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Are Passions Good?

by Peter A. Kwasniewski


Peter A. Kwasniewski discusses what makes passions human, relationships of reason and passion, diseases of the soul and the integral nature of man in this essay on whether or not passions are good.

Larger Work

The Catholic Faith

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, September/October 2000

A modern Christian reader first approaching St. Thomas Aquinas's account of the passions–the motions of the bodily or sensitive appetites, like the pleasure taken in food or in sexual intercourse, or the anger aroused by an injustice–might be surprised by the candid affirmation he or she will find there of the goodness, usefulness, and even moral necessity, of passion in the doing of virtuous actions.

First of all, most of us tend to have an unfortunate historical prejudice that makes us think of monks and theologians, especially from the Middle Ages, as preachers of a rigorous asceticism which denies or scorns the passions. But there is something deeper at work, too. At some times and in some places, there has been a tendency to equate passion with sin or at least with imperfection, as though the person who utterly transcended bodily appetitive inclinations would perform better or "purer" works than the one in whom these inclinations are at work. Historically, this view has been held most commonly by Protestants, although among Catholics similar views can be found. A modern Lutheran author, Anders Nygren, sets out to show in his book Eros and Agape that genuine or Christian love is precisely that love in which no desire, no passion, no neediness, nothing at all in reference to the self, is at work. For one who holds such a view, the passion of pleasure is particularly suspect, and any really positive view of bodily pleasure is taken as evidence of a pagan and corrupt understanding of Christian love. Love, such a person says, is perfect only when altogether spiritual. Now, such a view is not only foreign to St. Thomas, it is rejected outright by him.1 St. Thomas teaches instead that passions under the command of reason not only contribute to but are an indispensable component in the doing of morally good acts. This article will investigate more closely the reasoning behind his view, in order to shed light on the place of passions in human life.

What Makes Passions Human?

It would be good to begin with St. Thomas's understanding of the passions in general. The term 'passions' here signifies everything that we, in English, refer to by a variety of words: 'passions', 'emotions', 'affections', 'feelings'. There are three important points to grasp: (1) the passions, in themselves, belong to man insofar as he is an animal and are not, properly speaking, morally good or evil; (2) the passions, as commanded by and referable to reason, pertain to man as man and therefore belong to the sphere of moral good and evil; (3) although we can make a clear distinction between reason and passion, in reality there cannot be a total separation of human action from passion; their intrinsic connection stems from man's very nature. Let us examine these points in more detail.

Like all higher animals, man has a sensitive appetite for sensible goods, and when these goods are apprehended, certain bodily changes (whether internal emotions or external motions) are stirred up. For example, when we are hungry, a physical craving rises up within, we feel it in our gut, and if food is available, we may then take physical steps to get hold of it. Regarded thus, passions, which are "properly to be found where there is bodily change,"2 are movements of an irrational power and cannot pertain to moral good or evil, because "certain actions are called human or moral, inasmuch as they proceed from the reason."3 However, it would be false to pretend that our passions were in no way connected to our reason–as though, in short, we were animals inhabited by minds, like a boat rowed by an oarsman. The connection that does in fact exist explains why the passions, when they fall under the rule of reason and will, pertain to moral good and evil and thus to virtue and vice.

Some objections bring this position to the fore.4 A first objector reasons thus: morals pertain specially to man, but man has passions in common with animals, therefore passions cannot be properly moral. To this, Thomas responds that while passions are common to man and other animals, yet as commanded by the reason they are proper to man. A second objector, building on the first, argues that good or evil pertains to accord or disaccord with reason, but passions, by definition, are not in the reason, therefore accord or disaccord (hence moral good or evil) cannot be said of them. Thomas responds that there is another possibility besides writing off the passions as totally irrational, namely, that the lower appetitive powers may be seen as rational in so far as they participate in reason by submitting to reason's dictates. A third objector invokes Aristotle: we are not praised or blamed for our passions, but we are praised or blamed for good or evil acts; thus the passions cannot be morally good or evil. Restoring Aristotle's words to their context, Thomas explains that passions become worthy of praise or blame in so far as they can be rationally governed.

