Are Emotions Intelligible?
When watching TV, movies, and listening to pop-cultural attitudes toward spirituality or understanding the spirit of the human person, many tend to appeal to the emotional nature of human beings. Its odd, since we need not look further than our own pets to see an emotional nature at work, and yet our emotions are reported to be “what makes us human.” This presentation is at best incomplete, and requires a less hedonistic discernment. Rather, it requires a better understanding of what passions are in themselves, and how they relate to man’s actual spiritual nature, which is rooted in a participation in God’s rationality and freedom to a degree that the rest of creation does not.
According to Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, passions (desires and emotions) belong to the sensitive power of the soul. The sensitive power of the soul is what human beings share with animals. Animals that are non-human are considered irrational insofar as they do not have a spiritual or rational soul. However, we must add that this does not imply that animals are of themselves unintelligible things. Anything that can be understood, is considered intelligible. The moon, for instance, can be considered intelligible because it can be known and understood by its relationship with Earth, its size and make-up. The same thing can be said of the sensitive appetite and therefore the passions that exist within human beings.
St. Thomas Aquinas makes the argument that when we witness animals behaving in an intelligent manner, this is not so much an indication of a rational soul, but rather of their participation in the Divine Intellect. They are abiding by the very design that God plans in all of creation (the Logos), and our witnessing of their behavior is likewise a determined type of behavior that is nonetheless intelligible. Within the human person, intellect is something more than being intelligible, but is a type of participation in God’s own freedom, whereby we can freely consider concepts, develop universals, in a manner that is undetermined, but united to a free-will.
Emotions or the passions are connected to our will, and can be shaped through virtue as mentioned in an earlier reflection. So in this sense, because free-will is united to the sensitive appetite, passions can likewise be guided by free-choice. This has been taken up in modern psychology with the practice of CBT and the notion of neuroplasticity. Given I’m not an expert on either of those things, I only point to them as a reference to the notion that emotions are not entirely, to be considered determined realities within man. Through virtue they can be coached into a proper order. But here we arrive at the main point: if passions can be rightly ordered it implies a type of intelligibility to them.
Typically in movies and tv shows there is a vague sentiment about passions being irrational, or unintelligible. This is often said as though the greatest part of the human person (passions) transcends reason. This is a base approach to emotions, and it tends to invert the order of what is in fact spiritual with what is of the flesh. Nonetheless, I’d like to examine the inherent intelligibility of the passions because once we contemplate their intelligibility its very difficult for us to think-otherwise.
All passions have their definition or nature in their relationship with the perception of good and evil. They are not, generally speaking, uncaused blips of passion with no correspondence with the real-world. St. Thomas breaks them down into two categories: Concupiscible and Irascible. To be brief and a bit over-simplistic, the Concupiscible deals with what is easy and restful in the good, and the Irascible deals with the goods that are difficult to obtain.
For instance, a person may experience sadness when they have lost something good. Happiness, when one has obtained something good. Anger, when a good was removed unjustly, and their is a hope in obtaining it again. Daring may become a reality in a person who must take action with courage towards obtaining a good in the midst of danger. Hate as a passion may occur when one easily dislikes what opposes the good, and despair a type of restful ‘giving up’ in seeking to obtain some particular good. All of these passions have some sort of reference, therefore, with what is perceived to be good and consequently what opposes that good (evil). In this way, the intellect of the human person ought to be oriented toward the truth about the good.
If Johnny watches Sally fall flat on her face and smiles, this type of happiness reveals to Johnny that he has the perception that it is good when Sally suffers such humiliation. Thus, something is off in his thinking, it is disordered. Likewise, if a child has a temper tantrum when being told to put down the iPad prior to bed, this reveals the child has yet to value the importance of rest and detachment as a good.
There is no shame in addressing the disordered reality of our passions - we all have them in one way or another. The point is, the passions are meant to be ordered to what is actually good. For this reason “follow your heart” (if it speaks to our passions), becomes a rather jarring statement about one’s own view of themselves. It implies that they are infallibly right about what is good and evil, and there is no hint of self-deception in such a person. Their heart is passively asserted to be immaculate. Such a person could only be the Virgin Mary or Jesus. So as Thomas a. Kempis would assert, we should likely distrust ourselves more than others, especially those who are excessively passionate.
What is beautiful from all of this is that our passions are meant to be ordered to reality - our nature is such that it is to exist in a type of harmony with the good. Who doesn’t want that interior mental harmony?