Passion Power: Directing Us Toward The Good
It’s Friday night after a long week. You’re walking in the door from a long day of work. Immediately, your nose picks up a smell: pizza! Your mouth begins to salivate and your stomach growls. You want a slice (or two or three), so you head to the kitchen. Then you see an open tin on the counter and another smell hits you. Anchovies. It’s one of your roommate’s favorite pizza toppings, but you cannot stand them. You quickly pipe up to your roommate, “none for me, thank you!” and shrugging, your roommate gobbles up “your share”.
Just then, your cell phone rings. It’s your new boss and he is not happy about a project you finished today. You begin to tremble and feel defensive. You’ve been struggling at work and trying to make a good impression; as you listen to his words, your spirit sinks lower and lower - you feel powerless and immobilized and you’re mind goes numb. Then you realize he’s not seen all of your report and your heart picks up a beat with a glimmer of hope. Taking a deep breath, you gather your courage and leave the room with your phone as other friends begin to arrive. A while later, you hang up the phone. The conversation took longer than you thought, but in the end, you worked everything out - your boss is happy and you feel peace to enjoy the weekend.
Smiling with satisfaction, you remember your friends and the waiting pizza. So you walk out into the kitchen only to find… empty pizza boxes! A wave of sadness and disappointment sweeps over you, then irritation and anger begins to rise (how could they eat it all?!). Your roommate enters the room, munching on a crust. “Oh hey! We weren’t sure how long you were going to be, so we saved you some slices. They are in the oven keeping warm.” As you settle in your favorite chair with your slices (anchovy-free!) and friends all around, you sigh deeply with joy.
Our passions, or our emotions, are truly powerful - they can move us, or drag us down, like nothing else! But what are our passions? What purpose do they serve? Are they good? Should we just “follow our hearts” and let our passions lead us? Or are they so opposed to our intellect that we should try to deny and extinguish them? Can we harness our passion power for good and not evil?
Know Your Power!
As humans, we are flesh and spirit, body and soul. Our passions, or emotions, are movements of our sensitive appetite and is something we have in common with all animals. We perceive some object with our senses, we believe it to be either good or evil and a change in our physical bodies results. In our above example, we smelled pizza, we believe pizza is good and our mouths began to water and our stomach growled. When we thought our friends had eaten the pizza, thus depriving us of that good, we experienced sadness, and so on.
Thomas Aquinas describes eleven passions. Six passions incline us to seek sensible and pleasurable goods and to flee harmful evil: love, hate, desire, aversion, joy, and sadness. The remaining five passions incline us to resist obstacles and, in spite of them, to obtain a difficult good: hope, despair, courage, fear, and anger. Looking back at our story, can you spot all 11 passions?
Power For Good…Or Evil?
So are the passions good or bad? Pleasure-seekers would say, “they are good! Follow your passions! Do what feels good! That is a legitimate expression of our human nature!” Stoics, recognizing unbridled passions can lead us to act contrary to our human reason, would argue that passions should be suppressed. We, as Catholics, take the middle road: our passions are neither good nor bad – it’s what we do with them that matters. What makes them good or bad is whether they are conformed to right reason. Having one or two slices of pizza when we’re hungry is not bad! Having a whole pizza or two likely is.
Thomas Aquinas also goes further. Our passions can actually increase or decrease the merits of our virtuous acts (and do the same for the demerits of our vicious ones)! We instinctively recognize this when we watch someone doing something good, but say “his heart is not in it.” God too loves a cheerful giver, which is why we should strive to have our passions in line with right reason. So our passions should be disciplined, but not extinguished. We can think of our passions as the “horsepower” of our soul. Our passions are like a stallion, our body the chariot and our intellect the driver. If the driver does not train and guide the stallion with a firm but gentle hand, the stallion will break away and cause a wreck. Next time, we’ll talk more about how to harness this passion power!