The Sometimes-Superiority of the Passions Over Reason in Aquinas

Any student of Aquinas can tell you that the passions (the movements of the sensitive appetite toward a perceived good) are inferior to reason. The reason for this is related to Aquinas’ cosmology and his view of the superiority of rational creatures (i.e. humans) over non-rational creatures like horses and wolves. Rational and non-rational creatures have a sensitive appetite, and thus experience passions like love, sorrow, fear, pleasure. Only rational creatures, however, can abstract from a particular apprehended pleasure like a juicy steak and reflect upon the relation of this perceived pleasure to the good as such. A rational creature can ask herself, “Is it ultimately conducive to my overall goodness to view this steak as desirable?” Because she has a rational appetite which is inclined towards more perfect immaterial goods like virtue and knowledge, she can abstract from the desirability of a particular apprehended object (the steak) and determine how the steak holds up under the universal aspect of goodness. She may decide that justice demands a certain respect for animal welfare, a good to which eating the steak is directly contrary, and so she may decline the steak and choose a vegetarian option.

The point is that Aquinas seems pretty clear that reason is superior to the passions. The passions move towards lots of different apprehended goods which may be contrary to the overall goodness of the individual, which means that in the properly-ordered person, the passions are subordinate and obedient to reason. Aquinas says (I-II.24.1) that in themselves the passions are morally neutral in that they are mere movements of the irrational appetite which humans have in common with non-rational animals. In the same article, he says that the passions become good insofar as they obey the commands of reason and will.

The passions can contribute to the morality of an action, as Aquinas explains in 24.3, augmenting the goodness of the act in two ways: first, because the passions, being inferior, are moved by a superior power, so if the will’s goodness is so good that the passions get involved by overflow of the will, then this points to the greater goodness of the act; second, because a person may consent to be affected by a passion, thus rendering the good act more prompt and efficient:

The passions of the soul may stand in a twofold relation to the judgment of reason. First, antecedently: and thus, 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, consequently: and this in two ways. First, by way of redundance: because, to wit, 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 consequence, in the sensitive appetite, is a sign of the intensity of the will, and so indicates greater moral goodness. Secondly, by way of choice; when, to wit, a man, by the judgment of his reason, chooses to be affected by a passion in order to work more promptly with the co-operation of the sensitive appetite. And thus a passion of the soul increases the goodness of an action ( 1).

Note, however, that the passions only contribute antecedently in a negative way by obscuring the judgments of reason. Consequently, the passions can be positive, but the real essence of a good act comes from reason. One gets the sense from this quote above that the passions are practically irrelevant to good action. If the moral goodness of an act come primarily from reason and only secondarily from the passions, why should we pay attention to the passions at all, except for to tame and restrain them from disrupting the work of reason.

Aquinas’ response to this is that human beings as a hylomorphic unity of body and soul are not made perfect by mere acts of the intellect, but by the passions (and their corresponding corporeal movement) as well.

Just as it is better that man should both will good and do it in his external act; so also does it belong to the perfection of moral good, 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 (I-II.24.3 co).

Still, this doesn’t solve the problem of the basic redundancy of the passions. Earlier in the corpus of this article, Aquinas says explicitly,

if we give the name of passions to all the movements of the sensitive appetite, then it belongs to the perfection of man’s good that his passions be moderated by reason. For since man’s good is founded on reason as its root, that good will be all the more perfect, according as it extends to more things pertaining to man. Wherefore no one questions the fact that it belongs to the perfection of moral good, that the actions of the outward members be controlled by the law of reason.

We get a different view of the passions, however, when we read on in the treatise to Aquinas’ discussion of love, and particularly his distinction between amor and dilectio. Amor is the love of the sensitive appetite and is rightly called a passion. Dilectio on the other hand is the love found in the rational appetite (the will) and hence, because it is not accompanied by a corporeal change, is only a passion by analogy, or what Aquinas calls an affectus. We would think then that dilectio, in that it is rational, would be superior to amor, which belongs to the irrational appetite. Aquinas surprises us. In the sed contra to the question of whether love (amor) is the same as dilection, he writes, “Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv) that ‘some holy men have held that love means something more Godlike than dilection does.'” He goes on to explain in the replies:

The reason why some held that, even when applied to the will itself, the word “love” signifies something more Godlike than “dilection,” was because love denotes a passion, especially in so far as it is in the sensitive appetite; whereas dilection presupposes the judgment of reason. But it is possible for man to tend to God by love, being as it were passively drawn by Him, more than he can possibly be drawn thereto by his reason, which pertains to the nature of dilection, as stated above. And consequently love is more Godlike than dilection ( 4).*

This idea becomes a fundamental basis of Aquinas’ treatment of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, namely that the intellect is incapable of knowing God because the object far surpasses the capacity of the intellect’s operation, and thus knowledge of God comes through a certain connaturality or union with God through love. This is a passive love, because the human can do nothing to prepare for or earn this union. While dilectio is involved, it depends on the prior movement of amor, the passive movement of the sensitive appetite. As Robert Miner writes,

Though the love associated with the rational appetite . . . named by dilectio, is important, it cannot function without the proper passion of love, construed as an act of the sensitive appetite. Love in its most proper sense is sensitive love, because sensitive love is most passive. Allowing oneself to be passively helped by God is the precondition of dilectio, of being turned toward God by rational means. the power of God to draw creatures to himself by sensible means exceeds the power of human reason.

This sometimes-superiority of the sensitive appetite also lines up with our experience. We sometimes love that which we do not rationally consent to, and do not will (thus, no dilectio). Think, for example, of the lapsed Catholic who thinks the organized religion is a bunch of rubbish, and that “God” is just the name we give our infantile desire for a protector. A whiff of incense or the clanging of the bells at the consecration or the glimpse of a bouquet of roses at the foot of a Mary statue may stir that person with love for the Catholic Church, a yearning to participate in Mass, to say a Hail Mary, or some other such expression. Now, she may, upon rational reflection, decide that this stirring of love was irrational and need not be obeyed, but can we really say then that the movement of the rational appetite is, in this case, superior to the sensitive?

Aquinas’ hylomorphic anthropology raises all sorts of issues for questions of hierarchy because the fact is that the human is body and soul, animal and spirit, rational and sensitive, and the perfection of the person relies on the parts working together as a whole. When we continuously assert the superior of reason over the passions (despite the overall truth of this statement) we fail to do justice to the organic unity of the person, and the way in which God works in all the parts to reconcile the person to Godself.

*Of course, Aquinas says in ad. 1 of this article that the quote from Dionysius uses love exclusively in reference to the intellect: “Dionysius is speaking of love and dilection, in so far as they are in the intellectual appetite; for thus love is the same as dilection.” Still, the love of dilection implies knowledge (what is loved must first be known). I think Aquinas is on the opposite side of Nussbaum who thinks that emotion follows from a sort of overflow of knowledge: “If one really acts or takes in a certain belief, one will experience the emotions” (41). Rather, because Aquinas thinks that knowledge is mediated through the senses (I.84.6), it makes sense that the object of knowledge, the object of dilectio, would come first from the senses, and hence would first be an object of love. My point is not to argue for the superiority of the sensitive appetite over reasons (which would be foolish and un-Thomistic) but rather to argue for a much more dynamic role of the sensitive appetite besides the mere obedience of reason.


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