the exterior senses” (ST I, q. 78, a. 4, ad 1), the imagination, memory, and what Aquinas calls the cogitative sense (which senses certain things almost by what one would call natural instinct in other animals). All of these are similar to the internal senses of the more developed animals, and all of these have a basis in some corporeal organ, unlike the intellect and will, which are powers of the soul that are not directly dependent on a corporeal organ, although even they require some kind of sensory object to act upon. I have to have something to think about or to choose. But Aquinas teaches that certain acts of understanding and willing can be performed without a corporeal organ. However, all nutritive and sensitive operations are operations of the soul performed by means of some corporeal organ. Remember, Aquinas is not a mind-body dualist, unlike someone like Descartes. Aquinas follows Aristotle in thinking that the soul is the form of the body, and therefore the soul and body form one unity, one single composite, so there is no question of how things of the body communicate with things of the soul and vice versa. They are completely united in each individual. For this reason, Aquinas teaches that the common sense, imagination, memory, and cogitative powers are powers of the composite, that is of body and soul acting together, and so he is very clear that the sensitive powers have no act apart from a corporeal organ. They need the body in order to act.


So I’m going to briefly go over the concupiscible and irascible passions now, and go into some of them more particularly as we go along. The concupiscible passions refer to those passions or emotions that “regard certain goods or evils, simply speaking,” or directly. That is they “concern the good as such,” whereas the irascible passions “are directed towards some good as specified under the condition of the ‘arduous’ or ‘difficult’” (Miner, 27).


So let’s look briefly at the concupiscible passions. The term, concupiscible, is related to the term, “concupiscence,” but that does not mean they are necessarily sinful, but simply that they refer to what is “desirable”, i.e., that is, one desires to move toward a good, or away from an evil, simply speaking. So towards the good, we all have the most basic passion, love (here I’m not speaking yet of acts, but simply the passion which spontaneously arises, when one perceives something as good.) From the passion of love arises desire (or that movement towards a good that is not yet possessed). And once one is able to possess the good, one naturally experiences the passion of joy, a certain repose in a present good. So one might think, in very natural terms, of a piece of chocolate, that I perceive as present and good, and so naturally love. I then experience desire, or a movement towards that piece of chocolate and I reach out for it. If I am able to take it and eat it, I experience a bit of natural joy in attaining this good.


The concupiscible passions also involve basic responses to what I perceive as evil, which for Aquinas, I should note, is a privation of a good that ought to be there. So Hatred, the opposite of love, is understood here (again we are not talking about a freely-chosen act of the will yet, just the passion that spontaneously arises), so hatred is that natural repugnance we feel toward what we perceive as evil. (Again, we are talking about my perception, or apprehension, here, whether or not the thing is really evil or simply my view of it.) Once I perceive something as evil, I have a natural feeling of Aversion, or a movement away from the evil, and if I cannot get away from the evil, that is if the evil is present right now, I feel pain/ sorrow. So these are the concupiscible passions: when I perceive a good, I may experience love, desire, or joy, once it is attained. If I perceive an evil, I may experience hatred, aversion, or pain/sorrow if I cannot get away from it.


We can come back to these concupiscible passions later, but I think it is important for the moment that I go on to speak of the irascible passions. The irascible passions regard either goods that are difficult to attain or evils that are difficult to avoid. If I am striving for a future good, that is difficult but possible to attain, such as attaining a particular qualification or university degree, for example, I experience the passion of hope (again, this is not yet the virtue of hope, but simply the natural feeling that I’m talking about.) If, however, this good seems impossible to attain, I may feel despair regarding it. So hope and despair have to do with attaining or not attaining a good that I consider to be very difficult.