Thomas draws an argument from experience to show that the passions do pertain to morality precisely because they are capable of being commanded by reason. "If the passions be considered as subject to the command of reason and will, then moral good and evil are in them. For the sensitive appetite is nearer than outward members to the reason and will, and yet the movements and actions of outward members are morally good or evil inasmuch as they are voluntary. Much more, therefore, may the passions, in so far as they are voluntary, be called morally good or evil. And they are said to be voluntary, either from being commanded by the will, or from not being checked by the will." We are ready to blame a man who hits another with his fist, because experience tells us that we are free to control the movement of the arm. As Thomas writes elsewhere, "the internal and external actions are different in the physical order, yet distinct as they are in that respect, they combine to form one thing in the moral order."5 It could be otherwise only in the case of a defective body, where the muscles are not controlled by free will; everyone knows the difference between a spasm and a left hook. If even our outermost members are subject to the free choice of the will, all the more are the interior motions of the sense-appetites subject to will and reason. Within certain limits, we are able to enkindle or suppress them.6

Relationships of Reason and Passion

Are we justified in assuming that sensitive appetites are subject to command, on the basis of an analogy drawn from exterior movements? The answer is given in a discussion of how reason stands to the lower parts of the soul. "An act is subject to our command, in so far as it is in our power."7 Although the passions are not wholly subject to the command of reason because the sense appetite has motions over which reason enjoys no preliminary control, nevertheless passions do belong to the dominion of reason to the extent that particular powers of the soul, like the impulse of attraction towards bodily goods or the impulse of flight away from bodily evils, fall within the scope of the universal power of reason. An apprehended sensible good gives rise to an inclination "from necessity and not from free-will," but in man the same sensitive appetite "has a certain share of liberty, in so far as it obeys reason."8 Even if it is not absolute, the domain of reason is far from negligible. We don't have to grab a sandwich, no matter how hungry we are. Hence, Thomas says that reason has some command over passion, but not an absolute rulership. "It happens sometimes that the movement of the sensitive appetite is aroused suddenly . . . And then such movement occurs without the command of reason: although reason could have prevented it, had it foreseen. Hence Aristotle says that the reason governs the irascible and concupiscible not by a despotic supremacy, which is that of a master over his slave; but by a political and royal supremacy, whereby the free, who are not wholly subject to command, are governed."9 Given this link between reason and passion in human beings, we can see more clearly why passions can both hinder and perfect the work of virtue. To show how they do so, Thomas focuses on the distinction between passion that precedes the deliberation and command of reason ("antecedent passion"), and passion that follows, in two ways, upon an act already deliberated and commanded ("consequent passion"). "The passions of the soul may stand in a twofold relation to the judgment of reason. First, as coming before: and in this way, since they obscure the judgment of reason on which the goodness of the moral act depends, they diminish the goodness of the act; for it is more praiseworthy to do a work of charity from the judgment of reason than from the mere passion of pity. In the second place, as coming after, and this in two ways. First, by way of redundance, for when the higher part of the soul is intensely moved to anything, the lower part also follows that movement; and thus the passion that results in the sensitive appetite is a sign of the intensity of the will, and so indicates greater moral goodness. Secondly, by way of choice, as when a man, by the judgment of his reason, chooses to be affected by a passion in order to work more promptly with the cooperation of the sensitive appetite. And thus a passion of the soul increases the goodness of an action."10 Because an antecedent or "coming-before" passion pulls reason away from a correct estimation of some good, it inhibits clear judgment of what ought to be sought or shunned. As a result, a virtuous act committed under the influence of passion is less good, and a vicious act so committed is less evil. In both cases, reason loses royal command over the ordination of the lower motions of the soul; they, to some degree, have usurped or anticipated its command, and as a result, have diminished the properly human element of the moral act. (A poor hungry man is less to be blamed for stealing food than a kid who does it "for fun.") On the other hand, the passion resulting from an act dispassionately judged to be good and chosen in accordance with that judgment, is both a sign of greater goodness in the will and a further motivation to act well–to the full extent of one's power. "When a passion forestalls the judgment of reason, so as to prevail on the mind to give its consent, it hinders counsel and the judgment of reason. But when it follows that judgment, as through being commanded by reason, it helps towards the execution of reason's command."11

