In what is perhaps his most prophetic work, The Abolition of Man, CS Lewis predicts the inevitable demise of mankind once moral relativism takes hold of society. He opens the short book with a chapter entitled Men Without Chests where he shows how once we lose sight of objective values, our emotional lives become meaningless as well. He cautions against the tendency to dismiss our emotions completely because it too can lead to the abolition of man as we know him. He says that “[B]y starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.” In the interest of softening our hearts, I would like to discuss the value of emotions in our moral and spiritual lives.
It is important at the outset to state clearly what a proper attitude towards our emotions ought to be. Prior to the Fall, mankind was perfectly integrated. What this means is that his highest faculty, reason, governed the soul of man. Man always acted according to reason. The intellect identified the good, the will chose the good, and the emotions (or more broadly passions) followed the intellect and will enabling man to do the good with intensity. In other words, the emotions only arose when they were willed according to reason. The emotional life of Our Lord provides a good example for our understanding. When He cleansed the Temple, Jesus was both justified in feeling anger and He willed it. His anger followed from His reason and His will and enabled Him to tenaciously defend the purity of His Father’s House. Because His emotions always followed from His intellect and will He felt them more intensely, not less, than we do. Because He was unfallen and incapable of sin, every emotion was the right one to be feeling at a given time.
The Fall left man’s intellect darkened (the good no longer appeared clearly as good), the will was weakened (“I do not do the good that I know to be good” Romans 7:19) and the passions were able to run amok, no longer following reason and will absolutely. But this does not mean that our emotions suddenly became completely unreliable and somehow bad. Instead they still are able to serve their original purpose, even if we must work to bring them back under control.
In order to help us better understand the effects of the Fall on our passions, St. Thomas makes the distinction between two types. There are the antecedent passions, which precede the action of the will and the consequent passions, which are caused by the action of the will. Someone might step on my toe and my initial emotional response to the pain is anger. Once I gain the use of my reason, I now can make a judgment as to whether I am justified in my anger (it was done on purpose) or not (done by accident). If it is the latter then I must directly will to not be angry.
This is why it is a little misleading to say that “emotions are not sinful, it is what we do with them.” Certainly when it comes to antecedent passions this is true. But when it comes to our consequent passions it is more nuanced than that. This is because even though I may not act externally on my anger of having my toe stepped on, I might still remain angry. By willing to be angry even after reason has judged it to be an accident, I am stoking the fires of my thoughts of revenge which only in turn feed the anger more.
This is an important thing for us to understand and is at the heart of a healthy emotional life. Our emotions are passive (that is why we refer to them as passions) in that they need to be acted upon. Once they cease being acted upon, the emotions themselves cease. Once we recognize that an emotion is irrational, we should will it away by directing our thoughts in another direction. The great spiritual masters offer us two means to do this. The first is pursue the opposite object. When I am angry about my foot being stepped on, I could hug the person rather than hitting them for example. Secondly they suggest mortification. Once pain and difficulty are presented to the passions they become quiet.
While this is very difficult initially, we train our bodies to respond differently the next time they are stimulated similarly. When I fight the anger that arises when my foot is stepped on, I train the antecedent passions to respond less vehemently next time it happens. Likewise with mortification. It causes the cogitative powers (the parts of our bodies where we make associations) to associate the object with pain rather than with the pleasure the antecedent passions initially responded to.
Herein lies the issue in my opinion—most people think the emotions are something to be completely rejected. I hear so many well-meaning Catholics speak of emotions as something to be wholly mortified (literally means killed). While we should be suspicious of them, this approach is very dangerous. Truly there is nothing scarier than someone who does something out of charity and shows no emotion in doing it. Certainly we should do the good even when we cannot get our emotions to follow, but we should always strive to love God and neighbor with our whole hearts (in the Scriptural sense of the word “heart” as the seat of the will and emotions).
St. Thomas provides a great image to help us understand the role our emotions play in our moral and spiritual lives. He likens the emotions to a wild horse. A rider can patiently and gently meek the horse or he can beat it. But the rider is only free to go where he wants to go when the horse is a willing servant and neither allowed to continue roam free or become a slave. So too with our emotions. We live a fuller life when we do everything with both our heads and our hearts in the right place. We learn to govern our emotions through our growth in moral virtue. In fact, Augustine says that virtue is the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is given the kind and degree of love that is appropriate to it (City of God Bk 15, Ch 22).
There is a psychological principle pertaining to governing the emotions that says one must “name it, claim it and then tame it.” We have covered the last two steps, namely recognizing that emotions are a necessary, although damaged, part of our lives and taming them through virtue. But no discussion would be complete without identifying the emotions themselves.
Emotion represents a response to the value we perceive in a given object. They are essentially motors for movement as the name emotion (or Latin ex-motus) suggests. We perceive something as a good or an evil to be avoided and our emotions act as bodily forces moving us toward or away from the object. Not only that, but our emotions also are given in recognition of the fact that the good is arduous and evil is difficult to avoid. With this in mind, St Thomas divides them into two main groups—the concupiscible and the irascible.
Love (St. Thomas uses amor to distinguish from love in the will) is the primary emotion. It is the good that is the cause of all our action and love is the primary motivator. Love really does “make the world go round” as the song goes. All the other emotions flow from this. Because love seeks to possess the object, desire flows from it to move towards the object. Once the object is possessed pleasure or joy ensues. The end of all emotion is pleasure (in accord with reason). In recognition that is also that which in some way contradicts the good, each of these three emotions has an opposite: love—hate, desire—repulsion, and joy—sorrow. These six comprise the concupiscible passions.
The irascible passions are those that are reactions to good or evil regarded as involving some difficulty. In this way they are subordinated to the concupiscible passions and always follow from them. The five irascible passions are hope, despair, audacity fear and anger. We hope to attain that which we love. Oppositely, we despair of attaining that which we love. Audacity causes us to be made bold in pursuing that which we love, while fear is a result of doubts of attaining that which we love. Finally, anger, which has no opposite, arises because we perceive a threat to what we love.
Many spiritual writers have commented on the difficulty of moving our beliefs from our head to our hearts. This journey is made that much more difficult without understanding our emotions and their role in our lives. Only Men with Chests, can have a heart.