When I perceive something as an immediate evil, however, I may experience another passion which Aquinas calls daring, which moves me toward that evil in order to overcome it, like a well-trained soldier may launch out into the battlefield. If, however, I perceive that evil as overwhelming, as something that I cannot overcome, but must escape, I experience fear. I should note here, that anxiety is a sub-category of fear. It is the kind of fear one experiences when dealing with unforeseen evils in which there is much uncertainty. That is, it is a kind of fear of the unknown that weighs on the mind, and makes it difficult to consider other things. We will talk about this more later. Finally, the last irascible passion is that of anger, which is a movement to attack a difficult evil or injustice, seeking vengeance against it. Again, this passion of anger may be good or bad, depending on the circumstances, and how it is regulated and ordered by reason.


So, since our time is short, I’m going to skip right now to talking a bit about fear and anxiety, and we can come back to the other passions later. Fear is a natural passion, which is actually very important for an animal’s survival, and that includes us, too. We need a passion to move us to escape an evil that we judge we cannot overcome of ourselves. And Christ Himself, seems to have experienced the passion of fear in His agony in the garden of Gethsemane, when, knowing what would happen, He prays fervently to the Father that this cup of suffering be taken from Him, and Luke 22:44 reports that “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling upon the ground.”


Two things should be noted here: 1) Christ, who is God, also had a complete human nature, with human passions, but because He was also sinless, He did not have the consequences of original sin. He was also not ignorant of the future, so properly speaking, He did not have anxiety, like we do, that fear of the unknown, but what He experienced, in a way, was worse, because sometimes it is worse to know exactly what suffering or death one is going to experience in the future. So He did properly and deeply experience that fear or dread of suffering and death that He knew would soon come. He also experienced a great sorrow at the evil that was as if present to Him, as He tells the apostles in Matthew 26:38, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” In fact, Aquinas speaks about Christ having a two-fold will in his human nature: the sensual will, which “naturally shrinks from sensible pains and bodily hurt” and his rational will, which although it naturally abhorred the evil of death, was also subject to reason, and so willed that the divine will should be fulfilled. The rational will is what we mean by will, properly speaking, but there is a way in which our passions and senses have a kind of will of their own, or a natural tendency to seek the good of joy or pleasure and to avoid the evil of sorrow or pain.


However, and this is the second thing to note, Christ shows us how to combat these strong passions by fervent prayer, not allowing these passions to control us or to cloud our reasoning. And this is where we do have some choice. Aquinas explains that there are what he calls antecedent passions (antecedent meaning beforehand, in this case, it refers to when the passions directly guide our actions rather than our reason) and consequent passions (passions which come after, that is when reason remains in the driver’s seat and is able to guide and direct the passions in a fruitful manner). In other words, back to our chariot example, if we allow negative antecedent passions to take over, it is like the wild horses running every which way, completely unguided, which can threaten to topple over our chariot altogether. Of course, as I mentioned, sometimes antecedent passions may arise that lead to the good, and I may want to cooperate with them. So here is where morality comes in. The passion is neither good or bad when it first arises, but once my will consents to being led by the passion, this act is either good or bad, depending what the passion is leading me to. Consequent passions, passions that are elicited by reason and will, are good insofar as my will chooses a good and the passions are moderated according to reason, which uses them to live well. This is a constant struggle, of course, because of original sin, which means that our passions can more easily overwhelm our reason, which has become somewhat darkened, and our will, which can fall into malice or selfishness, or weakness. Our concupiscible appetite may become disordered in seeking pleasure, and our irascible appetite may fail in weakness and despair. Consequent passions could also be used for evil, as in the case when one may will evil, such as to kill someone for one’s inheritance, and choose to elicit a passion of hatred or daring, in order to help one accomplish the evil deed.


So how does our reason and will guide and direct the passions? They can do this through the objects we choose to dwell on and through the acts we perform. If I focus on images and memories that are frightening, I will feel the passion of fear. If I focus on pleasant images, such as something in nature, or focus on a happy memory with a friend, I feel joy. If I focus on God and the beauty of the Beatific Vision, I may feel hope and peace or love. So the key here is to focus on the good, and when one is distracted by fearful or sad images and memories, one must strive, not to suppress them, but to refocus one’s mind on the good. And training ourselves through the acts of the virtues can also help us do this, so we’ll talk more about that later.