The Test-Case of Pleasure

Many moralists have tended to regard pleasure as the passion most hazardous to the doing of a morally good act. Following Aristotle, Thomas explains that pleasure, far from vitiating a moral act, can perfect it in two ways: first, from the vantage of the end, since every good added to a thing completes it, and pleasure, denoting rest in the good, is added to the good of the thing in which one rests; and second, from the vantage of the agent, "inasmuch as the agent through taking pleasure in his action is more eagerly intent on it and carries it out with greater care."12 To the general charge that pleasure is evil, he responds that the charge overstates the evidence: not all pleasures are evil, but only those which distort the order of reason.13 Going further, he observes that "in the moral order there is a good pleasure, whereby the higher or lower appetite rests in that which is in accord with reason, and an evil pleasure whereby the appetite rests in that which is discordant from reason and the law of God."14 He also notes that "since the desires of good actions are good, and of evil actions evil, much more are the pleasures of good actions good, and those of evil actions evil." It must be observed, indeed, that Thomas has a generous attitude even towards pleasures that may hinder the use of reason. He distinguishes between pleasures that merely distract for a moment (as when the food at a restaurant is so tasty that you momentarily stop listening to your companion), pleasures that are contrary to reason (e.g., those of adulterers), and pleasures that fetter or bind the use of reason because of their intensity. Speaking of the last sort, he writes: "in conjugal intercourse, though the pleasure be in accord with reason, yet it hinders the use of reason on account of the accompanying bodily change. But in this case the pleasure is not morally evil; as neither is sleep, whereby the reason is fettered, morally evil: for reason itself demands that the use of reason be interrupted at times."15

Much confusion arises from failing to distinguish the meanings of the word pleasure. If it is thought to mean a bodily change so excessive that it overturns the moral power of reason, then it is obvious that such a pleasure has the aspect of moral evil. Nothing, however, should be defined according to an excessive or defective instance, but rather according to its proper function in the structure of activity. Since pleasure properly denotes the repose or resting of the appetite in something good, it follows that "if the appetite reposes in that which is good simply, the pleasure will be pleasure simply, and good simply." Pleasure taken in a genuine good (at the right time, in the right measure, etc.) is pure pleasure, morally good and the sign of moral goodness.16 "Since pleasure perfects operation as its end, an operation cannot be perfectly good unless there be also pleasure in good."17 Common sense supports this: if you do a good work grudgingly or grumblingly, or find it distasteful, then you are not morally perfect. The saints always experience a holy joy in what they do.

Earlier we stated that a consequent or "following-after" passion, resulting from the command of reason and accompanying the morally good act, bears a twofold goodness: it reveals the character of the man performing the deed, and it augments or completes the very doing of the deed. The truth of this is borne out in a variety of passions, including sorrow and fear. In regard to the first feature (passion revealing character), Thomas writes: "Supposing the presence of something saddening or painful, it is a sign of goodness if a man is in sorrow or pain on account of this present evil. For if he were not to be in sorrow or pain, this could only be either because he does not feel it, or because he does not reckon it as something unbecoming, both of which are manifest evils."18 To illustrate the second feature (passion strengthening action), Thomas draws attention to the moral parallel between sorrow and pleasure: "Sorrow for that which ought to be avoided is always useful, since it adds another motive for avoiding it; for the very evil is in itself a thing to be avoided, while in addition everyone avoids sorrow for its own sake, just as everyone seeks the good and pleasure in the good."19

These passages exemplify Thomas's defense of the positive role of passion in virtuous action; what is said here applies equally well to the other passions in their appropriate spheres.20 The unifying principle in Thomas's account of the passions is reason in its work of ruling over them. Reason can forestall, temper, or enkindle passion, according to what the circumstances call for. Man cannot but desire some sensible goods; he should therefore make a right use of the appetites by which his nature seeks to preserve itself. In this way, reason fulfills its role as arbiter and monarch: "All the passions of the soul should be regulated according to the rule of reason, which is the root of the virtuous good."21 Hence, a false conception of self-discipline or self-denial is as disastrous to the development of character as is a false exaltation of sense pleasure. Morality consists not in suppressing natural urges but in training and using them for the total good of the human person. "The virtuous man is at peace with his own passions. He keenly feels his own sorrows and joys since the same thing is painful or pleasant to his whole being (i.e., both the sensitive and intellectual part) and not one thing to one part and another to another. The reason is that his sensitive power is subject to reason to such an extent that it obeys reason's prompting, or at least does not resist; for the virtuous man is not led by the passions of the sensitive part so that when passion subsides he must repent of having acted against reason. But he always acts according to reason and does not readily have regrets. Thus he is at peace with himself."22

Diseases of the Soul?

The Stoics, represented in Thomas chiefly by the Roman statesman-philosopher Cicero, are brought forward as holders of the position that "the passions of the soul are incompatible with virtue"–that they are in fact "diseases of the soul."23 "As the Stoics held that every passion of the soul is evil, they consequently held that every passion of the soul lessens the goodness of an act; since the admixture of evil either destroys good altogether, or makes it to be less good."24 Here as elsewhere, Thomas is ready to agree with what they say as long as it refers to inordinate passion; all good moralists agree that inordinate passion lessens the moral goodness of an act. Nevertheless, at root the disagreement involves a fairly substantial point of psychology, not to mention theology: are passions a basic part of man's natural make-up, and do they contribute to the wholeness and goodness God wishes man to have? His Aristotelian respect for common sense and his Christian vision of the created cosmos will lead Thomas to a markedly different view than the one entertained by the Stoics.25

Thomas is sometimes content to state rather modestly that not all passions should be called "diseases of the soul." When he tackles the matter head on, however, he comes at it from just the opposite angle: "Can there be moral virtue without passion?"26 In other words, may not the acts that stem from moral virtue require passion in order to be done well? A most interesting objection arises: since virtue conforms man to God, and God is without passion, therefore perfect virtue is without passion. Thomas disagrees, and starts his answer with a text from Aristotle: "No man is just who does not rejoice in just deeds," on the basis of which he argues that if justice (which is in the rational appetite or will) is not perfect if it lacks the affection of joy, all the more is it impossible for the virtues pertaining directly to the sensitive appetite, namely temperance and courage, to lack some appropriate sensible passion.27 He then argues that if virtue banished passion, "it would follow that moral virtue makes the sensitive appetite altogether idle: whereas it is not the function of virtue to deprive the powers subordinate to reason of their proper activities, but to make them execute the commands of reason, by exercising their proper acts." For "just as it is better that man should both will good and do it in his external act, so also does it belong to moral perfection that man should be moved unto good, not only in respect of his will, but also in respect of his sensitive appetite, according to Psalm 83:3: 'My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God': where by 'heart' we are to understand the intellectual appetite, and by 'flesh' the sensitive appetite."28 To the objection mentioned a moment ago, Thomas tellingly replies: "The good of anything depends on the condition of its nature. Now there is no sensitive appetite in God and the angels, as there is in man. Consequently good operation in God and the angels is altogether without a body, whereas the good operation of man is with passion, even as it is produced with the body's help."

The Integral Nature of Man

Every age, ancient, medieval, modern, contemporary, has had its philosophers who believe that passion or pleasure in itself militates against virtue. It seems that fewer notable thinkers have gone to the opposite extreme. (Thomas attributes to the "Epicureans" the position that all pleasures are good indiscriminately.29) Both extremes, however, are united in one key respect: they fail to consider the whole nature of man, a rational animal with lower and higher appetites perfected by acts suitable to each. Only by leaving out of consideration the body that belongs to man by his essence can one arrive at the Stoic position, and only by leaving out of consideration the intellectual soul can one arrive at the Epicurean position. Each isolates an essential part of man's nature, identifies the part as the whole, and builds a system of ethics upon it. Behind our entire discussion, therefore, lies the metaphysical question, what kind of a being is man? If he is or is meant to be purely spiritual, like God and the angels, then passion, or for that matter even the bodiliness which makes passions possible, cannot but be seen as distractions or diseases. In many forms of dualism, the ontology of man is derived from the insubordination of his fallen nature, where it is too true that "the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh" (Gal. 5:17). Many dualist or spiritualist philosophers have taken vices, chiefly those of excess, as the proximate ground for constructing a theory of virtue. According to them, therefore, the task of morality would consist in removing the apparent basis of vice, namely the desires of the body and its passions. In the end, this view can only lead to a larger misunderstanding, whereby the body itself is targeted as the root cause of vicious behavior. Hence, the road to purity for such thinkers is a road of ever increasing removal or withdrawal from matter, and the final state of the morally virtuous man is said to be one of utter spirituality, free from the shameful burden of bodily life.