For now, let’s talk a little more about fear and how we can moderate it with the help of our reason and God’s grace. For Aquinas, all the passions are in some way based on the passion of love, which has to do with the good. Evil, as you recall, is the absence or privation of a good that ought to be there. So when I experience fear, I fear an evil, or the loss of a good, the loss of something or someone I love. Aquinas rightly acknowledges that the greatest fear is the fear of death. Death in itself is an evil, because it is the privation of the natural good of life. And so I fear death, because I fear the loss of the good of my life or the life of others I love. This is also true with regard to suffering in general. I fear the evil of suffering, because I fear the loss of the good of my health and my general well-being.


It is natural and right to fear these things, but we do not want to let the passion of fear so overwhelm us as to keep our reason from seeing clearly, and our will from choosing rightly. There are in fact, goods that are even greater than the goods of health and life, even on natural level: we can think, for example, of those who give their lives to save others, or for the good of their country or of justice. Much more, then, on the supernatural level of faith. If we believe what Christ came to reveal and what the Church holds by revelation, that there is a higher good, that of eternal life with God, we can focus the object of our minds on this and other like truths of faith, seeing reality of our situation more clearly. In fact, the martyrs, such as St. Thomas Moore, for example, realized that even though they were losing the great good of their lives, families, property, etc., they were attaining something much higher, and this stimulated in them not only the virtue of hope, which is God’s gift, but also helped them focus their passions toward the good, stimulating the passions of hope and daring in them, as well.


St. Paul tells the Romans in 8:18, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.” He also tells the Philippians, when he knew that he would probably die soon (Phil 1:21), “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me....[But he explains], My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” So it is necessary for us to keep things in perspective, keep reason in the driver’s seat, as it were. St. Paul expounds a great truth in Romans 8:28, one that we should always keep in mind. He says, “For those who love God and are called according to His purpose, everything works for good.” Everything works for good for those who love God. So let us keep our mind focused on the Beatific Vision, when we hope to see God face-to-face in Paradise and love Him eternally, for that is by far, the greatest good.


That doesn’t mean, however, that we cannot also enjoy little natural goods and helps, although these should be rightly ordered towards God. But because we are not simply spirits, but have bodies, too, and our passions stem largely from the body, although there is a spiritual dimension, we can do some little natural things to help calm our passions, as well. Sometimes simply going out alone to enjoy nature, getting some exercise, can help calm the passions and free up the mind. Sometimes, calling or speaking to a friend on-line can also help to relieve the tension. Sometimes even enjoying a piece of chocolate or a slice of pizza. Of course, these are temporary goods, and some are more temporary than others, so they should not replace the higher, spiritual goods of prayer, the contemplation of truth (especially the truths of faith), and hoping in God’s grace, even when everything seems to be crumbling around us, so one should pray for prudence and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, especially the gift of counsel, to help us to know when and in what way we may calm and guide our passions at this particular moment. One of the counsels Aquinas gives for those struggling with sadness, for example, among other things, is to sleep and take a bath. There are moments when we simply need to restore our natural vitality, because we are simply exhausted due to stress or other reasons. Now, there may be times when fasting or penance is the most appropriate means, and this shouldn’t be discounted, but we don’t have to be and shouldn’t be Stoics. We can and should use the means that are licit, reasonable, and available to us, means that are appropriate for that particular moment, to help us to calm our passions, always asking ourselves, however, if this particular means is what will best help me to flourish both psychologically and spiritually, in a way that is well-ordered to my ultimate goal, which is union with God. So I’ll just close by pointing out what we already know, but should remind ourselves of constantly, which is that we can be theologically certain that God sees you; God knows you; God and loves you, and He will help you with His grace if you turn to Him. So remember: focus on the good.


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