Naturally, Thomas, and any Christian thinker who has fully internalized the truths of creation and of the Incarnation, will strongly disagree. The single problem with these doctrines lies in their failure to consider man as an essential whole, possessed of a nature that is both spiritual and fleshly, intellectual and physical, yet fundamentally one substance distinct from all other kinds of substances. As a follower of St. Augustine, Thomas is quick to agree that the highest part of man, his spirit or mind, may rightfully be called the truest part of the self, for it is the human intellectual soul that directly bears the divine image and likeness, and it is through the power of the mind elevated by grace that man attains his final blessedness in the glory of heaven. But man is more than mind, and so careful a thinker as St. Thomas could not fail to see that a spiritualist anthropology is radically defective, not least because it veers from the truth revealed in the opening pages of Genesis: "God saw all that He had made"–including Adam, Eve, their bodies, their power to feel passion– "and behold it was very good." The essence of the human person includes a distinctive body to which the spiritual soul gives life, and the human way of knowing and desiring is indebted to and linked up with that body.30 To try to make an angel of man is to annihilate his nature.

"Speaking of perfect happiness, some have maintained that no disposition of the body is necessary for happiness; indeed, that it is necessary for the soul to be entirely separated from the body," writes Thomas. "But this is unreasonable. For since it is natural to the soul to be united to the body, it is not possible for the perfection of the soul to exclude its natural perfection."31 The science of Christian morals must therefore concern itself with everything in human nature–not severing part from part, but showing how, by the cooperation of nature and grace, man can regain the lost integrity of his nature, establishing in himself the right hierarchy of goods and powers. In the final analysis, "to sin is nothing other than to fail in the good which belongs to any being according to its nature," whereas "in perfect happiness the entire man is perfected–in the lower part of his nature by an overflow from the higher."32

The opponents of the view we have defended seem to be odd men out in human affairs. The real problem for the contemporary follower of St. Thomas is not proving that pleasures can be good and virtuous, but, quite to the contrary, showing that they are not the highest of all goods, or that virtue and goodness are real things to be urgently concerned about, not the stuff of old-fashioned fairytales. If those who take the extreme considered in this paper had never been historically influential, and if there were not a real connection between their dualism and our contemporary sensualism, there would be little reason to refute philosophers whom the majority of mankind ignores in its merry pursuit of material goods. In spite of what appears on the surface, however, dualism continues to flourish, as the Holy Father's Letter to Families (1994) points out: we are "facing the challenge of a new Manichaeanism, in which body and spirit are put in radical opposition; the body does not receive life from the spirit, and the spirit does not give life to the body. Man thus ceases to live as a person and a subject. Regardless of all intentions and declarations to the contrary, he becomes merely an object. This neo-Manichaean culture has led, for example, to human sexuality being regarded more as an area for manipulation and exploitation than as the basis of that primordial wonder which led Adam on the morning of creation to exclaim before Eve: 'This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh' (Gen. 2:23)." From some of the errors we have discussed to the far more disturbing and pernicious errors the Holy Father speaks of is only a matter of a few additional steps. As St. Thomas well understood, such ideas are a threat not only to the Christian life of holiness but to basic human sanity.

Peter A. Kwasniewski is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria.

End notes

1 Especially in two sequences in the la-2ae of the Summa Theologiae, Qu. 24, "Of Good and Evil in the Passions of the Soul," and Qu. 59, "Of Moral Virtue in Relation to the Passions." All citations of question and article refer to the la-2ae; texts are from the translation of the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, 1981).

2 Qu. 22, art. 3, body.

3 Qu. 18, art. 5, body.

4 Qu. 24, art. 1.

5 Qu. 20, art. 3, ad 1.

6 See Qu. 24, art. 3, body, and Qu. 56, art. 4, ad 2.

7 Qu. 17, art. 7, body.

8 Qu. 26, art. 1, body.

9 Compare Qu. 56, art. 4, ad 3, and Qu. 58, art. 2, body.

10 Qu. 24, art. 3, ad 1.

11 Qu. 59, art. 2, ad 3.

12 Qu. 33, art. 4, body.

13 Qu. 34, art. 1, ad 1.

14 Qu. 34, art. 1, body.

15 Qu. 34, art. 1.

16 Qu. 34, art. 2, body.

17 Qu. 34, art. 4, ad 3.

18 Qu. 39, art. 1, body.

19 Qu. 39, art. 3, body. See, in addition, Qu. 59, art. 3, body: "moderate sorrow for an object which ought to make us sorrowful is a mark of virtue"; ibid., ad 3: "Immoderate sorrow is a disease of the mind: but moderate sorrow is the mark of a well-conditioned mind, according to the present state of life."

20 See, for instance, Qu. 44, art. 4, body: "But on the part of the soul, if the fear be moderate, without much disturbance of the reason, it conduces to working well, in so far as it causes a certain solicitude, and makes a man take counsel and work with greater attention."

21 Qu. 39, art. 2, ad 1.

22 Book 9, lect. 4, trans. C.I. Litzinger, O.P. (Notre Dame: Dumb Ox Books, 1993), n. 1809.

23 See Qu. 24, art. 2, obj. 1 and body; Qu. 59, art. 2, obj. 2 and ad 1.

24 Qu. 24, art. 3

25 "The passions, considered in themselves, are referable both to good and to evil, depending on whether they accord or disaccord with reason" (Qu. 58, art. 1, body); nothing "hinders a passion from being a vice, or, on the other hand, from concurring in an act of virtue; in so far as passion is either opposed to reason or in accordance with reason" (Qu. 59, art. 1, ad 2).

26 Qu. 59, art. 5.

27 Justice can be and ordinarily is without passion inasmuch as its subject is the intellectual appetite rather than the sensitive and its province is operations rather than passions. Nevertheless, Thomas observes that the most virtuous person may experience the passion of sensible delight by way of spiritual joy 'spilling over' into the corporeal powers: ". . .joy results from the act of justice, at least in the will, in which case it is not a passion. And if this joy be increased through the perfection of justice, it will overflow into the sensitive appetite, insofar as the lower powers follow the movement of the higher . . . Wherefore by reason of this kind of overflow, the more perfect a virtue is, the more does it cause passion" (Qu. 59, art. 5, body). Although in certain texts Thomas is not precise about whether he is referring to a passion properly so called (e.g. delectatio) or to the corresponding affection of the will (e.g. gaudium), the teaching that emerges about the effect of virtuous acts in the soul is quite consistent. All virtuous activity involves spiritual joy in the will, but not all virtuous activity involves the passion of delight in the sensitive appetite. In certain instances, an activity will be so intensely joyous that its goodness 'spills over' or redounds into the sensitive appetites, causing passional pleasure. Not every just or charitable act, for example, will overflow into the lower appetites, but there are some great deeds of justice or charity whose performance might envelop all of a person's faculties and arouse a deep sensible delight.

28 Qu. 24, art. 3, body. Elsewhere (Qu. 30, art. 1, ad 1) Thomas uses the same Scripture verse to make a similar point: "The craving for wisdom, or other spiritual goods, is sometimes called concupiscence, either by reason of a certain likeness, or on account of the craving in the higher part of the soul being so vehement that it overflows into the lower appetite, so that the latter also, in its own way, tends to the spiritual good, following the lead of the higher appetite, the result being that the body itself renders its service in spiritual matters, according to Psalm 83:3: 'My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God."

29 Qu. 34, art. 2.

30 For example, Thomas states (Qu. 31, art. 7, body) that "those pleasures may be called natural to man, which are derived from things pertaining to man in respect of his reason: for instance, it is natural to man to take pleasure in contemplating the truth and in doing works of virtue."

31 Qu. 4, art. 6, body.

32 Qu. 109, art. 2, ad 2; Qu. 3, art. 3, ad 3.

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